Changing Nepal: Long Time Expats Remember

Features Issue 23 Aug, 2010

On Sunday, September 21, ECS staff gathered with five expatriates who first came to Nepal thirty to forty years ago, to reflect on life in Nepal in bygone days. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation at historic Dwarika’s Hotel.

ECS Editor Sujal Jane DUNIPACE: Why did you come to Nepal?
James Giambrone: For the tea! (It is being poured.) Actually, it was a country in the way of going around the world; I had to come through it. I was going to visit my roots in Italy in 1969. I sailed on a ship to Japan. I went through Asia, because everybody went through Europe and I wanted to go somewhere really different. This was an

exotic culture that I heard about when I was traveling; people said, “Bali and Kathmandu, those are two place you must go.”

Philip ‘Jesse’ Brandt: I came to Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer, primarily because one of my major professors at Oregon State University at that time was Deputy Director of the Peace Corps. He had been a friend of my family for eons and we used to go skiing together and talk about mountain climbing. So I thought “Asia, Nepal, sounds great! I’ll sign up for the Peace Corps and see what happens.” I signed up, and ended up in Nepal.

Jan Salter: I was like James. I was traveling around the world, and I’d already done traveling through Australia, New Zealand, China, the Trans-Siberian Railway and other places, and I decided to come back the other way through Asia. At that time, for British people traveling was very easy, because we could go from England, we could arrive in Australia broke, and within six months we’d have enough money to travel again. So I’d go backwards and forwards. It was easy. I think we were some of the luckiest young people because in those days I traveled, I never thought about money. As long as I had enough money to get one place to another, then that was good. Now its so difficult because you’ve got to have money, young people have to think about their future. We just thought everything was going to get better. Unfortunately now young people don’t feel that way, so its much more difficult for them to travel on a shoestring, like we did.

I stayed in Nepal, not because I particularly wanted to at the time. I got offered a job at Boris’ Hotel, as a hairdresser. I traveled the world as a hairdresser. Drawing and painting was just something I did on the sideline. My father never allowed me to do painting and drawing because he said you couldn’t make any money out of it. I didn’t like hairdressing. It served its purpose: it got me around the world, I got paid well everywhere I went. But once I took up drawing and painting, then that was my life. I chose to stay here, because I adopted a child, and then I suddenly had responsibilities, so that’s what made me stay. He’s now thirty-five years with a child of his own. I’ve not regretted it.

Father Jim Donnelly: I came for one purpose: to be a teacher at our first school, St. Xavier’s Godavari. So in 1961, after I’d finished all my priestly studies, I made it here and found everything that I wanted, right there at Godavari. I believed in the value of education and I found the school was very much like the one I was educated in in Midwest America, except that this was boarding. You had belief in values, a good curriculum, a lot of fine activities, and a good atmosphere among the students, the teachers, and the other staff. The teachers were mainly Jesuits. So I knew why I was coming and for forty-two years I’ve been doing basically the same thing: involved in education.

 Don Messerschmidt: I came with the Peace Corps, in 1963. Jesse and I came in the same group; we were in rural development. And I remember landing in the airplane, a DC-3 from Delhi. As we landed - about 40 years ago today - somebody said, “What do we need development people here for? Look, everything is lush and green, the mountains are beautiful, flowers are blooming, crops are ripe, the people here are all developed!” Its changed considerably since then. We came along as young American kids with lots of ideals and notions that were quickly trashed as we learned the realities of life in a developing country, in a poor country. Both Jesse and I were posted to isolated places. I was in the middle of Lamjung, a couple days’ walk from the nearest airport, no telephones, no e-mail, very remote, but exciting. I came from Alaska, which was also remote, so I fit in pretty well, though it was a little hotter here.

Sujal: What were your other impressions when you first came? What was Kathmandu like then?
Don: The air was clear, the mountains were out every day, absolutely crystal clear, and the pervasive odor in Kathmandu Valley when we arrived was brick kilns. I can’t smell them today, for all the pollution. There was very little electricity, I think a couple of hours a day. We did perfectly well without refrigerators, without all that stuff. The vegetable bazaar was very slim: green vegetables, white radish, but none of the exotic things you find today: no carrots, no purple cabbage, no all those other things you can get on the vegetable market [now]. There wasn’t much meat to eat. There was lots of rice, lots of dal. Of course we lived out in the villages where it was very simple, very different from Kathmandu. We would come to Kathmandu and get sick, because the food was too rich!

Father D: Back in those days we had a very bumpy, hard-to-travel-on road, from Lagankhel to Godavari, roughly seven miles. And it was really a chore to make that trip. At the end of it, you’d sit in the car and let the insides of you just settle down. So we didn’t make a trip on that road except for necessity. The scenery was just lovely. When I came I fell in love with the mountains. I wanted to know the name of every one, what its height was, who’s been on it, how successful it was. It was a hobby of mine to record what went on on those mountains.

It wasn’t until 1968 that I did my first trek, because in those days we thought it was inappropriate for the Fathers to go nosing about as a trekker would. For me to get out into the mountains was sheer pleasure. Probably the premier trek I’ve done was in 1972 with Betty Woodsend. Betty was a six-year veteran, and she knew how to program a trek. We had little burlap bags with ‘day one lunch’, ‘day one dinner’. Thirteen days, we had what we were going to have for our food already there with us. We went to Everest Base Camp. We flew to Lukla with Emile Wick, the Swiss pilot who died a few years ago. We had a great trek. There were four of us. Only one day did we have clouds, so there was a thirteen-day period where I just soaked it up. I have shown those slides, I would say without exxageration, 200 times, to all kinds of audiences.

 Jan: When I first arrived in Nepal I was extremely naïve. I was with a group of people, about four, that I had met here, and we decided to trek to Pokhara. We looked at a small map, and we thought: well, three or four days maybe? And we just set off, we didn’t have food, we didn’t have anything. It took us  twelve days. This was before the road. We got lost many times, people sent us in different directions. It was wonderful actually! It took a lot longer than we expected, but we got to Pokhara.

Boris’ Hotel was an experience because pigs used to come ‘round front and try to get inside. At the back of the salon Boris had this huge great bear. Nepal was a very different place; it caught me then. I often wonder now when people come to Nepal, what they see in Nepal because its not the same. But people still like it. The charm is obviously still there, but for people like us when we remember how beautiful the Valley was, it’s a bit hard to see how its changed.

Sujal: What do you miss the most?
 Jan: Well, being able to walk the way I used to or to get out on the cycle and go over to Patan in about twenty minutes, whereas now you can’t even do that in a car; its impossible. These are the sort of things that happen all over the world; life changes. Everyone rode a bicycle: the British Consul rode a bicycle, the head of UNDP rode a bicycle. I really think that Kathmandu could become a cycling city.

Jesse: My impression when I flew in to Kathmandu was there were all these red patches. You couldn’t figure out what they were from the air, but then you get on the ground and it was people drying their chilis all over the place. It was really nice to go to Swayambu and bivouac overnight on the night of the full moon, or to Godavari, Boudhanath, all these places. They used to have elephants out at Gokarna and you could ride them. The other day during the bandh reminded me of what it used to be like. People didn’t know what traffic was, they would just walk and the bicycles would have to look out for the pedestrians, and the cows. One time I was near the Yak and Yeti Hotel and we decided to go to a party over near the Soaltee. So we just took off, just walked through the bazaar. There were these people in the bazaar chanting and praying at night, these whole groups of musicians, and we just walked through them, just walked and walked ‘til we got to the Soaltee. You miss that nowadays I guess.

 James: Yeah, walking in Kathmandu, morning or evening, what a joy it was. I remember particularly the guys in Seto Machhindranath. We were coming from the 60s, and we were sitting there watching these old people smoking hashish and ganga and singing to God. It was like: ‘oh my goodness, what’s going on here?!’ You could see they were really celebrating their religious vajra.

We all probably came at different times of the year. I remember coming in on a bus in the wintertime and seeing how polluted the Valley was. There were a lot of fires coal and wood fires burning, and that creates a lot of smoke! It was very charming, they didn’t have any chimneys so it just came billowing out through the roofs and the eaves.

The architecture is probably the most stunning impression that I remember: the Newar farmhouses with the thatched roofs. I don’t remember seeing tin – there must have been tin roofs by 1970, but very few. There was still a lot of thatch and tiled roofs. The proportions of houses here are so human scale that you just felt like you went into hobbit-land, to a place that you could relate to as a human being. Kathmandu is human scale. The streets were narrow, because they were built for people to walk in and not to drive, so you could just call out to the person across the street because there was only maybe twenty, twenty-five feet between you. It was a very cozy atmosphere. The art, particularly then, really was a living museum. There were standing icons and images everywhere, some that are long gone, or long caged up. We don’t have that wonderful access to them that we once did, they were so clearly there to worship so openly. Some of them have modernized, some of us kind of like the older style - more organic, as if the pithus really did sprout out of the earth.

 There were really a lot of dirt roads, very few paved roads, and Thamel was nonexistent. There was no road to Pokhara, so I got on a plane and flew to Pokhara. I walked off the plane, and the trek started. There was no airport really, just a couple of lodges there, a tea stall. The people were so sweet. I was young, only 25 years old, and they took such good care of me. They were so careful that I wasn’t going to get hurt, that I would find the right trail, that I had the right food, that I got the food first. We’d sleep on the floor with the porters, who were just plying the trails. It seemed so natural. It was a hard life, but there was dignity in it.

Don was saying about the mountain peaks being out every day. I remember that so well, it was like ‘okay, another clear blue day’; you didn’t even look. Now its like ‘oh my god, there they are, get a look, you might never see them again!’ But you know I think that’s more global, a global pollution issue. I don’t think you see the mountains in Pokhara every day.

Don: We lived in Gandaki Zone, central Nepal. In the old days, the 60s, Thakalis would come down every winter, from around Muktinath and Jomsom and the women would set up these bhattis, wigwam-shaped temporary shelters by the trail, and run hotels; you could eat and sleep in them. And every place we trekked, every three or four hours there were these inns, and they were the finest places to stay. Excellent cuisine, wonderful conversation. You’d meet all kinds of people: Gurkha soldiers returning from abroad, traders, travelers…Now its changed quite a bit, but that was one of my greatest memories, because the food was good, the drink was good, the company was good, it was always interesting. Expeditions would be coming through, you’d run into them. I don’t know if you had the same feeling where you were.

Jesse: Well, the bazaar was on the main trek south. Tibetan mule trains were legendary. There were five or six mule trains that went through our village every night. All the mules had bells, and the Tibetans were a powerful group; with their braided hair and carrying their knives, they always had a sense of adventure about them. They were trading in the north, then going to India to get supplies to feed the resistance; the Tibetan resistance was up in Mustang at that point so there was a lot of travel back and forth. I remember when we were passing through Dhana, and there was this party of Tibetans on horses, and the leader was camouflaged. We struck up a conversation with him and he spoke English! “Oh, yes I was in Colorado…” They were really flamboyant.

One thing that was very common: when we were trekking to Kathmandu people would ask us, “Kaha janne?” (Where are you going?). And we would say “Nepal janne.” The rest of the place was who knows where, but Kathmandu and Nepal were synonymous. The old people still say that: “You live in Nepal. Kasto thulo sahar ho.” Such a big city.

 Don: There was a custom then, which you don’t see much any more. When you had a good Nepali friend, you held hands – very warmly, and it didn’t have all the connotations it has today. I was at a party years and years later and somebody I had known from the Peace Corps spotted me and came over and grabbed my hand and spent an hour, just hanging on to my hand. I thought “Oh my god, what are the rest of these people thinking?” It was so out of place later but in the original days it was very common. It was a warm close gesture with no meaning other than friendship.

 Father D: One of my most memorable surprises happened was in connection with a trek with Betty Woodsend, going to Tengboche for the Mani Rimdu, the full moon festival of November. As we were coming into Goreksha, we met Jimmy Roberts. Jimmy Roberts is a big name in mountaineering, and Betty and I both knew him. He was the deputy leader of the Bonnington expedition, and he was coming down to be picked up by helicopter. He said the expedition had called it quits. The next day we went to Base Camp. I met Major Calvin Kent, who was the Base Camp Manager, and Chris Bonnington, and some of the other members of the expedition. The day before we met Jimmy Roberts, they had had an accident. A 27 year old Australian, Tommy Tighe, had asked Bonnington, “Can I go up to the western coomb, just to see it?” He went up to the ice fall, with three Sherpas. And wouldn’t you know there was this big shoulder of ice, 100 tons of ice fell on the trail and just enveloped him. The Sherpas were a little faster; they had been ahead. But the whole expedition was depressed by this death. So when we pulled in there, it was suggested that I run a prayer service. A tape recorder was put out and I did a spontaneous prayer, did what I could to bring hope and a picture of cooperation, of teamwork, of people that had been working on a common project that was aborted and they faced this tragedy courageously. So they taped this and it was sent back to the girlfriend of the man that died.

Sujal: We have so many more questions. I’d like to have each of you talk about what was most interesting, satisfying or important to you.
Don: In the old days a lot of life in Kathmandu revolved around some real characters: Father Moran, Donnelly, Boris, Prince Basundhara was everywhere, you could meet the King, very famous Ranas were running around. And Ed Hillary, and many other mountain climbers, were always in and out...

James: Back then, and its probably never changed, this was a small international city. You can meet people you’d never meet in your own country. Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell, Prince Charles...

Don: I’ve written two biographies in Nepal, one of a westerner, Father Moran. That got me intimately into the Father Moran scene, the whole Jesuit scene, the students, the school and so on. But the more recent one is about the famous Nepali artist Lain Singh Bandel. (Its coming out in December.) That got me very closely linked into a lot of history, a lot of the richness of this country, the art, and since he was also a novelist, even the literature. That was probably the most personally satisfying thing I’ve ever done, for ten years interviewing and researching a book about one prominent but still simple Nepali person and his family and his expression of Nepaliness. That’s why I stay here; because there’s another one out there I can write. It must be like that for Jan, drawing Nepalis. You get into their personalities when you do that.

James: For me, the day after arriving I got involved with the arts. Bronze casting was intoxicating. I had three hundred dollars and my money was running out. I had to decide to use that money to go back to America or do something here with it. So I chose to stay here and opened up a painting workshop with this Italian. We were going to do this exhibition at the University of Venice, which he was associated with. This put me in contact with a group of artists, the bronze casters of Patan. For me that was a link into the artistic tradition of the Newars of Kathmandu Valley. This is something I’ve been involved with all the years I’ve been here, and its what we showcase at Indigo Gallery. The artistic history here, a continuum over 1500 years is phenomenal. This is one of the last empires where the tradition is still going on, its not being done for tourism. India got colonized, it got westernized. The kingdoms of Europe are long gone. This still continues in the twenty first century. If you go to the festivals, if you go to the rituals, you’ll see: its alive and well. This is that last place in the world that on this scale its being done: its huge.

Don: This is something that the casual tourist can never penetrate. It takes us ‘relics’, with this depth of time and interest to get into this layer of Nepali culture.

James: You have to see beyond the bad smell here, the pollution there. Before it was everywhere you turned. Now you have to be a little bit more discerning, more adventurous, you have to hunt through all this craziness and mess: the pollution, the plastic bags, the honking horns, but the magic is still there. I just rode up to Kankani over the weekend. There’s a lot of suffering going on in Nepal right now and it’s very hard to live amongst it sometimes, to hear what’s going on in the country. Nepalis killing Nepalis is a very sad thing that we all feel deeply. And yet going up there, going to a tea stall, there’s twenty young men all talking about the situation in Nepal and there’s a lot of laughter, there’s a lot of sweetness. The army came in with their rifles, and I was able to diffuse a very tense moment with just a joke: we don’t have any bandhuks (guns), no socket bottles. And everybody laughed: the guys laughed, the army laughed…somehow there’s still laughter and a spirit.

Father D:  One of my most memorable experiences took place two years ago. For forty years I had not met Gyanendra. After the royal massacre, in early September of 2001, I had written a letter to him: “I believe in you, I think you’re the right person.” And so I get a call from his secretary saying, “You have an interview with His Majesty on this particular evening, be there at 6:30, you’ll have a thirty-minute audience.” So I went, I waited, it was almost a quarter to eight when I finally was told that I’m on. I walked into this big room. There was a round table with only two seats facing each other, and the King was on the opposite side of where I entered. He stood up and came over and shook hands with me. He was in causal dress, no topi, an open collar shirt. And he said “Father I’m very sorry I delayed you, I’ve been very busy.” I said, “Oh, your Majesty, whatever it is… I’m happy just to be here.” Well then he sat down and he talked about his experiences at St.Joseph’s North Point, where he studied for eleven years and we went over the fathers he knew, and he said, “Whenever I went into the Chapel, I always felt at peace.” I said, “Well, what about sports?” “Oh, I played them all: football, cricket, hockey…” And later I told him “… I am so happy and proud that this moment has come to have your talents, your gifts for the leadership of this country.” He didn’t respond to that, but I can imagine some buttons were popping…I tried to give a sense of affirmation for him.

Jesse: I think what we’ve been talking about, all of us, is reflected in the spirituality. I think that when we fly into Nepal and see the huge range of mountains that Father Donnelly wanted to know all the names of, ultimately we learn the gods are living there, the spirituality emanates from there. If you go to Swayambu and stay overnight in the full moon, you go to Boudhanath and take part in the circumnambulation and the lights, if you go to Adinath where people are worshipping both Buddhism and Hinduism, you feel it. I’ve been changed by living in Nepal by absorbing that spirituality which is aged, its 2000, 3000 years old. I get satisfaction from having absorbed that spirituality and being a person that basically is quite happy living in Nepal. You could be other places. I spent seven-eight years working out of Nepal, traveling widely in many places in central Asia, west Asia, south Asia. Whenever I came back, it was “Wow, I’m home.” I‘m from Oregon, from the United States. At my 60th birthday last year there were 200 people at the Shankar Hotel that were friends. I wouldn’t have that many friends in Oregon. My mother came and visited me several times and ultimately died in our home in Sanepa. And we cremated her cause that’s what she wanted, on the banks of the river, with Buddhist monks chanting and I lit the fire. This is the kind of thing you get from Nepal: the whole spiritual thing that comes from the mountains and the gods and transcends. It’s a Confucian thing really, about filial piety. You can live in America and put your old people away in a warehouse but here you do take care of the people you love. I think that’s what transformed me in my forty years of being associated with Nepal. I always imagined I’d retire in Hawaii but now I can’t imagine leaving Nepal.

Don: What everyone is saying here is: its never boring in Nepal. Even in the midst of this Maoist insurgency, in the midst of life and death. You can’t get tired of it, there’s something new and exciting all the time.

James: I’m developing a perma-culture farm in the hills with a Nepali family. When I first went to see it, it was like a dream, its up on a ridge, you’re looking 180 degrees at the Himal, its absolutely beautiful. And I said this is where I could die, I’d be very happy to die right here- and be born again in Nepal.

Don: As a Sadhu!
Jan: I wish I felt like everybody else seems to. I don’t have such positive feelings all the time. I have sometimes a love-hate relationship here. I can go through days when I don’t know why I’m here, because I find a lot of the young people have forgotten about what goes on in the hills. They have taken on our materialism, the bad things that we came to Nepal to try to escape from; these have become their dreams, their needs. But at the same time, I find young Nepalis who realize this is happening, who are aware of this and are so terrific. There are some intellectual groups coming up that are giving me hope. I’ve met tremendous young people, young women that I hope will be able to overcome this desire for fashion and rock music that seems to be taking over.

Don: You’ve struck a chord. But whenever I’m in a taxi with Hindi film music playing, I ask if they have a tape of Nepali folk music. 98 percent of the time they do.

Sujal: What other signs of hope do you see for the future of Nepal?
Don: I’m doing some research, and there is still a very strong current of social responsibility that dates back many generations to the traditions of Gutis and the traditional behaviors of people who take it upon themselves to do things for the benefit of the community: digging a well, assisting some old people, whatever. There are movements in this society now that you don’t see, until you go digging. You could call them NGOs, they’re very small, very local and they’re civic-minded and welfare oriented. And no one in the development world is looking at them. They see that democracy’s failed, that’s cracked, and that’s bad and all these other things. But underneath, there’s still traditional cultural things going on that are very strong.

Jesse: I think that’s right. My work now is in HIV/AIDs, and there are a lot of people who have HIV/AIDs, a lot more than we have any clue about, and the communities are starting to respond. This is where spirit comes in: What are you going to do with these people? who are in your communities, who are sick, less and less economically productive, they’re going to have to be taken care of eventually. And you find this response in the villages. Maybe its not easy to see, but its there, that’s where the hope lies.

Don: There are a lot of examples in the history of Nepal of [positive] cultural responses to duress and difficulty. Some of it came out in the earthquake of 1934, in the cholera epidemic of 1948, and those things are still there, and they’re now reemerging.

James: You asked what else would we like ECS readers to know? For people not to take simplicity for ignorance. These people are very wise. They have been around for about 1500 years and they’ve managed to survive, they know about living from the earth. Our cultures, my own country, we’ve been around what, 260 years. And the way we’re going, I’m not sure we’re going to be around for the next 260 years. So who’s wiser? Wise people don’t think that they have all the answers. Listen first.

Jesse: A lot of people that interpret development as fancy materialism and technologies are missing the boat. I think development workers learn as much from Nepal as we contribute. If we contribute even that much I’d be surprised.

Don: A wise Nepali said to us, when Jesse and I were being trained for the Peace Corps, “You guys think you’re going to make all these big changes and develop Nepal. You think that’s what it takes to be successful. You will be successful if you have a positive impact on one human being. Consider that.”

NOTE: This is not necessarily a representative sample of the long-term expatriates in Nepal. ECS’ Bijay Shrestha gathered names and made phone calls, and this is the group of people that he reached that were interested and able to gather on one particular day. We are  aware that this group happens to be mostly men from the U.S.A. (For another female perspective, see the article on Elizabeth Hawley, p. 36.) We plan to have a similar dialogue in about six months featuring more women from other countries.