It must have been during the early 1990´s. I´m not sure.
In any case, it´s still stuck in my mind after so many years, that night on the rooftop of a sleazy budget hotel in Old Delhi.
Anya and I were sitting on fold up aluminium chairs taking in the view and what a view it was: a panorama of dilapidated buildings of every size and shape interspersed with ghostly partially illuminated streets. From below came the noise of milling crowds this at a time when there were people on the streets of India, along with holy cows, oxen drawn carts and bicycles. A far cry from today with its seething masses of cars plus the world’s worst air pollution.
Standing on top of that hotel today you’d be lucky to see anything.
We had arrived late that afternoon after a long bus journey from the Indian Himalayas and on the following morning were flying to Amsterdam.
He suddenly appeared on the rooftop, grabbed a chair, and came over and sat next to us uninvited, and began talking. We weren’t really in the mood for socializing. All we wanted to do was take in one last glimpse of India.
He was a young Nepalese man who had just flown into New Delhi from Munich, Germany and on the following day was getting on a bus to Kathmandu. He had a story to tell and he had to unburden himself and he didn’t mind who he told it to. We never even got as far as exchanging names…….
The story ran like this:
His family ran a small guest house and restaurant in Pokhara. It was popular with foreign trekkers. He served at the tables and arranged treks and chatted with the tourists (he spoke good though not fluent English). A regular visitor there was a German trekker, who appeared every year and stayed for a month or two. On his last visit, before returning home, he had invited the Nepalese man to come and visit him and offered to pay for his flight. The Nepalese took up the offer and stayed in Germany for a month.
It was his first trip outside of Pokhara and Pokhara then was a very different place then: it was a provincial town with yak herders, lamas and villagers thronging the main street, with spectacular snow bound peaks visible in every direction. The Nepalese man had never been in a motor car, let alone on a plane. He had never seen high rise buildings. He had only a vague idea of what a modern western nation looked like or how it functioned.
In the early 1990’s, there was no internet let alone mobile phones or social media; the communications revolution was over a decade away. The TV was the main form of media but it was programmed by an organisation, unlike the personal media we are so used to today. We were living in a far more compartmentalised world then (without knowing it) in which national borders – and culture – determined one’s experience of life.
In today´s world that Nepalese man would hardly have needed to fly to Germany to have some idea of how people there lived. With a deft movement of his fingers, he would have access to countless images on his phone. Ditto for anyone living anywhere in the world. He would have been just another one of tens of millions of people living in underdeveloped nations who were all too aware of the way of life in the developed western liberal democracies (and who were driven by a burning desire to move there).
The Nepalese man had just returned from a truly profound experience and we were the first people he could unburden himself to. He recounted a series of anecdotes in an almost child-like way with a mixture of amazement and incomprehension. He spoke to us as if we had no idea about how life was in a modern, western nation; as if we were also villagers from somewhere in the Himalaya.
´I had never been on an airplane before. Seen them on TV.
So fast, so high!
Looking out the window and everything so far down!
Houses, roads, people, I can see many things. People riding on bikes. Mountains.
When I was a boy I saw geese flying very high in the sky, above the Himalayas. In the spring time they flew to Tibet and autumn time they flew back to India. Sometimes they stopped at a lake near our home. These geese were sacred for us. When I was a boy I dreamed that when I died I would come back as a geese flying high over the Himalayas. I am remembering this dream on the airplane you know.
When night came I went to sleep like in winter in Nepal. I sleep very much and when I wake up, the plane is coming down and then landing on runway, in the night.
How could this huge steel plane know where to land?
My friend was there to meet me. We left the airport and got in his car. Very big car and there was only two of us!. We drove on a big road. There were rows of lights on top of poles, so many lights! Like rows of burning candles in a monastery.
My friend lived in a big apartment – on his own, one person!
In Nepal, huh! maybe 15 people live in this place!
I had a room only for me, it was very strange!
My friend has a clock next to his bed and every morning very early he get up and go to work. The clock tell him what to do. It makes a terrible noise. In winter he told me he go to work at same time, when it is dark and cold because the clock tells him this. In Nepal, if it is dark we sleep, if its light, we work.
One day my friend he damage his car you know and this company, it pay him for the damage. In Nepal you can damage your car or your motor bike but no one´s going to pay you for it!´
His German friend showed the Nepali how to buy a ticket and get on the metro. The system worked like this: you bought a ticket and got in a carriage and the ticket only expired when you got out and departed the station. But in theory, if you stayed on the carriage until the end station, turned around and got on the next train going back, you could do so on the same ticket. No one ever did that because they were going to work, or to the shops or to see a film or meet friends etc. Once he got the hang of the system, the Nepali delighted in travelling back and forth on the metro and also taking different lines.
‘Travelling and looking! Watching people get in and getting out! Everyone in such a hurry! I see houses, churches and tall buildings, very big, made of glass. Seeing clouds on the glass, like big mirror. The highways and the busy roads and so many motor cars!
‘One day my friend takes me to a supermarket. He buys cheese and you know there were so many cheeses!
How does he know which one to buy?
In Nepal, we have one cheese, one rice, one bread – we don’t choose. You buy food if you can pay. If you can’t pay, you don’t have no food.
In this Germany there were so many choices.
How can people know which things to buy?
One day my friend, he says: ‘you need to have new shirt, new jeans’.
I have two shirts and two jeans, that’s good for me. Compared to people in Nepal, I am very lucky. He says I can be more lucky in Germany. I let him buy some clothes for me, but huh, I don’t want them you know….’
His friend had offered to find him work, to help him to begin the process of settling permanently in Germany.
He turned down the offer.
He shook his head and smiled: ‘Many wonderful things I have seen. The German people very nice, very nice, but … ah!…it’s not for me.. .you know, I’m a Buddhist, I like the simple life.
For him the association spoke for itself .
The ‘simple life’.
It might mean many things. Anya and I were familiar with Lamaism, where young men devoted their lives to living in a monastery and attaining Nirvana. That was a simple life.
But the kind simple that the Nepali meant was different. His simple was what Buddhism might mean as a philosophy rather than a religion – might mean, i.e., making do with what you had and not being a part of a way of life obsessed with buying and owning and consuming. Which might be a whole lot better for the environment and inequality and might also lead to people being happier with their lives.
In the 5th century BC, Gautama Buddha had advocated detachment from the life of suffering. Transposed to modern times, would he not then advocate detachment from the materialistic consumer lifestyle? After all, possessions, having and wanting, were a part of the cycle of suffering.
But how could any of us live the philosophy of Buddhism in a modern innovative and high tech age?
It was a challenge, to put it mildly.
In the larger context, Buddhism as the simple life had no chance of winning adherents in the modern world. Popular in today’s world were religions and furthermore, religions in extreme forms – be it Islam, Hinduism, Christianity or Judaism – and often in a toxic mixture with extreme nationalism.
And so there we were, the human race: living in a world incapable of making binding agreements about humanity’s major challenges. A map for a new, better, planet was nowhere to be seen.
Buddhism might offer some kind of personal salve if you believed in reincarnation and the possibility of returning in a future life as a bird gliding above Himalayan peaks. And in the meantime never to allow the injustices, insanity and sheer brutality of our world to send you into a blind rage.
For me it remains above all, a memory …..a memory of a night on top of a cheap hotel in Old Delhi and a Nepalese man with a tale to tell.
A travel experience.