It was Kipling who said it best, as ever. "Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, where there ain't no ten commandments and a man can raise a thirst. On the road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play....etc etc." Nobody ever understood expatriate life better than the author of those words. He may be out of fashion today for all sorts of imagined sins, but Kipling was a writer's writer. And his insights still stand.
This all came about as I was driving between Patan and Kamaladi on one of my frequent forays across Kathmandu. I was sitting at the traffic light on the Kathmandu side of the Bagmati Bridge, minding my own business, humming a little tune. No, not the Road to Mandalay, that came later. All at once a bicycle hurtled by on the left side, crossed in front and darted through the intersection against the red light. "So what else is new," I hear you snort, getting ready to turn the page. But wait. Onboard the bike was one of my sort, a foreigner of decidedly pale complexion, and not a tourist either. That started me thinking about why we folk leave comfortable lives of real or prospective affluence back home and head for these hills. The cynic of me immediately thought of Kipling. His writings about India, and what used to be called Burma, are often pilloried by misguided types as racist or imperialist. But that's ignorance
talking. Kipling knew his subject matter, and it was the Brit abroad that he wrote about best, the sort who came to the tropics because "there ain't no ten commandments and a man could raise a thirst".
Road to Mandalay is about a British soldier bemoaning his lot back in Blighty after a long tour "where the dawn comes up like thunder outa Chin-er 'cross the bay". I know what he's on about. I spent two separate but equally dreary years in between foreign postings, learning that "once you've 'eard the east a-callin', you won't ever 'eed ought else". But more to the point are the absence of those ten commandments, or at least that perception by some of those who seek postings in poorer, warmer, more interesting lands. The man on the bike, and he knows who he is, is here because of that and he's not alone. Not that he's a great sinner by ignoring the red light, but he's breaking the cardinal rule-my cardinal rule-of expat behaviour. Do as you would do at home, not as you please. And no, I'm not Colonel Blufton-Tufton-Smythe blathering on about setting an example for the natives. It's just common sense. You're a guest here, don't steal the silverware or spit in the ashtrays.
Yet that urge to spurn the commandments, or whatever you call the restrictions from back home, is powerful. I sometimes succumb myself, but only when driving. So I know I'm being ever-so-slightly hypocritical by attacking the bike rider. He was just the catalyst. I'm reading a book now that makes me sick, not the book itself but the protagonists. It's about expat life in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, specifically a crop of foreign ne'er-do-wells who spend their days teaching English and their nights in brothels, enjoying two dollar sessions with prostitutes. Their cynicism and utter disregard for Cambodia and its people is palpable, thanks to the author's own disgust for his fellow foreigners in Phnom Penh. We've got a long way to go in Nepal before the sizeable expat community here starts to inspire that sort of revulsion; it probably never will. But I've been to some gatherings lately where the talk among foreigners was pretty discouraging. You'd think that these people were actually affected by the things they were complaining about-bandhs, shortages, the WAY THEY DRIVE!!! Let's be honest. Except for the driving, we haven't got that much to complain about. In fact, I'm going to stop right now. It seems to raise a thirst, and then I get tempted to disobey those Ten Commandments. Okay then, perhaps just a small one-one for the road.