Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Kathmandu! My First Days in Nepal.

I arrived in Kathmandu around midnight on Friday, March 1st, roughly twenty-two hours after I had parted ways with my family at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

I had stayed up the entire night before packing and attempting to update my iPod. My iPod had frozen on me around 2am, and I was in a furious panic hours later when my great friend Nick in Shanghai came to my rescue. In the end, my iPod finished uploading five minutes before I left for the airport-- I have no idea what I would have done without my music!

Needless to say, I slept the entire first leg of my flight (United Airlines) to Kathmandu, which took me to Toronto.

After a brief stay in Toronto I boarded an Austrian Airlines flight for Vienna. The flight was one of the best I have ever taken. The plane was amazingly clean and the food out of sight (for airline food). Since when did they start serving chicken curry on board?!

Plus, I had the privilege of meeting the Romanian equivalent of Tony Montana with one small difference. This Tony Montana, whose real name was Peter, was a former DJ (currently, a trucker) who loved to go clubbing and was an absolute riot to boot!

I had an hour layover in Vienna, which I used to check out some of my new friend's photos, of course to the beat of techno playing in the background. The patrons of the coffee shop we inhabited at 9am weren't exactly thrilled, but we had been drinking for most of the night (not the best thing to do, but I still had another flight ahead of me!). I asked "Tony" to turn the music down a bit-- not a problem. The beats went on...

I parted ways with "Tony" and headed for my flight to Kathmandu. I was nervous, which was to be expected, especially since I didn't have a room reservation there. To my surprise, there were a lot of Nepalese on the flight. I decided to ask a local for accommodation recommendations once I boarded the flight.

After receiving some encouraging words, I met Steve, a fellow traveler from London, England who was on the first leg of an around the world trip. We chatted for a few minutes (he was sitting in the seat diagonally ahead of me). He had already booked a room and gave me some words of encouragement before we settled into our seats for the flight.

The flight was uneventful, but since it was also Austrian Airlines, the food was very tasty, which is always good. I remember thinking that my flights to Kathmandu seemed to be shorter than my flight from Frankfurt to Chicago just a few days before.

Upon arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport (KTM) in Kathmandu, we exited the plane on the tarmac and boarded a bus to the arrival hall. I asked Steve if I could get a ride with him in his pre-arranged taxi (hotels provide free service if you have a room already booked). Not a problem.

Going through customs and arranging my visa was a snap. The Nepalese have the process down to a science. I was in the baggage arrival hall within 20 minutes.

As Steve and I waited for our bags we began to chat, which inevitably always stopped after five minutes to comment on our bags being the last to arrive. Steve's was the last to arrive. Mine never did.

Amazingly, I wasn't worried about my bag. I figured it would come eventually, but what to do about a hotel?! It was 1am, after all.

Thankfully, I was able to hitch a ride in Steve's minibus without a problem.

My first impression of Kathmandu was bleak at best as the minibus set out into the streets surrounding the airport and, eventually, Thamel. I couldn't believe how dark a capital city could be, regardless of the time of day. Everything was dark-- even the royal palace!

When we arrived in Thamel, the touristy heart of the city, all of the buildings were closed with steel pull doors and the streets were pitch black and desolate. Only sketchy characters were about.

The minibus pulled into the Kathmandu Guest House (KGH), an oasis in the middle of Thamel, and Steve and I sorted our room situation. I would stay in his room for the night. We had decided hours prior to arriving in the guest house that a beer or two was in order.

Seeing as though everything was closed, we ordered two (very expensive- nearly $10 USD) Tuborg beers a piece at our guest house and chatted with two Austrians, as the TV showed an Indian news broadcast.

The bottles were absolutely huge- 650ml (22 oz)- by any standards so we decided to drink only one and turn in for the "night". It was nearly 3am.

We woke up around 11am and decided to take on the town. First stop: Durbar Square, the main religious area of Kathmandu.

The city was bursting with energy-- completely opposite of the "night before." As we navigated the streets, I encountered rickshaw drivers, "salesmen" of all sorts, and beggars for the first time in my life. Somehow I was easing into my abrupt change of environments. A shock to me, but it was one that I had been planning for quite a long while after all.

After reaching Durbar Square we took a small stroll around the area to check out the many temples.

My head was still a bit cloudy to fully appreciate the magnitude of the square. The swarm of people (mainly "sellers" and "guides"), rickshaws, and taxis did not help, either.

Knowing that most of the temples dated to the 1600's, I was impressed by the craftsmanship and, moreover, the condition of the buildings. I felt as though I had stepped back into time, if only for a few minutes.

In particular, I was most impressed by the carvings inside the Kumari Bahal (House of the Living Goddess), which, unfortunately, I was not able to photograph and the Taleju Temple, one of the largest buildings in the square.

Since the 17th century, Nepal has a had the practice of a Kumari, or living goddess. Although there are many Kumari within the Kathmandu Valley, the Kumari Devi, or Royal Kumari, in Kathmandu is the most important.

The Kumari Devi is selected from the the Shakya caste (gold and silversmiths) of the Newari community. She is typically between the ages of four and puberty upon selection and must meet 32 strict physical requirements ranging from the color of her eyes and shape of teeth to the sound of her voice. Her horoscope is taken into consideration as well, of course.

The candidates for Kumari Devi are then taken to a darkened room where they are subjected to frightening noises, masks, and buffalo heads. Clearly, a living goddess would not be scared of these antics, so the girl who remains calm is most likely the true Kumari Devi. However, she must pass the final test, which is to select items of clothing and decoration from her predecessor.

Once the Kumari Devi is chosen, she and her family move into the Kumari Bahal, where she will make daily appearances from her window and partake in only a handful of ceremonies outside of her house until her reign ends, which is upon her first period or any serious accidental loss of blood.

After strolling through Durbar Square, taking our time to view all of the temples, cows, sadhus (holy men), beggars, and children playing about, we decided to grab a bite to eat, our first proper Nepalese meal, at Festive Fare Restaurant, a rooftop restaurant that overlooks Durbar Square from the south.

Steve and I decided to take an alternative route back to our hotel. We viewed the many temples surrounding Durbar Square and walked west toward the Vishnumati River.
On the way to the river, Steve and I kept seeing porters carrying large bags, walking in the same direction we were headed. Initially, I thought that they were carrying supplies to nearby stores or restaurants. Upon reaching the river, however, I found out what parcel they were carrying-- trash.

As Steve and I reached the river bank, our eyes opened in terror as we saw heaps of trash burning next to the river. Minutes later, one of the porters brought his load of trash and dumped it on the river bank. I could barely believe my eyes. It was the first time I knew, properly, that I was in a third world country. The river looked like a near war zone. I half expected to see Sally Struthers filming a plea for help along the banks.
We stood on the river bank for many minutes-- quite.

"It sure makes you appreciate how lucky you are for having been born in our countries, doesn't it?," muttered Steve, poignantly, minutes later.

"It sure does.," I replied.

I couldn't have agreed more. The twenty minutes we had experienced on the river bank where quite possible the most eye opening of my short life.

I had come to Asia seeking experiences of all types. I realized long ago that I would encounter such poverty, but I never thought I would witness it on my first day in Nepal. I had been humbled by my experience and took many thoughts, which would linger inside my head to ponder in the days to come, with me as Steve and I slowly walked toward Thamel, a mere 15 minutes away.

Upon arriving back at our hotel, we discovered that the following day, March 2nd, was Holi, the holiest Hindu day of the year. The desk clerk informed us that the streets would be filled with children throwing water balloons and paint. Steve and I decided that celebrating in the holiday was going to be an absolute must and headed back onto the streets nearby for attire.

We found a shop selling Nepali clothes and made one of the best purchases of our trips to date-- spending roughly $7 USD on shirt and pants. Steve followed his apparel purchase with another great one-- a gorgeous backgammon set. We headed to a rooftop restaurant to celebrate our purchases with a Nepalese-set meal and a beer. Steve began his quest to teach me the ways of becoming a backgammon master.

Steve and I slept in the next morning after being awoke in the wee daylight hours by shagging pigeons on our window ledge (a daily occurrence during our stay at the KGH). We looked at each other and smirked, as we heard what sounded like a war zone in the streets below-- a feat considering that the KGH is a gated and, thus, near quite complex.

"Should we partake in the festivities?," Steve asked.

"Hell yeah. Let's go and have some fun," I replied.

We dawned our gear and headed outside our hotel gate feeling like Rambo.

The streets were empty and nearly all of the shops were closed. We were a bit confused. Where was all of the noise coming from?

Steve wanted to check on flights to Lukla (Mt. Everest) so we headed to possibly the only open travel agent. Afterward, we decided to eat brunch at a nearby rooftop restaurant-- a common theme of ours.

As we were finishing our meal, a parade of motorbikes raced through town. The drivers' faces were painted a metallic color and the parade of color began. Red was the color of choice, and it was begin thrown in the direction of all of the bystanders, followed by water bombs from the buildings above. The war had begun.

We smiled at each other and gazed in awe of the hedonism in the streets below. What fun! We got our check and headed into the war zone.

Stepping out the door of the restaurant, we were already in the mix. A stranger approached us, said "Happy Holi," and gently, most likely out of uncertainty, added color to our heads. We smiled graciously. It was game on, and we were now the main targets. White tourists with color in our hair (a sign that we wanted to partake Holi).

During the next hour or so, Steve and I were attacked by children and teenagers having the time of their lives. "Happy Holi" was being shouted by everyone on the streets, water bombs were falling from the sky and color of all sorts was getting added to our bodies. The only problem? We had no ammunition?

The locals didn't want to give us any and we were unable to find anyone selling it. Then our luck changed. We stumbled upon a couple selling paint and balloons. We bargained for 5-6 packets and stack of balloons for $2 USD and began preparing ourselves for our attacks.

Unlike the rules of engagement, children were going to be the main objective. They were the main culprits after all and, most likely, the ones we would have the most fun harassing.

Steve and I divided our newly acquired ammunition and waited patiently for our first victim to approach. Naturally, we would have to sacrifice our bodies first in order to attack-- hardly an issue since nearly our entire torso was already covered in multi-colored paint.

Within a matter of minutes, we were attacked by a mob of boys. We grabbed a handful of paint and reciprocated. Water was always present in one way or another, which added to the fun, as we could smear our paint all over our victims, just as they had been doing to us.

It took us quite a while to acquire water for our balloons, however. It was as though it was salt during the middle ages. Finally, we found a man gracious enough to fill our balloons (small plastic bags in actuality). We were set to wager a proper assault now...

Buckets of water were falling from the balconies above onto the street. It was as though we were in an archaic Atari video game.

Within minutes, I was surrounded by a gang of small boys with water balloons in their hands. I flashed my handful of weapons. They seemed to be stunned that I was ready to attack them. I chose my first victim and made my way closer to him, playing chicken with our weapons in hand. I focused on tactfully assaulting him. Just then I noticed that my balloon had burst.

The boy shot me a big grin; I looked down at my now wet hand. He had grabbed my balloon with his left hand and popped it. I looked back at him, stunned and in awe of his cunningness, and was pummeled by his weapon. Still in shock of his keen tactic, I stumbled for another balloon and began my rebellious attack. The boy became spooked and jolted into an nearby alleyway, his friends and, presumably, his parents laughing in amusement. Soon I had cornered him and let loose of my successfully launched balloon. Splat-- a direct hit!

I sauntered back onto the street. I was now a force to be reckoned with.

Within seconds I felt another balloon burst on my back. The boy had cowardly attacked me from behind. I turned and ran after him. This time, he and his friends ran behind a door and locked it. I tucked myself near a small shop and waited patiently for them to make their appearance.

To my chagrin, they never appeared, presumably because someone told them I was still nearby. After several minutes of waiting for my victims to flash their faces, I started to walk toward Steve who was watching in amusement as the events with the gang of bandits unfolded.

I walked about 25 meters when I heard a boy call out for me. He had a bucket in his hand, which I knew was filled with water. I walked toward him flashing my balloons. He flinched, and I was able to come within a arm's length of the bucket.

Just as I was about to acquire control of the bucket, I felt a huge splash on my backside.

The kids had trapped me and one of the bandits had tossed an entire bucket of water on me. I stood startled. Just then, the boy facing me launched his bucket in my direction, a direct hit. I had been assaulted by two huge buckets of water and was completely drenched. I started to hurl my balloons in all directions.

Steve was laughing hysterically at me. I couldn't help but smile in amazement at the kids' wittiness. They were so smart and having the absolute time of their lives. I was too.

Steve and I slowly made our way down the street. During the course of the next hour, we would circle the greater Thamel area, waging warfare with all children we encountered. I couldn't believe just how much fun I was having. I was so happy to have come to Nepal at the time that I did. I unknowingly arrived at possibly the best time of the year.

After wandering the streets for nearly two hours, Steve and I noticed a large group of color dowsed tourists sitting in a garden restaurant. We decided to enter the gates, presumably protected from the war-torn streets. They invited us to sit with them. We grabbed a chair and a beer and struck up a conversation with them. The majority of them were from Poland, but there were also Austrians, Dutch, and an American present. We talked about our experiences of Holi Day, travel plans, etc. It was a nice break from the chaos outside.

A splash of water land near us. We were being assaulted inside the garden from the rooftops nearby. Water balloons were falling within a meter of our table. None of us could believe the distance at which the balloons were being launched. They were being hurled close to our proximity from nearly 50 meters away from buildings of equally the same height. There was no escape from the war.

After quenching our thirst, Steve and I decided to head back to the guest house to wash up.

We struck up a conversation about our day's experience along the way. Having witnessed the poverty along the riverside the day before, I believe, gave us a much better perspective and appreciation for the lives of the children and people in and around Kathmandu.

We were both comforted by the amount of fun the children were able to have, indeed, for so little money, on Holi. They were truly having the time of their lives smirring paint and tossing water balloons onto their chosen victims.

We compared our societies to that of which we had just witnessed. Such an event would never happen in our countries. If it did, I would guess that there might be a near riot. But why?

I was beginning to feel the impacts of being surrounded by a completely different culture. My mind was quickly opening itself to new ideas and ways of life.

I would conclude much later that the people of Nepal were, obviously, much poorer, in terms of wealth, than that of probably every western nation, but that they were so much more richer, in terms of their happiness for life, than most of those same western nations.

This discovery/conclusion is one that have a lasting affect on me and is one that I would continue to ponder (and still do) as I would travel throughout the country.

Back at the Kathmandu Guest House, Steve and I took at least two showers a piece to cleanse our bodies of the toxic powder that had been rubbed onto our bodies. Our clothes soon followed. Like our bodies before it, the water looked like paint as it washed away the stains. My new shirt bled badly-- it would never stop. It soon found its way into the trash.

Nearly an hour and a half later, our bodies and clothes were "clean," although red residue remained sporadically for days to follow.

I went downstairs to check on the status of my lost rucksack. It was still in Toronto and had no time frame for arrival in Kathmandu.

I headed upstairs to take a nap. Steve and I later hit the town for a bite to eat after being assured that peace had fallen on the war zone that was Thamel. We were both very skeptical, so we headed to a nearby rooftop cafe for dinner and backgammon. It was my second night in Nepal, and I was quickly building memories that would last a lifetime. Moreover, Steve and I had survived Holi.

(I later heard stories about how Holi is celebrated in India. Unlike what I experienced in Nepal, which is also predominately a Hindu nation, many men apparently use the holiday as an excuse to release their sexual oppression, towards women and men alike. I could imagine that women would need to be very careful during Holi in Kathmandu, but I could hardly believe the stories that I heard about what others had experienced in India, mainly from people who had been in or near Varanasi on Holi that I later met in Chitwan National Park.)

The following day Steve and I ate brunch at another rooftop restaurant, Les Yeux, our new favorite hangout, recovering from our previous day's experience. We had talked in the days prior about trekking the Annapurna Circuit together. But now that my rucksack was lost in transit without an estimated time of arrival, it appeared that our plans would need to be altered. (I had called Austrian Airlines earlier in the morning and was told that my bag was in transit to Kathmandu but I could not given a location or an estimated time of arrival.)

I had known that Steve wanted to travel to Lukla and the Everest Base Camp. We talked about it and our plans at brunch. I told him that I understood if he wanted to leave for Lukla. Afterall, it could take days before my bag would arrive, and one could not be sure if it would be damaged or not, etc. So after lunch we booked his flight to Lukla-- he was assured that early morning flight would be a action-packed, the 14-seat prop plane weaving around the highest mountain peaks in the world. We spent the rest of the day acquiring gear that he would need for his trip.

Dinner was shared at Les Yeux, followed by backgammon, of course. We talked about plans of meeting after Steve's journey to Base Camp. We agreed to meet back in Kathmandu in or around March 17th. I was planning to trek the Langtang Region, about 100km north of Kathmandu, close to the Tibetan border, anyhow, and would use this gap in our travel plans to trek the trail.

The next morning Steve woke me up at 5:45am. We embraced and wished each other luck in each other's travels. Naturally, neither of us knew if we would, indeed, meet up again in Kathmandu, as such is travel life, but I knew that I would make every effort to meet Steve again around our intended date. I knew that he would be in Kathmandu on the 17th, pending any changes in his flight from Lukla, which is never out of question due to its proximity and the sudden, drastic changes in weather that occurs near the highest mountains in the world.

I feel back asleep, happy to have spent my first days in Nepal with such a great person. I could only hope to be lucky enough to continue to meet people as nice as Steve. (I could hardly believe my ears the night before Steve's departure when we talked about our room costs. Steve had paid partially for his room in advance and told me that I only needed to pay for the last night. He would cover the previous four nights. I relented, but he insisted. Unreal!) It goes without saying that Steve had set a high standard for other people I would meet.

I woke up a few hours later, my head still hazy but excited to hit the streets for food. I posted an ad on the Kathmandu Guest House bulletin board looking for partners for my Langtang trek and headed toward Les Yeux.

I preferred to hike with someone rather than hiring a porter or guide. I knew that if I had a partner that we could navigate the trail fine, and I wanted to carry my bag anyway. I needed to prepare myself for the Annapurna Circuit and Sanctuary treks. Langtang would be a perfect training ground.

After having yet another wonderful brunch, my mind wondering quite often about Steve's whereabouts and thoughts about Lukla, a headed back to my temporary home to check on the status of my bag.

Naturally, it had arrived in Kathmandu-- the day of Steve's departure. Much to my chagrin, I had to hire a cab (500 rps) in order to pick it up at the airport, since the airlines do not deliver bags in Nepal.

Other than a slight tear on the lower pocket, my bag had arrived intact and with all of its contents. I headed back "home," happy to finally be able to move forward with my trip. I intended to leave for Langtang within two days, with or without a partner, and started to research gear upon my arrival in Thamel.

The next morning I was online checking my e-mail and was just about to sign off (it was noon) when I received a note from Carolyn Boot. She was also looking to do the Langtang trek and was looking for a partner as well. She had seen my note at the guest house. Excited at the prospect of possibly having a trekking parter, I immediately responded to her note. Thirty minutes later we met in the restaurant adjacent to my guest house and talked about traveling together over a cup of coffee.

Carolyn is a fellow North American, whose family currently resides in Ottawa, Canada. She had been to Nepal several times before and had already completed the Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit treks twice and the Annapurna Sanctuary once. I was relieved to have a travel partner and elated to have met someone with previous trekking experience (she had plenty!). We seemed to hit it off well too, which is the most important factor when looking for a trekking partner. I couldn't wait to start trekking!

We decided to leave for Langtang the next day and would spend the rest of the afternoon buying/renting equipment-- we would purchase our bus ticket to Syaphru Besi, the starting point of the Langtang Trek, tomorrow morning at the bus station. We grabbed dinner at Tashi Delek, a local Tibetan restaurant in the heart of Thamel, and discussed the next morning's plans.

Carolyn would leave a few items in my room tonight so that she did not have to carry them home tonight, and we would meet at 5am the next morning at my guest house and take a cab to the bus park.

After dinner, Carolyn came back to my guest house to drop her things off and headed back to her abode to pack. I started to determine what I needed to bring on the trek and what I could leave at the guest house. An hour later, I was finished packing and ready to hit the sack, hoping that my wake up call would be on-time the next morning.

A local "tour guide" hassling Steve close to Durbar Square.

Durbar Square and the mountains of the Kathmandu Valley from the Festival Fare Restaurant-- Steve and my first real Nepali meal.

Steve taking a break at the restaurant.

A view of the Hanuman Dhoka (the Old Royal Palace) in Durbar Square.

A Hanuman (monkey god) statue in Durbar Square.

A view of Taleju Temple, the largest (and most striking) temple in Durbar Square.

Kumari Bahal (House of the Living Goddess).

Children in Durbar Square.

An typical alleyway close to Makhan Tole, northeast of Durbar Square.

Vishnumati River looking southward.

Vishnumati River looking northward.

A rooftop view of Kathmandu, looking west toward Thamel Chowk (intersection), at night.

A rooftop view of passerbys on Holi. (Photo provided by Steve Jackson)

Steve and I after our tour of duty on Holi. (Steve Jackson)


Anonymous said...

CJ, All I can say is WOW.... And THANK YOU for taking the time to describe your experiences for all of us. I am looking forward to hearing more!

Anonymous said...

I hope the paint did not ruin your lovely trecking boots!