Unbeatable Barbara

Features Issue 24 Aug, 2010
Text by Deven Kirant

John F. Kennedy was the Presi dent of the United States; the Beatles were still playing at the cavern in Liverpool; the Viet Nam war was about to flare up and B.P.Koirala had just been incarcerated in the Sundarijal jail, when Barbara Adams arrived in Nepal. It was February 1961. “I couldn’t have gone further away from America” says Barbara with a broad smile. From the world’s leading super power and to a developing country that had opened its doors to the outside world only a decade ago, it was a giant leap back in time.

Yet, the budding American journalist was bewitched by the beauty and serenity of this Himalayan kingdom and the simplicity and sincerity of its people. Adams recalls that once she arrived here and bicycled all over the still gleaming clean valley, she just couldn’t leave. She postponed her flight to Bangkok via Calcutta, time and again as she had fallen inextricably in love with both Nepal and a Nepali man and she couldn’t bear to leave either.

Barbara had arrived in India from Italy where she had worked teaching English to generals, translating film scripts from Italian to English and doing bit parts in Italian films at Cine Citta. After almost a year, she tired of the Dolce Vita and Roman café life and finagled an assignment with an Italian Socialist weekly, Mundo Nuova. Its editor agreed to buy her articles sent from foreign climes, especially India, to which she had always longed to travel.  

Her first article for Mundo Nuova was sent from Cairo where she managed to stand near Kruschev and Nasser during Kruschev’s official opening of the famous Aswan Dam.  She then wrote several articles about development in India, some of which were published in The India Illustrated. She became accustomed to simple Ghandian ways while walking through parts of the Punjab with the Gandhian “saint” Vinova Bhave, whose Bhoodaan movement advocated the distribution of land to the poor. She also developed a lifelong interest in the land of the Mahatma and Tagore.

Barbara then flew into Nepal from Calcutta in one of RNAC’s dinosaurs called the DC-3. After staying in Nepal’s first tourist hotel, the Snow-View, for two days, she moved on to the Imperial Hotel run by a Chinese lady who also managed a beauty parlor of sorts. Here she relished the Chinese food, and the wild stories of the early RNAC pilots.

Born under the Taurus sign in New York City, Barbara later moved with her family to Washington, D.C. where she grew up. A rebel from an early age, cutting classes and riding and caring for horses was the norm for young Barbara.  She says she was painfully shy around fellow students but got along well with horses.

After Barbara finally managed to muster the courage to leave Nepal, her next stop was Vietnam. There she saw few US soldiers but talked extensively with many Indians,

Canadians and Poles who were monitoring the border between North and South Vietnam. She found that most official Americans she met regarded  her with suspicion, and realized it wasn’t a good time to be in Vietnam. She next moved on to Hong Kong where she had arranged to meet the man with whom she had fallen in love in Nepal, and who would change her life.  She and Prince Basundhara, the younger brother of King Mahendra went on a leisurely tour of Japan, spent a week shopping in Hong Kong  and finally  embarked on the Royal Flight from Calcutta back to Kathmandu..

Barbara settled down with Prince Basundhara in his labyrinth-like Palace in Tahachel, where the Japanese Ambassador now resides. In 1962 Prince Basundhara, General Saradar SJB Rana and Barbara started a travel agency which she named Third Eye Tours & Travels. At this time Nepal was beginning to enjoy quality tourism and Barbara was actively promoting her adopted country at travel conferences around the world.  She received an award from the Pacific Area Travel Association (PATA) as “a Pioneer of Asian Tourism.”

In those heady days Barbara’s familiar face and her flowing blond hair were seen around town in an open Sunbeam Alpine sportscar. Now almost forty years later she still drives the same car on weekends and unpolluted early mornings. Another sight many will remember is Barbara on a white horse riding through the narrow streets of Kathmandu or exploring the villages of Godavari and Patan, where she and her Pakistani-bred mare Naushira, sometimes had to dodge charging buffalo.

In 1963 Barbara became the first authorized “foreigner” to enter the forbidden kingdom of Mustang, which although a part of Nepal, still retains a king. She, Prince Basundhara, and his sister Princess Achala joined an excursion organized by Prince Himalaya and  his wife Princess Princep. All they had for transport were horses and Barbara was fascinated by the wild countryside with its vibrant colors and unexplored Buddhist caves. She recalls the reaction of the Mustang residents when they saw the first foreign woman in their midst. Initially there was much confusion about her gender as Barbara wore trousers and most Tibetan men had long hair.  Since the only outsiders they had ever seen were Chinese, they eventually came to the conclusion that she must be a Chinese woman.

On looking back, her only regret is the fact that she lent her precious photographs from Mustang to a magazine never to see them again. “I was so naïve,” she laments. The photos would have been priceless today.   Her present wish is to go back to Lo Mantang with her long-time architect friend, John Sanday, who has been restoring old monuments in this remote outpost.

Later Barbara also played a part in opening the Fishtail Lodge in Pokhara, built on the site where she and Prince Basundhara used to camp. She talks of the Swiss architect Robert Weiss who helped design it and Fred Barker, the young Anglo-Peruvian who helped build it.  The house at the lodge, which is today occupied by Verge Inn Leisure Club, was in Barbara’s time known as Tahachel Bungalow. Barbara and Prince Basundhara built and decorated the house and lived in it for several years. The large sculpture that can be seen when entering the living room was commissioned by them. The masterpiece was the work of British sculptor, Dennis Gallaway.  Barbara remembers that its weight broke down two trucks while the sculpture was being transported from Chobar, where the huge stone originated.

From the good old days, Barbara still remembers the countless tales that Boris used to tell his admiring crowd of listeners at the Royal Hotel. She talks of the huge portraits that adorned the walls and a horse that would roam freely about the hotel causing panic among some of the patrons. Boris’ hotel, with its famous Yak and Yeti bar was then the hang out for the elite of Kathmandu. She recalls General Kaiser SJB Rana, who could tell with uncanny precision where each book was located in his massive library. The good General would never forget to send a bottle of B&B for their birthdays (for Basundhara & Barbara).

Sometimes after a late night party, Barbara and Basundhara would end up at Saha Mahal with Basundhara’s old friend, General Shamrajya Shamsher Rana. There songs, drinks and wonderful foods were in abundance.  The Palace was famous for its alu tareko. General Mrigendra she remembers as a wonderful person and someone who loved to give  elegant dinner parties at Babar Mahal. She is still friends with his  family and can often be found at “Babar Mahal Revisited.”

After Prince Basundhara’s demise, Barbara immersed herself in collecting Bhutanese textiles. “But I never went to Bhutan to collect them” she says and adds “Somehow the Bhutanese knew that I loved those amazing fabrics  and they often appeared on my doorstep  with bundles of old, dirty, but beautiful cloths.” Barbara became quite an authority on these textiles and wrote about them in a book called: ‘Traditional Bhutanese Textiles.’ She sold much of her collection to a man who is donating them back to the new Textile Museum in Bhutan. This gave her tremendous happiness as the collection which she had spent years cleaning, restoring and exhibiting, are being returned to the country where they belonged.

Until democracy came to Nepal in 1990, Barbara had only written the occasional article about tourism, wildlife or art, and then mostly for foreign publications. After 1990 Manoranjan Joshi, (M.R.Josse) started a newspaper called The Independent and upon his request, Barbara began to write a regular column called ‘Barbara’s Beat’. She   later had a column in the Kathmandu Post and then the Everest Herald. She still writes for Jana Astha as it is a popular, widely read weekly and may or may not continue her column in the People’s Review. A compilation of her early articles, mostly from The Independent and mostly on environmental issues, will soon be published in India as a book.

Barbara has in her possession Boris’ old piano and practices whenever she can. The lessons she took during her early childhood have come in handy. When I entered her house in Hathisar, I could hear the piano and she explained “When I have to wait for someone to arrive, it’s a good way to while away the time.” Although at one time she was listening to Leonard Cohen and revolutionary songs, today she prefers classical and folk music including Nepali folk songs. As for books, she loves to read biographies.

Having lived for four decades in this Himalayan kingdom, Barbara worries about the future of the Nepali people and feels that Gandhian ways should be adopted. “The Nepalese people have an open heart, are genuine and are generally happy, but the present  conflict is tragically changing all that. I cannot sleep at night. The situation makes me so sad,” she says and adds, “We need peace, and genuine compromise is the only answer.” Barbara hopes and prays that the Nepali people will go back to their peaceful ways. Nepal is her home too.