Meeting Jimmy Carter at a bar in Katmandu
WHILE MY WIFE Lisa and I were preparing to embark on an eight-day trek in the shadow of Nepal’s Mount Everest in 1985, our guide told us that former President Jimmy Carter, who had just finished climbing another peak, would be celebrating that night at a bar in Katmandu. “Which bar?” I asked. “The Rum Doodle,” he replied, and gave us directions.
It was a long walk through narrow, dusty streets jammed with rickshaws, motorbikes and three-wheeled, exhaust-belching vehicles whose drivers continuously leaned on the horn. We squeezed past tiki-coated temples, stupas festooned with prayer flags, and sidewalk vendors hawking everything from bronze Buddha statues to goats and chickens.
Finally, we reached the tiny bar, named for a 1956 novel, “The Ascent of Rum Doodle,” which hilariously parodied a fictional mountaineering expedition. The namesake bar had long been, and continues to be, a favorite haunt of the world’s most celebrated climbers. Autographed photos of Edmund Hillary and other legendary mountaineers covered the walls.
I half-expected Secret Service agents and armed Gurkhas to frisk us at the door, or to tell us that the bar was off-limits that evening, but Lisa and I strolled in as easily as if we were entering New London’s Dutch Tavern.
Incidentally, the night before, we encountered even less security when we wound up seated next to Queen Sirikit of Thailand during a dance performance at a Nepali cultural center. I also almost literally bumped into former Treasury Secretary William Simon at Nepal’s Tribhuvan International Airport, and we had a nice conversation. I guess a lot of VIPs were visiting the Himalayan kingdom that year.
Anyway, the former president and his wife, Rosalynn, were greeting a handful of well-wishers at a Rum Doodle corner table. Most of the other patrons appeared to be European or Australian tourists, who either didn’t recognize the Carters or were more interested in their drinks.
After a few minutes, the small gathering surrounding the Carters dispersed, and I stepped toward their table.
“Mr. President, how was the hike?” I asked.
“Wonderful,” he replied, “but difficult.” While he and Rosalynn managed to scale 18,500-foot Kalapattar, some Secret Service agents had to turn back because of altitude sickness.
I congratulated him, and mentioned that my wife and
I were about to head out on a hike through the Khumbu, a region surrounded by dozens of the world’s tallest mountains.
“Good luck!” he exclaimed, and we shook hands.
Lisa and I did go on to enjoy an extraordinary sojourn in a region regarded as sacred ground by the Sherpa. A highlight was our visit to Tengboche Monastery, spiritual center of the Buddhist community, which felt as if we had wandered into James Hilton’s fabled Shangri-La from “Lost Horizon.”
I also accompanied a Sherpa sirdar on a day hike to the then-vacant Everest View Hotel, where indeed I did take in a stunning view of the 29,029-foot summit. Guinness World Records listed this hostelry, perched at 13,000 feet, as the highest hotel in the world.
Our guide had one minor complaint. He had lined up a top Sherpa cook to accompany us on the trek and prepare all our meals, but the Carter expedition managed to hire him away. That didn’t bother me — to my unsophisticated palate, our replacement chef prepared wonderful fare. Anyway, all food tastes great after hours of hiking at high altitude.
Carter, who served as the 39th president from 1977 to 1981, and founded the nonprofit Carter Center in 1982 to promote democracy and fight diseases, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. He made three more visits to Nepal in 2007 and 2008, as an election observer working to ensure fair voting.
Carter also spent decades helping build affordable housing around the world with Habit for Humanity, and planned to make one more visit to Nepal at age 91 in 2015. That trip was canceled at the last minute — not because Carter was recovering from treatment of metastatic melanoma that had spread to his brain, but because riots had broken out in Nepal. The nation has periodically been shattered by turmoil since a 2001 massacre of the royal family.
It’s depressing to think that a nation that seemed to epitomize peace and tranquility when we visited had descended into violence and chaos. Lisa and I remember waving to Queen Aishwarya and one of her young sons when their limousine emerged from Narayanhiti Palace just as we walked by. The little boy waved back.
Sixteen years later, Queen Aishwarya, her husband, King Birendra, and seven other family members were gunned down. Authorities identified Crown Prince Dipendra, the king and queen’s son, as the perpetrator.
Despite having orchestrated the slaughter, shooting himself in the head and then lapsing into a coma, Dipendra was declared king. It was a short reign — he died three days later, and his younger brother, Gyanendra, who avoided the gunfire, became king.
King Gyanendra was deposed in 2008 by the Constituent Assembly, which abolished the 240-year-old Shah dynasty and declared the nation to be the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal.
I sometimes wonder if he had been the little boy who waved from the limousine, or if it had been his murderous brother.
Perhaps the spiritual serenity we savored decades earlier was as illusory as Hilton’s Shangri-La. Or perhaps it reflects a concept that Sherpas might embrace: Human behavior may deteriorate, but the majesty of the mountains endures.
While he and Rosalynn managed to scale 18,500-foot Kalapattar, some Secret Service agents had to turn back because of altitude sickness.