17 September 2013

Bless You Yoko - Bye Bye Babu

I am up in Katunje in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal. It is a tiny mountain village that I have written about previously.

Many times.

The noise of little children arriving at the school downstairs awakened me early. There was a lot of giggles and laughing. It was 5.30am and the sun had yet to rise. I rubbed sleep from my eyes and stretched as I stood and I reached around for the light string and pulled it and I found my pile of clothes. We didn’t have any lights here two years ago - or hot water - and now the school and Visitor Centre is fully energized and green.

It is Carbon Negative.

We use the wind and the sun.

My visit to Katunje is a short one and the primary purpose is to service the solar panels and the hot water service and to install a solar fridge. The photovoltaic cells have copped a battering during the monsoon season. Photovoltaic is just a fancy name for solar. The solar fridge wasn’t much of an installation actually - we just took it off the truck, hauled it up the steep and narrow track to the school and I plugged it into the battery unit. Nursing it three hundred kilometers and hauling it to the Visitors Centre was the hardest bit.

It is humming already and my bottles of water are chilling.

So am I - humming and chilling.

It is very nice to be back in the Himalaya.

My friend Babu drove me to Katunje from Kathmandu and he will drive me back again. He is a Driver by profession and he has driven me around before. I trust his knowledge of the winding and sometimes precarious track that is the last and most difficult leg from Dhading up into the village and I enjoy his company. One of Babu’s daughters lives in Katunje so he likes driving up there with me.

Katunje. Say it Kar-tuon-jay.

There are only two types of tracks up high mountain passes – those that zig and zag and are cut into the faces of steep inclines – or the winding type that wrap their way up in long spiraling circles.

They are both slow and dizzying journeys.

Babu has six children and thirteen grandchildren and he has been a Driver for more than fifty years. He is a gentle and kind man of the Ghurka people. Babu is very softly spoken and he has a sun-hardened face with chocolate brown eyes that are shrouded in wrinkles - but they also twinkle and shine in mischief. His whole face is wrinkling and twinkling and he has an excellent name. I like both writing it and saying it.


Say it Barboo.

It is one of those names that would resonate very well if you yelled into an echoing valley.


Babu has lots of stories and on our long drives I cajole them out of him and I tell him a few of my own. We converse easily and with great humour and respect and insight. 

I always sit up the front in the car with Babu. He has told me on several occasions that most people prefer to sit in the back and I told him that I am no back seat passenger. I told him that I sometimes get a bit car sick winding up the mountains – which is true - however I sit up the front mainly so I can chat to him more easily and without him having to turn around to look at me and us ending up driving off a cliff and plunging to our deaths.

I wouldn’t want that.

Nor would my mum.

On a previous road trip to Katunje – a journey that can take more than ten hours from Kathmandu if the roads are bad – and they often are – I asked Babu who was the most famous person he had ever driven. With some protracted probing he humbly mentioned that he had driven some foreign dignitaries in his time and he named some Bollywood actors that I had never heard of. He also told me that he used to regularly drive one of the Nepali Princes. Not the one that shot most of his family to death at a birthday lunch twelve years ago - but one who was fatally shot by him.

They were cousins.

Then Babu quietly slipped in the fact that he had once driven a British musician named John Lennon and his Japanese girlfriend around for a week a long time ago.

After recovering a little from the shock I asked Babu whether I had heard him correctly and he replied that he could not tell what I had heard for my ears were my own. I thought that was very wise. Babu often says wise and insightful shit like that.

Then he repeated that he had once driven a British musician named John Lennon and his Japanese girlfriend around for a week a long time ago. I asked him if he was serious and he told me that he was.

We were in standstill traffic in downtown Kathmandu at the time and he leaned into the glove box of the car and he rummaged through it. It was full to the brim. He eventually pulled out a stained and yellowing envelope inside of which was a tattered black and white photograph. It was of him with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The photo was taken in front of his car and the backdrop was the vista of the Himalaya – seen from the Nagarkot lookout.  John and Yoko had their arms around Babu in a genuine and affectionate sort of a way and all three were smiling in the shot.

When the noise of the children awakened me this morning I got straight up. I was swaddled and tangled in yak blankets and I had slept like the dead. I always do in the mountains. I pulled on some jeans and a tee shirt and I slipped my thongs on my feet then I eased my way carefully down the steep external stairs.

I could smell the masala tea before my feet touched the ground and it’s alluring odour pulled me towards the little kitchen. Teacher was there boiling a huge pot of water for noodles and some creamy masala tea was steeping in a big clay pot.

Teacher squealed when she saw me and we hugged. I may have had a little squeal myself. Teacher is tiny and gentle and lovely and it has been many months since I last saw her and the children of Katunje.

Before too long the kitchen was crowded with more than a dozen excited mountain children and there were many Namaste’s and much hugging and laughing. We moved outside before too long and I sat down on the little stone perimeter wall that snakes it’s way around the tiny grounds of the school and Teacher bought me out a steaming cup of masala tea. She barked her way through the crowd of children that surrounded me with stern commands in Nepali.

I chatted with the children and Teacher and Babu as the sun came up over the mountains and for a while it’s rays washed everything in a dazzling orange. The sight momentarily spellbound me – as it always does – while the children chatted on as if it was nothing. For a moment it was like one of those movie dream sequences when all the chatter becomes background noise and I was washed in the visual splendor of the then and now. Background music of the Vienna Boy’s choir singing “Hallelujah” would have been a quite appropriate soundtrack. I looked at the crowd of laughing children and teacher and Babu and I realized that this was everyday for them.

Fancy that.

Babu told me that a Sherpa named Tenzing Dorjee took the photograph of him with John Lennon and Yoko with Yoko Ono’s camera and she sent it to him care of the Kathmandu Guest House. Babu told me that he didn’t receive it until early in 1981 and on the back of the photo was faint black writing that said “To Babu with love and Thanks – Yoko & John - March 1981”. An obsessed and criminally insane man named Mark Chapman shot Lennon outside of the Dakota apartment complex in New York on the 8th December 1980 - so Yoko Ono must have sent it to him after John had been killed.

Despite her own grief and loss she was very considerate to Babu and I thought that was very kind of her.

Bless you Yoko.

I was surfing on a break called Winkipop at a beach named Bells in Australia when news of the assassination of John Lennon broke. I remember being told about it by one of my mates when I came out of the water. I couldn’t believe it.

I was shocked.

It was one of those “Where were you when?” moments in history. I remember where I was and what I was doing. It is a memory captured and imprinted.

It is indelible.

A ‘break’ in the surfing context in which I have used it is a spot where deep water hits shallow water or a reef and a wave is formed. A Melbourne Plumber and surfer called Bill Keenan gave the Winkipop break its name in the 1940’s.

He made the word up.

I have stood in exactly the same place where the photograph of Babu and John and Yoko was taken. Three times I have watched the sunrise from that vantage point - as the massive southern part of the Himalaya range comes into view at the break of dawn. On a clear day you can see for hundred of kilometers down the Himalaya range that stretch from Dhaulagiri in the west all the way to Everest - and then beyond to Kanchenjuna in the East.  

It is a view of the highest place on the earth.

It is stunning.

Babu told me that John Lennon and Yoko had spent much of their time in Nepal in a village called Sankhu – which is to the north of Kathmandu. He told me that he drove them to specifically visit a tiny statue in a Hindu temple that is on a hillside just out of the Sankhu. Babu told me that the statue is of the Tantric goddess named Bajra Yogini. When I asked Babu if there was anything significant about the statue or goddess he informed me that Bajra Yogini is a sex goddess who is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists - and that she has no eyes.

He said that there was a festival once a year where priests put in a pair of silver eyes in the statue – and he took John and Yoko specifically to see that.

John Lennon wrote and recorded a song he called ‘Nobody Told Me’ that included the line ‘a little yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu’. The song was written and recorded in 1980.

 It is believed that Lennon probably got his reference for the ‘little yellow idol’ from poem ‘The Green Eye of the Yellow God’ which was written by the English Poet J Milton Hayes.

Lennon liked poetry and it is widely known that he was widely read. Or is it that he was widely read and it is widely known? 

Both stand true.

The ‘J’ in J Milton Hayes stands for John - but he is always referred to as J Milton Hayes.

I am sure that his mum called him John though – and perhaps even Johhny.

John Milton Hayes penned the line ‘There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu’ in his poem ‘The Green Eye of the Yellow God’ – and for reasons only John Lennon knows he replaced Milton’s words ‘one-eyed’ with ‘little’. Actually perhaps Yoko also knows and she should at least be asked the question.

‘The Green Eye of the Yellow God’ is one of Milton’s more famous works that was written one and a half centuries before Lennon penned his lyrics.

It is believed that both John’s are describing the same thing - the sex goddess Bajra Yogini.

I spent the morning pottering around the Visitor Centre and school doing some maintenance on the building and the solar systems. After lunch of a very fiery soup accompanied by coconut water drunk straight from the cracked nut I sat in one of the two classrooms and did some teaching. Actually it would be unflattering to teachers to call it teaching really as all I did was sit around and talk to the dozens of kids who were squeezed into the room. I showed them lots of pictures and we talked about a whole heap of things but mostly it was discussions about oceans. The mountain village children love to talk about oceans.

Me too.

Few Nepali have ever or will ever see the sea. It is a landlocked and mountainous country that is drenched in poverty and drained of opportunity. The Maoist party grabbed political power here more than three decades ago in a violent and bloody conflict that cost tens of thousands of Nepali lives. Ten years ago the mad Prince of Nepal took an automatic gun to a family lunch and he decimated the Monarchy.

The recent history of the country has been bloody but there hasn’t been any violence of any significance for more than a decade.

The Nepalese have decided to give Peace a chance.

All Nepali children dream of the ocean and they have a great interest too in ships and waves and all things nautical. The village girls love mermaids and the boys seem to like pirates.

I quite like pirates and mermaids myself.

I know of this interest in the ocean because I have talked at length to the children about it before. It is their conversation of choice. On this visit I made a particular effort and gathered together and brought with me many pictures of seascapes and photos of me and my family swimming and surfing and snorkeling and out sailing on boats.  

Visual images.

I tried to explain surfing and scuba diving and snorkeling to the Nepali children and it was not easy. The children told me that I was young and better looking when I was a boy than I am now and I laughed and I said that I agreed. They asked me lots of questions and some of them were hard - like what was the difference between a sea and an ocean and what was the noise that a wave made when it crashed to shore?

They asked me if I had ever seen whales and dolphins and sharks when I was swimming and surfing and I told them that I had. I told them that swimming with the whales was a particularly magical moment for me and I explained that these huge gentle creatures also sing beautiful and haunting songs. A few of the little village girls told me that they thought that this was beautiful and I told them that I thought it was beautiful too. 

I told them that you don’t get to hear whale song very often and it is one hell of a tune.

The children left to walk back to their family’s farms late in the afternoon and here I am now sitting in a sagging and battered armchair on the creaky verandah at the Village Centre.

I am writing this.

The sun will be going down soon.

Babu is downstairs cooking some noodles that we will eat for our dinner with some cauliflower and pickled mango that one of the local farmers bought us.

We are driving back to the city tomorrow and will be making an early start. Then I have only a couple of days left in Kathmandu before I have to say bye bye to Babu and then fly back to Singapore and reality.

I don’t want to leave.

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