A Cup of Tea in Nepal18 July 2017
The traveller stepped off the bus and thanked the driver, who smiled and nodded, many rupees richer. The traveller’s backpack weighed him down as he passed by stalls and shops and other tourists, but the smile never dropped from his face. How could it? He was in Kathmandu, taking a gap year, and he’d paid to be there. He enjoyed being surrounded by new things, interesting things. Even the light was different, reflecting off the Himalayas and making his first impression that much brighter. But he decided he should go to the hostel before exploring. So he avoided eye contact with stall owners, smiling at the stone street, or his map, but taking only an olfactory tour of the city.
The hostel wasn’t anything to speak of, and the traveller wasted no time dropping his backpack onto his bunk, checking the door was locked, and thanking the receptionist again as he stepped into the street, looking around properly this time.
The city was magnificent. Bunting seemed to be everywhere, in bright but faded colours, and the spires of temples stood out, lording over the bowing brick. The street bustled. He particularly liked seeing people on scooters – often sharing the seat, sometimes in helmets, sometimes blaring their horns at speeding cars. He put on his sunglasses and moved upwards.
He made it about a kilometer before reaching a small square. Here the other tourists were most visible, flashing cameras and wearing branded breathable shirts – which bore the city’s name, but stood out like someone on ecstasy at a funeral. Out of all the people there, though, he was the one that the monk spoke to.
“Would you like to know more about our city?”
The monk had a shaved head, thick eyebrows, and green eyes with crow’s feet that creased as he smiled. His robes were orange and old and brilliant. The monk himself was even older, and he stood in front of a crumbling temple, which was the oldest of all. The traveller was interested, and had nowhere to be.
“I am a Tibetan Buddhist. They have a long history in Nepal, but did you know that we were twice sent from here? The refusal of Buddhist monks was only overturned a short time ago, in the consideration of this city’s long history. She breathed out, and the monks were told to leave, but now she has breathed in again. Many hope she holds her breath this time. Would you like to come in? Are you busy?”
The traveller stepped inside, taking off his hat, and the monk pulled the heavy wooden door closed. It was dark in the temple, lit only with candles, and they sat on the floor. A young Nepalese boy, wearing the same robes, and with the same shaved head, brought butter tea. The monk took his tea first, and then the boy nodded at the traveller, who thanked him in a New Zealand accent. The traveller sipped at the tea, relishing the experience, as the monk spoke of Tibetan diaspora, politics and persecution.
After a lot of listening, however, the traveller began to feel drowsy. He’d had a long day of travel, he reasoned, and should be going soon. But the monk kept talking, and it would be rude to interrupt. So he kept listening, and began to feel gradually more tired, lightheaded and ill. Eventually, he nodded off, his hand cradling his chin. The monk didn’t seem to mind at all. Instead, he smiled, took the tea, and lay the traveller down on the carpet.
The boy came back in, head down, and looked at the monk through his eyebrows. The monk raised a hand, thumb up, and then rifled through traveller’s pockets, finding a phone, wallet, room key and lighter. Then a pack of cigarettes, which the monk grinned at before tucking into the folds of his robe. The boy slid the sunglasses from the unconscious traveller’s face, and stripped him of his belt and boots.
“Take this and go check,” the monk said to the boy, handing him the hostel key. “It’s the one further south, opposite the stall that sells spices.”
The boy nodded and raced off, keeping his head down. After the door closed once again, the monk pulled out a mobile phone and dialled a number, speaking casually. The man that answered his call came out from a back room. He was dressed in a blue suit and a scarf, with his hair cut into a fashionable top-heavy style, combed to the side. He wore two subtle rings on his fingers, and puffed at a cigar as the monk explained how long they had. The drug was cut with all sorts of other things, so had been cheap to make, but would provide a quick overdose. The oral administration prevented a noticeable rush. The man’s blue eyes were dull, almost glazed, with deep marks underneath. He was uninterested. His lips turned down at the corners.
“Alright. Put his things in storage and deal with him. Your share will be with you on Monday. Do the rest of it right. Make it far away in case he’s out forever.”
The monk grinned and laughed, making a joke about the ease of it, now.
“Don’t tell yourself that. It’s bad for business,” said the man. “Now get on with it. Clean up, and be back outside within the hour. You did fine.”
The man left, his shoes loud on the stone floor, and the monk waited until the boy came back, letting in a sliver of the bright Himalayan light before hurriedly closing the door again. He had the traveller’s backpack with him, and on the monk’s instruction, he placed the stolen items inside before taking it into a side room. He came back pushing a wheelbarrow, and the two of them lifted the traveller into it. The traveller was slight and it was quick work.
The boy wheeled the traveller back into the side room, leaving the monk behind. They passed wooden shelves that were laden with phones, wallets and other assorted goods, stored here before it was safe to push them into the market. The room was well-lit by lightbulbs embedded into the roof.
The boy turned the lights off before opening the side door, and left the wheelbarrow in the dark as he leant out, checking that nobody was around.
The alley was empty, so he draped a blanket over the wheelbarrow and pushed the traveller out. Onwards through the back alleys, ducking under drying-lines, keeping his head down, hurrying past the crouching houses. The monk had told him to take the traveller to the edge of town and put him behind a stone, but instead the boy headed towards the hostel.
When he arrived, the boy left the wheelbarrow in the shadows, and then jogged to a side door, knocking twice. The door opened, and the boy said a few words to somebody on the other side before a fire alarm sounded. The boy heard voices and footsteps as he returned to the traveller in the wheelbarrow. He wheeled it to the door as his friend returned, then they lifted the traveller and carried him inside, down the emptied corridors and into his room, where the boy put him into the recovery position. The friend went to report that the alarm was triggered by accident. The boy then pulled the bedsheets over the traveller and checked his pulse.
There was a pen and some paper on the bedside table. The boy wrote down the number of the Australian embassy, which he knew by heart. Then he filled a glass of water in the bathroom down the hall, placed it at the traveller’s side, turned out the lights, closed the door, and left.