The culture shock from any other place I have been in the past few months is dramatic. This is a different world.
I am staying in a private residence with a retired couple who have four children, three of whom are professionals living and working outside Nepal (US, Canada, Australia). Nepal is losing 1500-2000 youth per day seeking employment outside the country. Not enough economic activity here, no real jobs. As one of my hosts friends was telling me today, Nepal has been in paralysis for 20 years due to the Maoist insurgency, transitioning out of monarchy and into democracy. Leadership (there are 600 elected representatives for a country of 27 million) is not visionary, focused or honest. There is much more that could be said about this. Maybe another time.
I am writing from a cafe in Thamel, the center of the city and the tourist zone. Although the streets are quite narrow, just barely accommodating tiny taxis, motorbikes and pedestrians who avoid each other with surgical precision, they are at least paved and lined with what is surely the most intense and colorful gathering of craft, traditional art, clothing, trekking and tour operators, money changers, outdoor gear and sports clothing stores ever assembled anywhere. Tourism and trekking remains a source of steady revenue for Nepal.
I am staying well northeast of downtown, where there is a lot more dirt, way less concrete, way more dust and the evidence of marginal living, marginal infrastructure and marginal government are everywhere. The less traveled roads are in serious disrepair, rutted and rocky, slowing traffic to a crawl. The high traffic roads are not a great deal better.
Traffic? Oy! No rules. Motorbikes don’t stay left because the shoulder can be dangerous. They weave in and out of traffic. Who owns the center of the road and who has the right of way is anybody’s guess at any moment. Like Thailand, Loas, Cambodia, there are few street signs, traffic control signs and very few traffic lights. Honking is constant. It’s been suggested to me that the honking is echolocation, a form of communication. Like bats.
Traffic also moves slowly with near disaster (drivers playing chicken with each other and pedestrians) averted in every moment. Sort of like human gait–which I used to call a series of narrowly averted disasters. More primitive infrastructure than any urban setting I have been in so far. No streetlights, much lower commercial lighting. Much darker at night in general. I walk with a flashlight. Haircutting by candlelight? Seriously?
My residence house is quite comfortable. Marble floors, tiled bathrooms, three story house with 4 BR, 3 baths, and a live-in housekeeper. For Nepalis in general, this is very comfortable living. There is carpeting in some rooms covered with Nepali rugs. the living room is very cool Nepali style lush with upholstered sectional couches, dark carved wood furniture, a marble fireplace. There’s a third floor puja room (meditation), also very cool, a rooftop view and a personal balcony off my room.
Construction next door (out one of my windows) will be a daytime nuisance. Out back and down the hill below (from my balcony) are a few well-kept gardens. One of them belongs to the residence next door which used to house the US embassy attaché. The embassy itself is about 10 blocks away.
The house is surrounded by a 6-ft stone wall with an iron (blind) gate (see the view from above in the photo) that remains locked at all times, a testament to the social context of distrust, although I have no idea how much crime there actually is. As far as I can tell, all private residences, schools, government buildings, some businesses are the same.
Kathmandu is also under a “load shedding” electrical power regime that enforces power outages of 10 hours per day (two blocks of five hours each) on a rotating basis in seven different geographical areas of greater Kathmandu. It has taken me a couple of days to get this schedule so I can plan my power use and activities accordingly. But Nepal is building hydroelectric infrastructure that will come on line in the next 2-3 years that will produce a surplus of energy, so much that the balance of trade with India will be corrected. That is good news and long coming.
Oh, did I mention that my host’s friend runs a major media outlet here? He wants me to talk to one of their journalists about climate change. Sounds like a great opportunity to educate a journalist and maybe get a plug for a carbon price.
I visited the Tsoknyi Gechak School this morning and met with the teachers for 3 hours. I’ll be meeting CCL Nepal over the weekend. I also met an Israeli professional photographer in the Mumbai airport and he was on my flight, staying a month and wants to do a photo shoot at the school which could also prove very beneficial.
Also met another enviro just two doors away. He owns the phone tech shop where I just got a Nepali phone number. It rained that afternoon. Hardest rain I have seen in a very long time. An afternoon thunder and cloudburst that only lasted about 10 minutes, but that happened to be the exact moment I was walking the 100m to the phone shop. I had an umbrella, but it didn’t matter much.
My hosts are good people, intelligent, socially aware and they have been very hospitable so far. And I suppose the bonus is also that they have a driver and a housekeeper. Not that I would be using the driver at all, but the housekeeper is pretty handy, like opening the gate for me when I arrive and locking the gate behind me when I leave. I tried to wash my breakfast dishes this morning and the hostess said no, this is Nepal, someone else will do your dishes. I suspect this is evidence of remaining embedded caste-related perspective about who is suited to do what in life.
No doubt I am very fortunate and will enjoy a level of safety and hospitality unmatched at any hotel, but this is a lot of adjustment…and quickly. If I had chosen to stay in Thamel, services would be easily accessible and I wouldn’t have to be using taxis.
The power situation slows down everything I do, editing power points, writing, managing photos, researching tourist exploration I want to be doing, even looking for somewhere to rent a scooter. But rent a scooter I did. Now, if only the maps were correct!