Kathmandu, Nepal: Namaste’s and other cliches

IMG_0496(Sigh) Finally! I can use the word ‘Namaste’ without feeling like a total New Age newbie, intoning with every simple ‘hello’ the implied meaning that ‘I bow to the divine in you while you return a bow to the tourist in me’ when all I really want to do is say ‘hi’ or maybe ‘good morning’ and you can do that here, since it’s embedded in the language, like Hindi, no accident, brought here by the Gurkhas and now the lingua franca for lack of better options. It is close to Hindi and uses the same Devanagari alphabet…

Considering that two months ago to the day I had a catheter up my little thingie AND THAT FELT GOOD considering the options, I’m glad to able to take 3mi/5km walks these mornings in Kathmandu, just like old times just like old spaces old places, last here some twenty-odd years ago, and then only briefly, figured no big deal “I’ll be back soon” and it never happened until now on the spur of the moment through inspiration in the most unlikely of places: my in-laws…

IMG_0499Comparisons to India the country and culture with which it is contiguous, are most obvious, especially the Pahar Ganj district of New Delhi with Thamel here. But if you close your eyes, spin three times, and then re-open them, then it could be almost anywhere in the Third World, that is defined by its hip(pi)ness and branded by backpackers: Khaosarn Road in Bangkok, Kuta Beach in Bali, Calle Santander in Panajachel or wherever…

Or you could go back even farther to the source in space and time of Haight-Ashbury, San Fran, and then there’s Freak Street, Soi Ngam Duphli, Ajijic, Tangier, and Kabul. But that was a different era. Still there are distinct differences from northern India, mostly for the better: 1) Nepal has fewer cows on the street, thus CLEANER, 2) Nepal has grocery stores, something unheard of in New Delhi and northern India, 3) No matter how crowded and chaotic, Nepal is less so than India, and 4) Food (though not street food) is more varied, with notable contributions from China and Tibet: fried rice, chowmein, momos and thukpa…

Sound good? It’s growing on me, too, after the initial shock of its poverty, even worse than India, and not helped by its recent Lost Decade, in which the monarchy self-destructed as Maoists fought to topple the same. Then there was last year’s earthquake. Remember that? No, I didn’t think so—me, either. Since then, tourism is coming back and the country is on the upswing…

IMG_0495So every day I radiate farther and farther from my hotel in an ever-widening circle from the source. Making mental maps is necessary in Nepal, where street names are almost non-existent. Dead reckoning means counting turns from the main route, making notes of landmarks, like all the addresses in India, and some in Costa Rica, do…

I’ve only been truly totally lost while traveling twice in my entire life—once in Dakar, Senegal, and again in Sanaa, Yemen. It’s NOT a pleasant feeling, knowing that with each step you’re only getting deeper into the maze. In those situations, though, there’s only one person you can call—your local taxista…

It helps if you have a business card from your hotel with you at the time, though that’s not always possible, say, if your hotel has none, like the local qat-chewers in Yemen, on the edge of the vast sprawling market. Dead reckoning won’t help you there, UNLESS you don’t make a single turn the whole time, until it spits you out the other side, wherever that may be. So even though I knew to stop when I did, we still drove back and forth until I found something I recognized. Whew !

I don’t care much about ‘sights’ as such, anyway, especially since I’m here to attend a Buddhist monastery, but not much anyway, regardless. I’m pretty much from the ‘Long March’ school of backpacker tourism, which relies on random encounters for little thrills, like the little girl who takes my hand and walks with me a block or two, or the shoe-shine boy, complete with story, enough to double-up his pay, since he’s gonna’ take it upon himself to repair my classic leathers anyway…

IMG_0498My days are largely scheduled around the power outages. In Nepal, getting a good Wi-Fi signal is the least of your problems. Getting electricity is the real challenge, with power out typically half the day. What decade is this? What century? About the only thing predictable about the blackouts is that they won’t occur during the night. Stock up on it when it’s available…

But you’ll have plenty of power while you sleep, if the drunks downstairs out on the street will let you. This is Party Central, for Nepal, at least, even if mild by Bangkok standards. A band plays an early Beatles hit outside my window somewhere: can you imagine somebody playing Al Jolson to us back in the 60’s or 70’s? Have we reached a cultural plateau?

Life is weird—and ever-changing. Durbar Square charges $10 for admission now, to all obvious tourists, at least, but this can be ‘hacked’, just pick an entrance other than the broad way leading from Thamel Street and avoid the guy who wants to show you Kumaree the virgin princess. And wear a baseball cap like the stars do in Hollywood. And don’t ask questions: worked for me twice. Harder still is avoiding Thamel while staying there. The noise and crowds get loud and old, think I’ll stay at Freak Street next time, rooms for four bucks and counting, plenty of history there…

IMG_0480The temps are nice this time of year, a bit rainy, but not overbearing, and fairly predictable: the clouds roll in every mid-afternoon. I’m going vegetarian again for the first time in two years, no buff nor boeuf, and that’s easy to do here, where you can eat a good meal for a dollar easily at the locals’ places. Prices increase in direct proportion from tourist ground zero in Thamel. I’ve had a plate of chow mein for as little as thirty-five cents US. That’s cheap. They have good coffee here and peanut butter at a reasonable price. I’m good. Now if only the monastery had Wi-Fi. That’s where I’ll be next week…

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