Thursday, February 18, 2016

Reflections on a Brief Nepali Sojourn

Travel is my raison d’être. Vagor, ergo sum, to personalize the Cartesian cogito. I don’t like the word “wanderlust” – it drips with a sappy, romanticized sentimentality – but I can’t deny that most of my intervacationary time is spent searching for my next destination. The highly scientific process: open a web browser, load Google Maps, look around to see if anything catches my eye. That’s how my most recent journey began, one that took me to the bustling Nepali capital of Kathmandu for three frantic but memorable days.

Why Kathmandu? To be completely honest, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s appropriate to echo the sentiments of those who climb Mt. Everest (which is, of course, in Nepal) who confess to undertaking the perilous ascent “because it’s there.” The facts were simply that I had five free days over Chinese New Year and had never been to Nepal. Flights and hotel booked, done. My due diligence consisted of reading the wikitravel page for Kathmandu to make sure that I wouldn’t be kidnapped or murdered during my stay; safety confirmed, I had all the requisite knowledge before departure.

Kathmandu is one of those places that doesn’t seem real – a place most of us have heard of but certainly never seen, a place that exists on maps and occasionally on CNN news reports, as when earthquakes reduce to rubble what had been slightly better arranged before. Kathmandu, Khartoum, Karachi – surely these aren’t actual destinations; they’re impossibly distant, incomprehensibly foreign. The reality of the 21st century is that they’re not, though. To get to Kathmandu, you just get on an airplane. A big one, made by Airbus or Boeing, with giant turbines fixed to its wings. You take off from one country and land in another, as you would, and the other happens to be Nepal. If you learn but one thing from all that I’ll scribble here, let it be this: you can go to Nepal. You can go anywhere.

Spinning prayer wheel beneath a colorful kalachakra

So off I went, not knowing much about where I was going or what I might encounter when I got there. It’s funny how we romanticize places we’ve never been, and I’m sure you’ve got some conception of what Kathmandu looks like, as I did, even if based on absolutely nothing factual. Whatever I expected, that’s not what it was, and I struggled with that throughout the trip. I should say at the outset that the way I saw Nepal was surely not the way to see Nepal. I was gone for five days, two of which were dedicated almost entirely to travel, as I wasn’t able to get direct flights between KTM and HKG. (One does exist, a 4.5 hour direct flight by Nepal airlines, but they don’t run it every day.) I spent effectively two and a half days exclusively in Kathmandu, by myself, with no planned guides, no set itinerary, no local Sherpa to guide me. This is actually how I prefer to experience a new place – just dump myself into it and see what happens – but I have to admit that you could probably have a much better experience in a place like Kathmandu with slightly more structure, more planning.

So, what happened? Well, let’s make one thing clear from the outset: Kathmandu is an abject shithole. I say this as a simple statement of fact, not intending it as pejorative. Nepal is a dreadfully impoverished country, and Kathmandu, though the capital of the nation, is not insulated from that grim fact. Certainly much of the disrepair is the aftermath of the earthquake, but it’s not as though Kathmandu was Shangri-la a year ago. The streets, with the exception of the largest thoroughfares, are dusty, undulating clearings of stones and mud, traversed by as many stray dogs, cows, goats, and chickens as cars or people. This is the developing world, where many people earn around $1 US per day, cannot read or write, and don’t have a toilet in their house. The city’s power demand is sometimes twice what can be reliably supplied, so there are frequent blackouts. My (4-star) hotel briefly lost power regularly, so often that there was even a sign in the elevator urging passengers not to be alarmed if the power shuts off while they’re inside, as the generator should switch on within 30 seconds. The airport even lost power for several minutes while I was waiting for my flight home, and nobody seemed to notice or care. And this is the capital city of a sovereign nation. Even as a denizen of Hong Kong and accustomed to the occasional day of less-than-mountain-fresh air quality, I found the turbulent mix of dust and exhaust in some parts of the city to be overpowering. Add in the incessant blaring of car horns (a necessary tactic in a city with no traffic lights) and various pungent odors from nearly every single thing everywhere, and Kathmandu is a complete and unyielding assault on both senses and sensibilities.

Emaciated cattle and burning garbage: a Kathmandu story

The harsh economic reality intrudes even more personally in a place like this, and this more than anything soured my Nepali experience: the shameless and unending pursuit of my money. I understand that this is inevitable in a place as poor as Nepal, as dependent upon tourism for survival. And that is what most Nepalis are simply trying to do – feed themselves and their families. Places like Kathmandu are rife with scammers, although I hesitate to use such a strong word. I was well-aware of things like this before I arrived, having experienced similar situations in Thailand and Cambodia, and my general cynicism and distrust of other people keeps me safe in strange places.

This is a fairly main street.

I had no illusions about the intentions of the friendly Indian guy who purposefully caught up to me along the busy street and started making casual conversation. I was evaluating the situation as we talked, trying to figure out exactly where this was going. Raj, as he called himself, was an Indian from Delhi living in Kathmandu, going to art school and working as a shoe repairman to support his family. I can’t confirm that any of that is factually true, but the details don’t much matter here. He very kindly offered to show me around the area, which I was almost obliged to allow, since I didn’t really know where I was going at that very moment and had no real excuse to refuse his generosity. So he led me around, very genuinely interested in who I was and why I had come, all the while showing me various monasteries in the area, explaining the minutia of Hindu traditions. I knew he was going to want something in exchange for all of this, and in the end he had a reasonable enough request – that I help him buy some food for his family. Fine, I thought, because he did actually show me around for a while, and I learned and saw more with his direction than I would have without. So he leads me to a little corner store and makes a modest pile of basic necessities – rice, milk, oil – which I’d have no problem subsidizing for him. The shopkeeper punches some numbers on a calculator and shows it to us, and I nearly laugh out loud. 6,000 rupees, or nearly $60 US. I immediately understand what’s going on and start trying to figure out how I can get out of this gracefully. Fortunately I didn’t even have that much local currency on me, so I had an easy time not forking over that ridiculous amount. Raj points out a nearby money-changing location, but I politely declare that I’ve helped him enough (having handed over a fraction of the total, at this point basically just to be able to leave) and scampered off rather unceremoniously. If you haven’t discerned from the context how this scheme works, basically the local dupes a tourist into paying severely inflated prices for food products, which the local then returns to the shop later for a cut of the profits.

The White Gompa, one of the places Raj showed me

I say I hesitate to call these things scams, although I have to admit that they fit the definition well enough. I do believe that Raj is in a position where this kind of behavior is necessary and not done with malice, although I could be being too kind. Two things really bother me about this. First, the inherent deception involved. I would have no problem entering into a legitimate (if informal) business transaction: you offer to show me around the city for a while, I give you a reasonable amount of money. That’s a mutually beneficial exchange, and in the end that’s how I treated it, although I’m sure Raj and the shopkeeper were hoping for a more favorable outcome. Second is the general assumption that I as a Westerner have so much money that I’ll gleefully hand it over. I encountered this sentiment throughout my time in Kathmandu: the locals all seem to assume that $20, 30, 40 US is an insignificant sum to me, and I’d part with it without a thought.

This turned out to be systemic: there’s a $25 visa fee to enter the country, high admission costs for tickets to the main tourist attractions (which are free for locals), surprisingly high taxi fares (a taxi shouldn’t cost me more in the developing world than it does in Hong Kong, surely), et cetera. My tour guide at Pashupatinath temple casually informed me after our journey around the site that the typical tip for his services is 2,000 rupees ($20 US), "although many people decide to give more." This was after only about an hour’s guidance and on top of the $10 cost of entry to the site, the main temple of which is closed to non-Hindus.  Even taking a photograph of someone carries with it an assumption of a small cash donation, which offended me as a photographer even more than as a tourist. (And explains why I have no photos of the brightly-painted Hindu holy men at the temples – I couldn’t fucking afford it by the end of the day.)

Pashupatinath temple, a very holy Hindu site

I should stress that the Nepali people are not all scammers. Most operate as legitimate and licensed tour guides and rickshaw drivers, but the sales pitches are constant, and they don’t abate at a polite decline. By the end of the second day I was so irritated that my preferred answer to the ubiquitous strangers beginning their pitches with  “where are you from?” had deteriorated from “the US” to “what do you want” to finally “fuck off.” It pained me to be rude to people who are (most of them, I want to believe) just trying to make an honest living, but being constantly hounded absolutely did not endear the city to me; in fact it often prematurely chased me out of places where I might otherwise have preferred to tarry a bit.

If I had to summarize my collective experience navigating Kathmandu by myself, largely on foot for the better part of three days, in one word, I’d call it uncomfortable. I’ve wandered countless cities by myself, even desperately poor cities like Manila and Siem Reap, but never with as much stress and irritation as I experienced in Kathmandu.

Still, it certainly wasn’t all bad. The city was a rainy, muddy mess the first few hours of my first day, but the weather quickly improved and was beautiful for the majority of the trip. Kathmandu is surprisingly mild considering its location in a valley in the Himalayas; in fact it was even slightly warmer during the day than it was back in Hong Kong during my trip. The highlight was unquestionably Kopan Monastery, which I visited during the afternoon on my last day before flying home. It’s well outside the city and situated atop a hill, far away from the choking dust and overbearing cacophony of the crowded city streets. Neither photos nor a description will suffice to reproduce the experience there. I can declare without hyperbole that it’s the most peaceful place I’ve ever been, no doubt augmented by its juxtaposition with the plangent untranquility further down the hill. There was nearly no one there (besides the indigenous Buddhist monks), and the view of the surrounding mountains was picturesque, but surreally so – it seemed otherworldly, as though the malignant afflictions of reality couldn’t scale the summit to spoil the natural insouciance flourishing there in their absence. (Am I being too poetic? Look, it was really pretty, ok?)

Kopan Monastery. Tranquil af, you dig?

I would also be remiss if I neglected to mention the state of the religious climate in the region, which is wholly pleasant. Nepal is 80% Hindu, although Siddhartha Gautama himself (known more familiarly as the Buddha) was born (according to legend, at least) in Nepal. Official statistics say that the country is only 9% Buddhist, although with heavy influence from nearby Tibet, Nepalese Buddhism and Hinduism are nearly indistinguishable. There are orthodox (theistic) variants of Buddhism that declare that the Hindu Vedas have no authority, but the multicultural nature of Nepal has mingled religious traditions to the point that it scarcely matters whether a Nepali identifies as a Hindu or Buddhist. Practitioners of each faith are welcome at holy sites of the other, so one generally finds Buddhists and Hindus worshiping together. Nepali Hindus in fact believe that the Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu, so in a sense to be a Buddhist is to be a Hindu as well. There’s a harmony between the two faiths that almost certainly could never exist in the monotheistic world, and it demonstrates the superiority (or at least the utility) of Eastern philosophy over the divisive holy books of the Abrahamic monotheisms. There’s a tremendous amount of sense and practicality in (atheistic) Buddhism, and the proof is in the nature of the people who subscribe to that philosophy. Nepal has problems, but religious division thankfully isn’t one of them.

Playing monklets at Kopan Monastery

This, then, was not what I would call a vacation, but a learning experience, as much of my travel tends to be. Strange as it might sound at this point, I would absolutely encourage people to go to Nepal, although I’d advise against going alone and only exploring Kathmandu or other cities. Nepal’s real charm is in its stunning topography, so a proper Nepalese vacation would include extensive trekking. Still, if you’d really like to sink yourself into the insanity of a place like Kathmandu, don’t hesitate. The political situation has stabilized, and Nepal is not a violent or dangerous place. Look after your money, but otherwise it’s ripe for exploration. Even if for no reason other than that it’s there.