March 16, 2012

Remembering Mike Frame

Today, I finally got to move into my favorite room at Hotel Fewa. Up a short flight of stairs from the terrace, it has a lovely porch overlooking the lake:

But I can't help feeling sad when I also look across the terrace at the roof covered dining shed. Being here again brings back memories of the many cool mornings when I'd have breakfast inside the shed, and Mike would join me for extended chats -- ranging from world affairs to our own affairs. My contemporaries will remember the regular features in Reader's Digest on “My Most Unforgettable Character.” I've met many real characters, and I'd be hard pressed to pick one as the most unforgettable. But Mike would certainly be a prime contender.
Mike's Background
Born in 1940, Mike grew up on a farm near Northfield, Minnesota, as the youngest of four children. He graduated from Carleton College in Northfield in June, 1962. The day after graduation, he flew to Washington, DC, for Peace Corps training. Then -- on to Nepal.

During his first term as a Peace Corps volunteer, he taught high school English and agriculture in Bhaktapur and Dhankuta. After his first two-year stint, he signed up for another – this time in the village of Khatare -- demonstrating new techniques to local farmers. After that, he worked for several years on agricultural projects for USAID in Janakpur.

From the start, he was fascinated by a culture so different from his own. He loved the beauty of Nepal and its people.

In 1969, Mike returned to Minnesota to enroll in graduate school, studying agricultural economics. But he got sidetracked by the opportunity to test his ideas on a cooperative farm in Wisconsin being launched by a group that included his sister Mary Ellen and her husband. The group was made up of Mike and three families – eight adults and seven children. Mike was the chief architect and brick-layer for the big house the group built on the farm. Mary Ellen says “the house is unique, beautiful and still lived in.” 

But the lure of Nepal was strong. In 1980, Mike signed on for a five-year term as the Peace Corps' associate director for rural development in Nepal. He was stationed in Kathmandu, but traveled throughout the county working with his volunteers and doing lots of trekking. His love for Nepal deepened.

During this time he also started thinking about starting a restaurant in Kathmandu. During his years in Nepal, Mike had always enjoyed hosting meal celebrations on U.S. holidays for his American and other ex-pat friends. He liked the challenge of figuring out how to prepare a traditional American meal in a very different kitchen with hard-to-find ingredients.

When his tour of duty with the Peace Corps ended, Mike and a Nepali friend began working on a restaurant, Mike's Breakfast, designed to serve safe Western food in a beautiful garden setting. From the start and continuing to this day, the restaurant has attracted tourists, resident ex-pats, and a growing number of Nepalis. 

Here are several photos I took in Kathmandu last week, when I made my pilgrimage to Mike's Breakfast:

Mike always enjoyed new challenges. And once he'd met the challenge, he'd start looking for a new one. So, when Mike's Breakfast was established as an institution in the capital, Mike started thinking about opening a lodge someplace away from Kathmandu, where travelers and trekkers could get a good safe meal and clean, basic accommodations.

So in 1996, he and the requisite Nepali partners took over Hotel Fewa in Pokhara. He tore down some old buildings and replaced them with the lovely rustic cabin suites, the best of which I'm staying in now. Here's a shot of me composing this post on my porch:

Mike soon decided to switch his personal residence from Kathmandu to Pokhara. He undertook another new challenge – building his own house, a unique stone house combining the beauty of traditional Nepali style with his own ideas about energy conservation and comfort. Mike loved using native materials.

His house was a quick walk from Ramesh's, where I often stayed. I got to see the house, and how much Mike loved living here.

Less than a year after Mike started building the house, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Still, he finished the house and lived there for about five years. He had almost completed a book about the house when he died.

His sister Mary Ellen edited the manuscript, which was published last year, as "A Stone House in Pokhara". Mary Ellen added selected letters Mike had written home as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal between 1962 and 1966. The book provides a moving, personal account of Mike's developing love affair with Nepal and its people.

Much of what I've written about Mike's background comes from Mary Ellen's introduction to this book.

Mike had written an earlier book, part cookbook and part memoir: "Mike's Breakfast: Cooking in Nepal and Then Some"

During many of the years when I knew Mike, he would go to Bangkok for checkups and treatment. He told me he felt the care he received in Thailand was as good as any he'd have gotten at the Mayo Clinic.

Then Mike turned 65 and became eligible for Medicare. He was also finding it increasingly difficult to manage his life in Asia. Reluctantly, he decided to leave his beloved Nepal and return to the U.S. to live with Mary Ellen at the family farm outside Northfield.

Here's Mary Ellen's moving account of Mike's departure from Nepal:
December 21, 2007 was the last day Mike was in Nepal. That morning he and I boarded a Buddha Airlines flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu on our way home to Minnesota. I sat in the seat behind Mike as we both looked out at the Himalayas to the north and the foothills below us. I was very conscious that this might be his last view of a country he loved so much, and I thought he must be aware of that too. I imagined him as a young man walking on trails such as we could then see so plainly, visiting the roadless villages, talking with people he met. On the flight he was silent; whatever he felt I could only imagine.
Tomorrow, I'll be making the same flight.

Thanks, Mike, for being a great friend and host. Farewell, beautiful Pokhara.


Kathleenxxx said...

John, your posts from this trip have been so interesting.  This last is especially poignant.  I am so glad you have had the rich experience of the Nepal chapter in your life. XXX Kathy

Aakar Anil said...

Great Read! Thanks to Mike and thanks to you as well!

Surya Gamal said...

Dear John, Thank you so much for telling such a Lovely True Story about Mike, it has a strong power of your photography and it saws us clears soul of Mike in every where, I can not stop my tears from eyes. Thank you for sharing this in to your Blog.

Tgfpm said...

Wonderful account of Mike, his sister Ellen and his service to Nepal.

John said...

Thanks Kathy. Not sure if I'll make it back to Nepal but a new chapter in my Nepal saga opens at home with Bhawana and Nimesh taking residence at home and Laxmi and Rahel joining Ramesh in DC.  They are with me now as I write this in the lounge at Doha airport. xxoo John

John said...

Thanks Surya.  Be sure and check the later blog post with photos of you and your terrific sons. Great seeing you again,

JustoneMore said...

A short flight of steps--good you don't drink anymore. You'd be in the lake in no time! Still sounds like fun.