Letters from Kathmandu #11: The Unfinished Staircase

By Craig Greenman
(Visiting Professor of Philosophy, King’s College)

June 2021

Dear family and friends,

The lockdown is dissolving in Kathmandu.  Some businesses are opening (on alternating days, like Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays) and non-essential vehicles are operating (with alternating license plate numbers, like odds or evens).  And every young man from 18 to 25 is back on his “bike” (a.k.a. motorcycle) – his “[censored] rocket,” as we say in the States – with his young lady on the back, holding him tight.  Half of the vehicles in the Kathmandu Valley aren’t for transportation, but mating.

My online course is over; my constipation is terrible (from all the rice I eat, about 70% of my diet); and I’m trekking again, full-time.  I’ve been frequenting the small mountains just southwest of Kathmandu; they remind me of Vermont’s Green Mountains.  They’re high and round and forested.  To get to them – a two-hour hike – I have to traverse some dusty, heavily-trafficked roads, wearing my swim goggles (suggested by my dad for the shower, but worn as protection against flying dirt).  I stride into the oncoming traffic, against the young cyclists; it’s a stupid, masculine game, but I hate being an unintentional pylon.  

Recently I found myself on a one-way road – due to new construction; projects are always beginning in Kathmandu, but rarely finishing (more on that later) – with a diesel truck rolling towards me.  The road was more of a “lane” than a road, and the truck needed to stop for me to avoid it.  It didn’t.  I turned sideways at the last minute; and, as my face passed within inches of the driver’s window, I shouted, “Let me through!”  The driver said, “Okay, sir!” but gratuitously.  I slapped the truck; then I kicked it; but it was much bigger than me and it didn’t budge.

I wished I’d remembered the curse word my King’s colleagues taught me at an organic café by the Bagmati River (you could smell it while sipping saffron tea).  I asked them for the worst word in Nepali, and after some giggles and blushes, one said, “[censored].  It means “[censored],” but not in our casual sense; it’s far more Freudian here.  

The truck driver was a [censored]; but we’re all [censored], sometimes, when we’re behind the wheel . . . What other attitude could we have, whipping past people and places at x miles per hours in a multi-ton [censored]?  My first great crime as a boy – for which severe punishment followed – was throwing stones, with two other boys, at a passing car.  Fundamentally, I was in the right . . .

The Bagmati is actually smelling a bit better lately; the monsoon rains have it running fast, and the new, cleaner source of Kathmandu’s water is emptying into it.  I’ve even become less bothered by the trash.  One can get used to anything.  While I don’t completely buy Epictetus’ claim that how we think determines our happiness – often it’s the things themselves – when I look at the trash and think, not, “This is the callousness of human beings,” but “This is all part of the overall scene,” I don’t feel so bad about it.  The garbage becomes one of my natural surroundings, a necessary fact.  But the smell of the river still bothers me; if it wasn’t for that, I could forget it’s poison.

The farm valley by the Bagmati is almost Midwestern:  One passes grazing cows and goats; one sees the formerly hardened paths, broken by the rain, then drying again in the sun.  The farms are lush and beautiful, and the corn is magnificent (“Knee high by the Fourth of July!”).  The air is humid, which means big, billowing clouds; and the green mountains peek occasionally into them.  I think:  I want to go up there.  I want to go to the end.

This exploratory desire – or escapism – may be a gift from my ancestors, who came to North America from Europe, or from my mother’s setting out my path to my best friend’s house as a boy.  She’d watch me from our kitchen window, walking along hedges and property lines, till I passed out of sight and entered the view of my friend’s mother.  I loved to walk that path every day; it felt like a little adventure.  Everything is big when you’re small.  

Later, I’d ride my bicycle to buy comic books or a pack of Rolos, a few miles away.  Then as an adolescent, after my mom had died, I’d ride and half-purposely get half-lost, then find my way back home.  Freud could analyze that . . . and this desire, I still have: to set out towards a goal, precisely or vaguely defined; then get half-lost or make detours along the way; then find my way back home, if I can help it, without Google Maps.  (I can’t always help it.)

So a few days ago, I decided to take the footbridge across the Bagmati River.  You’ll remember, it was the unfinished and rickety-looking bridge that I’d avoided before.  But I’d seen people cross it, and it helped me avoid the dusty road, so I tried.  It’s a very narrow suspension bridge, strung with fencing and small pieces of metal, far above the river.  I’m heavy-footed, so when I stepped onto it, it shook.  Three people were walking my way, and they were probably annoyed at my presence; but we made it across.  

A stepladder was on the other side; and the rebar was still hanging out, bent in all directions.  Once off, I ran into a polite, late middle-aged man, himself out for a walk, who helped me find my way to the mountains.  He was ethnically Gorkha (they conquered Nepal back in the 18th century and became soldiers in the British army) and he’d been stuck, he told me, in the USA – Colorado – during the 2020 lockdown.  He said the footbridge was unfinished because the Nepali government decided to build a highway to the Terai, the region to the south bordering India; it would run through this valley.  Then, due to Nepali politics, the highway project hadn’t begun – the water project had taken more than twenty years – and the bridge just stood there, unfinished.

It was the first of two interesting conversations I had that week; the other was with my old Tibetan friend.  We walked to a bookstore (it ended up being closed) and he told me he’d been born in India, as a refugee, and was a monk until he was 35; then he gave it up and got married.  In 2019, he managed to get a visa to visit Tibet and several Chinese cities.  He was shocked to find the Tibetans – and he was allowed to travel freely, I believe – living well under Chinese rule, even praising the Chinese government.  They were able to learn the Tibetan language, and had their own neighborhoods in mainland China.  He contrasted this with the Tibetans in India and Nepal, who weren’t learning their language, or weren’t learning it well, and with his own sister, who was in Minnesota, where they didn’t teach the “mother tongue.”

My friend believed – along with philosophers like Frantz Fanon – that to know a language was to know a culture, and to lose it was to lose oneself.  I’d come across the same idea in one of my Newar students who wanted his younger brother to learn Newari, so he wouldn’t lose his identity.  When I challenged him, and my Tibetan friend, that an individual can create their own identity, they agreed, but reasonably said that takes place against a background of shared history.

My Gorkha friend could speak excellent English, and got me to the foot of the mountains.  I’d first ascended them two days before; that jaunt had ended with my laxative kicking in . . . I was on a dirt road with the cicadas screaming all around me – they’re annoying in the U.S., but apocalyptic in Nepal – while a young man with his lady friend passed in their motorbike, at the “tail end” of my act.  It embarrassed me terribly; and that, along with my exhaustion from the climbing, had made me dizzy, almost to a faint.  

But this time I’d taken no laxatives, and I was determined to summit the mountains.  I walked on dirt roads past lovely little hamlets with houses and terraced farms; the people – mostly women out working – were friendly, and the barking dogs, less frequent.  Occasionally the road became a path along someone’s back fence, and the chickens would cluck in alarm.  The smell – when I couldn’t smell the Bagmati – reminded me of a summer camp, the boys’ and girls’ cabins, with lush vegetation and a hint of burning pine.  

I’d end up making this ascent three times, each by a slightly different way.  One time, I happened upon a steep, narrow trail, passing along a sheer embankment, dropping fifteen to twenty feet into farmland.  The path was occupied by a slow-moving herdsman with three large cows, two young men walking the other way, and a woman, just sitting and resting.  I decided I’d find a way through; and, as the others watched, I tiptoed along the edge of the embankment, past the three cows, and up.  One false move from Bessie and I’d go splat . . . But I balanced myself, shakily, with an umbrella K. had suggested I take in case of rain.

Another time, I came across a drunken man in a New York Yankees jacket, who mumbled Nepali incomprehensibly.  He decided to adopt me – I called him, in my mind, “my involuntary Sherpa” –he’d figure out which way I was going, then run on ahead and beckon.  I kept trying to shake him – we were far above the Kathmandu Valley, so I’d stop and take in the view, hoping he’d move on – but he didn’t get the message.  Finally, when I declined to stay at a monastery-looking place we passed, he gave up on me.

I climbed, and occasionally took photos to prove to K. I’d been so high.  There’s an obvious tension between enjoying a landscape and photographing it for posterity.  The tension has probably always existed – say, between the literary class and the practical class – but now it lives within each of us:  We upload to WhatsApp.  I’ve become more of a photographer, with a cell phone in my pocket, and a diarist:  As I walked with my Sherpa, I thought he’d make a lovely minor character in my “letters” . . .

I was still several hundred feet from the mountaintop – and completely exhausted and about to give up – when my path suddenly crossed, improbably, a long, wide staircase.  It seemed to come from, and go, nowhere.  It was as weird as seeing the fireplaces in New Hampshire forests (they’re from the 19th century houses built during the sheep-raising craze – the same folks that gave us stone walls).  The staircase was almost infinitely long, built for no apparent reason, and impossibly, stupidly high.  

Of course, I climbed it.

As I climbed – and really, there seemed to be no end to the damned thing – I’d occasionally grab the hem of my shorts like an NBA player, catching my wind.  The steps would turn occasionally, then go straight, then hit a plateau and angle sharply to the left or right.  Meanwhile, the cicadas were still screaming and the mosquitoes were flying around my ankles.  I figured it was either a stairway to heaven or it had been built for people traveling over the mountain.  Ironically, I’d had “Stairway to Heaven” in my head earlier . . . And despite all my joking, the staircase really was beautiful . . . Mysterious as only unexpected, beautiful things are . . . 

Then it stopped.  About fifty meters from the mountaintop, it simply stopped.  There was a stretch of dirt, then of rocks, then nothing.  I tried to keep climbing, but the rocks made a slick ascent, and I didn’t have the strength to muster the dexterity to do it.

(A note on “Stairway to Heaven,” by the way:  When I got my eye virus, I was extremely depressed, and I played “Stairway to Heaven” on YouTube.  I cried, and sobbed, and convulsed:  The song was so perfect; the drums – John Bonham – coming in at just the right time, and the 4/4 beat, the Celtic sound . . . I then played “Please Don’t Ask,” another beautiful, sad song by Genesis.  If you can’t have a desert island, a lonely room in Kathmandu is the next best thing.)

I descended the staircase:  I finally came to a dirt road; I had to hop down onto it; it was disconnected from the steps.  I walked along the road, then got another surprise:  Way up here, there was a little open-front store.  Several people were sitting by it, talking and laughing.  The first time, I passed them by; but the second day – I hadn’t made it to the top again, due to the humidity and my exhaustion – I asked for some water.  The shopkeeper promptly sold me an ice-cold bottle of water (but where did she get the electricity?) for 25 rupees, about 20 cents.  The gathered group pulled out a chair and asked me to sit.  Then they gave me some “roxi” – alcohol, this homemade – and I took a half-glass.  And tried to talk:  They didn’t know much English and I didn’t know much Nepali.  We managed to make each other laugh.  They were farmers, resting after a long day in the fields.  A sharp-witted man in a topi offered me an Indian cigarette – a short little thing – and I smoked with him.  It was the best-tasting cigarette I’ve ever had, maybe because of the context.  (I don’t typically smoke.)

When we’d finished, I stubbed out my cigarette and kept the filter, meaning to throw it away later.  The man gestured at me to toss it, but I shook my head.  He put out his hand, and I gave it to him; he tossed it behind onto the road.  I half-sighed and half-laughed, and tried to explain, no, you should put it in a trash bin (I drew a circle in the air with my finger).  The shopkeeper understood.

I got an idea:  I had 75 rupees of change, so I tried to exchange it for whatever she wanted to give me, as a souvenir of the place.  The shtick doesn’t work well in America; I ask servers to give me their favorite choice, and they seem confused:  Why wouldn’t I want to choose?  I tell them, because you know more than me.  Why did I expect it to work with a shopkeeper who didn’t speak my language?  But all’s well that ends well:  She thought I was asking for more roxi, and came out with a little Tupperware container full of it.  Meanwhile, the group had been saying some Nepali word; I figured out they’d been telling me to pour the roxi in my water bottle.  I emptied it; the shopkeeper poured the Tupperware contents into the bottle; and I had a half bottle of moonshine to take home.  I drank it, with P., that night.

So that’s my story. I hope the heat isn’t bad there, and that your roxi, whatever it is, is good.

Take care,



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