It’s good to be back in Kathmandu. It’s been four years since I’ve been here, and I’d forgotten some of the things I love about the biggest city in Nepal. Even with the noise and smells of diesel and rotting garbage, the crooked roads and sidewalks that are mere suggestions and the messed-up driving, I still find this place comfortable. Mini buses stop in the middle of the road to let old ladies off straight out into the screaming traffic, and everyone ambles—they just seem incapable of moving fast.
I walk against the traffic so they can see me coming while everyone else walks with the traffic, so I’m causing a bit of a problem due to my size and the smallness of, well, everything else! I move faster and watch where I step, because twisting an ankle here is a real possibility. You learn quickly not to step on anything that looks like a manhole cover, because it may easily turn out to be far more manhole than cover.
The other side to Kathmandu is the greenness, the mists, the warm rains, the smells of food and bread and flowers wafting on the air. And the quiet at night, which is sweet…until the dogs set each other off. Then it gets quiet again and you can hear the insects and feel the breeze. It’s a very different night-time feeling from that of Western cities. I realize on my first evening back that I’ve missed these Nepali nights.
Other things I’ve missed are foods, like the buffalo and chicken pickles. Yes, really. These are made in the same way as Indian-style mango, lime or garlic pickles—except with buffalo or chicken meat! They may sound bizarre but they’re actually delicious, as are the fruits and vegetables. Like so much else here, the limes are tiny, the size of radishes, and the tomatoes aren’t that much bigger, but they taste so sweet. And then there’s the incredible street food: golden samosas, mouth-watering kabobs and chaat: a delightful combination of chickpeas, onion, coriander, spices and crispy pastry smothered in yogurt, tamarind and chili sauces.
One thing I’d almost forgotten about: the odd shops, with unlikely combinations of goods on display, like the one I passed selling DVDs along with used office chairs. And when I went to get a money transfer from Western Union, I discovered that its local affiliate not only handles remittances for expat Nepalese but also sells tea. So any amount smaller than five Nepalese rupees (about six American cents) you’re given in—tea! I suppose it could be worse, though: I remember when I was in Kyrgyzstan they’d give you unpleasant Soviet candies instead of coins.
After a couple of weeks in the city, some friends and I went to the mountains. The roads in town start off like real Western-type roads, but then they change and are mostly made up of the same red-dust bricks the Nepalese build their houses out of, the type that crumble even as you cement them together. So the journey can take a while and is always a bit of a bone cruncher. Traffic is crazy because everyone is more interested in avoiding the potholes than staying in their correct lane, which is no surprise given the potholes are big enough to swallow a diesel bus.
Even more infuriating, Nepali drivers will change lanes without signalling, or just stop in the middle of traffic, while motorbikes weave everywhere and people cross the road without even looking. And the taxis are lethal; I keep thinking there should be signs everywhere saying, “Please keep all your limbs inside your vehicle lest a taxi driver separate you from them!”
At least the city scenery is fascinating, especially the architecture. A friend has aptly labelled it “clumpitecture.” Houses have bits added to them willy-nilly: a balcony here, a room built off the third story there. It’s as if the additions were stuck on with glue, without any kind of plan. There is a reason, though. Nepali inheritance laws give all male offspring an equal share. So a house may get divided down the middle, and then one brother tacks on a balcony, but only on his side. Then the other brother decides to add a room on to his own side of the house. Or one brother modifies his part of the house to turn it into a shop, and voilà, clumpitecture!
As you wind your way up into the hills, the city’s annoyances fade and give way to small villages built of the same red-dust bricks and surrounded by rice paddies of the most vivid shades of green—which is saying something, because the Kathmandu Valley is lush with what seems to be several hundred intense emerald hues. In the villages, there are cows milling in the street, dogs lying everywhere and half-naked kids playing in the massive puddles left by the warm monsoon rains that show up with an intense fury and last sometimes for only ten minutes.
However, things change and change fast. Land in Kathmandu Valley, and especially in the city itself, is expensive and getting more so by the hour. I’ve learned from other friends of mine who live in the beautiful town of Bhaktapur, a UNESCO World Heritage site, that a woman they know lost the ancient house she rented for years—to developers! Gorgeous houses like hers, some hundreds of years old, are being torn down to make way for apartments and office buildings. Sadly, it seems that even a relatively remote country like Nepal is not immune to “progress.”
The friends I’m travelling with have told me we’re headed to a spot that’s just a place to relax for the night. Imagine my surprise when it turns out to be a fancy resort, part of the Le Meridien chain, where a former Nepali prince has a place on the grounds. My room is massive, larger than a North American living and dining room combined, with a bathtub like a Roman bath, space for at least six people and complementary cake.
But it’s monsoon season here so the hotel is virtually empty except for the staff—and the monkeys. The monkeys are everywhere, and up close they’re a little scary. They seem amazingly human, but smarter. The staff try hard to keep them away from the guests and the food, but the monkeys always win, thereby providing us with our entertainment for the night. My sympathy is with the monkeys, because this space was theirs long before the resort was built.
After a supper of mutton curry, grilled buffalo meat and spiced potatoes, we gather outside to smoke sheesha under an awning while the rain pours down in sheets, and we stay up far too late discussing big universal questions—something that the mountains of Nepal seem to inspire.
Life out here is not always safe and not always easy, but for me Nepal represents life in all its glory, life in a way that you just don’t experience it in places like London or Toronto. And I realize, now that I’ve returned, that I am content again.