By day, Kathmandu's tourist district, Thamel, hawks trinkets and curios. The Dutch, the Italians, the Germans, the Japanese, the French, the Americans, the Israelis—tourists all—come to the memorabilia shops to buy Buddhist mandalas, turquoise bracelets, Gurkha knives, bottled water, pashmina shawls, demon masks, rice-paper notebooks, chocolate bars, hiking boots, embroidered T-shirts that read I LOVE MOUNT EVEREST. A roll of Fuji film sells for three hundred here and twenty rupees less over there; each price is negotiable. All day, the streets bustle with bargaining: "Sixty." "Last price fifty." As evening falls, Thamel crowds travelers into its low-budget restaurants, and they become wide-eyed with wonder because serendipity has brought them together in—of all places—Kathmandu, Nepal. For less than two dollars each, they eat eggplant lasagna, garlic naan, schnitzel, swimming rama, stir-fries, buffalo dumplings, risotto, curry, and pizza while swapping adventure stories and worldviews. "My meditation teacher said flowers bloom even in the desert." "I found an awesome used bookstore selling Pico Iyer." "The first main thing I don't like of Nepal," some tourist declares in broken English, "is the dirty air." Indeed, the exhaust from the city's cars and buses is one of the largest cracks in this patched, foggy mirror image of Western dreams: a mirror quicksilvered with incredible mountain stories, some fantastic tales of Kew, and a Cat Stevens song about Kathmandu.
The traditional Nepalis who inhabit Thamel, however, cannot begin to identify the syncopated beat of Bob Marley competing with the wail of Joan Baez around the corner. Hoping to profit by the tourists nonetheless, most locals have rented out their houses to hotels, restaurants, and shops and moved their families to quieter neighborhoods. Proper Kathmandu shuns Thamel. Driving by on some rare occasion, the nation's who's-who murmur, "This is where we used to play ball as boys. It was just an empty field," and then exclaim, "There was a sweetmeat store—and look: there it is, still, beneath that INTERNATIONAL TRUNK CALL FAX PHOTOCOPY SERVICES sign. I wonder if it's still run by that pock-marked shopkeeper."
The sweetmeat store, as it so happens, has changed hands several times and now belongs to Kuber Sharma, a recent migrant from the south who [End Page 169] takes the growth of concrete houses around his shop as a personal insult. "Why can't I have a house of my own?" he mutters to a picture of Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, as he heats the oil in which he fries, for one despondent hour every morning, the crisp, sugared sweetmeats that he sells for the rest of the day. Warding off flies, sipping weak tea, counting change for customers, Kuber Sharma curses his fate and his young wife, who makes expensive demands of him; but he does, at the end of each month, make enough to pay his rent and meet his living expenses.
Tenzing Namgyal, keeper of the art shop next door, doesn't believe in God because he is Tibetan, and the Buddha said there is no God. Tenzing is flexible, though, and will question his views when talking to a foreign woman. The prettier the foreign woman is, the more religious-minded Tenzing is inclined to become. "This is Avalokitesvara, future Buddha," he says serenely in his high-school English, spreading for her benefit a scrolled acrylic painting. "One-hundred-percent vegetable dye." He strokes the deity's pink navel. "For you, only two thousand. Where you from—Italian?"
Kamal Malla, a young computer programmer, strolls by Tenzing's store every evening on his way back from work. He is charmed by this part of Kathmandu, so different from his own staid, duty-bound corner of the city. When the sky darkens and halogen lights switch on, he hears old men and women greet each other as though a new day has begun. And indeed it seems to have. Rust-colored lights warm the air. Peddlers press close and whisper, "Hashish?" "Tiger balm?" "Change money?" Irate tourists brush past. "No, no, no." Flutes and saxophones riddle the night. Kamal stops to take in picturesque sights: a...