Two memories of our visit to Nepal fifteen years ago stand out, one magical, the other unsettling. My wife, Rohan, and I were staying in the Himalayan foothills at a hotel just outside Nagarkot. I was there at a conference. The magic occurred on a clear day when, after an hour’s stroll, the view we sought suddenly appeared. Far in the distance we saw the summit of Everest. Its peak was so high it was unreal. Its craggy white top shimmered above the clouds and seemed to be separated from earth. In its splendour it was ethereal. One could see why local people believe it to be sacred.
The memory that still disturbs me relates to an episode in a tea house. The day after seeing Everest we walked into Nagarkot itself. Because of a Maoist insurrection and the daily reports of guerrilla activity, tourists in Nepal were rare; in keeping, the town was practically deserted. When it was time for our afternoon cuppa, we found a tea house with upstairs ‘viewing’ windows. We could see out and, presumably, others could see in! Apart from us, the salon was empty.
Within minutes of sitting down, the café’s phone rang and after a brief conversation in Nepalese the waiter came over to our table and said in English, “The phone call is for you Professor Collier. Would you please speak to the caller? Follow me.” Surprised and shaken – how could anyone have known who and where I was? – I found myself talking to the concierge at our hotel. He wanted to tell me that one of the conference delegates was keen to chat. I made the necessary arrangements, and assumed that, in reality, the concierge was doing his duty and phoning to check that we were safe and sound!
The experience left me feeling most uneasy. That someone could track us down and know our exact whereabouts at any moment and then have me identified by name – and all in a village in the middle of nowhere – was a horrible jolt to my system. I never learned how it was done – Sat Navs were not yet around! – but on having my name called in this way I felt vulnerable and exposed. Certainly something I would not want repeated, but that was not to be.
My memory of the episode resurfaced just a few weeks ago when I was again recognised and named in a public place by a complete stranger. The weather was unusually warm and at the end of our road in London, two men were standing by the open door of a van, one unloading building materials, the second, a shorter man, helping.
Together they blocked the pavement, and by way of starting a conversation prior to requesting that they to let me by, I asked what they were up to. It was the shorter man who replied: “I am a plasterer and he’s an electrician; we are working today on a house just round the corner”. During the explanation I was surprised to read a seemingly incongruous message on the plasterer’s teeshirt; it read: ‘Keep calm and praise Jesus’.
Then something very odd happened. The plasterer looked at me closely, walked to the middle of the road and with his hands clasped as though in prayer he bowed repeatedly saying “Professor Collier; mea culpa – I am the guilty person. Please forgive me”. While his performance overall was confusing, his calling my name was perturbing. Soon, however, all was explained.
Unbeknownst to me the plasterer had read my recent blog (A Small Matter of Detail; joecollier.blog; 3 February 2019). It was about the renovation of a shop let to a handbag designer and which happens to be the property of an adjoining chapel. Our plasterer had helped with the renovation and had used shiny aluminium screws, which I later replaced, to attach the handle to the front door. It then transpired that he knew at the time that they should have been black. On reading the blog he felt guilty and now wanted to apologise. He recognised me in the street from my photo on the blog website and our chance meeting allowed him to make amends
At this point I asked him what was a plasterer doing fitting a door handle. His response clarified much: “You misheard me, I am not a plasterer but a pastor, and it is my chapel in the story – I was just helping out”. With this, there was an explanation for both his exhortation and his tee shirt. However, it matters little whether a stranger who publicly calls out my name is a London pastor or a Nepalese waiter, in both instances the experience was very unsettling and not the kind of recognition anyone would seek.
The illustration shows the wording on the plasterer’s teeshirt.