A Year in Nepal” is a book I have been writing since the beginning of this year, 2019. I’d got to my 6th chapter and somehow ran out of steam, lots of ideas, content, adventures, but just couldn’t continue or explain it! I let it sit there for two months, and despite encouragement from friends in Kathmandu, nothing! So, I’ve decided to try something completely different. Every week, Wednesday’s, I’ll post one of my chapters for comment, feedback good or bad, it will all be absorbed. If there’s silence, that tells me something too. Let me ask everyone stopping by here for help, do please comment, reblog, Facebook it, etc etc., all will be accepted, acknowledged, replied to. Here’s the first chapter, First Impressions, from my first ever day in Nepal: (You should start from previous chapters published here Our Book, A Year in Nepal)
First impressions: “Where is everyone going?”
It is not enough to be busy, so are the ants, the question is: What are we busy about? (Henry David Thoreau)
First impressions can often be extremely judgemental when visiting a new country for the first time and subsequently misleading too. A bit like a new wine where first sniff and smell bear no relation to the second glass or the rest of the bottle on the next day. So it was with Nepal, or more specifically Kathmandu as we battled our way through the utter chaos of Tribhuvan International Airport to be greeted by Dr C’s family after rescuing our baggage from the most dilapidated revolving gizmo I have ever seen. It was an emotional reunion, her parents were quite old now, and many of her nieces and nephews were grown up from when she had last seen them 13 years ago.
Having piled into several taxis I know that my first impressions were related to “smells, sounds, colours, architecture and the fact that it was bloody raining yet still very hot. Welcome to Monsoon Season in an August Kathmandu! I know all this because I wrote it down in a hefty logbook, no iPhone, iPad or note taking apps in those days!
“Amongst my notes were a sentence or two about cars, motor bikes, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, goats, cows, geese ….. it was utter chaos”
I’d written a simple line which said …. “where the hell is everyone going, its 3pm so why aren’t they all at work or at home?” and this was really the true first impression that has stuck with me to this day. Our journey took us from the airport, a considerable distance across the city, to Chauuni, a small district under the hill housing Swayambhu, the oldest and most significant Buddhist Monastery and Temple complex in Nepal.
We drove along tarmac roads, earth packed streets and the occasional dirt track, never in a straight line and never continuously without stopping and horn blaring. So many people and vehicles, where are they all going? I just couldn’t get this out of my head and to this day it still baffles me, but I get ahead of myself.
The more I observed this apparent “undirected movement” of Nepali people however, the more I realised how wrong I was. It wasn’t manic scurrying around, it was actually quite patient and very slow if walking, and similarly slow, by western standards anyway, if in a vehicle. In fact the walkers went at the pace of the goats, cows and geese they were surrounded by, and the vehicle traffic was then controlled by the walkers that surrounded it. I doubt that most traffic in Nepal moves at an average speed above 20mph, with the tuk tuks doing considerably less.
On one particular morning I awoke quite early in my eldest sister-in-laws house at Chaunni and went out for a walk. Hearing music …. drums, cymbals, horns …. I went to the end of the lane and found hundreds of people walking slowly and methodically up towards the top of Swayambhu. It was just a few minutes after sunrise, no traffic yet just people, men, women, and children. Their gait and speed was in time to the music from numerous groups of musicians. Where is everyone going? It turned out to be the festival of Gunla, a celebration of the Newari caste, Buddhists, my wife’s caste, who walk to the top of Swayambhu each morning in August.
“In the warrens and alleys of the old city, musicians young and old practice and prepare for their part in the ancient, melodic pilgrimage of Gunla.”
These people had a direction and a purpose, their devotion and enjoyment of both was obvious when you got up close and mixed with them. It wasn’t cult-like, it was a happy, friendly, peaceful celebration of their heritage, their religion and their musical traditions. They not only knew where they were going, they knew where they had come from too.
“Hi mum, hi dad, it’s me, happy new year ..”
On a completely separate occasion Ged and I had summited Yala Peak in the Himalayan region of Langtang and were trekking back to the village of Syabrubensi where we could get a bus back into Kathmandu. Ged had flown out to Nepal a couple of weeks earlier, his first trip to the Himalaya though he had climbed lots on Baffin Island as well as in the UK. We were both a bit the worse for wear from drinking too much of the local firewater the previous night; it had been my birthday and Ged foolishly told the whole village we lodged at! There were lots of people on the trail heading down, mostly young men and women, all quite noisy, but walking with that measured gait and pace again.
“Where is everyone going” I asked Bhakta our expedition boss. “To use the telephone” he said, “it’s Nepal New Years Day today, did you forget?”. I replied that I hadn’t forgotten, but it WAS April!, But why were they all going to Syabrubensi to use a telephone? The answer was that they were mostly workers in the trek lodges, cafes, porters, guides, all living away from home and it was their duty to phone their parents especially on this special day …. in the middle of April! I know, don’t ask! Anyway, when we arrived I wanted to phone my wife too in Kathmandu to let her know we’d be back later that day having been successful on one of our two target peaks. Unfortunately we found ourselves in a queue about a kilometre long ….. there was only one telephone in the whole village owned by a shopkeeper who was making a fortune. The laughter and general merriment was enlightening as each person got to the head of the queue, dialled, then said “hi mum, hi dad, it’s me, happy new year ..” then put the phone down to copious giggles and began walking back in the direction of their own village.
If ever a city was a metaphor for an ant colony ….. it’s Kathmandu
No words needed, it sure as heck must look like an ant colony from a drone’s eye view but …… where is everyone going, whether it’s midweek, a weekend, a festival day, morning or afternoon, city buses, cross country buses or pedestrians in Ason, central Kathmandu! Everyone is going somewhere, always, so get used to it and just go with the flow!
First Impressions: A Few Things To Understand and Remember
• Allow plenty of time for any journey, especially if travelling by car, taxi or bus.
• Beware of crossing the road, even if traffic is stationery, motorbikes are zig zagging between cars and buses.
• Slow down personally! Walk slower, develop the Kathmandu Shuffle!
• Walking around Kathmandu you will be approached by beggars and street hawkers on the look out for gullible tourists. Develop the 1000 yard stare, don’t react, continue walking.
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