By Craig Greenman
(Visiting Professor of Philosophy, King’s College)
Dear family and friends,
I’m stranded. The gift shops are open in Kathmandu, but my two flights home – the original and the replacement – have been cancelled. I was scheduled to leave yesterday, but nothing is flying in or out of Nepal, at least that I can book. I even got a transit visa for India (with the help of an Indian friend’s father); I’ll fly to Delhi, I thought, then take a separate flight to Boston. But the flights to India have vanished. So I don’t know when I’m getting out. (I could potentially hire a cab for the 24-hour ride to Delhi, but that would cost a lot of money . . . and it’d be a 24-hour ride to Delhi.)
The last two weeks have been strange. The day before yesterday, I ate KFC. G., an amazing cook, insisted we get the $9-dollar Wednesday bucket deal, so she could get a break, I figured, from the kitchen. But she also just likes KFC. I hadn’t had “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in more than a decade; it tasted the same as in America, but it still made me feel vaguely ill – I thought of how they breed chickens (so goes the rumor) with nearly-boneless bodies . . .
I asked K. if he knew what “KFC” stands for; he guessed it had something to do with quality food. He knew Colonel Sanders, just not his name; and he knew KFC was owned by the Pepsi corporation. In fact, there’s a storefront near the Monkey Temple painted entirely with the Pepsi logo, and our B&B refrigerator is a secondhand Coca-Cola display fridge, with a shelf packed – happily, for me – with Sprite and Fanta bottles. (I drink them when there’s no roxi.)
By the next day, I was eating a fresh noodle soup – Vietnamese style, except Nepali – with homegrown beets, beans, green peppers, and some pork; the “Missus” of my new friend, an expat Londoner whom I met at the Newar park, had made it. Their rammed earth house – the walls are made of packed soil – boasted an English garden, fully-boned chickens, and English ducks (which I’d never seen, but looked like the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland).
This white person – his wife and daughter are Nepali – disproved my earlier speculations about the white folks here; he was friendly, energetic, and healthy. We talked for hours, sipping milk tea; he had nothing but time, he said, because his wedding visa didn’t allow him to work. His daughter, who might have been thirteen, had yet to get a birth certificate, because the Nepali constitution draws lineage only through the father, in this case a non-citizen. Without a few somersaults (and a bribe or two), she wouldn’t be able to enroll in secondary school.
In his slightly “Cockney” accent – he’d been a furniture delivery man for 20 years in London, and his father, a postman – my new friend told me about the generations of Nepali officials who’ve learned to squeeze people. He was still waiting on his house title, which was in his wife’s name. (Foreigners can’t buy houses or land in Nepal.) I’d raised the topic after my visit to the Department of Immigration; I’d believed, given what I’d read on their website and had been told over the phone, that, if I renewed my tourist visa by July 8, there’d be no fee; it was a government-imposed travel lockdown and they were giving foreigners a break. But when I arrived and used the visa machine – which, ironically, looked like an airport check-in booth – the charge was $90 dollars. I don’t like surprises. After non-answers from two unhelpful clerks, I demanded to see the director; I was directed upstairs, where he was chatting with a subordinate. He said I had to pay the fee. I told him his website and spokesperson had told me otherwise; I was conducted to the spokesperson’s office, where I was instructed again – despite our phone conversation – to pay the fee. It turns out there are several fees, and tourists were forgiven the late fee, but not the renewal fee. I got angry. The spokesperson told me to get out, and pointed me back to the director’s office; I said I’d just been there and he’d sent me here. “No, no, no,” he said, multiple times, to which I finally shot back, “Yes, yes, yes,” aping his accent in way that was, admittedly, racist. He was nonplussed; he was used to being courted. I was wrong to ridicule him – we were speaking my language in his country – but he was being such an incredible jerk . . .
Then I said (my last resort) that I was a professor at King’s College, and he was confirming my student’s testimony: The government here doesn’t give a damn. I felt trapped in The Castle by Franz Kafka, where a man enters a town and is told he has to go to the government office for a passport; then, 300 pages later, he’s still trying to get one. The spokesperson changed his tone – though not his answer – and said he loved all Nepal’s “guests” (I replied I wasn’t so loveable, clearly), and the policy might change next week, anyway . . . A few more subordinates entered, looking for a signature, and he didn’t dismiss me so much as ignore me.
K. had scootered me there in a heavy rain; we’d decamped once (on K.’s insistence) to help a girl whose vehicle had fallen over; he beeped at another guy whose backpack had fallen open. Afterwards, we went to the Kathmandu post office. Seven employees were sitting at the front desk, doing nothing. A woman in a tight French t-shirt told us to go upstairs, where we found a room cordoned off by a long strip of packing tape; it was the international mail department. Inside was one man, surrounded by huge bags of what looked like unopened – or unsent – mail. He said the letter I’d been expecting since April hadn’t arrived yet, and that he didn’t receive things, sometimes, until a year later. K. insisted on his taking down our name and phone number – which he did, I don’t know how earnestly – because there’s no home mail delivery in Nepal, except in special cases, and no numerical addresses. (I had to meet my Londoner “under the big tree” . . .)
I will say this: It was all very interesting. My Brit had been utterly bored, he told me, when he left England – he worked eleven months to get to the twelfth, trekking in Nepal – and Kathmandu, as difficult as it was, was better than a bunch of Englishmen moaning. “Imagine if they saw the roads!” he laughed – he lived in a neighborhood that was increasingly well-to-do, but still had long, muddy lanes. It was near the new houses I’ve mentioned for the government officials: “That’ll get the roads paved,” he quipped. Crews had begun digging and struck a water main, so my friend had had to rig a device to collect rainwater to drink.
When I told him my initial impressions of whites here, he mentioned NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations); their members, he said, were now allowed to mix with the locals, even before Covid. A student of mine complained that NGOs were more concerned about themselves than Nepal; I don’t know, but I’d seen their buildings, whitewashed and lovely, surrounded by trashed lots and bleak-looking houses. My Londoner loved Dickens, by the way – he’d been reading Bleak House until he’d gotten the internet for his daughter and been distracted by it – and he said 19th century London was similar to 21st century Kathmandu. He added that the NGO rules were likely insurance-related. We need the collective to survive, but its members will sue us if they don’t . . .
In any case – this British homesteader concluded – all would be well. “Keep Calm and Relax” was on his tea mug. Nothing is impossible in Nepal . . . To which I replied, maybe because nothing is possible. It’s all open-ended and incomplete, like an unfinished staircase. (He did, however, advise me to pay the $90-dollar visa fee; if I didn’t, they wouldn’t let me on a plane.)
But all this was a backdrop for the real action that day. I’d been offered a job at a prestigious Midwestern university, a “Visiting Instructor” gig in a program that combined great books with basic skills education. A year ago, I’d have taken it quickly. But I was in the middle, in Kathmandu, of one of the happiest periods of my adult life: I was teaching well; my emotional life was simple; and on most days, I could find a good place to walk. Most importantly, perhaps, I was living with a loving family, K., G., and their kids; and for a month – a long stretch for me – I’d been happy.
The first chink in my armor – though it had helped forge it, creating the distance that kept my life uncomplicated – was my immanent repatriation. I’d be leaving Kathmandu in July; and like one spies the end of a good novel, I’d been counting out time. And I had to buy gifts. Even if my friends at home didn’t expect them, I felt obligated to bring some; and it returned me to the thick emotional context of America. There’s a performative contradiction in vacationing: You need the psychological safety of your loved ones waiting for you, but it’s nice to get away for a while.
But once you start buying souvenirs, you start to leave a place. You move from, oh, how can I walk over there and see that, to, oh, won’t they love this little exotic thing and how cool would that be. The goal of fitting in, of immersion, becomes the goal of standing out, of carrying home some booty, like Napoleon fleeing Russia.
Then came the job offer. If Kathmandu had been a fantasy – one which took me years to realize; I’d had to build up the courage (or the necessity) – another was to “go home.” Whenever things were bad in New Hampshire (and they often were), the Midwest, my birthplace, beckoned. Suddenly it had become a real possibility, attached to a salary. I felt instantly alienated from Kathmandu: I began to judge it again, as an American, which, however correct it might be sometimes – say, in the case of the trash – is naïve, moralistic, and not a little self-righteous.
I often call Kathmandu “an empiricist’s paradise,” because many of my assumptions, about life and work, have been overturned here. Empiricism – which was propounded by British philosophers (John Locke and David Hume, among others) – bases our knowledge on actual experience, not fantasy. It’s one foundation for modern thinking: “Just the facts, ma’am.” If you read Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, you’ll see it in action: The monster learns how to be human by watching a French family through a peephole. Created from dead body parts by Victor Frankenstein, he’s a “tabula rasa,” a “blank slate,” until he’s “written on” by his experiences.
Every traveler is a Frankenstein monster: Our peephole is our eyes, and our distance, our difference in manner, dress, and skin color. But slowly, we “watch and learn,” moving further into a foreign culture, and finally immersing in it. I remember when I began to feel at ease in Kathmandu; it alarmed me a bit, because I began seeing it less. That included the problems: The old clothing strewn over the rocks started to look almost Cristo-esque. Everything has its beauty; the dogs, their symphony; and the scooters . . . Well, I still haven’t adjusted to those yet. But eventually, the Frankenstein monster will become, by Nepali standards, more human.
Then came the offer; and the needle skipped out of its groove. A chance to go home! A chance to work at a good university, even if I’d be a peon . . . And I started to be annoyed again by Kathmandu, like a tight shirt I couldn’t pull off. The trash reappeared and the dogs got louder. But simultaneously, and paradoxically, I found myself idealizing it: When I’d arrived, for example, our B&B gate had seemed an “arabesque,” “oriental”; now when I considered it – contemplating my exit, perhaps permanently, through it – I felt part of it; I’d become a little more South Asian. Compared to the emotional depth of my attachment to the U.S., this was a superficial allegiance; but is that so inauthentic? Only if a sailboat, skipping gently over the water, is . . .
N., the president at King’s, had offered me a long-term position in Nepal, and at a higher rank than at the Midwestern university (though for massively less money); and he’d said that, if I took the American job, he’d still be waiting for me in a year. So what reason was there not to take the gig? I could kill two fantasies with one reality . . .
A digression: Around the corner in New Hampshire, where I live, is a Russian Orthodox church (it’s a breakaway sect, I’m not sure which one). Inside, bordering the space for the worshipers, there’s a screen, painted with images of Christ, Mary, and the saints. I’ve thought about this church – after an Episcopalian priest suggested it about her own – as a sort of theater. We enter through the double doors, moving from the sunshine into mysterious candlelight, and into a fantasy, plopped down in the middle of Union Street, topped with a lúkovichnaya glavá (an “onion dome”).
Kathmandu is filled with such little theaters, temples to Shiva, Ganesh, and the Buddha. As I watch K. and other devout Hindus “cross” themselves before them, I think of my own fictions, all the “transcendental illusions,” to riff on Immanuel Kant (who never left his hometown): philosophies, fictions, artworks, and projects. Human beings need to be somewhere else, not just where they are; they’re inevitably imaginative. The internet serves this purpose – TikTok has turned an entire generation into pop stars – as does Colonel Sanders, taking us to Kentucky for “Finger Lickin’ Good” chicken . . .
But two of the same exact fantasy – say, two teaching jobs – can undo us. It’s one thing to have a wife and a mistress, but another to have a wife and a wife. Even old Chinese patriarchs had “Wife #1” and “Wife #2.” If I joined the Midwestern university, I’d be cheating on Kathmandu; and so I said no. What resulted, as one King’s colleague put it, was the worst kind of buyer’s remorse: I didn’t have anything new to show for it. I was left with . . . where I was. And this place, Kathmandu, was now drained of the peace of mind that it’d had when it was inevitable; there was now somewhere else that I could – or perhaps should – be.
Isn’t this the substance of regret? To be in two incompatible places at once? To recover from it, I’ve tried to reimmerse myself in the Kathmandu Valley. I’ve gone back to the mountains, trekked past the rice paddies, breathed the warm, humid air of the corn, and saluted the old men pushing bicycles up the hills. These are my people now, at least for a while, even if I don’t speak their language.
I think of Gilligan’s Island:
This is the tale of our castaways,
They’re here for a long, long time –
They’ll have to make the best of things:
It’s an uphill climb.
What does it mean to be “stranded”? Isn’t it only when you want to be somewhere else? Isn’t the worst episode of Gilligan’s Island the one where they’re rescued? And didn’t Dante (as my old dissertation director and friend reminded me recently), along with Joyce, Hemingway, Miller, Nin, Nietzsche, Fanon, and Arendt – and the empiricist, John Locke – flourish when they were exiled, by others or self, from their homeland?
Or so I’d like to believe today, feeling lonely for all of your voices – the empirical ones, not just the imagined.
P.S. A few hours after writing this, K. told me that the Nepali government was opening more international flights, and he’d found one to Delhi on July 28. I took it. I’ll be able to see my Indian friend and his family, then fly to Boston. But will I ever make it back to Nepal? K. wants me to return by Dashain, the harvest festival; but what if Nepal gets a Covid “third wave”? Will I feel like returning, once I’m on U.S. soil? It continues to boggle my mind how my perspective changes – empiricism be damned – as my situation does. If I’m a “blank slate,” then it’s as a funhouse mirror: Hold me up to reality a slightly different way, and you’ll see something completely different . . .