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Reflections of Nepal: Escaping Kathmandu

Escaping Kathmandu

Despite its relatively small size and landlocked location, Nepal is a staggeringly diverse country in terms of geography, ecology, and culture. Six weeks are insufficient to experience everything the nation has to offer. Nevertheless we tried our best. We sampled daily life in modern Kathmandu, trekked through the intensely beautiful Annapurna Conservation area, become immersed in the culture of an indigenous people in the mid-west plains of the Terai, and explored a myriad of unique habitats within Royal Bardia National Park.

Here is the first of our stories. The writing style is inspired by one of my favourite pieces of travel literature (and a future Ekostory), The Log From the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. Like The Log, this upcoming series of essays represent a collaborative effort between my partner and I, borne out of the collective ideas, conversations, anecdotes and impressions that sprang forth from the trip. I hope they prove to be interesting and insightful.

 October 15th – Arrival

“For many people, stepping off a plane into Kathmandu is an exhilarating shock – the sights, sounds and smells can quickly lead to sensory overload. Whether it be buzzing around the crazy polluted traffic in a taxi, trundling down the narrow winding streets of the old town in a rickshaw, marvelling at Durbar Sq or dodging the tiger balm sellers and trekking touts in Thamel, Kathmandu can be an intoxicating, amazing and exhausting place.” (Lonely Planet Nepal, p.108)

We were forewarned. But travel guides make for uninteresting reading without a location to ground them. Without a central point of familiarity, names and descriptions flow in, then out, meaningless. The eyes glaze and the mind wanders. So despite having read the above advisory, our first experience with the capital caught us off-guard and reeling.

We flew in from Dhaka at night. Tired and sleep-deprived after an eighteen hour flight and a twelve-hour layover, we appeared to be easy marks for the seasoned swarm of Nepali airport greeters; they were most helpful in helping us determine a price for their unwanted service of carrying two bags for less than two minutes and two hundred feet.

“No, not that bill. That one. Ten. Yes. THAT one. YES.”

Outstretched hands and pointing fingers encroach upon our personal space in expectation of payment. Too befuddled to calculate exchange rates, we relented to their assessments. Sitting in the tour van later with other similarly shell-shocked tourists, feelings of anger and shame surfaced as we shared similar tales of being accosted and taken unawares.

In hindsight, we did not blame these men. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world; the gross national income per capita in 2011 was less than $540 a year (World Bank). The economic disparity between this world and the one we come from borders on being unfathomable. If the situation were reversed, we think we may also be tempted to linger by the airport gates, greet newcomers, and collect our fees. What is pocket change to the tourist capable of flight is a week’s worth of meals to the average Nepali. This was the line of thinking we eventually came to adopt in order to soothe our pride at being swindled.

The initial glimpses we obtained of Kathmandu the city were decidedly unwelcoming. Vehicle headlights and the occasional din generated by drums of burning garbage provided the only sources of illumination during our drive into the capital; we learned that scheduled power outages called “load-shedding” events are a fact of life for the city of a million people. Every building we passed by greeted us with a rolled down garage door; the ubiquitous panels of steel that came across as cold, sterile, exclusionary. In the spaces between the buildings, mounds of rubble and rubbish laid strewn across open ditches and the sides of roads. We tried to compare what we saw with the urban slums we’ve encountered in southeast Asia and Central America, but could come across no equivalents. What we saw driving through that night resembled a warzone, a decimated landscape that lacked functional infrastructure, civic order, hope. A feeling of unease and alarm washed over us.

Like many developing countries, traversing Nepal by road is always an intense and raw experience. Nepali drivers appear to process spatial information in a completely different way than their Western counterparts, possessing the ability to navigate at high speeds with razor-thin margins of clearance. This skill is presumably acquired by years of squeezing down roads clearly not designed for vehicle traffic; moving within a hair’s breadth of pedestrians on their left and motorbikes on their right is the norm, not the exception. We were subjected to a playful demonstration of this when our driver nonchalantly reversed down a dark alley against vehicle and foot traffic at speed. Our pre-existing levels of risk tolerances were discarded in favour of newer, looser ones that first night.

See you horn pleaseHonking as a form of echolocation.

We also quickly realized that while visual cues are useful for the Nepali driver, they are not essential. Constant honking, often distinct in tone, duration, and melody, signaled to others the vehicle’s type, relative position, course of action, and proximity. Rarely is there any intention of malice or anger behind the honks. On that first night, we perceived it all as a senseless, riotous cacophony. Towards the end of our stay, we began to discern and almost appreciate the sophisticated sonic language that had spontaneously evolved from an aural ocean of chaos. Almost.

October 16th – Stimulus

Morning came. A rooftop breakfast provided us with our first panoramic view of Kathmandu. A dull dusty haze hugged the valley landscape, obfuscating features from distant buildings and the potentially photogenic mountains. We reflected in appreciation for the many luxuries of our society; clean potable water that did not have to be boiled or filtered; reliable power and refrigeration that made meat consumption a safe bet rather than a dicey gamble; air that did not turn the insides of our noses black; functional governments that provided basic municipal services. We silently gave thanks for these simple and grand things, dreamt of, realized, and fought for by men, women, and movements.  We ate our western food and drank our foreign drinks in silence before summoning the courage to head down into Thamel, the main tourist district in Kathmandu, to meet up with our tour group.

The Streets of Thamel by Adrian SulcA quiet stretch of Thamel, by Adrian Salc.

To say Thamel is a bustling district is a gross understatement. Consideration for personal space and pedestrian safety within it is non-existent as vehicles, animals, and people constantly jockey for position amongst its narrow streets. During the prime tourist season, any remaining pockets of space are filled in with enterprising salesmen selling everything from tiger balm (really?) to musical instruments to weary travelers. Savvy shop owners appealed passionately to weary travelers, unceasingly espousing the quality and cheapness of their wares that appeared on the surface and upon closer inspection, indistinguishable from goods offered by their neighbours.

Trudging along with our trekking gear on our backs and chests, we became acutely aware of our incompatibility with the constricted space we found ourselves in; we could not safely turn without worry of hitting person, vehicle, or animal. Thinking did not come readily in this space; there was insufficient time and too much stimuli. PASHMINA. TREK. WHOLESALE. EXCHANGE. STD. A myriad of signs above and around us blended together into an unintelligible incoherent blur of colours, shape, and words. Our other sensory faculties were similarly occupied by piercing horns of motorists, wafts of smoldering incense, soot and smog from burnt garbage and combusting engines, and settling grit on sweaty skin.

In this foreign environment, we did the only thing we could: We retreated into a reactive stance. We ignored anyone and everyone. We channeled our mental and physical energies towards sidestepping rickshaws, motorbikes, and taxis, keeping clear of shopkeepers hurling buckets cleaning water onto the streets, and avoiding piles of dung left by a host of creatures large and small.

This fight or flight response was, unfortunately, not conducive to cogent navigation. We became lost within minutes of setting out. We found out later that we had completely missed the meetup location, even though it was less than half a kilometer from our starting point. Our morning adventure left us with bruised egos, high levels of stress, and depleted stores of patience. We rested in our rooms but were unable to shake off our mental haze and physical anxiety. We were unsure at how we were going to last six weeks in this country, and contemplated on an earlier departure date. Not for the last time.

We began to recover our cognitive senses after finding our way to the Garden of Dreams, located several minutes east of Thamel. Constructed in the 1920’s and recently restored with assistance from the Austrian government, the green space proved to the oasis we so desperately needed. We sat and enjoyed the sight of an Edwardian-era inspired palace, observing locals and tourists play, relax, and frolic on the first patch of lawn we have seen since arriving in Nepal.

Garden of Dreams in KathmanduAn island of respite in an ocean of chaos.

But most importantly, we took in the lush greenery of the garden with its tall leaning palms, beds of lush vivid flowers, and twisted flowing vines. Their emanations of tranquility recharged and reinvigorated us. Never had we desire the restorative benefits of nature more, and never had we felt its effectiveness upon our mental states more than that day. We had read many studies on the quantifable positive benefits of green space, but to experience them firsthand in such a direct and dramatic fashion was another thing entirely. For the first time on our trip, we felt optimistic about our ability to deal with future adversity.

Once our mental fog subsided, we wondered how the Nepalis fare in the chaotic capital. We were but visitors; Kathmandu is home to a million souls. In a city where solitude is all but impossible, how do they cope with the constant stresses of the busy modern life? Do they also recharge on what little patches of nature exist within the urban space? From an environmental health perspective, how strong a priority should green space be within a rapidly expanding city with a lack of infrastructure? What role does religion, omnipresent in all facets of life in Nepal, play in helping the people adjust to the developing urban environment?

Buddhist Stupa and Marigolds Buddha eyes soothed by the sight of flowers.

We left Kathmandu on the following day for our trek, but returned and stayed in the capital on several more occasions. The human mind is a wonderfully adaptive tool. We  quickly learned to cope with the urban environments of Nepal. Towards the end, we were no longer nervously clutching our bags, staring up in confusion and bewilderment, and were able to function within the chaos. But extended sessions in the city still proved to be a physically and mentally draining experience, and the only sure path to recovery was to have exposure to nature, even if it was came in the form of vibrant potted marigolds, vegetables growing in a vacant lot, a hazey sunrise, or the starry night sky.

Next Up: A focus on landscapes.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: the Nepali way of buzy-ness (business) – part i of ii – momobites

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