Christmas Breakfast 
in the Himalayas  

Mary McIntosh

© 2011 by Mary McIntosh

    2011 Travel Nonfiction Winner

Photo by Giuseppe Mondì on Unsplash
Photo by Giuseppe Mondì on Unsplash

When I was a little girl, living in London, England, my mother would cook porridge for breakfast. Now I know it was probably because it was food that would “stick to my ribs,” but I never did care for it, and I still rarely eat it. What made it somewhat better for me was that instead of sugar, I used Lyle’s Golden Syrup, an English product, golden, very thick, very sweet, and oh so good. The porridge, then, was at least tolerable.

Later, as a young teenager, living in the States, I attended an all-girls boarding school, where I was given a well-balanced breakfast which included oatmeal. We sat at long, rectangular tables that were covered with white linen tablecloths. At the head of each table sat a teacher; three girls sat on either side. Because it was a boarding school and we were there to become refined young ladies, as well as to get a good education, our table manners were observed, commented on, and written up in our Household Reports. These were then sent home at the end of each term. This meant that if I wanted to stay in the good graces of my stern-though-loving father, I had to eat my oatmeal without complaint.

In my working days in New York City, breakfast was included in the clubs where I lived, but often, for a change before going to work, I’d stop at Nedicks for a doughnut, a cup of coffee, and a glass of orange juice.  Each item purchased cost a nickel.

Breakfast has always seemed such a mundane meal to me. The taste-tantalizing delights of a Porterhouse steak, or a filet mignon, topped off with cheesecake or a chocolate sundae, are missing. Instead, the normal fare is juice, fruit, toast, and cereal or eggs, which I often eat. Occasionally I’ll change this menu and revert to another English breakfast my mother used to prepare––kippered herring.

There is one breakfast, however, that definitely stands out in my mind.

On a tour of six Southern Asian countries––Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Pakistan––I found myself in Katmandu, Nepal, over the holiday season.

The Soaltee Oberoi Hotel, where we stayed, seemed to cater to Western tourists by placing a tall Christmas tree in the lobby and gaily wrapped presents underneath. Christmas carols blared continuously over the hotel’s PA system. How strange that seemed in a Hindu and Buddhist country where even the hotel clerks wore turbans with their uniforms and business suits.

As a group, we toured the cities of Katmandu, Patan, and Bhadgaon, very old, but very poor, dirty, and crowded cities. We were told they looked much the same as they had 1,000 years ago. It somehow seemed incongruous to me that in each of these cities, rising amidst such squalor, were beautiful, elaborate, towering pagodas, enshrined in gold, with the symbolic eye gazing down on everyone.

Animals were everywhere––cows lay down in pathways, which caused a person to walk around; a pig scampered away, and a goat was tied up at a shop, much as we would leave our dog outside McDonald’s.
In the middle of the square in the bustling town of Patan, one man was getting a haircut while squatting on the ground, and another was getting a shave. The next customer waiting his turn sat hunched down behind him. I watched an old woman sitting in the street, naked from the waist up, receiving a massage, with no one paying any attention. I couldn’t imagine the same thing occurring in a city or small town in America without attracting a crowd of curious onlookers. The streets were narrow and twisting, and the houses were no more than hovels. Dust covered everything in the open-air shops.

Our tour guide seemed so proud of his native city. One of our group quietly commented, “If these conditions were anywhere in the States, the Health Department would have shut the town down long ago.” In spite of all this poverty and squalor, these cities were like an open-air museum of art and architecture, with their ornate pagodas and stupas, shrines and monasteries.  Surrounding all this poverty loomed magnificent mountains, including Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world.

When a small group of us was awakened at 4:45 on Christmas morning, I wondered why I had agreed to climb a mountain to see the sunrise. Goodness knows, I’d seen enough sunrises in my life. Weren’t they all the same––a bright red sun coming up in the east? But here I was, crawling out of bed in the darkness, wondering if it would be cold, and if I should take an extra sweater with me.

Five of us gathered in the hotel lobby, and then, as directed, got into a minivan. None were talking much, though we did say “good morning” to the driver, and nodded to each other. We rode for an hour to a small mountain at the foot of the Himalayas. It was this foothill we planned to climb, and witness the sunrise.

Even at this early hour, hordes of Nepalese children waited at the foot of the mountain, anxious for us to buy their prayer wheels and souvenirs. For them it was not Christmas, it was simply another day, and they walked alongside us up the mountain as we climbed the short distance to the top.

“Buy prayer wheel. Good price. You want, missy?” they chattered at us in broken English, many having learned a few words of our language from visiting missionaries, or through the Peace Corps, at least enough to communicate with their country’s visitors.

As I trudged up the mountain, I found myself making a comparison to when I’d climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan, twenty-five years earlier. Fuji, in many parts, had been sheer rock; this climb was not difficult, but rather a gentle grassy slope. Guides with lanterns helped light our way. My walk was made much more enjoyable by a young lad who practiced English by chatting with me all the way to the top.

“You okay, missy?” he asked. “You take hand. I help you.” I gladly held his hand, for, even with the lanterns, it was difficult to see too far ahead.

“Thank you. Where did you learn English?” I asked him. “You speak quite well,
you know.”

“Peace Corps, here, Katmandu. I want to go Amelica some day,” he said. He gave me a big, toothy grin. We were now friends.

In a short while––less than an hour––we reached the summit of the mountain, still in total darkness. For those of us who live in cities, where lights and atmospheric conditions cloud our vision, the myriad stars left us gasping in pure delight. We stood talking with each other, rubbing our hands together, and stomping our feet, for it was quite chilly. As the sun started to rise, the sky suddenly turned rose, and pink, and golden––a giant paintbrush had swept through the sky.

Dawn had arrived on Christmas Day. We turned to each other. “Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas,” we repeated with a smile. Oh yes, I thought, it was well worth getting up so early. Yes, it was worth it.

On the descent, some of us purchased the children’s prayer wheels. Somehow it seemed a fitting gesture on this, our special day of rejoicing. The children talked among themselves. Someone in our group began singing “Jingle Bells.” It was pleasant to hear the young Nepalese joining in as well as they could. They didn’t know the words, but they’d heard the tune many times blaring from hotel loudspeakers, or on the streets of Kathmandu. I laughed when my “new friend” tried to pronounce “Jingle.” He was such a nice young lad, and he well deserved the good tip I gave him. We left, and I waved goodbye.

At the base of the mountain we got back into the minivan and drove a short distance down a winding road, then stopped. Getting out, I sat on a small hillock at the side of the road, while others perched on a large outcropping of rocks. The driver handed each of us a paper sack––our breakfast prepared for us by the hotel––two hard-boiled eggs, an apple, a piece of fruitcake, and coffee poured from a thermos.

I gazed in wonder, for there in front of me, on a beautiful crisp day, were the majestic Himalayas. I recalled eating much finer holiday breakfasts in the past––in homes across the country, in fancy restaurants, with family and with friends––but I knew this would always remain a meal I would not forget.

Even though low-hanging clouds hid Mt. Everest, the snow-covered Himalayas in the far distance still looked imposing.

As I sat there, on the grassy hillock, enjoying an apple, I thought.

What more could I ask for on Christmas Day?

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