Who is the Monkey?

Spiritual refugees and the importance of buns in Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal
4th May, 2004

"Riot, damn you!"

I perched on the on the bridge, my mouth a hard line. There was supposed to be an illegal protest against the governent today. The roads were closed. The police were gathered, wearing full armour. I wanted pictures - tear gas, passion, violence. Men running down the street wearing t-shirts over their heads. But alI I could see were women shopping, children playing, men drinking little glasses of tea. The riot police chatted among themselves.

It looked as if the Nepalis, always a polite and disciplined people, were going to behave themselves today. I was disappointed. I'm a tourist! I wanted blood on the streets! Not chit-chat! It was my right!

I stomped off. For an afternoon latte and a cinammon bun. These were also my rights.

Time to Go

It's time to leave Asia. After three months, it's gone to my head.

This happens to every Westerner who comes here, and has done since the days ofthe East India Company. The problem is that, if you have white skin, you get special treatment. You can go into all the bars and restaurants denied to ordinary Indians or Nepalis.You get better service. You receive immediate help if you have a problem. You get attention. They get a kick in the teeth.

You have servants to fill your every need. In hotels, in the streets, in all the shops. If something can be done someone will do it for you. Whether or not you have any personal merit, you are special in Asia.

It goes to your head. After a while here, you expect it. I could understand how all the British found it hard to leave India. After being treated like a lord for so long, how could the burra sahibs go home to England and become third class clerks again?

Spiritual Refugees

There are plenty of burra sahibs in south Asia today, lording it over the natives thanks to their white skin and strong currency. They take on the habit of wealthy Indians, who take it as their right to bully anyone poorer or lower caste than they are.

Of course you can go to the other extreme, and become a spiritual refugee. Many Westerners come to south Asia on a quest, to leave behind the empty materialism of their own culture, and find their true selves in Buddhist monasteries or under Hindu gurus.

I find this a little bizarre. The average Nepali (or Indian or Tibetan) wants these things in life:
(a) a good job with a future, or
(b) money to escape his grinding poverty
(c) a motorbike to drive like a crazy man and impress the girls
(d) a family with lots of children
(e) a motorbike to drive the kids around on, also like a crazy man

xThe sight of a European who could have had all these things easily, but chooses instead to squat in the dirt, must seem a little odd.

What must seem even more strange is the sight of the average Spiritual Refugee, who spends three weeks in Kathmandu lying around eating cake before a week in a monastery indulging in practices it takes a Nepali or Tibetan a lifetime to learn. And then goes back to Kathmandu to recover with another three weeks of buns.

Luckily, I'm only a tourist, and have no purpose here other than having a good time. I grew up with one highly sophisticated oriental religion, and that is quite enough for me.

Donkey or Monkey

There's a popular Nepalese song about tourists that goes I am a donkey, You are a monkey.... They sing it everywhere. It's about a porter who is carrying a rucksack for a trekker. He sings that he is the donkey, under all the weight, but the trekker is a monkey, skipping from rock to rock like a fool for no good reason.

Donkeys and monkeys, they live in different worlds. Can one ever understand the other? How can I expect to comprehend the Tantric texts of an ancient Asian culture when I find the French inexplicable?

There was a bandh, a strike against the governement while I was in Pokhara. All the businesses were shut. But the tourist shops and restaurants wereonly half shut. The shutter were lifted half way up, and the tourists cold buy their coffee and buns as usual. Then, suddenly, all the shutters came down in all the shops.

All the shops were shut! Why? This wasn't right! Where could we buy our cake? We were tourists, we had a right to whatever we wanted. Then a man appeared on a bicycle, and rode slowly up the street. All the (now closed) shopkeepers nodded respectfully at him. He was carrying a large flag, a red Communist flag in one hand, and held his handlebar with the other.

He cycled off. Ten seconds later all the shops were half-open again. What was going on? Who knows? I'm just a tourist, here for the buns and photographs, not world understanding. In doing so, I'm providing the Nepalese shopkeepers what they need - money for their homes and children. And motorbikes.

I am just a monkey. Thankfully.





Riot Patrol


Cycle Insurgent


Leaf Plates


Rainy Season



Hat & Spoon



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The Facts

Where I stayed
Kathmandu: Tibet Peace Guest House. Quiet, friendly house set around its own garden just outside Thamel. Very helpful staff, nice rooms. Breakfast and travel bookings.

How I got around:
Royal Nepal Airlines. It's anyone's guess whether your flight booking will work out.