Though I know it was shot on the cheap in the LA Chinatown, the hokey Eddie Murphy film The Golden Child still shapes the way I see Kathmandu. We fly in on a warm morning, drive through town, and the city looks like the too-cheesy handiwork of a set designer who needs to learn some restraint. Houses crumble luxuriously as trees send suffocating tentacles around them. Extravagantly dressed extras lug carpets down the street or hawk mangos. There’s dust everywhere. And four days later, now that we’re out of the city and up in the Himalayas, I’ve actually seen a cackling, bung-eyed priest, and had to exert serious self-control in not treating a prayer wheel like a turntable while rapping “where – wh-wh-wh-wh – where is the knife?”
That was all pretty meaningless if you’re not a fan of 80s Eddie Murphy flicks…
Anyhow, the first night in Kathmandu was amazing. Two days of travelling from New Zealand via Thailand left me with a serious case of Jet-plus. Jet-lag hammers me sometimes – but have you ever had that effect from flying where you go to sleep early, then wake before dawn feeling electrified, full of an exhilarated sense of wonder at the place you’ve arrived in? I spent all of our first day with that sensation, unable to get my head around the fact that we’ll be doing this for the next three months, and we finished the day having gin and tonics with the coolest lady.
Elizabeth Hawley has lived in Kathmandu since 1961. She first visited in 1960, only a few years after the country allowed the first foreigners to visit. There was zero tourism and few facilities, but she loved the place and when she arrived back in the US – sailing under the golden gate bridge in San Francisco as a passenger on a freight ship – she decided to go back and settle.
We sat in her apartment sipping double-strength g&ts while she explained what made her return. She’d heard there was a good milk bar on Union Square in San Fran, she said, so she made a beeline for it and – like lots of travellers who have been on the road for a long time – ordered something luxurious and Western. An enormous sundae arrived, covered in chocolate and marshmallow sauce – did I mention that Elizabeth is 87, and the details she’s recalling are 50 years old? – and she looked at the extravagant confection and decided that “this wasn’t the real world”.
By 1961 she was settled in Kathmandu and has been there since.
She wrote for Time Life magazine and until 2008 was the Reuters correspondent for India, Nepal, Burma and Ceylon. What she’s probably known best for though is documenting mountaineering. She has kept a record of every expedition into the Himalayas for the last 50 years and what she doesn’t know about mountaineers and mountaineering isn’t worth knowing. The local paper the day we met had a report of Kiwi cricketer Adam Parore summiting Everest and she read it to us with a smirk. Personally I think it’s pretty impressive that Parore got to the top – whether he was led up on an expensive guided climb or not – but in Miss Hawley’s eyes it takes more than that to be a Golden Child.
* Update – that was about a week ago, and Rebecca and myself have now walked into Khumjung where there is a four-day celebration for the 50 year anniversary of the first Himalayan Trust school being built. The air is thin – we’re at 3790 metres – and I have a headache, but there’s a party vibe on, and the views are stupid. We’ve stayed at guest houses on the way up – this is from a place we stayed in last night: a warm smoky Sherpa kitchen.