I spent the flight from Dubai from Kathmandu re-learning the Nepali alphabet from the elderly couple, Basu and Indira, sitting next to me. I say re-learning because I thought I already knew all 47 letters by heart, but it turned out the book I had been using was gave correct penmanship or pronunciation on half the letters. There are also distinctive ways to write vowels mid-word, as well as half letters, special conjunct characters, and other confusing eccentricities. I got the couple’s email address, and have been in touch with them since.
Now I’ve gone from the USandA to London/Paris to Athens to Abu Dhabi/Dubai to Kathmandu. In one simplistic, and maybe offensive, way of viewing this journey, I’ve gone from new money to old money to oldest money to newest money to… no money.
I’m sorry to put it that way, but its impossible not to draw financial comparisons when, in 5 hours, you go from staring up at the Burj Khalifa to observing two airport security guards watching soccer on a B&W TV with a screen barely larger than that of my iPhone.
Remember how I was extolling the narrow cobbled streets of Paris a week ago? Well, now I hate narrow cobbled streets, specifically those that are a Velcro pad of people on foot, on bikes, on motorbikes, rickshaws, cars, all shouting and honking and jumping into your personal bubble while stray dogs and stray cats and stray holy cows wander mindlessly. The cows must know they’re considered holy, because they do.not.give.a.shit about any speeding vehicle that threatens to cut them into a pile of filets and tenderloin. Drivers seem to aim for dogs and goats, but they always show more caution around the bovine obstacles.
Hoping to do my part to add to this absolute fustercluck, I rented a motorbike for myself. I had a little spill on a motorbike last year in Vietnam, so if you think me unlikely to repeat the risk on roads much rougher and crowded-er, then you don’t know my intense aversion to paying cab fares. Even taken into account $5 in gas and a stolen helmet that cost $9 to replace (which I did right away, mom), the bike was financially prudent, and a hell of a good time. I took it all around the city to visit temples and explore. One temple, Pashupati Nath, was the oldest Hindu structure in the world, and had public cremations constantly burning along the river.
One day I drove 60 km past rice farms and rural villages, hairpinning my way up to a peak called Nagarkot. What a wonderful feeling to be on the wide, open, and smooth interstate! Most of the way, it was nothing like that. Occasionally I’d find myself drafting behind a heavy bus spewing dust and black smoke right down my gullet. I could smell the gas, feel it nestling on my eyeballs, and taste it in my mouth. Do I pass this stupid fat thing? Hang back and continue to drive in dispersing clouds of its opaque flatulence? Decisions decisions. When I pulled down my helmet visor and wrapped a handkerchief over my nose and mouth, I made a despicable and insidious sight, and the locals were less eager to help me with directions.
Fortunately, I saw enough poverty during last years trip to Asia that I was spared the inclination to be fascinated by the abysmal living conditions. I’ve always felt awkward taking a photo of some unfortunate soul who is poor even in one of the poorest places in the world, questioning to myself why I want a picture. To make me feel good about what I am fortunate enough to have? Because I think poverty is part of the place’s story? To prove I’m a worldly guy who has seen it all? Among the sights I passed by without capturing electronically- a man taking a steaming dump on the road as cars and bikes swerved around him, another lying on the cement completely covered by buzzing flies, or a third crouching on the side of the road with a blue trash bag wrapped around his head like a doo-rag.
To be honest, I really don’t have a ton of positive things to say about Kathmandu. It was polluted and crowded, and even the temples or big attractions I saw were relatively pallid compared to those I saw last year in SE Asia. In contrast, though, the people were friendly, smiling, and always eager to indulge me when I asked them how to say something in Nepali. The food was pretty fantastic as well, especially the momos- round dumplings filled with meat or veggies and fried. Much to my surprise, steak was readily available at many places- one night I had a big and delicious steak, probably my last for almost a year, that was perfectly cooked and covered with cheese (a sacrilege at my request). It would have cost $25 in New York, and only put me back $2.
Tomorrow, I head to Birendranagar. Goodbye, Kathmandu, you shall be slightly missed!