The first time Jeff Greenwald ever saw Nepal was during the monsoon. “It was a miracle, a dual baptism in water and fire,” he said. “After each lightning storm the sky broke open, and rainbows arched between impossibly green hills. … It was as if the whole valley were being washed clean.”
It was 1979. Barely out of his teens, knowing nothing about Nepal, he’d agreed, months before, to meet a fellow traveler in Kathmandu. She’d fallen in love with someone else, but Greenwald arrived anyway.
“I went to my hotel, opened my journal, and wrote the words ‘Welcome home.’ I just knew that Nepal had suddenly became the center of my universe,” said Greenwald, an award-winning author and travel journalist who has divided every subsequent year of his life between that tiny high-altitude nation and Oakland. His memoir Snake Lake, which he will read at Diesel (5433 College Ave., Oakland) on Thursday, November 4, centers on one of those years.
It was 1990: As the dust rose from the fallen Berlin Wall half a world away, “Nepal was a kingdom on the verge of a nervous breakdown” — waiting breathlessly for the jana andolan, a people’s uprising set to overthrow a monarchy that some saw as divine. Greenwald was preparing to cover it for the San Francisco Examiner when, on his 36th birthday, he learned that his brother had committed suicide in Philadelphia.
Jordan Greenwald was a brilliant 32-year-old philologist who could speak twenty languages fluently, and affected a richly archaic version of his own native English. “He had perfect SAT scores; he was a runner, a cyclist. My brother was not a halfway person. He would never attempt something unsuccessfully. He fired a single hollow-point bullet into his brain,” said Greenwald, who wrote about the harrowing experience of entering the apartment where Jordan shot himself: “The mattress caked with blood, so dark it looked like chocolate; the streaks of blood thrown recklessly across the wall; the broad puddle of dried blood, the deep brain blood of my brother, cracking on the lath floor.”
A longtime Buddhist, Greenwald draped Tibetan prayer flags on Jordan’s coffin and deathbed. Dealing with the loss kept him Stateside longer than he’d planned. Back in Nepal, “the revolution was televised” — but when he returned to Kathmandu, he’d missed it by two weeks. Fellow journalists described the fighting in the streets, the corpses and burning cars. Two decades and one royal massacre later, three divergent factions — one of which is Maoist — govern a desperately poor, constitutionless Nepal where power outages last eighteen hours a day. In the two months of every year that he spends there, Greenwald writes mostly by candelight.
“Two months in Nepal is as intense as eight months in Oakland,” he said. “The pace of life there, the accelerated and concentrated vividness of experience, is like a drug that opens you up to a whole other level of openness. Why is it this way for me? That’s like asking why you’ve fallen in love with someone.” 7 p.m., free. DieselBookstore.com