In the midst of a pandemic, a cafe becomes a place of refuge for stranded peopleRun by a monastery, Utpala Cafe, in Boudha, has been providing free meals to people since day one of the lockdown—feeding more than 80 people every day.
On March 24, when Nepal went into lockdown, 20-year-old Agni Bishwokarma, who works as a security guard in Boudha, found himself in a problem. The lunch places that he usually frequents were all shut, and for the first few days of the lockdown, Bishwokarma made do by skipping lunch at work. For a few days, he even prepared his own lunch and carried to work, but his odd duty hours didn't make it a very feasible thing to do.
"We then learned that Utpala Cafe in Boudha was serving free lunch to people, and since then my colleague and I have been coming here every day for lunch," said Bishwokarma, who has been coming to Utpala Cafe for the past three months.
These are not the best of times for the restaurant industry. For months, the lockdown forced all the restaurants in the city to close, and those that have now opened wear a deserted look. All of these make Utpala Cafe, a for-profit establishment run by Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery, a Buddhist monastery in Boudha, an anomaly. Not only has the cafe remained open from the beginning of the lockdown, but it has served free buffet lunch to people from the first day of the lockdown, becoming a go-to place among stranded foreigners and locals in precarious financial situations.
"When we decided to keep the cafe open during the lockdown, it was mainly to feed our monastery's foreign students, who were stranded in the country due to the lockdown," said Lopon Shedrub Gyatso, a senior monk at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery.
But what the monastery had no inkling of was in Boudha there were dozens of foreigners stranded, and with cafes in the locality closed due to lockdown, many of them didn't have anywhere to dine. So it wasn't long before those stranded people started showing up at Utpala.
"On day two or three of the lockdown, a few stranded foreigners, who had nowhere else to eat, came to our cafe. Sending them away without feeding them was out of the question," said Gyatso. "When our monastery's head abbot, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, learned about the increasing number of foreigners coming to our cafe for lunch, he instructed us to continue feeding anyone coming to the cafe for free, and that’s how we started."
However, feeding so many people at the height of the lockdown has been anything but easy. The majority of the cafe's staff had already left for their respective villages, and Deepak Bohara, the cafe's general manager, didn't have enough workforce to prepare meals for so many people. "For the first few days into the lockdown, we just prepared rice at the cafe and sourced vegetable curry and lentils from our monastery," said Bohara, who was even taken to the police station two weeks into the lockdown for not adhering to the government mandate that required all businesses to close. "When we explained to the police officials that we were open just to provide free lunch to needy people, they finally let me go."
Until that incident, the cafe was solely focused on providing free meals to people and hadn't given much thought on safety protocols. "We realised that if we are to continue to operate, we should have certain safety procedures in place to ensure the safety of our staff, diners, and to assure the authorities so that they would let us operate," said Bohara. "We then rearranged our seating layout to allow one diner per table and ensure there’s a safe distance between two tables. We also made wearing masks mandatory inside the cafe and placed sanitisers for diners to use."
Utpala Cafe’s free lunch buffet is offered from 10 am to 1:30 pm, and according to Bohara, anywhere between 80 to 100 people come to the cafe every day for lunch. “We change the buffet menu every day,” said Bohara. On a sunny afternoon last week, the buffet menu had vegetarian burgers, fried lentil patties, cauliflower soup, and salad.
"With the lockdown eased, the cafes I used to frequent are now open. But given that Covid-19 is still a threat, I don't feel very confident about eating at places I used to before the lockdown because I don’t think those places will be as serious as Utpala when it comes to safety and hygiene,” said Bishwokarma. “On top of that, those restaurants have all increased their food prices and I don't earn much money. By continuing to come here to Utpala, I get to save my lunch money."
According to Bohara, the restaurant’s floor is washed with chlorine everyday, the kitchen is sanitised twice a day, and once a week, the cafe’s entire premises is deep cleaned.
Like Bishwokarma, for 41-year-old Florian Fleck and his 61-year-old mother, both German citizens, it was the prospect of free lunch that brought them to Utpala almost two months ago, but the cafe has now become their place of refuge.
The mother and son duo had arrived in Nepal in March, and they had planned to stay in the country for two weeks before heading to India. But a few days after their arrival, Nepal went into lockdown, and they have been stuck in the country since.
"Not long after we had arrived, we had an issue with our atm card, and we soon ran out of money. Around two months ago, we learned about Utpala's free lunch programme through some people, and that's how we ended up here," said Fleck. "When we came here to the cafe, neither did we have money nor a place to stay. The monks from the monastery have been kind enough to offer us three meals at the cafe and a place to stay, all for free."
In return, Fleck and his mother help maintain the cafe's garden. "I am extremely grateful to the cafe and the monastery for all that they have done and continue to do so for my mother and me," said Fleck.
For some of the cafe's regular visitors, it's not the free lunch that brings them to the cafe. "These are stressful times, and for many of us who don’t live with family, the cafe has served as a place to unwind, and de-stress," said Karma, a resident of Boudha and regular visitor to the cafe. "We are social beings, and we need social interactions. Staying holed up in rooms alone might protect you from the virus, but it can have a detrimental impact on one's mental health. Being able to come to the cafe and sit in its spacious garden, enjoy a cup of coffee, interact with people, safely of course, have been a blessing in these stressful times.”
Seventy-six-year-old Erna, a Dutch citizen and a regular at Utpala, agrees with Karma. "I stay alone in a hotel room nearby, but I can't stay the whole day in my room all alone. So I come here to get some fresh air, meet, and interact with people," said Erna.
But Erna doesn't quite agree with the cafe providing anybody who walks in with free lunch. "The free lunch is a huge help to those who cannot afford it, but I also see a lot of people who can very well afford to pay but do not have to. And I wonder if the cafe could have instead used the resources to feed the many poor people you see in and around Boudha," said Erna.
When asked with this question, Gyatso, the senior monk from the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery, just smiles. "The monastery has been working together with the local authorities to distribute food items to the poor and needy. But when it comes to the cafe, our aim has always been to provide those who walk in a free lunch, regardless of their economic background," said Gyatso. "As monks, we don't believe that material possessions are the only metrics to determine one's wealth. You can be materially rich but still be very poor, and you can be materially poor but still be very rich. We will continue the free lunch as long as we can and until we do so anybody is welcome."