Daily Express, 8 May 2008
While her friends were seeking nirvana, MONICA PORTER was up to her eyes in nappies. Now a grandmother, she headed to Nepal to find out what the fuss had been about
Few places sound as exotic and alluring as Kathmandu, capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. In the 1960s and ‘70s it was the end stop of the overland hippie trail which ran across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Freewheeling young Westerners with their beards and long hair, tie-dye clothes and love beads, travelled on the ‘magic buses’ and in their VW camper vans in search of spiritual enlightenment. And cheap dope.
I wasn’t part of this hippie project. Decades ago, while my groovy contemporaries were in Nepal with the gurus and ganja, I was in London working, marrying and having a child. They found nirvana, I found nappies.
At the time I was perfectly happy with my choice. I’d never been a flower-power child or a women’s libber, I wasn’t into ‘turning on, tuning in and dropping out’. In fact being a bit traditional and ‘establishment’ rather suited me. But with the slow passing of the decades, I came to regret losing out on the ‘youthful abandon’ front. My friends had got their far-out hippie urges out of their system by the time they were saddled with domesticity. Not me. So had I missed the boat for good?
This year I decided that you needn’t be a twenty-something in a tie-dye T-shirt to go on a spiritual quest. The psychedelic era may be long gone but the mystical call of Kathmandu lives on. Hoping to discover, finally, what it was all about, I decided to follow in the footsteps of those legendary hippies and make a mid-life journey to their erstwhile mecca. Not overland by rickety bus, obviously. Instead, I’d fly over with a tour group – organised by the over-fifties holiday specialist, Saga.
Don’t mock. Saga travellers are an intrepid lot and really get around, even if they are more likely to have a comb-over than a ponytail and generally prefer a G&T to a joint.
There are eight in the group, including a wiry ex-army man in combat trousers, a gent’s barber with well-honed jokey patter, a retired Geordie couple celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary and a lively widow from Kent. They are full of tales of past adventures: treks through South American jungles, train journeys across the Canadian Rockies, Antarctic cruises, kangaroo dinners in the Aussie Outback…
None of it prepares us for chaotic Kat, its streets jammed with spluttering motorbikes, garish painted trucks, bicycle rickshaws, heavily-laden porters, bony sauntering cows, suicidal street dogs, peddlers, beggars, robed monks and backpackers – all in a swirl of dust and traffic fumes.
Nepal is dirt poor and its leadership endemically corrupt. We’ve come at a real turning point in its history: the terrorising Maoist rebels have just been voted into power and are about to abolish the 240-year-old Hindu monarchy.
Our guide Anil is a Buddhist who follows the teachings of a certain guru, and as we trundle through the madcap city in our minibus he intones some of the wise man’s maxims. Such as: ‘Whatever comes, let it come; whatever goes, let it go.’ Reminds me of John Lennon in his ashram phase. I begin to see why the hippies chose Kat for their spiritual destination: everything here is imbued with holiness. In ancient Durbar Square there are countless temples, shrines, statues of curious deities, and even a ‘living goddess’ called the Kumari Devi, a young girl who is closeted away in an ornate building and emerges only a few times a year to be carried through the streets and worshipped (she ‘retires’ at 13, when another girl is chosen). Flowers are considered holy and so are many animals – cows, dogs, monkeys, snakes and even pigeons.
Anil takes us to the vast Hindu temple of Pashupatinath on the banks of the holy Bagmati River. Here the dead are burned on square cremation ghats and their ashes poured into the water. Hindus believe the human body is composed of five elements – earth, fire, water, air and ether – and at death must be returned to them.
After watching a blazing funeral pyre we come across a clutch of sadhus, weird holy men who smear their naked bodies with ash and paint. If you pay them they’ll pose for pictures. ‘I’m holier than they are,’ scoffs Anil. ‘They do nothing but sit and want money for themselves. I work hard to earn money and spend it on others.’ Which is true. He helps to finance and run a small orphanage in Kat. (‘Work is worship,’ he tells us – another of his guru’s sayings. What would the idle hippies have made of that?)
Later, chatting with my tour group, I discover that they have a spiritual side, too. Betty, a former nurse from Tyneside, chose this holiday partly because it includes a visit to a Saga-sponsored school in a poor rural community. She’s brought along pens and pencils for the children. ‘I like to do a little good in the world,’ she says. Pat, the widow, is making a financial donation to the school. Meanwhile Jan, the barber’s wife, plans to visit a centre for Tibetan refugees and support them by buying some of their handicrafts, because ‘Life’s not just about shopping for shoes…’
The next day we take an early morning Buddha Air flight to view the Himalayas and the world’s highest mountain. ‘Saga conquers Everest!’ declares ex-soldier Roy, clicking away at his camera.
I have a second thrilling ride that afternoon, on the back of Anil’s motorbike. I don’t wear a helmet, as it’s not compulsory for pillion-riders. As we lurch through the traffic mayhem to a chorus of honking horns, narrowly dodging oncoming vehicles and alarming potholes, he tells me his brakes aren’t working very well. Eat your heart out, Health & Safety! I think to myself, feeling strangely liberated.
We head for Freak Street, once the ramshackle epicentre of hippie life, where the druggy, bizarrely dressed foreigners whom the locals dubbed ‘freaks’ gathered in cheap eateries and lodgings. ‘The whole street was thick with smoke from hashish and marijuana,’ Anil recalls from his childhood, ‘all sold here legally.’ He says that many young Nepalis, influenced by the hippie lifestyle, became addicted to the stuff and ‘it ruined their lives’. In 1973 the government, under U.S. pressure, banned the sale of cannabis, effectively forcing out the freak show and signalling the demise of the hippie trail era.
In its heyday shabby little Hotel Eden was one of Freak Street’s popular landmarks. Now it stands forlorn. I see almost no Westerners on the street – they’ve long since decamped north to the new tourist district of Thamel.
Back in nearby Durbar Square, I spot a young couple in hippie-type garb, but they seem oddly fake, like actors dressed for a period piece. As for the genuine hippies of old, I’d been told by an American charity worker I met on the plane coming over – an ex-pat in Kat – that some never went home, choosing to remain in their imperfect paradise. He spoke of the ‘dharma crowd’ who’d become Buddhists, the ‘trust-funders’ living on no apparent source of income, and the ‘hardcore hippies’ who eke out a living somehow. ‘Nepal is the cheapest place on earth to live,’ he said.
The hippies were trailblazers, taking the long, hard road to Nepal, with little money and no comforts. They’re scornful of today’s ‘soft’ package tourists who jet in and stay in nice hotels. But my Saga bunch are every bit as curious about the world as the hippies were. The difference is that while the hippies gave little to their host country besides a social problem, tourists like Betty, Pat and Jan wish to contribute something useful and have the means to do so.
Luckily, I didn’t have to spend a year staying in cheap fleapits across Asia to work that out. Just a week in a 4-star hotel. That was time enough for a glimpse of what we describe as the spiritual. The mystic East, I’ve learnt, is not the preserve of the young and hip. Whatever our age or lifestyle, we’ve all got karma – the ability to attract good vibes. In fact, the way I see it now, all that dedicated early work I put in as a mother and ‘home-maker’ earned me a lot of karma brownie points. So I think I’ve got more out of my hippie trail adventure as a woman of a certain age – a grandmother, no less – than I would have done as a kaftan-wearing flower child. My head’s not fugged up with pot, for a start…
The day before I leave for home, I see a genuine, Grade A, ageing hippie, complete with long hair, grey beard and beads. Times have changed, though, Instead of mucky Freak Street, he’s lounging by the pool of our hotel.
Pat sees him, too, and frowns. ‘He shouldn’t be smoking that cigarette,’ she says.
‘Yeah,’ I reply, ‘he ought to be rolling his own…’