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Jazzmandu 2005, Day 3: Latin with a Nepali accent

Mark Sabbatini By

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When it comes to offering foreigners the familiarities of home, Nepal is decidedly Impressionistic.

Bakeries from the cities to the high mountain trails sell brownies, burgers and bagels of widely varying appearance and taste, but all blurry renditions of their American counterparts. Not necessarily worse; it depends on how a person feels about eating pizza topped with yak cheese.

Phrases like "hot showers" and "high-speed Internet" need liberal interpretation. Those $9 North Face jackets and $2 new-release DVDs are as corporate approved as their Chinese counterparts. Signs may read 7-Eleven or feature the Golden Arches, but good luck finding a Slurpee or Big Mac inside.

To be sure, imperfect emulations are equally bad in the U.S. So-called Nepalese restaurants seem to offer Indian food and a couple poor imitations of local fare. The staple food here basically a tin plate of lentil soup and rice; those 10-section platters with assortments of vegetables, meats and curries are nowhere to be found in Nepal except for restaurants only Westerners can afford (although it's worth mentioning one in Pokhara, the country's second-biggest city, serves a massive feast that ranks among the top five meals I've encountered on the planet).

But Nepali restaurants and import shops are scarce in the U.S. compared to the rampant Americana in the Himalayas. The Annapurna Circuit, Nepal's most popular trek besides Everest Base Camp, is known as the "apple pie" trail because of the continuous procession of huts selling it and other Western comfort food. Want a Snickers bar upon reaching the 18,500-foot summit? No problem; they're sold in a tiny hut along with far more nurturing butter-and-salt tea (don't knock it until you've tried it in the proper setting, which doesn't include Starbucks).

So I don't have high hopes for Latin night on day three of Jazzmandu 2005, Nepal's biggest jazz festival. Among other things, Nepalis don't have the temperament.

I have never encountered people as universally friendly, a constant amazement given their terrible hardships and various indignities Westerns inflict. All those empty plastic water bottles and bits of used toilet paper along mountain trails aren't from locals, and porters carrying staggering loads for a few dollars a day are constantly subject to abuse from trekkers ( my encounter with it, ending in what might called a hostile takeover in mid-trail, can be read here).

Admittedly the sincerity is often questionable. One learns to ignore the always-cheerful greetings from every local on the streets of Kathmandu as the inevitable intent is a transfer of money. But when money isn't involved or something's already paid for—say a meal and a night's lodging at some family's hut—the smiles, friendly words and offers of service are unflagging despite what must be exasperating challenges. Imagine a 10-member hiking group each ordering different Western-style dishes that must be cooked in a single-burner kitchen, all before feeding one's own family (here's a thought: find out what the family is eating—probably those lentils and rice—and go with the flow).

(By the way, if one feels I'm indulging in too many personal rants and parentheses there's a reason. Nepal is one of my five favorite countries on the planet, even if I wouldn't recommend it to one Western traveler in 20 and in reality don't know as much about everyday life as I probably imply. But as a writer attracted to all things quirky, there's endless material to expound on. Apologies and time to get to the relevant stuff).

Jazzmandu's "Red Hot Latin Jazz" night featured many of the local and foreign bands playing throughout the eight-day festival gathering for what was largely a jam session at the luxurious Hotel Yak And Yetti, just down the street from King Gyanendra's palace and "King Burger" fast-food joint. By any standard it's a four- or five-star palatial hotel for the wealthiest of tourists, with brightly-lit shopping promenades that could be mistaken for Caesar's Palace leading to a cocktail area and ballroom that could pass muster at the New York Hilton.

A ticket costing 1,300 rupees (about $19, or more than a month's wages for an average Nepali) included a free starter drink and buffet of Indian, Thai and Mexican dishes (a cut above the typical hotel-banquet safety of boneless chicken breasts, if something short of gourmet—but a pretty good bargain by Western wallet standards). About 100 or so people half-filled the ballroom for the two-hour performance, most appearing to be foreigners, dignitaries or expatriates.


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