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Spirits Rise Amid Comforts of Katmandu

THE WANDER YEAR

The Wander Year, A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world. / WEEK 11: NEPAL

April 23, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

KATMANDU, Nepal — In one of the stranger quirks of the world time zone map, Nepal is 15 minutes ahead of neighboring India. But it feels like a light-year.

Hotel beds here come with two sheets--both clean. Street vendors don't treat sales as a blood sport. And waiters don't hand you your fork by the tines. "Pinch me and make sure I'm not dreaming," I tell Andrea. India, as it turns out, is not for everyone--just a billion people.

We have flown to tiny Nepal to recover and recuperate. If we get ambitious, we may even relax.

We arrive feeling more like refugees than travelers. The hotel touts who greet us at Tribhuvan Airport are as gentle as relief workers.

"No one will bother you here," our minivan driver assures us soothingly. "You are in Nepal now. This is not India."

No, it's not. It may be poorer than India, but the squalor here is less squalid, the chaos less chaotic. A backpackers' saying has it that India is an acronym for I'll Never Do India Again, while Nepal stands for Never Ending Peace And Love. Missing hyphen aside, that seems about right.

We check into the Acme Guest House, in the touristy Thamel district. Our $12 room boasts satellite TV and a balcony that overlooks a garden. Andrea pronounces this tranquil setting the perfect place to finish reading "War and Peace."

We take our first meal at the open-air Northfield Cafe, where Bach and Beethoven mix with the bougainvillea. We are surprised to find Mexican food on the menu and astonished when the burritos taste better than any we've had outside Mexico or the U.S.

Katmandu fashions itself as the culinary capital of the subcontinent. If any cuisine is missing, it's probably on the way. We feast on pizza and listen to opera at the Italian restaurant Fire and Ice. At New Orleans, a jazz cafe, they serve a sumptuous jambalaya. And the outstanding Thai fare at Yin Yang is prepared by a chef from Thailand. Come breakfast, a German bakery is never more than a strudel's throw away.

This is also a literary city, with bookstores lining the streets. Competition keeps prices as low as $1.50 per paperback, and dealers will buy back books for 50% of what you paid. Everything from Austen to Zola is on the shelves. The selection at the two-story Pilgrims Book House is so marvelous and eclectic that it reminds me of browsing City Lights Bookstore, the San Francisco landmark.

If our eyes tire of reading, there are always the video bars, where pirated movies screen day and night. In the week after the Academy Awards, sidewalk chalkboards note show times for such Oscar-winning films as "American Beauty," "The Cider House Rules" and "Boys Don't Cry."

The comforts of Katmandu are enhanced by Nepalis themselves. Like the Fijians we encountered early in our journey, they are quick with a smile. Their positive vibe is expressed in the greeting "Namaste," which translates roughly as, "I salute the god within you."

It is a pleasure to tour temples and palaces without wannabe guides dogging your every step. Even the Tiger Balm hawkers are more likely to give you directions than a hard time. The stress-free atmosphere is reflected on the happy faces of the tourists, unlike in India, where we saw the strain of the streets reduce many Westerners to screams.

I catch myself whistling. I never whistle. Our journey suddenly feels lighter.

There is a downside to this giddy mood. The amenities that keep us here are ultimately harmful. A place that caters to tourists with foreign food, films and music leaves less room for its own culture. Also, I wonder if we have gone soft. Maybe we are not the intrepid travelers I imagined us to be. Perhaps we are ready for the cruise ship circuit, after all.

But these are concerns for another day. Today I see a Baskin- Robbins, and I feel like an ice cream.

NEXT WEEK: Finding cyber cafes in the most remote places.

Miss a past Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/travel/wander.

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