Claudia burst into our Kathmandu hotel room shouting above the shrieking chaos outside the open window, `This Rinpoche I go to, ja? This lama my München friends tell me I must see to receive the teachings!’
`Claudia, did you bring the Norfloaxin? My insides are going to pieces…’
`Rip-off Rinpoche, ja. Listen, meine liebchen, for hours I am sitting by his feet with my legs crossed and very hurting, and I am drinking this disgusting yak butter tea that taste like %”#*. All the time he is chanting and saying me nothing. Then he is quiet and I think maybe he is going asleep, so I say, “Rinpoche, I am coming for a blessing for my journey, for enlightishment…”’
`Enlightenment, Claudia.’ I never could work out why Claudia didn’t speak proper English like other Germans.
Nostrils flaring like a furious Valkyrie’s, she pronounced darkly, `And what do he tell me, this R-r-r-inpoche?’
`Claudia, did you bring the Norfloaxin?’
`So he say, “My child, always lock your hotel room and never drink the water.” Then he start again the chanting!’ She snarled, `Ja, so that is Tibetische enlightishment.’
Claudia and I met under the moonlit spell of Kathmandu’s monkey-infested Swayambunath Temple. I had taken the steps at a bound as training for my climb of Island Peak. As I emerged into the courtyard I spotted one of the loathsome creatures make a grab for a packet of Yak cigarettes clenched in the hand of a terrified woman, whose blonde ponytail undulated over a blue fleece jacket to a pair of snugly fitting grey trekking trousers. I saw off the screeching simian with a well-aimed paving stone and a few nights later, over a vegetable lasagne at the Rum Doodle, Claudia leant across the table and murmured that our encounter amongst the monkeys had been predestined: two European travellers in Nepal, both on a spiritual quest, both vegetarians. Then she cupped my face in her hands and kissed me. I could scarcely believe my luck.
It was the lasagne that did it. The aftermath was an all-night ordeal of waiting for the bathroom cistern to refill. By morning, when Claudia stormed in from the lamasery, I had been reduced to a writhing lump of pain.
Fast-forward two weeks.
Each step on the descent of Island Peak fired a spasm of pain into my knees and lower back. I was unable to straighten my fingers, clamped tight around my ice-axe and ski-pole. Shivering by the fire that night in the Sherpa lodge at Chukhung, too exhausted to open my eyes, nursing a hacking cough, my head splitting like a burst marrow and a nosebleed for good measure, I was a sorry mess indeed. But Island Peak was done, and in a few days I would be back in Kathmandu. Only my fantasy of setting up a cycle repair shop in rural England, sipping tea with Claudia in our garden on a summer afternoon, had sustained me during the ascent.
I reached the hotel in Thamel Street to find the key hanging on its hook at Reception. Good. This would give me time to scrape off the Himalayan grime and make myself presentable to Claudia. Then with a sinking heart, my eyes were drawn to the empty wardrobe, and an envelope on the bedside table. No prizes for guessing what it contained.
‘Meine liebchen, I am not regretting our affair, but now our karma takes us apart. I leave Kathmandu to go home to München because, I weep for you when I say this, I must to be married in the summer. Forgive me, it was wicked I did not tell you…’ Going to be married, Claudia, not must to be married.
The hot shower brought some relief to my tormented muscles. Changing into a clean shirt and trekking trousers lifted my spirits enough to muster the energy to hobble down the stairs into the street, now darkening under evening shadows. A few minutes’ aimless strolling, or maybe not so aimless, took me to the gates of the Rum Doodle. I manoeuvred my aching body into a chair and cast a look over the menu, while reminding myself to book an appointment in the morning with the hotel osteopath. I also needed to collect my Island Peak summit certificate at the Ministry of Tourism and re-confirm my flight to London with Turkish Airlines. Life goes on.
I ordered a bowl of noodle soup.