By Nancy Bartley
Funny Travel Story Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards
I never asked to look like a female wrestler. You know the blondes in bikinis who toss each other around the ring or wallow wantonly through mud. But then again, maybe my problem simply was a matter of hair color – streaks of blond highlights in my brown hair, hair-coloring that marked me as distinctively western from my bangs to my trekking pants.
I was in disbelief when one of the men gathered around the television at my hotel first mistook me for a pro wrestler. I’m a writer, not a wrestler, I protested. I was in Nepal, going to Mount Everest Base Camp to do a book on an American mountain climber who had two-minutes of fame for the heroic rescue of a climber left for dead. But the trouble began long before I boarded the Twin Otter for Lukla and the remote regions of Nepal. It began in Thamel, the tourist section of Kathmandu where trekkers and climbers buy outdoor gear at good prices. I was minutes from the hotel when a young man began to follow closely behind me. As I would learn, he had a great fascination with my hair.
Anthropologists say we are genetically programmed to see hair as a sign of fertility, and apparently he was no exception. Consider the fairy tale Rapunzel, her hero climbs her golden tresses to win her. And in the biblical story of Sampson, he lost his power when sneaky Delilah cut his hair. Both stories are examples of the human fascination for the mop on top. Add the televised image of half-naked female wrestlers and some primitive force of nature is released. Whether or not the young man following me was also a wrestling fan, I don’t know. I just knew it was becoming frightening to have him walk behind me, stroking my head like it was a lucky charm.
“Your hair,” he said. “Blond!”
“Go away!” I told him. I walked faster. He picked up the pace. “I like YOUR HAIR, I want to talk to you.”
“NO,” I shouted. “No!”
We continued down the street this way, his paws on my hair and me trying to escape his advances. In desperation I darted into a store and the shop keeper saw what was going on and ordered him away. When I emerged a few minutes later, Hairman was waiting. I continued through the crowded streets. As I tried to avoid being run over by mopeds, bicycle rickshaws and the occasional taxi, I begged Hairman to leave me alone and quit touching my hair. He persisted. I shouted, “Back off!’’ But when he was still not deterred, and I’d had half an hour or more of hair stroking, I stopped. As I expected, he collided against me. That’s when I cocked my arm and slugged him in the nose.
He screamed. He spouted curses. Only then did I see a police officer. That’s when I fled into a store and out the backdoor, down a street and quickly jumped into a bicycle rickshaw without first asking the price.
“Take me to my hotel!” I shouted, showing the driver the business card and pointing a short distance away. He took off pedaling in the wrong direction.
“Wrong way!” I cried. “You’re going the wrong way!”
“Want to see Monkey Temple?” he asked. I was afraid to jump out, not knowing if Hairman was about to avenge the state of his nose. Rickshaw Man stopped to ask for directions several times – a bad sign – and quickly we were lost and ended up at Kathmandu’s rush hour in a traffic circle filled with vegetable sellers, sleeping dogs, children, bonfires, herds of mopeds, cars and other rickshaws all milling about and honking like geese with bad sinuses. Gray, noxious exhaust blanketed everything. I looked around to see what the hold up was. That’s when a large black cow – not a nice country cow with daisy crowns but an urban sacred cow prone to sleeping on the highway median — ambled over and stuck her head in my lap. Time and traffic stood still as the cow chewed her cud and gave the look that let me know she too believed she had seen me in TV’s wrestling ring. Just then a woman who had been roasting corn over a bonfire built in the middle of traffic, threaded her way through the masses of metal and swatted the cow with a plastic bag. Bossie lurched half into the rickshaw, but at last retreated and moved along. The gridlock melted away with her departure and in minutes I was in front of my hotel. Just in time for the rickshaw driver to ask for “$20 American.’’ For my unwanted tour, I gave him $2, armed with the knowledge that I had just punched one man in the nose and could do it again.
With that introduction to the streets of Nepal, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the living conditions for women were deplorable. According to Human Rights Watch Nepal has the third highest rate of child marriage in Asia with 37 percent of girls marrying before 18; the practice of chaupadi, where menstruating women and girls are forced to live in crude sheds open to the elements, snakes and animals, still is practiced, despite the passage of a law criminalizing it. Nepal is one of only three countries in the world where men outlive women; the rate of maternal death during childbirth remains high as does the number of women who are abused. Women receive less education and are less literate than men, according to UNICEF and overall, there is a “feminization of poverty.” According to a 2018 study by the country’s government, the out of proportion percentage of women in poverty is due to unequal access to health care, opportunities, education and the paternal culture.
The country does have its female superstars even in the masculine world of mountain climbing and I met one, Pemba Doma Sherpa, who lived in a bright pink stucco house in a quiet Kathmandu neighborhood. She invited me to lunch and I saw the photo she proudly displayed on her dining room wall. In it she stood in native Sherpa dress next to King Birendra who was congratulating her for being the first Nepalese woman to climb the North Face of Mount Everest. Pemba had not let patriarchy stop her, even though her culture mandated her primary concern was to take care of her family, not climb mountains or guide foreign climbers. Several weeks after I met her, she fell to her death on Lhotse, a mountain adjacent to Everest and part of the Everest massif. She left behind a husband, a daughter and her legend.
When I arrived in this traditional culture with its rigid restrictions for women, I took western freedom of movement and self-determination for granted. In Nepal, men have all the freedom and the fun. Unless they are among the rare group of female mountain climbers and sherpas, Nepalese women wear traditional attire, saris in the city or for Sherpas, floor-length robes over pants of yak wool. Public displays of affection of any kind between men and women are forbidden. Yet it is far from being a puritanical society. The ancient Nepalese temples are festooned with every kind of erotic carving possible – even elephants doing things that elephants are not likely to do.
“There are 173 erotic carvings. Do you want to see them?” asked the bodyguard/ tour guide I hired. I glanced at the carving a bit too long, marveling at the gymnastics of those early pachyderms.
“Nepalese women don’t look,” he added.
An American climber suggested I avoid eye contact with Nepalese men and cast my eyes down as I walked. For someone wanting to see and experience the culture as it unfolded before me, it was not a pleasant thought to look only at my shoes. So my troubles continued, as I stubbornly insisted on being an independent western woman in a patriarchal culture. I requested a massage from the hotel health club. I was surprised when a white-smocked male arrived but at home I would not have hesitated to use his services. And this one unknotted tight muscles in my back. But as soon as I was lulled into a stupor he leaped onto the table, grabbed me by the ankles and pulled me upside down into the air. The move could have been called “pulled up carrot.” The sheet fell away and I dangled by my ankles. What had gone so wrong in communication? After he put me down, he stood back, gawked and muttered, “Beautiful, beautiful.”
New Year’s in Nepal falls in spring and the ancient ruins of Durbar Square was filled with people appearing to be taking their goats on shopping trips. There were goats on the roofs of buses, and goats tied near museums and outside stores. The goats – and in some cases yaks, chickens or other fowl, were on tap to be sacrificed on New Year’s to appease Hindu gods. And amidst the chaos, bells rang and incense burned and there were garlands of gold flowers. Like New Year’s Eve everywhere, Kathmandu rocked with celebration. My bodyguard/guide offered to show me the New Year’s Eve scene in Thamel. Soon we too were rushing through the crowded streets on a motorcycle roaring into an alley. Then we clambered up the back stairs to a cafe where only locals go. The folk music beat a steady tattoo and the men danced with men ONLY.
At midnight – the Nepalese men ran around and popped balloons and found other men to kiss and then everyone dashed out into the street to engage in their favorite game: traffic combat. Especially on New Year’s Eve, if you do not like the lane you’re in, you can make up your own. When you come head to head with an oncoming vehicle or cow – just honk. The one who honks the longest wins. The next day I was on my way to Base Camp, climbing into the small Twin Otter headed for Lukla, one of the most dangerous airports in the world. As we dipped suddenly out of the clouds and bore down upon an impossibly tiny runway, the pilot shouted, “Shit!”
We passengers looked at each other in shock but before we could say, “Hail Mary,” we were on the ground, taxiing toward a rock cliff, then making a sharp right near the hangar. After that hair-raising experience, nothing else could go wrong.
Several nights in tea houses, gathered around dung fires for warmth at Phakding, and I was climbing a steep and winding 2,727 feet in 4.7 miles to Namche Bazaar at 11,290 feet above sea level. When I arrived in the town where traders from Nepal and Tibet had gathered for hundreds of years, I was already very far away from cash machines, paved roads and easy communication access. That’s when my money was stolen from my backpack. One climber insisted I report it to the Namche Bazaar Police, telling me by doing so I might be re-compensated through my travelers insurance.
Clipping along with my trekking poles, I climbed the stairs to a squat stucco building parked next to an immense satellite dish. Goats and a yak grazed nearby. The furry tip of yak tails, used to make warm wool, hung on a clothesline and inside the police department one officer was boiling more tails and hanging them out to dry. A Bollywood soap opera babbled on a small TV set inside the station. Seeing me, one officer came out and then others poured in from the nearby hills. Finally, the entire police force of Namche Bazaar, about 10 officers who served the largest and final outpost for those climbing Everest, arrived and brought me a cup of tea. They all gathered around to hear me tell of the crime. We sat in white plastic chairs in a circle outside the station. The police inspector arrived and sat next to me. Where did the theft occur? How much money did I lose? Who took my money? What was the number on the missing credit card? Was I married? Did I like Nepal? Could I speak Nepali?
I was told to come back the next day. I did and once again, the police force gathered around me, someone brought me tea, and the questions began again: Where did the crime occur? Where was my son, brother, father, husband? Why was I not married? Why was I making this trip unaccompanied by a male relative? When did I plan to be married? Then the police inspector told me, “Come back tomorrow.” For four days I visited the station, answered questions that became increasingly personal. “How many children do you want?” the police inspector asked. I was sitting in a plastic chair surrounded by the police force when the leader of the goat pack, a large billy with curving horns and a white goatee, approached. He stood by my knees and gazed knowingly into my eyes. I think I had met him before on Match.com. “Do you like goats?” the inspector asked.
“Sure,” I nervously answered. Again, someone brought me tea. Then came a request that I have my photo taken with the group. They stood on either side of me. The officer with the one lone rifle flexed his muscles in a Rambo-esque pose. I had been on the trail for 10 days, 10 days of sleeping in tea houses and tents, 10 days without washing my “almost blond” hair or without taking more than a bath out of a basin of water. I gritted my teeth in a mock grin as the camera zeroed in at the group. Finally, someone handed me something that appeared to be a police report, or a shopping list, or a page from a trashy novel. I didn’t know. It was entirely in Hindi.
“Come back tomorrow,” the police inspector said. “We’ll discuss marriage.” Report in hand, I trotted as fast as I could down the stone steps toward town. Then, I heard the clatter of feet behind me. My heart froze. I looked back. A whole new group of wrestling fans – the billygoat and his harem – were in hot pursuit.
Nancy Bartley is a multi-award-winning writer from Seattle who has shares in two Pulitzer Prizes for Breaking News as part of Seattle Times teams. She is a Fulbright Scholar and taught in Bulgaria and Colombia. Her first book, The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff, was short-listed for the Washington State Book Award in history. She is a frequent public speaker on her research. She’s also a prize-winning script writer and a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington.