When I first visited Katmandu in 1972, on my way to Everest Base Camp, the city was essentially pre-internal combustion. There were a few taxis, miniature three-wheeled Chinese tractors pulling tiny open trailers full of rice or firewood, and the occasional lumbering Tata truck. Private cars were a rarity; rising middle class families made do with lightweight motorbikes, and you got used to seeing husband, wife, two or three kids and a slew of shopping bags balanced like circus acrobats, on a 250 cc or smaller cycle. Everyone else had a bicycle. It amazed and delighted me. And it made sense, because most of the back streets in the city’s core were too narrow for vehicular traffic. I got to know Katmandu intimately through several more visits over the next few years, including a yearlong stay in a tiny house near the summit of Swyambunath, but I never stopped appreciating the quiet, the slow pace and grace that Henry Ford’s demonic contraption had destroyed over most of the world.
Well, it’s all gone now. Many of the loveliest traditional Newari neighborhoods have been torn down to make room for wide streets packed with honking, exhaust- spewing cars; the old medieval houses with their awesome carved woodwork and the secret courtyards housing ancient shrines have been replaced by raw concrete monstrosities with rebar sticking out everywhere, like spears. And the air: is some of the worst on earth now, throat-stinging, eye-stabbing; during the worst days half the city’s people seem to be wearing those white gauze facemasks that have become the ironic indicator of the “success” of the Asian Economic Miracle.
The trail to Solo Khumbu? Don’t even ask. When I walked it in 1972 I passed through swatches of real, big-time rainforest between the villages along the way; crystalline waterfalls, streams and pools, orchids, and high branches where birds sang. Now when you fly from Kathmandu to Lukla, the airstrip serving the Everest region, the view below looks almost like the Great Basin. The forests are completely gone, and the trail winds over dusty mountainsides, through crowded hamlets where the women spend twelve hours and walk miles every day searching out enough sticks and twigs to build the evening cooking fire. It’s an almost totally “humanized” landscape, in the worst sense of the word.
A dozen or so years ago N. and I spent weeks snorkeling on the reefs offshore from Ao Nang, a sleepy fishing village in southern Thailand just beginning to sprout small hotels and cafes. We went out to the beach every morning and hired one of the local boatmen to run us out to one of the islets or white sand niches hidden beneath the towering limestone karst cliffs of the coast. The reefs were pristine and teeming with rainbows of fish; often we didn’t see another soul until the boatman returned in the late afternoon to pick us up. Today the old Ao Nang is crushed beneath huge resort hotels that spew sewage straight into the sea. All the local reefs are dead or dying, and you have to go farther and farther from shore to find areas that haven't been poisoned. And the process continues: the tiny islands out in the Andaman Sea are gradually being “developed” to death the same way Ao Nang was.
No, you can’t go there again, because there’s no there there, to quote Gertrude Stein; the world is one giant Oakland, Calif.
Remembering my old travels, I feel like Zelig of the Worldwide Apocalypse, standing there watching while Kabul is destroyed by war, the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar is smashed and burned, the Kochi nomads lose their flocks to a mega-drought triggered by Global Warming, the Sierra Tarahumara of Mexico is deforested by outlaw loggers financed by the World Bank, and the Golden Triangle is rendered poppy-less, wild-less, devoid of risk, mystery and magic…a whole brilliant world that once seemed endless but now survives only in my dreams.