Saturday, September 25, 2010



No trip to Asia is complete without a visit to Nepal and in particular that country’s exotic and colourful capital, Katmandu. 

This was virtually the start of that trip my daughter Jenny and I took when she was 17 and I was roughly twenty years older.  The airport terminal was a small one room affair and the taxis waiting outside a mismatch of repair and performance.  We booked into a central hostel and began to explore.
It had obviously been a long hard day's work in Katmandu.

Katmandu has always been a magnet for larger than life extroverts, adventurers and soldiers of fortune.  It is a starting point for Mt Everest climbers, it is a neighbouring country of India, Sikkim, Tibet and China; and has long been a Mecca for young backpackers of the world. 

It is also a city where roaming and revered cows have right of way.

We did all the usual things, visited Durbar Square , the colourful markets and the Temple of the Kumaris or Living Goddess where we turned a skipping rope for the small children keeping her company, wandered around the old city admiring the ancient architecture and the narrow thoroughfares and generally appreciated the easy going locals.

We shared a taxi with three other visiting Aussies to Nargankot leaving our hotel in the early hours of the morning to ensure we arrived in time to view the sun rising on Mt Everest.  The hotel provided lunch boxes and as we drove through the still dark countryside our taxi headlights revealed country folk washing in the streams that cascaded and trickled from the mountain side.

Like all Nepali’s our driver seemed to have just the one speed and so we hurtled around bends and up and down steep inclines at a frightening pace until he suddenly came to an abrupt halt. Ahead and blocking our way was a small landslide.

Dawn was approaching and the sky lightening; we were determined to see Everest in all its glory and so one and all we  set to work tossing rocks from the outer edge so the taxi could proceed.
The driver wasn’t keen; we couldn’t move enough debris to make a smooth passage but some sweet talking and we finally bumped and slid over the rocks and by speeding even faster arrived in time to join other pilgrims waiting to witness the miracle of the sun’s first rays on the world’s highest mountain.

Me and a resident of Katmandu

Nepal has changed a great deal since then; for a start the entire Royal Family were gunned down not  long ago in a tragic public massacre and Maoist  rebels have terrorised the country side  almost bringing its precarious economy to a standstill.

Annapurna left & Machachupari  from  Fish Tail Lodge - image by Marina & Enrique

But the Nepal we knew all those years ago was a vastly different proposition. We took a flight to Pokhara, a small town nestling in the shadow of the snow capped Annapurna range not far from Phewa Lake.  There wasn’t a great deal offering in the way of accommodation, especially in the town.  But not far away, right on the lake itself was the relatively new Fish Tail Lodge.

We crossed over the narrowest part of the lake by a rope pulled pontoon.  If there is a heaven on earth I remember thinking, then this was it;  the lodge a small simple affair set amidst green and lush gardens; the brilliant blue of the lake, towering above, its jagged peak reflected in the still water, the Tail of the Fish, Machhapuchhare.  The Jewel in Annapurna’s crown.

We were two of a small number of guests, a couple of French tourists, a German and an American, an Indian gentleman and an Englishman taking a holiday from his Embassy in Delhi.  The nights were spent exchanging stories, drinking the local and very potent rum and snuggling happily in front of a blazing log fire.

Each morning Lodge staff woke the guests before dawn, a charming custom after a late, late night, so we could all tumble out of our warm beds to watch the sun rise over the Tail of the Fish.  We were blessed;  all three mornings were clear and cloud free and well worth the effort, though that first morning I did quietly grumble.

Our second afternoon we took a row boat out onto the lake and when a sudden cloudburst threatened, the lodge sent a waiter in another boat with two huge umbrellas which he opened and passed over to us in our boat getting thoroughly drenched himself.  Very pukka and Indian Raj even though we were in Nepal. 

Jen and I met two interesting and unexpected characters on that visit. The first almost fell at our feet in exhaustion.

A woman in sensible no frills hiking gear, grey haired and of an age somewhere in her mid 60’s was booking into the lodge begging a bath and a drink not necessarily in that order.  While Jen ran off to the kitchen to fetch a glass we introduced ourselves.  “I’m an Australian too’, she said ‘though I haven’t been home in ages.’

‘I’ve been hiking up there with my porters’ she gestured to the Annapurna’s.  Been living in South Africa most of my life.  But my brother lives in Australia, you may know him...’

Well mannered I concealed a smile; after all Australia is a big country.

‘He’s fairly well known’, she continued ‘his name is John Gorton.’

(For those of you not Australian, Mr Gorton is a former Prime Minister.) 

Then later, the day we left Pokhara while being punted across the lake to our bus we encountered a smiling little Nepali man who looked somehow familiar; he introduced himself as Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. 

But this was not our first indication of the Hillary presence in Pokhara. Just a few days earlier when we first landed at the tiny grass landing strip we were told this was where Edmund Hillary’s wife and 16 year old daughter had died in a plane crash just a few years earlier..


A Dominican Nun from Iraq left me with a lasting impression of gentleness in the face of politically motivated bureaucratic bullying.

I had two particular Middle East destinations on my wish list but I couldn’t see how I could accomplish this double dip on the same trip.  I very much wanted to see Jerusalem but as well my heart was set on exploring Jordan.  The Jewish state and the Arab Kingdom, how to see both without my passport denying me re-entry to either.

I should have known the locals would have a solution; I flew into Amman and my passport was stamped accordingly.  Then later, much later, for there was much to see and savour in Jordan, when I was ready I obtained an identity visa to hand over at the Israeli checkpoint, where I was interviewed and accepted into their country.  A simple procedure that would never show up on my passport.

The Wailing Wall   Jerusalem

 My physical entry into Israel was lengthy and complicated but comparatively easy; the woman in the line next to me though was being given a hard time.  She was dressed in the dark blue Dominican habit, a Nun of the Church of Rome.  Her passport was an Iraqi one, she belonged to the Soueurs Dominicaines in Mossoul and her name was Sister Mary Theresa.

Her entry into Israel should have been simple, a mere formality; she was after all making a visit to her convent’s headquarters in Bethlehem.  But Sister Theresa wasn’t an Israeli, she was an Arab and like the busloads of hapless Arabs endlessly waiting to be processed in lines of traffic outside she was fair game to the Israeli border officers.

She was becoming increasingly agitated.  I asked her could I help, the Israeli officer behind the counter waved me away.  I passed through the door outside and waited to see what happened. 

Sometime later, perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes, Sister Theresa emerged from the building.  She was crying and her hands were shaking.  I asked her did she have transport to Bethlehem.  She shook her head; she was to contact the Convent by phone when she was processed through customs.
My friends in Jordan had arranged a driver and car to meet me at the border, an Arab man who lived in Jerusalem.  I explained the circumstances and asked could we drive the Sister to her Convent.  He looked warily at me, after all I was the only person he had been contracted to transport; I told him she was a Catholic Nun, a woman of God but also an Iraqi Arab and Israeli officials had treated her very badly.

At that he smiled, took her small suitcase and explained we would have to go first to Jerusalem and then onto Bethlehem. Sister Theresa and I settled into the back of the car and for the entire journey she tightly clasped my hand.

On the road to Bethlehem, we  explored the various crypts and Holy sites along the way and when we finally arrived at her destination she delved into her bag and brought out a heavy key ring.

But it was no ordinary key ring; this one, she told me, had been blessed by His Holiness the Pope in Rome and had special meaning for her.  I was extremely touched by her gift and immediately attached it to my handbag.  In the years since she gave me the Papal key ring I’ve reattached it to various bags that have replaced that first one. 

 And I’ve never forgotten Sister Mary Theresa.

©Robyn Mortimer 2010