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     Volume 6 Issue 21 | June 1, 2007 |

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Food for Thought

Mixed Nuts at High Altitudes

Farah Ghuznavi

I suspect that Nepal has always been one of those holiday destinations that is many things to many people. Personally, I love it: the laid-back atmosphere, the easygoing pleasantness that seems to elude those of us living in so many other parts of South Asia, and the cooler climate all combine to make you feel that you are very far away indeed from the hurly-burly of Dhaka.

I have come to the conclusion however that the relatively thin air can have an interesting and not altogether predictable effect on some people's brains - perhaps some side-effect of inadequate oxygenation at higher altitudes? All this to say that a trip to Nepal can bring out unexpected sides of an individual's personality!

I first became aware of this several years ago, when I was strolling through one of the older parts of Kathmandu, often frequented by tourists, and overheard the conversation between a 40 something American and his two teenage children. The man was clean-shaven, smartly dressed and looked highly respectable. His conversation however, left something to be desired, particularly from a parental perspective. "We used to hang out a lot in this area when I was here in the 70s" he told his kids, clearly lost in some pleasurable reminiscences, "There was a guy who used to hang out here. He sold the best hash in town, and in those days, it was cheap too..."!

Actually, it's not quite true that that was my first exposure to the mountain madness that Nepal can bring on (whether or not it's intentional!). I was there for a holiday with family and friends as an eight-year-old child, and though it was many years ago, I remember one particular incident with crystal clarity. We had been driving around in the city of Pokhara, when we decided to have breakfast before heading to the famous lake area.

At the small street-side restaurant where we stopped, they offered us some suggestions as to their breakfast specialities, and we all decided to go for omelettes. To our disappointment, the waiter informed us that they had almost run out of mushrooms, so that only two of the adults would get mushroom omelettes, while the rest of us (including the three children) would have to settle for cheese omelettes. Grumbling, we acquiesced, feeling deprived at missing out on mushroom so delicious that the restaurant had run out this early in the day...

But what the staff had failed to tell us (presumably assuming that the adults in our group were rather more streetwise and savvy than they in fact were!) was that these were "magic mushrooms" i.e. they had hallucinogenic properties, and were usually consumed for purposes quite different than satisfying one's hunger!

I think that I first became aware that there was something strange going on after we reached the lake. It was the two mothers in our group who had been the beneficiaries of the great mushroom omelette giveaway, if one can call it that. The other couple took a boat out on to the lake, leaving their two young children sitting by the lakeside with my parents myself. Half an hour later, my father was becoming increasingly frantic because their boat had rowed out to the middle of the lake, and appeared to have taken up residence there! It looked as though the gentleman was arguing with his wife, but it was over an hour before he finally managed to persuade her to return to the lakeside, since the mushrooms had apparently aroused in her an uncontrollable urge to drink in the serenity of her surroundings (regardless of how long she had to keep the rest of us waiting at the lakeside!).

Meanwhile, none of us could understand why the couple was taking so long to return, though in sharp contrast to my father's agitation, my mother remained calm as she stared into space and giggled quietly to herself. Anyone who knows my mother will understand that she is not given to giggling, least of all for no reason, so I could not shake off my sense of disquiet - although the only response I could get out of her myself was an injunction to "Look at the beautiful mountains..." Although it would be some years before we, the children, understood what had actually happened that day, that sentence has become a catchphrase in my family to indicate that things are not quite as they seem or to suggest that remaining calm is of the essence in a particular situation!

On a more recent work trip, I had gone shopping with some colleagues who were attending a conference in Kathmandu, when we had another of those slightly bizarre experiences that tend to happen only in Nepal. In one bookstore, a Sri Lankan colleague came across a number of very nice looking colouring books. She was just preparing to buy some of them for her nieces and nephews, when she was horrified to discover that they were in fact "Kama Sutra" colouring books, and obviously not at all suitable for the purpose she had intended!

Not that unusual behaviour is the exclusive privilege of visitors to Nepal. On a recent trip to see my friends Lisa and Nigel, who have been based there for the last couple of years, it was brought home to me that the denizens of Kathmandu can exhibit the occasional bout of bizarre behaviour with the same degree of ease that short-term visitors have been known to demonstrate! This revelation came courtesy of Nigel, when I was attempting to buy the two of them lunch at a lovely little French restaurant in return for their warm hospitality that had included a sumptuous buffet dinner the previous night at the Summit Hotel (when Lisa was consistently mesmerised by an expatriate woman carrying around a gigantic stuffed lizard, which I denied the existence of, gaining considerable enjoyment out of pretending that it was simply a hallucination on her part, brought about by over-consumption of the aforementioned "magic mushrooms"... needless to say, the accusation was completely unjustified!)

Anyway, it was as I was refusing to let them pay for the meal, that Nigel suddenly took a number of currency notes out of his wallet and started stuffing them into his mouth, and saying "Fine, if you won't let me pay, I'll just EAT the money!" I watched dumbfounded, even as Lisa shrieked "Please, please, take the money! He's going to swallow it otherwise, I swear! We've lost tons of money this way - last time he ate a $50 bill!"

Given the abruptness of this move, the genuine panic on Lisa's face and my desire to get the dirty notes out of his mouth as soon as possible, I gave in. But it just goes to show, that you might think that you know your friends, but every now and again, you have to wonder...

Photos by Amirul Rajiv


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