Angry god

Kathmandu – Day One

I’ve been jumping around in time a bit, sharing stories from both the past and the present. To be clear, I am in Nepal now – at the time of this writing – with plans for Pokhara, Annapurna, Lumphini, and other destinations over the next couple of weeks. Send me a message or post a comment if there’s something in particular you want me to check out!

I’m boarding a plane in Bangkok to Kathmandu. I am surprised to see quite a large number of people at the gate, further surprised by how many of them are children. When I think of a kids’ vacation, I think camping or Disneyland – not rooftop of the world, earthquake-prone, poverty stricken, third-world country. But I don’t have any children, so what do I know.

The Asian kids sit quietly in the floor, calm as Hindu cows, at their parents’ feet. The Western kids run around screaming at the top of their lungs for no particular reason, with all of the energy and charm of wing-ed demons in Dante’s Inferno. I can’t imagine why their parents would ever dream of taking them to Nepal – unless they were hoping to lose them – or themselves – in an avalanche somewhere near Mt. Everest.

Once the plane is in the air, the same boisterous children make sure that the flight is no picnic for any of us, running up and down the aisles, falling, crying, fighting, running some more. I’m seated in the emergency exit aisle, next to a very weary parent. He keeps eying the emergency door. I know he’s thinking that if he released the hatch, everyone not buckled down would be sucked out the hole made by the missing door immediately. We smile at each other.

Finally the plane lands. The turnaround and taxi are one of the shortest ones I’ve ever experienced. When we stop, three staircases pull up to the plane, so even though I’m in a lousy seat, I’m the first person off the plane. There’s a bus waiting to take us to the gate. In fact, there are buses buzzing around every plane – I’m guessing the outdated gates can’t accommodate anything bigger than a prop plane.

For Nepal, you can get a visa on arrival, for anywhere from 15 to 90 days, depending on how much you want to pay. You fill out the application on the plane, rifle through your bag for a passport photo, and count out your money – in a major currency, please. For me it’s 40 USD for one month. There’s a bottleneck at the cashier, but no shortage of immigration agents once you’ve paid. I’m in and out in less than twenty minutes.

On the plane, we’re told that our bags would be on belt 1; the sign in baggage claim says belt 3; after waiting half an hour, belt 2 is the only one moving, so everyone moves that direction. As there are only three luggage carrels in the airport, one of them had to be right. Finally, my bag arrives. I go through customs, where there are two security guards, both fast asleep. Once in the arrivals hall, I change a bit of money, and pay for a taxi at the official counter – 700 Nepali rupees to Thamel, the main tourist ghetto. A kind man at the taxi counter says he’ll explain to the driver where I’m going.

My driver never says a word. He closes the door behind me, and speeds away at what seems like 200 miles an hour – for about a mile. Then we creep along in a traffic jam for the next hour. Kathmandu is a Seuss-like city, where not a single road follows a straight line, and none of the buildings are symmetrical. I’ve lived in river cities like New Orleans and Bangkok before, and so I understand how roads can meander in such places. In Kathmandu, however, the roads that radiate from the river also meander, making it difficult to get your bearings – after a few minutes, I have no idea what direction we are traveling in.

Street in Thamel

We go from probably the worst paved road I’ve ever been on, to a road that may have at sometime been paved, to a street that may have at one time been covered in bricks or tiles, to an alley of dirt that has been hardened by five hundred years of foot traffic. Here we are delayed ten minutes or so by an actual Hindu cow lying in the intersection. Out the car window, I see another cow, smaller, lying on the threshold of a small housewares shop, as if it were the family dog.

My driver and I have been together for the better part of an hour now, no one saying anything. Since the guy at the airport told him where I was going, I’m not even sure he can speak. While we’re waiting for the cow to move, I ask that most common traveler question, ‘Do you speak English?’. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I was once an English teacher – several years ago.’ Silence. ‘Why did you decide to be a taxi driver instead?’, I asked. ‘I really never had that much to say,’ he replies. That’s the entirety of our conversation.

Finally, I’m at my guesthouse. Out of sheer luck, I’ve chosen well – Kathmandu Boutique Hotel is a veritable oasis of calm, 50 meters off of one of the most hectic streets in Thamel. The oldest part of the complex, where I’m staying, is the former palace of a courtier. 12 USD for a large room with bath, 8 USD for a smaller room with a shared bath. I check in, drop off my bags, and head out to see the sights – the map says I’m only 400 meters away from Durbar Square, Kathmandu’s main tourist attraction.

The street I’m walking on, Gangalal Marg, may be more than five hundred years old, but it is a street in only the academic sense of the word; perhaps someone who’d spent their life in Plato’s Cave, having never seen a real street before, might imagine that this is a street. It is, in fact, a glorified yak path. It appears that there was a feeble attempt at paving it once, but such folly had been abandoned. However, that doesn’t stop the onslaught of motorcycles, taxis, bicycles, and heavy trucks, engines roaring and horns honking, from barreling down it at top speed. As there are no sidewalks, pedestrians walk in the brick-lined gutters or, according to their fancy, down the middle of the road.

The damage from the 2015 earthquake is evident here. Most of the buildings are made of plaster-covered, hand-made brick, with wood-framed doors only five feet tall. Vein-like cracks appear in most of the walls, and the plaster has completely fallen away on many more. Steel poles and wooden beams have been attached to some of the facades to keep them from crumbling into the streets; red blotches of paint signify that the building is unsafe for habitation.

Halfway down the lane, a dust devil appears at an intersection. The climate here is so dry that a cloud of dirt hangs in the air at all times, mingled with the exhaust of the diesel trucks and two-stroke motorcycle engines. I am pinned to the unstable walls for a few moments, protecting my eyes from the grimy wind, choking, coughing, hoping one of those hand-made bricks doesn’t fall and hit me on the head.

Kathmandu temple

I arrive at Durbar Square. Some of the ancient buildings here were leveled by the earthquake, and are nothing now but piles of rubble, a sign bearing the name of a place that perhaps had some meaning in the past. Others are spider-webbed by cracks, walls supported by scaffolding or wooden beams. Still others, miraculously, are unscathed. There is, however, an incredible aura of antiquity, perhaps even of holiness, permeating the square. It is by no means a quiet place – while the motorized traffic is blocked off, there are crowds of people everywhere.

In this the oldest part of Kathmandu, it’s hard to tell what has been damaged by earthquakes and what has been damaged by centuries of neglect. There are stupas, shrines, temples, scattered everywhere from here northwards, in various states of disrepair. You’ll see a gated, roofed box in the middle of the street, looking like some kind of misplaced utility – only to find that it’s a Hindu shrine, hundreds of years old. There are angels in the architecture, frescoes of demons decorating the odd wall here and there. All surrounded by the detritus of centuries of human habitation. From Thamel to Durbar Square, perhaps six by eight blocks, Kathmandu is a living museum – if a museum curator surrounded important pieces with tumble down curry joints and encouraged motorcycles to try to run over you in the passageways.

It’s wonderful.

I used to think Bangkok was exotic, but it’s a suburban shopping mall by comparison. Even the main tourist area in Kathmandu is still very much a ghetto, a confusing maze of nearly un-navigable dirt streets, with shops selling yak-wool jackets and fake name-brand trekking gear, guesthouses advertising one-dollar momos (buffalo dumplings) and five dollar rooms. It’s been a long time since I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells of a new place – and I’m loving it. This is real travel, with all of its confusion, disorientation, and discomfort. Kathmandu, I’m feeling, is the kind of place that changes you.

And that’s just my first day.

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