I’ve been in Kathmandu for over a week now, and it’s difficult to articulate all of my thoughts and feelings into a cohesive post – but I will certainly try!
To say it quickly, my experience of Kathmandu is one of extremes: I find it a fascinating and infinitely complex city with moments, places, and people so beautiful that I literally stop in my tracks. I am also challenged daily by the chronic pollution, heartbreaking poverty, and dangerously chaotic streets. For me, being here is like swimming in a river with a strong current – there’s no use fighting the direction it is determined to move you. I’ve quickly learned that I must embrace Kathmandu for what it is – the bad with the good – and simply ‘go with the flow.’ How well I actually manage to do this is another story, of course… I think I’m doing pretty well considering, but it’s certainly a bit of a struggle!
(With all of that said, I must stop to make a quick disclaimer – everything written on this blog is from my perspective. I in no way posit that my perceptions definitively describe “how things are,” or encompass some kind of cold hard truth. These entries are merely MY experiences and observations, as I see them through my own cultural / spiritual / personal lens).
We live in an area called Patan (or Lalitpur, depending on who you talk to), and our neighborhood is called Jhamsikel. There are quite a few foreigners in this part of town (NGO and UN workers mostly), and the neighborhood is much quieter / cleaner / less chaotic than the rest of Kathmandu. Drew had us all set up in an adorable apartment when I arrived, tucked away on a small side street. The owner of the building lives next door, Dr. KC, and he has rented the apartment to a young Nepali entrepreneur who, in turn, has rented the apartment to us. I was immediately charmed upon stepping inside, as our small apartment is not only fully equipped with chairs, table, bed, kitchenwares, etc., but it is also fully decorated. This sweet touch on part of our landlord makes me smile (and admittedly has me giggling at some of his decorative decisions, particularly a Bambi stuffed animal hanging next to a photograph of Rodin’s “The Thinker”). Our landlord is also a Jehovah’s Witness, oddly enough – apparently there were bibles and pamphlets scattered all about the apartment when Drew first arrived. Didn’t expect THAT to happen in Nepal! But then again, this is a country of surprises.
Here are some pictures of our place –
The walkway to our apartment…
Our front gate…
The front door…
The entrance hallway…
The sitting room…
And of course, my favorite decorative touch, Bambi and The Thinker…
My first full day was spent walking around our neighborhood and other parts of Patan. We ate a delicious lunch of dhal bhat (lentil soup over rice) and curried vegetables – traditional Nepali fare. I am particularly fond of the curried cauliflower, which is simply to die for! We ate on the balcony of a nice restaurant, and just as we were finishing our meal, we heard the sounds of chanting in the streets. Turns out there was a strike that day, and the restaurant wasn’t technically supposed to be open (I’ve learned that strikes are quite common in Nepal and happen frequently). We were summarily rushed inside so as not to be seen – I was told that protestors will sometimes become violent towards business that stay open during a strike, smashing windows and whatnot. It all sounds much more dangerous in writing than it actually was – we went inside, sat for a few minutes as the rally passed, paid our bill, and then left. Not quite as dramatic as it initially sounds!
We found the protestors a bit later, rallying after their march, as we walked about our neighborhood. We stopped to listen, but unfortunately they were speaking a bit too fast for Drew to understand much. We were told by a bystander that the protest was being held for the “landless,” particularly a group of people who have been squatting by the river and were recently thrown out, their camps destroyed.
After that, we made the short walk to Patan’s Old City and visited Durbar Square’s Hindu temples. They are really beautiful, and I found it somehow appropriate that we viewed them in the rain, seeing that it’s monsoon season here. The temples seem to serve many purposes – they are a tourist attraction, of course, but are also still active places of worship and community interaction. They are living and breathing – not empty old buildings merely to be viewed. I like this about them….
We also spent time walking about the surrounding area….
We stumbled upon another small temple, and found ourselves in a surreal situation.
Drew saw a sign reading “Kumari” and inquired about it to a man there. Turns out this man couldn’t really speak, but he hustled us into a room of the temple anyway, motioned for us to take off our shoes (which is customary when going into most places here besides restaurants and shops), and sent us upstairs. I had my trepidations, of course, but Drew, being the anthropologist that he is, said “Just go with it!” When we reached the top of the stairs, another man came out of an office and asked us to sit on some cushions to wait for the Kumari.
We were then taken into another small room, where sat a young girl – maybe 12 years old – in traditional dress and special make-up.
A photograph of the Kumari, hanging in the waiting room.
She gave us “tika,” a red marking in the middle of our foreheads, symbolizing the “third eye” or enlightenment – a blessing of sorts. The man then informed us that it was customary to leave a donation, which we did. We left wondering if this was some sort of strange tourist trap. After talking with some of his Nepali friends about it, though, Drew thinks not. I have to admit that the whole experience is still a bit of a mystery to me!
My tika at the end of the day, worn off a bit by sweat unfortunately (eeewww).
Now you are probably wondering, “Who is the Kumari!?” I learned that the Kumari is a young girl, picked at a very early age, thought to be the manifestation of the divine female energy (“devi”) and the incarnation of the goddess Taleju (or Durga). There are several throughout the country, three in the Kathmandu area alone (the best known is the Royal Kumari, who is in central Kathmandu, but this was not who we visited in Patan). Once the Kumari menstruates, it is believed that the goddess vacates her body, and a new Kumari is chosen. In fact, the word Kumari is synonymous with “virgin” and can be used as a term for young unmarried girls.
Shortly after our strange and unexpected visit with the Kumari, we headed home for a rest and then back out that evening for Korean food and drinks in Thamel, the tourist district. We met Drew’s Nepali friend, Sunil, and some of his friends, Paulina and Matt (foreigners like us) for drinks at a bar called Sam’s. Thamel was a blur of lights, shops, beggars, and noise – the definition of over-stimulation if there ever was one (although I didn’t do the best job of capturing this in my photos).
I was tickled by how much Western music I heard while there – mostly pop, but all a decade old or more. The Cure, New Order, The Offspring… and even a live band covering “Wonderwall” by Oasis (which I found particularly hilarious). Although I can’t say I liked it in Thamel too much, I still have a (masochistic?) wish to return. Perhaps because I was only there at night and spent most of my time in a bar. It will be interesting to see it during the day, walking through the streets.
The next two days were filled with learning my way around the neighborhood, running errands to purchase missing odds and ends for the apartment, and visiting a few more important Kathmandu sites.
We went to Pashupatinath, one of the most significant Hindu temples in all of Nepal – or collection of small temples, really – which is located on a holy river where cremations are performed.
Cremation fires were burning as we walked about, and we even saw a body being brought out just before we left. This was difficult to witness – it felt intrusive and wrong to be there. This is certainly a problem with having “living, breathing” religious sites double as tourist attractions. It’s hard for me to imagine tourists milling about the area during my own family member’s funeral. I can’t imagine these families liked it much, either. I preferred to retreat up the hill, away from the river and the cremations….
There were monkeys all over, which I loved. It was so much fun to walk amongst them – they were truly adorable! Babies clinging to their mother’s bellies, pairs grooming each other, individuals eating every last bit of food on the ground, young rambunctious monkeys climbing trees. There were several small babies, and they were by far the most precious. I wish I had a good picture of one for you….but alas, these will have to do:
We also had the good fortune of arriving to a fenced off monkey ‘sanctuary’ of sorts…
We made it just in time for their ‘swimming hour’ – how funny they were rolling around, dunking each other’s heads under the water, and jumping from tree branches into the small pond! This was definitely a highlight of my trip so far – I only wish I was able to get a better picture…
The next day we visited a Buddhist Stupa, called Boudhanath (or Boudha). It is enormous and absolutely gorgeous…
We made a little friend on a roof-top cafe – one of four cats I have seen in my entire time here so far…
Smaller stupas can be found all over the city, like this grass stupa in my neighborhood:
Boudha is especially well-known, of course, as it is one of the largest stupas in the world (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site). It’s another example of a religious tourist attraction that is still actively used. You walk around the stupa clockwise, spinning the prayer wheels along the walls, sending positive energy out into the world. We spent a truly enjoyable day here, with a pleasant breeze keeping the heat at bay – my memories of it are dominated by the flapping of prayer flags and pigeon wings.
We walked around the surrounding neighborhood as well, also known as Boudha. We found small shops, Buddhist monks, and throngs of children, just released from school. I liked it here….
That evening, we visited with Drew’s friends, Sunil, Paulina, and Matt again, but at Sunil’s house this time. We were invited to stay for dinner, which was lovely. The dahl bhat was incredibly delicious – the best I’ve had so far- and there was more of my beloved curried cauliflower…. I am so happy to have already had the privilege of eating a home-cooked Nepali meal!
Lastly, some general observations from my first few days:
The architecture here is beautiful and includes an interesting mix of traditional and modern styles. I am constantly fascinated with the highly textured walls, interesting graffiti, and small doors. I plan to make a separate post with the MANY pictures I’ve taken of these things in a few days…. Here are a few for now…
Kathmandu is surprisingly green – there are many gardens and every vacant lot is lush with vegetation. Corn is growing just about everywhere, and I’ve seen plantain and pomegranate trees here and there as well.
Lantana takes over entire walls, and is beautiful – I’ve only seen it in small pots in the States, so this was an exciting discovery.
There is also a green vine with a beautiful purple blossom that reminds me of kudzu (maybe it is kudzu?)… It makes me smile everyday – perhaps because I feel like I have a little bit of the Southeast here with me.
And where there isn’t a garden or naturally growing vegetation, there is a slew of potted plants on rooftops, balconies, and the tops of walls. Even when there is no pot to be used, Nepalis seem to find a way to make things grow…
Walking the streets has been a major component of my experience thus far. It’s quite a different experience than in the States. Beyond the major 6 lane roads, the streets are TINY, poorly paved (if at all), and dusty.
It often happens that two cars cannot fit through the street side by side at the same time, and one has to wait while the other drives through. On these small streets, sidewalks do not exist and pedestrians are right in the mix with motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and cars. I admit, walking has been stressful for me so far – I fear being hit or side-swiped so my senses are on high alert at just about all times (like they are when I am biking around Philadelphia). Everyone is constantly honking their horns, which is jarring and takes time to get used to (although it’s important to mention that horns are generally not used here like in the States – at home we usually honk the horn to say “Get out of the way,” but here it is primarily used to let others on the road know that you are there for safety reasons, especially when going around a tight corner). Of course, I am not used to all of this – when I choose to walk in Philly, as opposed to my usual bike ride, it is my time to relax and let my mind wander. That has gone out the window for me here in Kathmandu, but I am quickly acclimating to the circumstances and am becoming less nervous as I navigate the streets.
Riding in taxis is another aspect of life in Kathmandu that takes some getting used to – traffic lanes on the main streets seem to be more of a suggestion, rather than a hard fast rule to be followed. Stop lights and stop signs are virtually non-existent (I’m trying to recall seeing any, in fact, and I don’t think I have). The intersections of smaller streets are a free-for-all to be approached with caution, and intersections of larger streets, usually manned by traffic police, are almost just as chaotic. Riding through the dust and smog, zigging and zagging through a slew of cars, motorcycles (the primary mode of transportation here), bicycles, and pedestrians can be a harrowing experience – especially if you have an impatient taxi driver and are a nervous person like me (my family and friends have been known to call me “Risk Management”). I’ve had similar taxi experiences in Philadelphia, no doubt, but again, Kathamndu takes it to an extreme. Look at the faces of those on the road around you, though, and it is just business as usual – nothing to be concerned about! It’s all about perspective, right?
There are stray dogs everywhere – most seem friendly, some a bit skittish. It seems the problem with stray dogs here is perhaps similar to our problem with stray cats in the States. Many of the dogs are malnourished, and I worry for them. While crossing a six lane street, Drew and I found a small puppy in the median. I was terrified for the little guy and attempted to pick him up, but once it became clear that he was scared of me, I stopped trying for fear I would cause him to run into traffic. Luckily he made it to the other side on his own. Animal lovers and rescuers beware – the stray situation in Kathmandu will likely have you in tears every day.
With that said, the healthy strays (or ‘street dogs’ as they’re called here) can be quite charming. It’s amusing to see them walking through the streets independently, alone or in groups, going about their business – just another character playing his/her part in the overall life of the city.
Most of the children here are very sweet, friendly, and open. They are curious about us because we are foreigners, and often wave, smile, and shout “Hello!” as they go about their day. One teenage boy was very persistent in asking Drew if I was his girlfriend, which was awkward but funny. Adults encountered on the streets are much more guarded, and I’m having trouble soliciting a smile out of most of them. Of course, some people will say “Namaste” and smile – not everyone is guarded. It’s like being in any big city, really: we tend not to look at each other and friendly street interactions are the exception rather than the rule. With that said, when engaged in lengthier interactions people here are quite friendly (like when in a restaurant or store, for example). Many people often seem impressed with the fact that Drew speaks Nepali – one store clerk was particularly surprised that he could write Nepali words as well. I think they appreciate that he has learned their language.
Speaking of language, there is a surprising amount of English here – spoken and on signs, menus, etc. There are several signs and advertisements that are entirely in English, which really surprises me.
It seems that just about everybody speaks at least a few words, and most people I encounter speak more than that. I am thankful for this, as it makes it easier for me to get about on my own, but I also feel pretty terrible not knowing much beyond a few words. Drew assures me that most people enjoy practicing their English, but I still can’t help but feel like I come across as an ‘entitled American.’ Sigh.
Well, I think that’s all I can muster for now. If any of you are still reading this incredibly long post, I promise they will be shorter in the future once I begin posting regularly (every other day or so) – I’ve had some technical difficulties so at this point I am playing catch-up!
Back with more soon…. Namaste!