Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Small World

A Visit to Nepal

Shrill music suddenly blares from a nearby store’s street speakers adding to the cacophony of honking horns and human voices. Noontime traffic turns the streets to moving metal and glass, transforms the crammed sidewalks into a cotton merchant’s dream of nirvana. A curly-tailed dog stops to lift his leg against a planter from which bougainvillea riots to spread red blossoms across a grill and up a wall. A waiter comes with a fresh bottle of Everest beer. MooMoo’s – spicy, steamed Nepalese dumplings – sit well in our bellies, and we are content to lounge under our awning and watch the world of Kathmandu go by.

“Hey! Robyn! What’re you doing here?” The hail comes from a tall and very obviously American man with dark hair. A red-haired woman and two carrot-topped boys stop with him.

“Patti, Mark!” My daughter jumps up and leans over the planters that divide our table from the rest of the sidewalk to hug friends from the US Agency for International Development mission in Delhi and introduce them to me. Like us, they’re in Nepal for the Thanksgiving holiday. We shout to be heard over the honking of horns and high-pitched wailing of mountain flutes on the music store speakers.

As we talk, though, I recognize the song being played and remember the lyrics:

It's a world of laughter
A world of tears
It's a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There's so much that we share
That it's time we're aware
It's a small world after all.

“What a small world!” It’s the next afternoon. This voice is female and belongs to an attractive woman with an athlete’s slim, muscular figure and dark, curly hair. She has just come onto a balcony where we’re enjoying the spectacular views of high, intensely terraced hills stretching up and up to the sharp, jagged snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, a frieze of ethereal splendor, far above any self-respecting horizon. Here, words fail, belief in the supernormal begins. Truly, this is a “land of clouds” and “the abode of gods.”

“Becky,” Robyn’s voice goes up in disbelief. “What a surprise!” We’re a thousand feet above the closest hill village, a one-street settlement called Nagrakot. We’re staying in the last guest house on the road, reached via a track we wouldn’t consider jeepable at home but which we negotiated in a mini rental. It’s impossible we should know anyone here … but there you are.

In the evening after a strenuous afternoon of trekking, the guests gather around a tabletop fireplace, smoke rising up a flaring hood and filtering around its edges to water our eyes. Next to me, tanned and blonde in the firelight, is a South African elections expert who has just come from Afghanistan. She and Robyn talk about common experiences there. Later, we discuss LET’S NOT GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT, and I tell them about meeting the author, Alexandria Fuller, in Jackson, Wyoming, and how, as it turned out, she was a close friend of good friends of ours in Malawi. “What a small world,” people say.

We are six Americans at dinner. One, an Alaskan who owns a remote resort near Homer, knows Alan and Ann Simpson from Cody and has worked with Wyoming environmentalists – familiar names to me. We talk about Louise Erdrich’s HEART MOUNTAIN. “It is, indeed, a small world,” we say.

Anecdotes about just how small it is fill the next hour. “Just last night,” Robyn contributes, “We were at a Thanksgiving dinner in Kathmandu and one of the guests looked familiar. She’s Russian, which should have been a clue, but it wasn’t until she mentioned Patti, who we had just seen down in Thamel … Then it clicked … . You know her.” Robyn turned to Becky. “It was Zoya. I hadn’t seen her since … .” And, so it went until the fire burned itself out, and we made our way through hillside gardens of marigolds grown into shrubs, morning glories, mock oranges, and poinsettia trees to our rooms and beds warmed by hot water bottles where we would dream of morning and the fire of sunrise on the high, snow-capped horizon.

“Honest to God,” I say. “It really is a small world.” Robyn and I are crowded into a glass-walled room filled with rows of plastic bucket chairs separated by narrow aisles. Every chair is occupied, the floor strewn with empty cardboard lunch containers and empty water bottles. It’s standing room only for passengers hoping to embark on flights to places like Dubai, Bangkok, and Delhi. Occasionally, by some sort of osmosis or whisper campaign, word circulates that flight something or other is loading, and people rush to the door. Sometimes the loud speaker system blares a confirmation.

What has grabbed my attention, though, is the number of people in the lounge that I know. The family from Delhi is there … we had shared a ride to the airport together. Near the door I see a man from Portland. We had chatted away the time while waiting for clouds to clear over the Himalayas and our flight to Everest to leave. Two rows in front of us, another man, someone Robyn had known in Washington and who had been at dinner with us the night before, sat waiting for a plane to Bangkok. Near the front of the room, I can see a sleek blonde head bent under earphones and recognized her as another member of the American mission in Delhi.

Robyn looks around, says, “Yeah,” and goes back to our Sudoku puzzle. What else is new. But lyrics lilt through my mind …

There is just one moon
And one golden sun
And a smile means Friendship to ev'ryone
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It's a small world after all.


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