Timeless Kathmandu

Kathmandu is a city of contradictions. While many many tourists walk the streets of the upscale Thamel area, which reminds me of Toronto’s Kensington Market with much better shopping but minus the diversity, you have to walk 10 minutes in the right direction and suddenly you are in the middle of a timeless courtyard that has been lived in for hundreds of years and is still used to this day. Or see the bizarre Toothache Shrine with many needles:

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Or find an ancient temple on which cloth are displayed for sale:

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Or walk by a porter hurling a heavy load on his back as if cars were never invented:

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A big part of the allure of places like these is the enigmatic feeling of suddenly being transported to another time. The sounds, smells and general vibes of Kathmandu’s old city have a magically timeless quality to them.

Of course, there are Coca Cola ads everywhere, everyone has a cell phone and it’s hard to avoid cars and motorcycles but you can turn into a narrow path lined with leaning walls and exposed electricity wires, dodge a few motorcyclists and ragged children and suddenly you are face-to-face with a 1000 year old shrine, “unprotected” and still used on a daily basis for prayers. In Nepal (and many parts of Asia), history is alive and well and not a concept in a museum.

The magical thing about these places is not that there is a lot of culture and history here; it is the fact that these traditions are still alive and have been continuously alive for centuries. I really enjoy this experience but am also aware of a deep contradiction that it entails.

There are many things to admire about different traditions and many values that should be cherish and preserved. But there are also many aspects that should not and travelling here provides an excellent chance to see the reality and be humbled by the complexity of culture.

The traveller if he or she scratches the surface of the picturesque can easily find the grotesque: child labour, thwarted lower casts, suppressed women. It’s easy to generalize and and pass a verdict on old traditions as either misunderstood treasure troves of wisdom or blind systems of oppression. But the real challenge is to stay calm, observe and decide what to take in your backpack and what to leave behind hoping it would transform soon!

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Transience

Awake. Disoriented. What time is it? 8. PM or AM? PM, crap! My afternoon nap turned into a 6 hour sleep. The joys of being jet lagged. OK, what’s next? Perhaps if I brush my teeth I feel better. I do and also the tap I turned on with a vague hope for hot water actually exudes hot water. Shower? Sure. And I’ll shave now that I’ve started a hygienic routine.

Transience or rather an awareness of it is what makes travel so special for me. The fact that I will not be here tomorrow or next week or next month, that I will disappear from here, at the best of times, awakens a sort of mindfulness and mad lust for life in me that can be quite addictive. An urge to experience without fear of failure. To talk to strangers, eat unusual foods, dance and walk and swim until exhausted. I have tried to bring this feeling back to my everyday life and have been successful to some extent but awareness can not be faked. It should be lived.

Life is transient no matter where you are and what you do and yet living “at home” a lot of times slides us into mind numbing routines that postpone everything to next day or next week or next month until you feel your whole life is postponed. When growing up, I had good friends who were too polite to say “no”. Whenever they were offered something they didn’t want to do they said, “later”.

Arrival in Kathmandu

The process of getting a visa upon arrival in Kathmandu feels enjoyably personal. You hand in a couple of forms, a picture and money and a team of four officials hurriedly go over them, put a stamp in your passport and there you go! No bulletproof glass, no cold stares, no finger print machines and no cameras, I couldn’t see their desks but I almost suspect the clerks were actually writing our names in a big thick ledger!

 

The first thing I noticed coming into Kathmandu was that a significant number of people wear air masks. It took me a couple of minutes to breath in their reasons: incredible amounts of dust in the air and chocking exhaust everywhere. Kathmandu rivals big Indian cities in terms of noise and general chaos but the people seem more chilled out than in Delhi or Agra for example. While I saw a number of street children, many sniffing glue and looking wild eyed and wasted, there weren’t a lot of aggressive beggars and the few were quietly lying on the ground or beckoning from the side of the road. 

 

The area I am staying at, Thamel, is touristy but has an interesting vibe to it. There are many young people with spiritual, social and environmental interests travelling here. I met a couple of Belgian teachers in my rundown hotel last night and they mentioned there are a lot of people who come here to volunteer. There are many Japanese restaurants, European bakeries and supermarkets in this area, institutions whose very existence is a clear sign of the effect of foreign travellers on the fabric of society. These scenes start to look more and more similar to each other no matter if you are in Peru, Guatemala or Nepal. They cater to a specific category of travellers that I call “seekers”. 

 

Seekers don’t have a lot of money and are more interested in culture, history and art of a region than it’s luxury hotels or sumptuous meals, although they enjoy extravagance once in a while, especially after a long trek or desperate days spent in impoverished areas. They are interested in genuine human connections and love to talk about social change, spiritual and cultural experiences and how they incorporate their experiences (or not) with their life “back home”. While they romanticize the places they travel in (if they have not had too many disappointing experiences, they tend to categorize the young people of the third world as unfortunate angels and their elders as wise sages) they feel connected to where they come from and generally believe they can bring something back. 

 

I love these people and feel I am one of them too. I understand the contradictions that they face. For example, their disenchantment with Western consumerism and yet their obsession with small comforts such as pizza, coffee and hot showers; their sense of survival guilt that makes them more tolerant towards the faults and bad intentions of people from any culture other than their own; and their use of travel and spiritual experiences to boost their egos and justify the often dull life they have to go back to when they return. I don’t want to be cynical and the reason I mention these is because I feel I am part of this movement and as such feel responsible to make explicit its shortcomings as well as strengths. I believe that is the only way to evolve. 

 

On the positive side, seekers can bring about genuine positive change and foster true connections. Once in Guatemala, I met a man who was truly interested in my travel and work experiences as I was in his. We talked for hours about positive social values, Sufism, native spirituality, travel and culture. He was one of the most honest and respectful people I have seen and I will cherish this connection for ever. And this was one of many! I remember when I was a kid in Iran, living on the other side of the equation, I starved to meet someone from across the world to talk about their culture and experiences. 

 

The hustlers and crooks who fake interest in a seeker with the aim of using his or her money, body or influence should not embitter us about the value of cultural and social dialogue. Humans are a mix of light and darkness and as such we have a responsibility to play our part in an interaction and make honest choices. One of my hidden skills is somehow attract a certain kind of hustler and yesterday was no different. I met a young man who tried hard to convince me to hang out with him. After futile offers of being my guide, buying me hashish and taking me to see horsemanship competitions, he finally tried a very interesting line of argument: “let’s go have tea and exchange knowledge, I am from Nepal, you are foreigner, we have much to talk about”. I was surprised: even hustlers have awakened to the seeker’s desire for connection. I didn’t go for tea with this young man, as his other offers had put me off already but it was interesting to hear an argument for intercultural collaboration from a hustler, a sign that as always the streets are listening and the world is to a large extent our own reflection.