I sleepily looked out my window after waking up to see two large monkeys hopping around on the roof opposite mine, an instant reminder that yes, I was in Nepal. I closed the curtains again quickly, blinking and half thinking it was still a dream. I ventured down to breakfast and ordered a Nepali meal of whipped sweet yogurt, puffed whole wheat frybread, potato curry, and Masala tea.
Though sitting in the Kathmandu Guest House oasis- with foreigners speaking English, no sign of poverty, and many cozy enclaves to sit and read in- felt quite comforting, I also felt antsy to get into the city. However, Ellen was arriving a day late, and I was not keen on venturing out of the gates to the hotel alone. So I timidly sat in the lobby and the restaurant, hoping someone would join me and I could then see if they wanted to go explore the city, so I would not have to iniate conversation. Finally, I bit the bullet, told myself to stop being ridiculous, and mustered up the bravery to talk to two women speaking French. The first was leaving that afternoon, but the second, Annalise, also had two friends who were not arriving till later. We agreed, then, to meet in half an hour to walk around the city (yes!).
In Thamel, the tourist district, a collage of flourescent signs all overlapping and competing plastered the sky between the buildings lining the streets. Shops sold “North Face” waterproof bags, small Buddhist or Hindi carved souveneirs, and cheap food, all collaborating to form a colorful and overcrowded shmear of trinkets and merchandise down the side of every street. As we entered the area through with most tourists only pass through in taxis and became the only white people on the street, shops became more practical. Cows meandered along the sides of the roads, picking through the copius amounts of trash piled where the sidewalk would normally exist. We walked through neighborhoods with run down old buildings and occasionally some that looked nice, but the hectic pulse of traffic remained constant no matter the district. To cross streets, we had to pick our way around angrily honking stopped cars, speeding motorcycles, and bikes, all with no regard for the imaginary center divide on the road or for the rubbernecked pedestrians attempting to weave a way through it all.
We wound through neighborhoods to Pashputinath, and navigated a path through private residences and temples down to the river where the locals held cremations. Underneath strands of prayer flags crossing the river and around a corner, smoke rose from our side of the river. We continued tentatively until we arrived by a bridge overlooking four or five cremation fires, all in different stages of decomposition. One waxy foot stuck out from under flaming kindling. Many appeared just like normal fires. In the distance, strong men hoisted a body swaddled in white and orange cloth onto a pile of wood and set it aflame. The wind changed directions, blowing smoke upriver and towards us. Everyone around lifted a scarf or the corner of a t-shirt to avoid inhaling smoke derived from burning human flesh. But it was death, and this was this culture’s way of dealing with it.
We continued along, and followed another road of honking and swerving vehicles before turning abruptly into Bodhnath, the stupa. Somehow, a mere 10 meters away from the road and with a cirlce of buildings protecting the stupa, we had suddenly entered a zone of peace and quiet. Through the same overcrowded shops selling trinkets encircled the stupa, it had an entirely different vibe. The friendly eyes atop the stupa watched over strands of prayer flags that stretched down from the top, highlighted in the sun and gently flapping in the wind. Munks, tourists, hindus, buddhists all walked clockwise around the structure, spinning the bells embedded in the walls of the stupa and sometimes chanting. We quietly made our counterclockwise loop, peeled off to a rooftop cafe overlooking the stupa, then bartered for a cab to return to the guest house.
Though Kathmandu was exhilirating and hectic, and the thought of exiting the gates to the Kathmandu Guest House again today seems daunting, I never felt scared. We simply had to look straight ahead and not maintain eye contact with anyone to avoid being hassled. And somehow, this managed to feel neither pretentious nor pompous; we were not assuming superiority over anyone who tried to talk to us. There existed a mutual understanding that the reluctance to exchange a glance was only practical, an act done out of the need to survive in the city. We walked along, maintaining our separate lives from the people who we saw and passed. I am excited to venture into the city again today, with the initial shock now somewhat supressed, and try to absorb everything again… because everything here is so different from what I know, but there’s a different sort of beauty in it that is thrilling to me to explore.