As we got closer to our date of departure from the U.S., we discussed the comparison of "this time" with "the first time." When we originally left the comforts of home two years ago to travel to places that were completely unknown to us, we felt fear, hesitancy, and insecurity as well as excitement and anticipation. We had very little idea of how to "make it work" in places that were completely foreign to us. As we traveled, often as locals and backpackers do, we met challenges and overcame hardships and by doing so gained confidence in ourselves and our abilities with every step we took. Preparing for the journey this time, we felt much more confident and were relatively at ease with our abilities.....we knew what to expect. As Kathmandu was to teach us, we were completely mistaken!
After spending over 30 hours on three planes and in two airports, we found we had an impaired exhaustion as we sought to deal with the world awaiting us in Nepal. To describe the scene on a Kathmandu street is almost impossible. A crush of diverse humanity fills the twisted, damaged and unmarked streets. While Nepalese are supposed to drive on the left, a visitor would never know. It is a complete free-for-all with each sidewalkless street dominated by pedestrians, pressing each other forward in a wave as the motorcycles, bikes, cars, and busses bellow toxic fumes while drivers press hopelessly on horns and gun their engines to thrust people to the side. Small shops, with tired-eyed owners wearing grubby face masks silhouetted in dark doorways, line the streets. And randomly, the strangest sights such as mountain people staying warm with a wood fire built in the midst of this madness or men standing on top of busses pushing aside wads of snarled electric wires play out in front of you. We were thankful for our own face masks that reduced the acrid burn in our throats.
The homestay we had chosen was with a nice older couple who lived in what one would describe as an upper middle class section of Kathmandu. Our room in the house was cozy, but a bit on the chilly side when we found the heater did not work. The bathroom was well equipped, but there was no hot water and the toilet could not be flushed until the water to it was turned on briefly and off before the leak drained onto the floor. The heater and refrigerator did not work at first, but we were soon to learn that repairing electrical appliances in a city with a possible maximum of 6 hours of electricity a day was not a real priority. Three hours during the day and three hours at the darkest time of the night are all anyone can expect to have power in Kathmandu.
The following morning, we walked into the city to see what life was like for the rest of the populace in "another big city in a developing country." We were stunned. As we walked and watched, it quickly became apparent that we had not seen this level of poverty anywhere else we had traveled. It oozed out of every nook and cranny; it was a constant companion to everyone we met. We had a difficult time comprehending what we were seeing. This is the first country we have visited where cell phones are rarely seen. Lepers begging and children tugging are a common sight. The strongest image of our first 48 hours may be that of the cremation site where over one hundred bodies are burned each day. The rivers in Kathmandu, even the holy one below Shiva's temple, are described as toxic. The raw sewage, heavy metals, and industrial waste did little to sweeten the smell of burned bodies. Each day, the ashes of those fires are added to the calf-high sludge. And as we watched a family mourn, a woman walked below them through the cold sludge, feeling for the coins that might be tossed into the water along with the remains. Back and forth she moved, trolling for a few cents. If Kathmandu had been our first international experience when we set out almost two years ago, we would have been frightened by it. Now, we are fascinated and thoughtful, often cloaked in stunned silence as we attempt to process and understand what we are seeing.
Posted in Kathmandu, Nepal. Images are of Jess with her facemask, Sally grateful for a bucket of hot water, and a woman searching for coins below a funeral ritual.