He had come to Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer and fallen in love with the country. When his tenure ended, instead of returning to Colorado, he longed to linger in Kathmandu.
To pay his way, he followed the example of poor Nepalis and started a roadside tea shop. He was friendly, took good care of his customers and served them with a smile. The clientele grew rapidly.
Eventually he took over a house with a large garden. The house would sometimes be rented for private parties and sometimes exhibit paintings from local artists who couldn’t afford a gallery. The big front yard with its garden and sheds became a full-fledged restaurant. Nobody knew or cared for the owner’s last name; he was just Mike. His restaurant became known as Mike’s Breakfast.
Occasionally I had lunch there, but Saturdays – the day Nepal has its weekly holiday – I was a fixture there for brunch. Imagine the scene. A nice green patch, nicer for being unmanicured. Large and small trees, pretty bushes, some with flowers. A modest table, a comfortable chair. And me, in the chair, right under a large banyan, with a sheaf of newspapers and the sun on my back, filtering gently through the leaves.
I never ordered, for the waiters knew what I always wanted. Twenty minutes after I arrived, there would arrive on a steamed plate a so-called Nepali omelet, a giant egg confection with a ton of varied vegetables, spiced just right to make it lively and acceptable. Another twenty minutes, and they would bring me a large steaming glass of Nepali Chiya, fragrant high-quality Indian tea with hand-picked spices of Nepal. It was enough to breathe new life into a somnolent, hidebound expatriate pen-pusher.
Brunch was just the beginning. There was the recurrent reunion with other regulars: Shrestha the techie, Sherpa the wheeler-dealer, Williamson the cartographer, Upadhyay the journalist and Xerxes (unlikely to be his real name) of no known occupation. They came with the periodicity of my Chia refills, and like the Chia filled my day with spirit and joy. When the mood struck, I retreated behind my papers, only to emerge when another friendly face came to tell me the latest news or misadventure.
The conversation was brisk and bold, fast-moving and wide-ranging, sometimes related to current headlines and but often devoted Nepal’s colourful past. Anybody could raise any subject that interested him, and but should be ready to hear a very contrary view. Sometimes we argued, occasionally ferociously, but mostly with typical Nepali stoicism. Disasters happened; tragedies had to endured; disappointments were just a part of life. This benign acceptance of misery occasionally exasperated me, but I learned to admire the gracious acceptance of reverses.
My table mates accepted one another serenely, though their views diverged. The best example was they accepted me, whose views were rarely what they could easily accept. I remember their placid faces as they sipped tea and politely listened even when I said something erratic, even outrageous.
I write this as I sit on the terrace of my favorite French café in Reston sipping a latte and taking in the latest overloaded shopper, an unusual Bentley, a kid propelling paper planes. I am happy here. But I also remember the happiness an unusual haven brought me, week and week, month after month, in a sunny corner of Kathmandu, a jewel of a restaurant at the foot of the Himalayas.
The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]