Everest and the Toenail

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One Last Hit

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This is my last post on this blog. This post is by way of a thank you to those who followed my Kathmandu journey. One Last Hit is a piece I wrote during the inaugural Himalayan Writers Workshop in 2016 under the tutelage of the estimable travel writer Eric Weiner. It was read at our farewell gathering at Dwarika’s Hotel in Kathmandu in front of friends and family.

Writing this blog was an immense pleasure and reached people all over the world, as well as a number of loyal readers who were kind enough to comment. My thanks to each and every one of you.


One Last Hit

James Oglethorpe

Five years hooked on the golden high of Kathmandu. Now I remember, mourn and seek the rush of one last hit before the cold turkey of departure.

I am walking the highway to enlightenment on the inner loop of the Boudha stupa. Single men chant holy scripts to the echo from behind paper masks. The stressed, the lame, the aged press their foreheads in worship against the stupa’s wooden doorways. A thousand fingers reach into recesses, seeking to touch small, evenly placed Buddhas. Out of the crowd a grunt and groan as a bespectacled body in a leather apron, robes of deepest claret, hefts itself on to its knees. Stands. Walks. Kneels. Prostration hand protectors slide forward, wood scraping the path, face to the brick. A rotational symmetry of herding humanity we follow our commuting lanes at varying speeds and orientation—from the functional vertical to the overpowering horizontal.

Sun shafting obliquely into a temple, focused light exploding in an empty glass mug held low by a monk rising from his morning chant. North to south, through east and west the prayer wheels are turned, pigeons flock, rising up through incense smoke, circling clockwise and settling back on the ground in a flutter.

Back home, on the roof, behind the forest of tottering black stalagmites, buried within the smog, the rim of the valley lurks. Unseen I look down at a woman in the narrow, brick-lined street. Red clothing, gold bangles and necklaces, self assured, upper caste, head held high. Raising a finger to her lips, as though summoning silence, she walks on and stops. On tip-toe she draws down an overhanging branch covered in jasmine blooms and picks three flowers. Cupping the petals in her right hand she places them at a shrine before moving on, crossing a bridge over an open sewer of a stream and is lost to sight.

It is time for me to move as well, only I cannot do it with such grace, dignity and faith.

Sitting in a café with Darlene we watch monkeys travelling along the phone lines outside the balcony. A large male with an impressive scrotum displays in front of her. ‘Oh man. Just typical,’ she sighs and looks away. Dreads fall to her shoulders in a tangled mess, the self harm of a grey piercing through her lower lip disfigures the exquisite proportions of her face.

‘Just chill,’ she says. ‘Kathmandu is all about the spiritual journey.’ She lights a cigarette. ‘Look inwards, go beyond the present. Celebrate mindfulness,’ she exhales a lungful of smoke towards me.

I’ve had it with these cosmic fuck wits. There’s so much bullshit in Kathmandu. Pages of stoned memories from self-absorbed journals blowing around the dusty, claustrophobic streets of Thamel, so much dharma dandruff.

‘Oh please,’ I exclaim.

‘No, dude,’ she says, ‘you’ve got to see the spiritual geometry.’

‘You mean like the malformed children scuttling along the pavement?’

‘You’ve got to learn to let go.’ Darlene smiles with pity, putting her lighter in a cigarette packet branded with a pair of rotting lungs.

Perhaps it’s just me, but her inner light shines with all the intensity of a low watt eco bulb.

I take off in a Maruti on my own. The seatbelt is irretrievably jammed and I prepare to be thrown through the windshield. My life will end, bleeding out on the feral road, surrounded by a curious crowd of the medically illiterate.

A reassuring, plastic, day glow Lord Ganesh, like me a stout fellow, looks out from the dusty dash board of the taxi, weed decals stuck over its air conditioner flaps. I smile and wink back at the trunk, swollen belly and big ears. Ganesh is considered auspicious at the start of writing projects and remains my guy.

The white mobile coffin rattles its way toward Durbar Marg without a hope of stopping if some hapless Rajesh pulls out into our path without looking. Impatient, unimpeded momentum is the priority for every motorcycle driver. They are like a gang of loaded football fans stumbling into a society ball, shouting, elbowing their way to the front of the line, oblivious of decorum.

Whatever. If Rajesh is going to die today he will, regardless of employing survival tactics like knowledge of traffic rules and courtesy.


Next to the dinner plate and a candle on the hotel table where I am dining with a friend rests a clay dish, about four inches long, brown, unfussy. I watch others place rice, greens, nuts from their own plates into the cupped ceramic leaf. OK. An odd local custom, decanting food from a big plate to a smaller one. Maybe it’s so the diner can discipline their appetites, some Buddhist malarky: by consuming less you are consuming more.

My waitress stands behind me as I start to pick at the offering with my fingers. She leans in over my shoulder. ‘No,’ she says. ‘The little food is for unfixed spirits, those that have no-one to remember them.’ The waitress moves the sullied food back closer to the candle. As she withdraws she touches my right shoulder in a conscious, hidden moment.


Across the sacred Bagmati River in front of the temple to Lord Shiva, silhouetted in the darkness, a corpse lies on a pyre. A man, chanting words of ritual, walks clockwise around the body, pausing now and again to sprinkle rice and flower petals on the shroud. For a moment he stands at the head of the body, bending over the still flesh and bones. As he steps back a pillar of flame leaps from the mouth of the carcass, towering briefly into the darkness before sinking back into the chimney of a throat. Fuelled by accelerant and igniting fatty tissue, flames consume the remains. The released spirit begins its journey across the grey river of sewage and plastic bags flowing between us. The scent of burning flesh is in my nostrils, smoke from the unknown barbecued human being fills my lungs.

Rising from amongst a flickering carpet of candles the voices of worshippers are exultant in prayer.

The body burns. A yellow moon rises.

I am at peace.


Written by jamesaeoglethorpe

August 21, 2017 at 10:29 am

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Snapshot: Home

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There was a moment I have imagined repeatedly during the past five plus years, an expectation I held close to my heart, an instant when I knew I would be home. It shone like a mountain peak, white in the moonlight, and came to embody all that I missed during our miraculous time away. Tonight I walked up the steps into the rehearsal hall, shaking my head in wonderment and muttering that I couldn’t believe it was happening. That I was actually there, had made it back queuing up for music (opera choruses) being embraced and welcomed back, and, what was my name? Heartfelt and piano.

There is a feeling that is common with good friends who you haven’t seen for many years, yet within a moment of being reunited with them it is like you had seen each other only last week. So it was this evening, rejoining this vocal, musical congregation largely unchanging and familiar as I luxuriated in the instant familiarity. I had taken the final steps on the ascent of this longest of journeys, times when I thought I would never sit in the front row on a metal chair next to my dear friend and be led by a director of such patience and artistic alacrity, accompanied by our own maestro. But there I was, moved to sing, embraced by the congregation and our love of song. Truly, and finally, home.

mostlymen.JPG The New Dominion Chorale in concert, from their website.


Written by jamesaeoglethorpe

January 23, 2017 at 10:19 pm

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Horizontal the water flows, tumbles over the weir and agitated back to the horizontal again. Meanwhile, frozen in the vertical, a curtain of water hangs motionless. A duality of states in a single instant.

IMG_0020 2.JPG

I stand in the icy cold in the street outside our reclaimed house. Feet on the freezing earth, fearing for a moment that this new life will evaporate away like the exhaled clouds of my breath. I look through the lattice of bare branches up into the sky. Contrails are blown sideways six miles upwards. Hands in pockets I remain motionless, above me hundreds of people tucked up in the darkness watch movies and sleep. In a moment of stillness they are in motion. I am still. Two states in one instant.

The lease on the Party Store on Broad is over and the store is closing. The temple for playtime with fearsome cylinders of gas, party poppers, hats, masks and a host of party related paraphernalia. I knew it then, a place of expectation and excitement. I see it now. I feel so new here, yet the memory is old. Dislocation as the familiar and bewildering combine.

First time through a car wash in six years, E at the wheel. I recall the great pleasure of lurching through the tentacles, flashing lights, wax spray and into the outside. I experience it again. A lazy person’s clean, but still the best of fun, memory and current experience combine.

Motion at 650 miles an hour and stillness co-exist in the same instant. The river both runs and freezes. Childhood combines with adulthood and the past and future are combined into the inexplicable present.


Written by jamesaeoglethorpe

January 9, 2017 at 5:30 pm

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A More Domestic View

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Instead of brick there is glass and beyond the panes an overgrown bush. Instead of a first floor bedroom there is a ground floor study. In place of a wooden desk there is self-assembled glass and steel one. I am looking at a swanky new monitor, printer and speakers dug out of a packing box. The music is the same, my fingers hit the keys, somewhat accurately, and words form on the page. One of the things I said I was most looking forward to when I got home was sitting in my study looking out at the garden. Well, here I am, surrounded by neglected boxes. It may be cold, grey and damp, but dreams never quite match the actual. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I realised the truth in that statement. Events, a party for example, never turned out as I imagined it would and disappointment ensued. I realised that the imagining of something was not a substitute for reality when comparing the two. Imagination is the very next best thing to consciousness, a first cousin, sprung from a similar lineage. I imagined sitting here, without the pleasing bush, but I am here, the thought made concrete.

Over the past week we have renewed friendships with the boys school friends, all here for the holiday. Most of them we have known since middle school when they all wore shorts. Now they wear wedding and engagement rings, beards and career worries. One thing hasn’t changed though. They have flowered into the most delightful, articulate and interesting people. No surprise there but a great pleasure to welcome them into our home, memories of Little League animated in our hearts. Somethings don’t change. Coming down this morning and finding a long, lanky friend passed out on the sofa for one.





Written by jamesaeoglethorpe

December 29, 2016 at 10:04 pm

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In Front of the Fire

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I lie on a queen size bed looking at posters proclaiming No Credit Necessary in reversed out white font on a red background. Beyond through the smoked glass cars whizz silently by on a flyover vanishing out of sight. A communications vine of thick cables winds its way round poles, sagging into and out of view. I drift towards sleep, feet on a red mattress protector. I have become part of a closeout sale.

Being home is at once familiar and deeply puzzling and confusing. I am fuelled by joy yet mourning that which I knew. I am thrilled by the new: phone, car, kitchen equipment blisteringly fast internet, yet saddened by the vastness of the material gap. A  larder full of a wide variety of  produce from Giant doesn’t necessarily confer dignity, rather a reminder  of unfairness.

The fire burns in a room now full of unpacked reminders – paintings, drawings, photographs, knick-knacks-unseen and unremembered for over five years. Yet their presence, so clearly not missed, is reassuring, as familiar as though I had seen them yesterday.

This new life leaves me speechless unable to communicate with the white screen or articulate the narrative voice stunned into temporary submission by the onslaught of absolutely everything all at once all the time in an unceasing river of lights and movement without the breath of punctuation.

Flames flicker like transient words burning their way onto the snow white screen and I am back in touch with that which defines me. That at least is an anchor pulled out of a packing case into a world that for a time seemed to have broken free of its moorings. Grief is what L diagnoses. She is right. But there is also relief and a still still  earth beneath my feet.

So, I am back. The reality that I am not returning to the roof of the world slowly sinks in. I send this entry out into the world with all good wishes for the coming year to all who read this blog, now finding its voice a world away from the land of its inception.


Written by jamesaeoglethorpe

December 25, 2016 at 6:22 am

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Womb of the Sacred Himalaya or, Bye, Bye Kathmandu

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Will I miss the huddled shops, interiors visible only through long unwashed windows?

Shall I yearn to be reminded of the young boy, deformed feet like flippers flapping from where his knees should be, one hand on the kerb stones, the other on the road, straddling a fetid ditch, shouting out at the world. Perhaps I shall be content to be reminded now and again of the vastness of the riches I have inherited. Maybe I will find myself quick to forget.

Will I ache for the stench of open sewers in lieu of streams and rivers? Will my lungs ever forgive me for the grit and grime that has filled them, tearing my alveoli to shreds, coating them with black soot.

The confinement is at an end, the exit canal squeezes tighter, expelling me fast now. Men walking towards the airport with cardboard boxes on their heads while I whizz by in the hotel minibus. I said goodbye to so many people: the family at the Tanka studio, Shree Ram, and the lady guard at the gate whose eyes looked into mine in a mutually dependent moment of farewell. Renu, MB and Maya Didi. Good bye my lovely lady of the highlands, the soft-haired shake of your head, and the flower that fell into a night made fair by the glow of an extreme moon.

There was a helping of grit in the lubricant of expulsion, but mostly smooth enough. We left the house white, empty and echoing, the fountain silenced, the plants dispersed, the inverter stilled. All that remained of our habitation were the squares and gullies of full coloured carpet where our furniture had stood.

Locked in the windows and walls reminders in the cracked marble floors of terror and hellish dislocation when all that we were jumped up and moved backwards, when every molecule, dream and love, the very bedrock jiggled like an agitated temper tantrum. An unwieldy adolescent shaking the walls just to see what happened. Well, guess what? Fuck you. I am in the air. I have left you behind. Now there are just harmless echoes as a spot of turbulence jiggers at my stress levels for an instant. But my flight reflex has grown fat and lazy and I cannot summons the energy to flutter my wingtips. My signal to noise ratio is almost fully recovered.

My current writing playlist plays, Robert Plant seeing his brothers in the sky, and the unbelievable has happened. When I agreed to accompany the CoP to Kathmandu my first thought after saying yes was that I would die there. Strangest thought to have had. In the end we all dodged a couple of bullets and a few whiffs of stronger than normal essence of mortality, but I am flying now, almost too exhausted to write. Too full of memories and grief and relief to do more than partially regurgitate them in pre-digested form.

But Hootie sings a song to me and I remember a little.

The steps to Ghandruk, the majesty of mountains and the holy curves of a sacred landscape. The moon on the white peaks and, yes, I don’t believe in time anymore. I walked clockwise round and round the stupa for a hundred seconds, minutes, hours, propelling myself toward eternity and the bottom rung of the stairway to heaven.

Saturdays on the rim of the valley, looking down over the city with a circle of lunatics, joined in a communality of exercise, beer and tuna dip, Pubic Wig and Finger in the Hole, Apple, Trouble and Morning Glory.

I saw it, unfinished, on top of a pedestal and fell in love with form and function. Last I saw the polished Buddha  wrapped in a blanket of cotton wool. ‘It’s precious to me personally,’ I said to the packer. ‘To us as well,’ he replied, as he wrapped it in tape.

Perhaps most of all I shall remember leaving this place stronger than I went in. A few understandings reached and an ability to change the course of my own journey, no matter what the cosmos might be saying in the light still travelling from ancient stars no longer there. The striving peak of Everest is the tip of a vertical desert of rock thrust from the seafloor into rarified human view through the tranquil mists of the sacred and the storms of the eternal. That I shall always remember. Standing within sight of Everest I was but a mote in the eye of geological time, a tiny detail in the sanctified architecture of the whole, conscious of wonderment tumbling like a fresh glacial river from the womb of the sacred Himalaya. Departure is rebirth. I am swaddled in the new present, ready for whatever comes next.


Written at 36,000 feet somewhere between Kathmandu and Abu Dhabi.

Written by jamesaeoglethorpe

December 17, 2016 at 8:25 am

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Snapshot: ‘Du Blues

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Five years ago I stood in the downstairs southeast corner of our house, looked out over the rubble at the wide open space and wondered how on earth we were going to live in such a mini palace. This morning I stood in the same corner, the last few packing boxes still to go, Renu sweeping the carpet with a brush, the house empty, but the fountain still splashing. Not only did we live and survive here but we did so mostly with ease and pleasure. I wrote two and a half novels, many short stories and 426 blog posts to date. Best of all we had a string of excellent guests who helped bring the house alive.

I sit now the in the blue bedroom. The sun is shining, our departure on Friday beckons. We move into a hotel today, then there are odds and ends to clear up, but this feels like goodbye to the peace of the pond, the cruddy kitchen, the lovely space upstairs. The CoP calls, she needs to go to the office, bags to load into the car, life comes swirling back in and I must get going one last time.

A Moment of Peace Before the Removal Upheaval


Written by jamesaeoglethorpe

December 12, 2016 at 11:00 am

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