in the Himalayas
2011 by Mary McIntosh
2011 Travel Nonfiction Winner
When I was a little
girl, living in London, England, my mother would cook porridge for
breakfast. Now I know it was probably because it was food that would
“stick to my ribs,” but I never did care for it, and I
still rarely eat it. What made it somewhat better for me was that
instead of sugar, I used Lyle’s Golden Syrup, an English
product, golden, very thick, very sweet, and oh so good. The
porridge, then, was at least tolerable.
Later, as a young
teenager, living in the States, I attended an all-girls boarding
school, where I was given a well-balanced breakfast which included
oatmeal. We sat at long, rectangular tables that were covered with
white linen tablecloths. At the head of each table sat a teacher;
three girls sat on either side. Because it was a boarding school and
we were there to become refined young ladies, as well as to get a
good education, our table manners were observed, commented on, and
written up in our Household Reports. These were then sent home at the
end of each term. This meant that if I wanted to stay in the good
graces of my stern-though-loving father, I had to eat my oatmeal
In my working days in
New York City, breakfast was included in the clubs where I lived, but
often, for a change before going to work, I’d stop at Nedicks
for a doughnut, a cup of coffee, and a glass of orange juice.
Each item purchased
cost a nickel.
Breakfast has always
seemed such a mundane meal to me. The taste-tantalizing delights of a
Porterhouse steak, or a filet mignon, topped off with cheesecake or a
chocolate sundae, are missing. Instead, the normal fare is juice,
fruit, toast, and cereal or eggs, which I often eat. Occasionally
I’ll change this menu and revert to another English breakfast
my mother used to prepare––kippered herring.
There is one
breakfast, however, that definitely stands out in my mind.
On a tour of six
Southern Asian countries––Sri Lanka, Thailand, India,
Nepal, Afghanistan, and Pakistan––I found myself in
Katmandu, Nepal, over the holiday season.
The Soaltee Oberoi
Hotel, where we stayed, seemed to cater to Western tourists by
placing a tall Christmas tree in the lobby and gaily wrapped presents
underneath. Christmas carols blared continuously over the hotel’s
PA system. How strange that seemed in a Hindu and Buddhist country
where even the hotel clerks wore turbans with their uniforms and
a group, we toured the cities of Katmandu, Patan, and Bhadgaon, very
old, but very poor, dirty, and crowded cities. We were told they
looked much the same as they had 1,000 years ago. It somehow seemed
incongruous to me that in each of these cities, rising amidst such
squalor, were beautiful, elaborate, towering pagodas, enshrined in
gold, with the symbolic eye gazing down on everyone.
everywhere––cows lay down in pathways, which caused a
person to walk around; a pig scampered away, and a goat was tied up
at a shop, much as we would leave our dog outside McDonald’s.
In the middle of
the square in the bustling town of Patan, one man was getting a
haircut while squatting on the ground, and another was getting a
shave. The next customer waiting his turn sat hunched down behind
him. I watched an old woman sitting in the street, naked from the
waist up, receiving a massage, with no one paying any attention. I
couldn’t imagine the same thing occurring in a city or small
town in America without attracting a crowd of curious onlookers. The
streets were narrow and twisting, and the houses were no more than
hovels. Dust covered everything in the open-air shops.
Our tour guide
seemed so proud of his native city. One of our group quietly
commented, “If these conditions were anywhere in the States,
the Health Department would have shut the town down long ago.” In
spite of all this poverty and squalor, these cities were like an
open-air museum of art and architecture, with their ornate pagodas
and stupas, shrines and monasteries.
Surrounding all this
poverty loomed magnificent mountains, including Mt. Everest, the
highest peak in the world.
When a small group
of us was awakened at 4:45 on Christmas morning, I wondered why I had
agreed to climb a mountain to see the sunrise. Goodness knows, I’d
seen enough sunrises in my life. Weren’t they all the same––a
bright red sun coming up in the east? But here I was, crawling out
of bed in the darkness, wondering if it would be cold, and if I
should take an extra sweater with me.
Five of us gathered in
the hotel lobby, and then, as directed, got into a minivan. None
were talking much, though we did say “good morning” to
the driver, and nodded to each other. We rode for an hour to a small
mountain at the foot of the Himalayas. It was this foothill we
planned to climb, and witness the sunrise.
Even at this early
hour, hordes of Nepalese children waited at the foot of the mountain,
anxious for us to buy their prayer wheels and souvenirs. For them it
was not Christmas, it was simply another day, and they walked
alongside us up the mountain as we climbed the short distance to the
wheel. Good price. You want, missy?” they chattered at us in
broken English, many having learned a few words of our language from
visiting missionaries, or through the Peace Corps, at least enough to
communicate with their country’s visitors.
As I trudged up the
mountain, I found myself making a comparison to when I’d
climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan, twenty-five years earlier. Fuji, in many
parts, had been sheer rock; this climb was not difficult, but rather
a gentle grassy slope. Guides with lanterns helped light our way. My
walk was made much more enjoyable by a young lad who practiced
English by chatting with me all the way to the top.
missy?” he asked. “You take hand. I help you.” I
gladly held his hand, for, even with the lanterns, it was difficult
to see too far ahead.
“Thank you. Where did you learn
English?” I asked him. “You speak quite well,
here, Katmandu. I want to go Amelica some day,” he
said. He gave me a big, toothy grin. We were now friends.
In a short while––less
than an hour––we reached the summit of the mountain,
still in total darkness. For those of us who live in cities, where
lights and atmospheric conditions cloud our vision, the myriad stars
left us gasping in pure delight. We stood talking with each other,
rubbing our hands together, and stomping our feet, for it was quite
chilly. As the sun started to rise, the sky suddenly turned rose, and
pink, and golden––a giant paintbrush had swept through
Dawn had arrived on
Christmas Day. We turned to each other. “Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas,” we repeated with a smile. Oh yes, I
thought, it was well worth getting up so early. Yes, it was
On the descent,
some of us purchased the children’s prayer wheels. Somehow it
seemed a fitting gesture on this, our special day of rejoicing. The
children talked among themselves. Someone in our group began singing
“Jingle Bells.” It was pleasant to hear the young
Nepalese joining in as well as they could. They didn’t know the
words, but they’d heard the tune many times blaring from hotel
loudspeakers, or on the streets of Kathmandu. I laughed when my “new
friend” tried to pronounce “Jingle.” He was such a
nice young lad, and he well deserved the good tip I gave him. We
left, and I waved goodbye.
At the base of the
mountain we got back into the minivan and drove a short distance down
a winding road, then stopped. Getting out, I sat on a small hillock
at the side of the road, while others perched on a large outcropping
of rocks. The driver handed each of us a paper sack––our
breakfast prepared for us by the hotel––two hard-boiled
eggs, an apple, a piece of fruitcake, and coffee poured from a
I gazed in wonder,
for there in front of me, on a beautiful crisp day, were the majestic
Himalayas. I recalled eating much finer holiday breakfasts in the
past––in homes across the country, in fancy restaurants,
with family and with friends––but I knew this would
always remain a meal I would not forget.
low-hanging clouds hid Mt. Everest, the snow-covered Himalayas in the
far distance still looked imposing.
As I sat there, on
the grassy hillock, enjoying an apple, I thought.
more could I ask for on Christmas Day?
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