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Vacation Memories : Finding a Face in Nepal From Out of the Past

VACATION MEMORIES: This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

March 29, 1987|DR. D. B. MILLER | Miller is a Los Angeles neurosurgeon.

KATMANDU, Nepal — After a year in Bangkok I was in the mood for someplace truly exotic. I had tried Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. All of them somehow reminded me of home: Kentucky Fried Chicken. Tall buildings. Rush-hour traffic. Panty hose.

Now, two months before the Pentagon was to ship me back home, I had 10 days of leave still on the books and I called on what passes in Thailand for a travel agent.

He suggested Nepal. Thai International Airlines had a 10-day package, and it was a bargain.

It sounded like just what I needed. A perfect photo expedition. I could shoot the Himalayas. I would find medieval streets with no signs in English, no American tourists, no Coca-Cola. And I knew no one who had been there.

Our DC-8 left Don Muang Airport on a hot, sunny morning. Visions of yurts and yaks filled my head. My daydreaming was interrupted when the pilot announced that we had reached cruising altitude. The pilot's announcement reassured and annoyed me simultaneously. I was glad to hear an American voice coming from the cockpit, but I felt less like the lone pioneer that I wanted to be.

We touched down in Calcutta for a one-hour layover. Out the window I saw an army of men pushing food and baggage carts across the Tarmac, hard labor that tractors had taken over elsewhere in the world, and I knew that Nepal was going to be even more primitive. I could hardly wait.

As we flew northeast from Calcutta I began to see the rugged, snowcapped mountains that cut off Nepal from the rest of the world. We approached Katmandu through a cloud bank, heightening its mystery--and my own excitement.

After I passed through customs a Nepalese man called out my name. He was in his early 20s and thin. He spoke a formal, British English with a heavy accent. He was accompanied by a short, squat, dark-skinned man who nodded and said OK to everything I said. The first Nepalese, it turned out, was my guide and the second was my driver.

To my delight, I learned that I was the only person signed up for the tour. Then concern. Why only me? Did everyone else in Bangkok know something I didn't? I decided to be cautious. Keep my guard up. Be careful what I said and to whom.

As we drove from the airport to the Annapurna Hotel where I would be staying, the sights and sounds came as a shock. It had taken me three months to adjust to Thailand. But Nepal!

In comparison, Thailand was an advanced industrial society. Cattle roamed the streets and lay on the sidewalks. Women filled tall pots for drinking water from outdoor faucets. Temples painted with ominous eyes stared at me from every direction.

I was reminded of an expression I had heard a few weeks earlier: "Nepal is rushing into the 14th Century." It seemed apt.

As a serious amateur photographer I found that the city offered me one surprise after another. The people's dress and scenery presented wonderful photo opportunities.

I visited temples and other basic tourist attractions with my guide. I even rose at 4 a.m. to watch the sun rise over Mt. Everest in the dry, cold air of morning while boys selling daggers and water pipes swarmed around me.

But I most enjoyed simply walking around the city on my own and taking candid pictures of the people in a most unobtrusive way. A long telephoto lens allows one to capture the natural scene undetected.

Impolite Photography

It is terribly impolite and possibly dangerous to stick a camera into a stranger's face. You also lose the natural, spontaneous expressions that you wish to capture on film. But if you stand casually beside a tree, bush or fence with a 200-millimeter zoom lens, you can snap great pictures while remaining undetected.

Roaming the streets one day, I came upon an expansive public park. A long fence about three feet high ran parallel to the street. Inside the park nearly 400 people sat in a semicircle, facing a speaker whose back was against the fence. All seemed intent on what he was saying.

As I walked by I saw many unusual faces and thought this would be a great chance to get some excellent character studies. I hurriedly set up my camera and tripod and began to scan the crowd.

I thought the speaker was some kind of guru. He spoke at times in Nepalese and at other times in English. I was not really interested in what he was saying but rather in the people to whom he was talking and their reaction to his words. For the most part, they sat quietly on the ground, bunched together, straining to catch each word as if in deep concentration.

There were wonderful faces of old men with long beards that began to fill my camera's viewing screen. The creases and lines of a face in deep concentration are a delight to a photographer. Mongol and Han Chinese heritages were etched in these wizened old faces.

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