[Incidentally, this past week also marked the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, but do you see anyone, even the BBC, celebrating it?? Nah!!!]
1) Ominous Indications
May 29, 2003 was the most important day of festivities, and to gain entry required the exclusive “Media Pass,” and thanks to my stature as the “Asia Editor” of the world-renowned Travelers’ Tales, Inc., no one doubted me as an international media representative. It had not been easy procuring that much coveted Media Pass. It required :
a) filling out a form (in triplicate, naturally), b) penning a humble petition that the media rep be allowed entry in order to mingle with the high and mighty of the mountaineering world as well as the King and the Prime Minister and other top dogs of Nepal, c) a recommendation letter from your media organization, d) SEVEN PASSPORT-SIZE PHOTOGRAPHS…and e) I overheard a minor functionary of the Nepal Tourism Board informing a desperate foreign media representative, “… and also it is required that you submit [an impressive amount of money in American dollars was quoted] before the Media Pass will be issued. And please go to the Nepal Mountaineering Association to fulfill further requirements….”
But for the roving reporter that special day began ominously. The itinerary said festivities would begin at 9 a.m. at our largest convention center, the Birendra International Convention Center (hereafter BICC, unless otherwise noted). I arrived “suited and booted,” as we say here when one dresses formally, that is, wearing a stained, curled tie (much like a twisted telephone cord) over a clean, pressed shirt and polished shoes. At the entrance, there were gun-toting guards—which is normal these days in Kathmandu, thanks to the “insurgency”); I had arrived a few minutes before nine, but there were no signs of activity, except for a huge banner above the entrance that said in bold white letters against red background: WELCOME TO OUR GUESTS CELEBRATING GOLDEN JUBILEE OF MT. EVEREST…” etc.
But the parking lot was EMPTY and no signs of officiousness whatsoever, which is a trademark bottom-dwelling bureaucrats suddenly thrust upwards during an event of international importance. As a matter of fact, there were no officials whatsoever, except some peons draped over their chairs like Raggedy Ann dolls, already wilting in the pre-monsoon heat (monsoon has been delayed this year, our weather experts have informed us). When I enquired about the EVENT, they made vague, languid gestures and said, yes, an event was scheduled, but not until later in the afternoon, and yes, the King and other members of the royal family were expected, but not now. One bright fellow said, “Why don’t you go to the back, Sir. There is a tent there, perhaps that’s where it’s happening…” So I scurried around the main complex, noting that everything was spick and span, with strategically placed decorated jars and pots sprouting floral fantasies.
At the back, in an enormous lawn, a tent had been pitched and wires with tiny colored lights were being unspooled. But no signs of guests. I despaired. How typical of us! I thought. Here it is, 9 a.m., the most important day of the festivity—and we’re still getting our act together. And no officials to welcome the guests. Everything was bare and forlorn. I felt stupidly conspicuous “suited and booted,” while all around me was Oriental languor and lassitude.
But then a sneaking suspicion began to crawl up my spine and my neck hairs began to stir—a sure sign that perhaps I might be at fault, that I, this intrepid roving reporter, who may be missing the boat of this most important day, and the oft-repeated phrase, mantra, a harangue of my superior editors echoed painfully in my ears: “The Devil is in the Details, Raj!” In my haste to mingle with the mighty, had I perhaps misread the venue? I rushed off on my motorbike to the office of the Tourism Board, and yes, indeed! the reporter had it wrong. The MORNING festivities were at a different place, the appropriately named Yak ’n’ Yeti Hotel, a 5-star spread nearby. But it was nearly nine-thirty; the itinerary had emphasized that all non-royal guests were to be seated by 9 a.m., as the Crown Prince (hereafter, “CP”) was arriving at nine-thirty.
2) The Yak ’n’ Yeti
I breathed a sigh of relief. The CP had not yet arrived, but the hotel was crawling with security forces, both plain-clothes and uniformed. My arrival coincided with the arrival of the Main Man, Sir Edmund Hillary, who was just ahead of me at the entrance to the main hall where the event was to take place (“Symposium on Mountaineering and Development” was the theme that morning). Being a media rep, I quickly got my camera ready and aimed at the back of the Main Man, who was surrounded by sundry well-wishers, yapping, yelping media dogs, and a core group of three or four individuals who surrounded Sir Ed even as they tried to protect him from unpleasant members of humanity like myself, demanding a piece of the Main Man at the Main Event. Flashing my Media Pass and my old-fashioned point-and-shoot camera (non-digital, alas), I hustled ahead of the pack and took a look at the Main Man, even as I pretended to snap a shot.
It was my first look at the Man in flesh, and I was a little taken aback at how much older and frailer he looked. So far, I had only seen him in various photographs or film clips. The first thing I noted with a touch of surprise —and unexpected sadness — was his walking stick. The lean, tall, even elegant frame of years past was now stooped, bulked around the middle, and he walked slowly with the help of his cane and two men on either side of him who held him, perhaps more to protect him from the pressing humanity than for health reasons. The trademark rumpled hair was gray and white, and even early in the morning, he looked tired and perhaps inside him, he wished to be elsewhere, away from this adoring humanity and among close friends, sipping tea and relaxing, but fame places burdensome responsibilities, and clearly, Sir Ed was doing his best to shoulder his share of celebrity burden, which I’m sure was much more demanding for him than all the trials and tribulations he faced on that historic day as he and Tenzing struggled upwards toward the roof of the world 50 years back.
I snapped a single shot to establish my media credentials and then made my way up to the hall where the Symposium was to take place.
3) Quotable Quotes
A replica of Mt. Everest had been erected behind the dais, where sat the most eminent mountaineers whose names were linked with Sagarmatha—Ed Hillary, Mrs. Junko Tabei (Japanese national and the first woman to scale Mt. Everest in 1975), Reinhold Messner (who along with Peter Habeler was the first to climb Everest without the aid of bottled oxygen), Jamling Tenzing (son of Tenzing Norgay), Tashi Tenzng (grandson of Tenzing Norgay). There were also Mr. Appa Sherpa, who had just broken his own record of 12 ascents by summiting 13 times, and Mr. Lhakpa Gellu who also recently had become the fastest man to reach the top, in 10 hours and 56 minutes; in the audience were formidable Sherpa women climbers too; one of them was a young Sherpa woman, a young girl, really, of just around 15, who too had broken the record of the youngest person ever to summit. The Symposium was inaugurated by the Crown Prince, and it involved placing an ice ax behind the peak of the mock Mt. Everest. There was a tea break, and then the “symposium,” which consisted of speeches, even as most of the people in the audience wandered about the corridor, even as media dogs like myself tried to mingle, soak up the atmosphere, interview the right people, and drink tea and smoke—and keep an ear open to the interesting aspects of the speeches being delivered.
The audience was a mixed bag of important Nepalese bureaucrats in the “national dress,” a few Sherpas in their traditional robes (despite the oppressive heat) and jaunty felt hats, sunburnt mountaineers who must have just arrived in the Valley a few minutes ago, lovely ladies of all ages, and—most disconcertingly—a lean and lanky white man in a western suit but with frost-bitten nose, and the dark blotches around the tip of his nose made me think of him —unfairly, of course—as a well-dressed leper.
I had also been observing an elderly gentleman in a rakish golf cap tilted just so, a stringy tie that flapped now and then to reveal a medal or two much in need of polish and shine on his chest and bright running shoes that appeared to be sprinkled with glitters. Most intriguing was that whenever I saw him, someone appeared to be interviewing him, even as he sat flanked by two attractive Japanese ladies, one of them in a kimono.
An American expat journalist helpfully revealed the identity of that enigmatic gentleman.
“That’s Nawang Topgay. He was on the original 1953 expedition, one of the very few left.”
After a suitable interval, I approached Topgay, still adorned on either side by the adoring Japanese ladies.
“Mr. Topgay, do you have a few minutes to spare…I’m a journalist…”
“Yes, yes, yes… sit down.”
I did. The ladies smiled indulgently.
“Mr. Topgay, you were on the original expedition?”
“What did you do?”
“I did the usual. Carried loads up the mountain, cooked…you know …”
“How high did you go?”
“26,000 feet. Carrying oxygen and other stuff.”
“And what did you think of Tenzing before his success and after?”
“Oh, everyone loved Tenzing. He was very nice. He provided jobs to many of us. Very helpful…”
“So he was a friend of yours?”
“Yes, he was our friend. Very good man.”
“Yes, very good man also.”
I was beginning to run out of questions, except for the most banal ones, and I couldn’t quite handle him answering in the royal “we”; my inability to ask probing, intelligent questions, I acknowledged, also exhibited my own poor standing as a so-called journalist. But I pressed on dutifully.
“You live in Darjeeling, I understand?”
“And where were you born?”
“Did you climb again after 1953?”
“No, I became a coach at the mountaineering institute in Darjeeling. I helped Tenzing.”
“And do you still do that?”
“No, I retired about 15 years ago. I coached, trained people for 36 years, along with Tenzing.”
“What do you think about some people’s opinion that Everest should be closed for about five to ten years because it’s become too dirty, that it needs time to regain its beauty and so on, as some have suggested in this symposium?”
“I have no opinion, but, I think if people want to climb mountains, they should be allowed to do so.”
I was about to ask him how many children he had, and realized immediately that was a clear signal that I better quit while I was ahead. Instead I asked him if I could take his picture. He nodded enthusiastically and asked me if the Japanese ladies could be in the picture too. But of course. And they made a pretty picture, Mr. Topgay in his rakish golf cap, sitting on a low chair and looking up at the camera seductively, and the women draped on either side of him, smiling, smiling, smiling, and as I clicked a few shots, I kept thinking of the American writer Henry Miller, especially with the smiling Japanese ladies fluttering about him).
During my intermittent attendance, I felt that the Symposium had been divided on the issue of commercialization of Mt. Everest. Reinhold Messner was the most forceful of those advocating some sort of regulation regarding the commercial climbs, and he was openly contemptuous of those who paid loads and loads of money to be pushed, pulled, carried and kicked to the top on the “highway” that was now Mt. Everest. These rich “wannabes” were not true mountaineers, he asserted fiercely, despite his very bourgeois white suit of some sort of “native” fabric and a sky blue “khada” draped casually around his sun-burnt neck. His thick, wavy curls with just a touch of gray here and there, bobbed when he became especially passionate about denigrating those “slumming” on Sagarmatha. It must have been these sorts of passions that made people like Khruschev bang the podium with their shoe, I reflected. Mr. Messner, the ultra Alpinist, thundered about the need to protect the environment, to give Mr. Everest a rest and open up other areas of Nepal where mountaineering would bring economic development to the local people (and here he also lambasted the Kathmandu-centric tourist industry and the city slickers who gobbled the huge slice of the mountaineering pie), and once again sneered at the rich guys who don’t know the difference between a “saddle” and a “cwm” or a crampon and crevasse, but once the “highway” was prepared for them by the Sherpas, who are being worked like “slaves,” he thought, from the base camp to the summit, they still had to be shoved, loaded, carried, roped, pulled, pushed, etc. etc.
Everyone, including the Kathmandu fat cats, applauded.
But not everyone accepted Messner’s message wholeheartedly. Tashi Tenzing, Ternzing’s grandson and a Young Turk of a mountaineer, dashing in his curly, flowing hair, blue shirt and jeans and cool shades, got up and delivered a counter-offensive. He declared that some of these “old” mountaineers continue to “nag” about the old days and how it was clean and stuff, but “I’m sure they left behind garbage too.” And, he said that nobody is being carried or pushed and pulled. They still have to climb to get to the top. And all this talk about shit being up there, he continued, equally impassioned, “Well, let me tell you, you don’t have to ‘go’ once you’re up there. I’ve been on top there three times now, and I only shat twice…Mount Everest is a very clean mountain, and we Sherpa people are very respectful of Mount Everest, our Mother Goddess….”
Luckily, it was getting toward noon, and the aroma of sumptuous buffet was wafting over us all, a pull stronger for most of us in the audience than any desire to climb—or listen to the talk of climbing—any mountain anywhere, high or low.
4) The next event did not begin until three in the afternoon at the afore-mentioned BICC (the convention center). Thus, after sampling the delicious buffet spread, I headed home to carry out my daily afternoon duty—a restful nap. The mid-afternoon heat had becoming prickly and oppressive. Pollution, dust and haze covered the valley, and even an eager beaver would be compelled to seek cool shelter in this heat, dust and humidity. Besides, I needed to change my clothes, now wet and odorous with perspiration.
5) National Dress (or Lounge “Suite” see below #6)
As I was resting in my cool penthouse flat, the phone rang.
“Mr. Khadka, please,” a male voice said.
“Mr.Khadka, I’m from the Tourism Board. I am calling to inform you that we’ve been commanded to alert all those attending the reception this afternoon that you must wear our national dress.”
“What do you mean ‘commanded’?” I demanded, trying to sound commanding as well as outraged. “Besides, you’re telling me now! I have to be at the convention center in less than an hour!”
“I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve just received this command from high up…”
“How exactly is this ‘high up’? The ministry, the department, the section?”
“Please, sir, there is no time to argue. I have only been deputed to inform you…”
“And what if I had not been at home but still at the hotel, or conducting an interview … hello? hello?”
The flunkey had hung up. And I was in BIG trouble. For I had no national dress in my walk-in wardrobe. And I couldn’t think of a single friend of mine, or even a stray acquaintance, who might possess this outfit. Well, there was nothing to be done except follow my usual solution to intractable problems: “When in a bout of doubt, nap.”
As I tossed around, trying to ‘nap’ a solution, I was once again forced to confront my debilitating negativity as a person, and as a person who, approaching middle-age, has no definite profession he can proudly claim as his own. When filling out official forms, especially at airports, I always pause where it says: “Profession”—and make one up on the spot. Recently, the all-encompassing and totally meaningless “Facilitator” has served very well. There have also been occasions when I’ve put down “Businessman” without even a twinge of guilt or shame (I personally rarely approve of businessmen, especially those mindless supporters of global ‘free’ market, and there have been incidents where my younger relatives and their friends, especially those with determination to attain their MBA, have accused me of being an unrepentant hippie or leftie). I realized that if I was a true professional journalist, I’d be out there in the heat and dust trying to find the national costume, even if it meant ripping off a mannequin in a showcase. I decided to accept my limitations philosophically. I admitted that I was neither a professional nor a journalist, and having witnessed Sir Ed in the flesh, along with other luminaries, and have interviewed a member of the 1953 expedition, I felt I had done my job. Furthermore, the Yak ’n’ Yeti had laid out a superb buffet (the Peshawari chicken was, I admitted, a tad too spicy, but the cashew ice cream had cut the spice and grease), and to do justice to it, a longish nap was in order. I closed my eyes peacefully, like a dying man at peace after reviewing his life.
6) “I’m Overwhelmed.”
I woke up with a start at 3:30 p.m. Although only in my underclothes, I was perspiring like a naked Bedouin sunbathing in the Sahara. I couldn’t nap any longer. My professionalism—or lack thereof—nagged me. The least I could do was try to sneak in. After all, I had sneaked into so many other formidable places before, including past the hawk-eyed American immigration officials at the San Diego/Tijuana border. Invigorated with this memory of having given the slip to the most secure border of the most security-alert nation in the world, I bounded out of bed, took a shower (tepid water), changed into a clean pair of trousers and shirt (yet nervous about the “national dress”) and once again motorcycled off to the BICC.
Sure enough, a flash of my media pass and I was inside the vast sprawling complex. But I wondered if I’d be stopped at the main entrance to the convention hall. However, I noticed that there were many like me, men with normal trousers and shirts. Indeed I entered the hall even as the announcement was made that “By the Command of His Majesty King Gyanendra, Sir Edmund Hillary was to receive an honorary citizenship of Nepal …” and the audience members, the same suspects who had been rounded up earlier at the Yak ’n’ Yeti, were applauding vigorously, appreciatively. This time around, it was the Prime Minister who was going to do the honors [he resigned May 31st, so we’re once again without a government, but very few have noticed, for even when there is one, it appears not to be functioning, but enough cynicism…after all, I’m reporting an optimistic event]. Sir Hillary stood up and acknowledged the crowd’s applause; there was some confusion on the stage as the Prime Minister handed over the Letter of Appreciation as well as the certificate of citizenship (I assume; I was in the audience, so I couldn’t really tell, and a swarm of officials in their “national dress” had surrounded Sir Ed.) Then medals and certificates of achievements were handed out to every Everest summiteer who had arrived in Kathmandu, as the government of Nepal had sent invitations to each and every known summiteer of Everest in Nepal and abroad. Not surprisingly, the longest line of summiteers was formed by the Sherpas. And more speeches, of which the best and most succinct was delivered by Peter Habeler: “I remember a sign at the airport in Kathmandu. It said, ‘You are not going to change Nepal, Nepal is going to change you.’”
(‘High’?)Tea was announced , and this reception was going to be graced by the King, Queen, Crown Prince and Princess and other members of the royalty. We were told to make our way to the lawn in the back after the dignitaries on the stage first departed. Once again, the media dogs rushed Sir Ed as he slowly made his way down the steps of the stage, into the corridor and out toward the lawn. And once again I saw the Man up close. Despite the cool of the corridor, Sir Ed was perspiring freely. The media lights were on him, accentuating the paleness of his skin and the ruddiness of his cheeks. His mouth was slightly open, as if he was perpetually puzzled by the flurry of activity around him. And he looked frail and tired, but perhaps summoning up the same indomitable spirit that had taken him to the top of the Everest 50 years ago, he did not utter a single despairing word or indicate in any way that he’d rather be alone or that perhaps us media dogs were being rude, in our desperate attempts to pour adulations upon him. Someone asked him about the honorary citizenship that had just been conferred upon him, and he replied, I thought with a touch of shock and awe, “I’m overwhelmed.”
7) “So, Where’s Your ‘Topi,’ Brother?”
A long line had already formed at the entrance to the lawn. Closer inspection disclosed that a metal detector had been set up, and each person was also being frisked before and after the metal detector station. I noticed that most men around me were wearing a “topi,” our “national” cap, if you will. And there were many who were pulling one out of their pockets or hurrying to various vehicles to get one. I looked at one man questioningly, and he said point-blank: “So, where’s your “topi,” brother?”
“Are we expected to wear one?”
“If you want to have tea in the presence of the King.”
Another man said, “I just shelled out sixty rupees for this one, and I have three at home. I always forget to bring them.”
I began to get nervous. I thought of Biblical Moses, who saw the land of milk and honey but was denied entrance into it by Yaweh because he had so often doubted Yaweh’s words and promises. And this was his punishment, for doubting the word of Yaweh. Such heart-rending cruelty, I have always thought, from one so powerful, but then, it’s always the powerful ones who exhibit exquisite cruelty and make it sound like just punishment. And as the line drew closer, and me without the damn topi, not to mention the national costume (which I noticed, even those who had donned their topis were lacking), I couldn’t help but think of another Christian reference: Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as his own day of crucifixion draws near, and he wails, like King David before him, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
I noticed some Western diplomats ahead of me. I straightened my tie, wiped my perspiration off my face, and casually sauntered over to the diplomatic enclave. Just as casually, I managed to slip in between two of them. They said nothing, as their line was rather crowded, with them chatting in tows and threes.
I heard one of the friskers say to the metal detector operator, “Hurry up, will you, the King is about to arrive any moment. Only check those carrying bags.”
The diplomats were waved in, and I stood erect and looked straight as I crossed the threshold of the metal detector. No one said, “So, where’s your topi, brother?”
8) “Happy Medium”
The lawn had been transformed into a festive venue. Instead of one tent, there were now several, pitched parallel against the boundary wall that ran east-west. The royal tent faced east. From near the entrance to the lawn, a red carpet that led to the royal tent was held down by clear and rather insubstantial looking cellophane tapes, the kind one might use to temporarily fix a broken toy. The heat had subsided and a gentle breeze would occasionally become a gust of wind, and as I looked at the red carpet from my roped off media area, I had a vision of the red carpet being lifted by a sudden, swift, powerful puff of wind—even as the royals came sauntering down, and to be hit in the face by flying red carpet, and this vision was then superimposed by yet another image, seen all over the world, perhaps, that of Marilyn Monroe trying to push down her billowing skirt, arching about her legs as she stands over a street vent.
The King and Queen, the CP and Princess and others of the royal retinue arrived. The tapes held, the red carpet stayed put. (Still waters run deep.) The royals, it turned out, were not going to mingle with the riff-raff, especially not the media dogs that were prevented from swarming and snarling about, as they had done with Hillary. They were held at bay by the national costumed and topied security men, and a despairing wail was heard frequently from a media dog as he pleaded with a security person to move away from the aim of his camera (“Oi, oi, security, please, move a little to the right … thank you.”)
The only thing I noticed was that the King was an old-fashioned gentleman. He first gestured the royal and other ladies present with him in his royal tent (Ms. Junko Tabei, for example) to have their tea; then the other distinguished guests (such as Sir Ed) were asked to do so, and as they went about getting their tea cups filled and snacks placed on saucers, the King and the Crown Prince sat casually, making small talk with whichever privileged human happened to be hovering around them. It turned out that each tent had its own tea/snacks table, so the royals and privileged guests stayed within the royal tents, while the rest of us, after the King had received his cuppa tea, went about getting our own in various tents.
It was turning into a wonderfully cool and pleasant evening. In that vast, walled lawn, the grating urban sounds did not penetrate; indeed, even the air appeared to have a purer quality, and the trees shivered in the breeze and gave the impression that they were releasing perfume to scent this festive occasion. This tea and snacks was a prelude to a GALA DINNER that was to follow soon. I had already noticed bottles of wine, beers and soft drinks resting in ice buckets. The tables had been cleared of tea and snacks and white-suited waiters and kitchen staff were preparing dishes for the dinner.
The King and the royalty left soon, but the CP was expected later to grace the dinner. Soon after, Sir Ed and some other distinguished guests also slipped out, and the atmosphere became informal. The summiteers mingled with the ministers; the media dogs with diplomats; and so on. I got my last interview with Peter Habeler, who was the antithesis of his friend and colleague Messner in build and appearance: slim, trim, almost slight (indeed, I was struck by how unimpressive physically mountaineers appeared to be), whereas Messner with his unruly hair and beard, booming voice and aggressive convictions, appeared larger than life. And whereas Messner appears to growl when he talks, Habeler smiles easily and quickly, and so appears much more approachable.
I said to Habeler, “You made the best speech I have heard so far.”
“And how has Nepal changed you?”
“Oh, I … well, it’s very close to me. I come back to visit and am very happy when I do. I also come from a country with mountains, and I am very happy when I see the people in Nepal…”
He seemed either somewhat lost for a concrete answer or perhaps the English language did not give him sufficient appropriate words to express his feelings.
I said, “What do you think of Mr. Messner’s opinion that Mt. Everest is becoming too crowded, that people who do not have ‘strong feelings’ for mountains are climbing it, and who perhaps are not giving the respect it deserves?”
“Oh, it’s difficult, you know. I want a happy medium. I agree with him, that Mt. Everest is crowded, and there are so many other areas in Nepal, with so many mountains, and people should go and climb those mountains too.”
“But some in the tourist industry point out that some of these areas, such as, say, Dolpo, do not have adequate infrastructure…”
“Yes, yes, I know. This is what I mean. It’s a difficult situation. And this is why I say, I want a happy medium.”
Selse wanted to talk to Peter Habeler. And being a mediocre media dog that I was, I thanked him for giving me time to talk to him and wished him a lot of fun as the festivities continued. He smiled and thanked me also.
The evening faded and the electric lights began to be seen in some of the taller homes beyond the wall. At some point, while I was nursing a beer and listening to a Nepali “fusion” band (a Nepali member of the band was playing the didgeridoo, an Australian aboriginal musical instrument), being cooled by the breeze, that now seemed ceaseless and perpetually gentle, the colored lights in the lawn had been turned on. The night was creeping over us, and now all barriers between guests and hosts, summiteers and ordinary mortals, media dogs and ministers had dissolved. There were only sound of laughter and excited chatter. And nursing my beer, talking to friends as I circulated among the tents, and listening to the band, I kept thinking of Peter Habeler’s words: “I want a happy medium.”
About Rajendra S. Khadka:
Rajendra S. Khadka was born in Nepal, educated by the Jesuits in Kathmandu and Yankees in New England. His desultory career pursuits have included freelance journalism, managing a movie theater during the pre-VCR days, and a chef-on-call. For several years he was a writer, editor, and researcher at Travelers’ Tales, and back then when he was not sleeping, he could be found cooking, reading, or practicing zazen by doing nothing in the People’s Republic of Berkeley. After 25 years in the USA he returned to his homeland of Nepal, and now lives in a penthouse above a pack of howling curs in Kathmandu.