My visions of Nepal were initially comprised of dramatic landscapes (the famed Everest), prayer flags, trekkers, and colorful temples. Upon arriving in Kathmandu, there is only one word that comes to mind: chaos. Absolute chaos.
A representative from Habitat for Humanity greets me and several other volunteers at the airport. Though we have an escort to our hotel in Thamel, nothing can protect us from the throngs of people rushing forward to “help carry” our luggage – for a small $20USD tip of course. Those loyal Readers will remember that I encountered a similar hustle in Beijing.
Safely situated in the quiet of our van, my fellow volunteers and I breathe a sigh of relief and take in the sights outside of our windows. Kathmandu unfolds before us in all of its gritty glory. Horns blare as cars, motorbikes, and tuk tuks weave around each other without any apparent regard for traffic regulations. Young children knock on the windows of our van each time we slow to let another vehicle pass, hoping for a handout. I’m not entirely surprised by the chaos, but I am overwhelmed by it nonetheless. Aside from a short trip to Bogotá, most of my jaunts have been through Europe – a veritable Disneyland for travelers. Clearly, we are not in Disneyland anymore.
A Festival of Colors
Our group has a few days to explore Kathmandu before we travel to central Nepal for our build in Pokhara. As it happens, our arrival coincides with the Hindu celebration of spring called Holi or the Festival of Colors. The Nepalis celebrate by launching water balloons and covering one another – and innocent passersby – with colored chalk (think: The Color Run). The hotel staff warns us not to go out if we don’t want to get caught in the crossfire but, of course, that’s exactly what we want! Not even two blocks from our hotel, I am pelted from above with water balloons. I look up to see three small boys leaning out of a window. They giggle and wave. “Happy Holi!” they shout. A few more steps away I am approached by some teenage boys who rub colored chalk on my face.
It doesn’t take long for the best holiday ever to turn into what feels like absolute guerilla warfare with color and water balloons. I can’t help but notice the rest of the group isn’t getting nearly as much color as I am – maybe my blonde locks are to blame. Either way, I’m done celebrating and spend several hours trying to scrub the color from my skin later that evening.
Kathmandu, I’ll Soon Be Seeing You
The next morning we make our way to Durbar Square. We stroll down dusty streets full of trash and pass several internet cafes and some shops selling touristy trinkets. Occasionally, we see a cow resting peacefully in the refuse. Hanging precariously overhead are webs of electrical cables. Kathmandu seems to be a city that has missed a few steps in its hurried attempt to modernize.
There are three “Durbar Squares” in Kathmandu Valley and all three are considered UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The squares have been around for centuries and are made up of various fountains, plazas, and temples. Almost immediately we are approached by a girl of about 7 who is anxious to show us around. When we stop in the temples, she educates us about the Hindu gods; I’m simultaneously impressed by her knowledge and nervous about her lack of adult supervision. When we pause to enjoy an open plaza, she tells us about important ceremonies that were once held there and explains the historic restoration underway nearby. Our group decides to break for lunch and one of our members offers her a few Nepali Rupees in exchange for her guidance. She becomes brash and declares, “This isn’t enough!”
You may think, dear Reader, that I am painting an unfairly grim picture of Kathmandu and its people. I can only tell you about my own experience. My point is simply: the struggle in Nepal is real. And so is the hustle.
Monkey Attacks Child. I Do Nothing.
Our group enjoys a pleasant lunch overlooking the square. I bond with another group member, Landon from Dallas, over our equally unadventurous attitudes towards food. During this time I also get to chat more with Tony, a man a few years older than me who appears to be dressed like some kind of arms dealer or vigilante. I am somewhat disappointed when I later discover that he is from Santa Barbara. (We become good friends).
I take a few bites of my “pizza” and notice there are monkeys climbing among the electrical cables. It’s one of our first monkey sightings and our group goes camera crazy. Things settle down after a moment and I watch as a group of young children on a school trip line up for their teacher. A monkey approaches a small boy who has just taken a little bag of chips from his backpack. Aw, the monkey wants to be his friend – how cute! No. Not cute. In one fell swoop the monkey snags the chips and shoves the little boy to the ground. The boy has barely let out his first cry and already the monkey is enjoying his spoils just a few steps away. I do the only thing I can and shout: “Oh, SNAP!”
**UPDATE: Several buildings in Durbar Square collapsed during the earthquake in April 2015. Want to help?