Saturday, June 12, 2010

Kathmandu Day 5

Namaste,

So far the city is keeping its charm. The relentless honking is still more useful (to avoid getting hit) than annoying, the zoo of birds and traffic noises from our windows at night haven’t yet prevented too much sleep and I have yet to get sick of wearing a facemask. On the note of traffic, we spoke with the ambassador yesterday who said that we must not, under any circumstances, drive. It is too easy to hit people and things get bad real fast if you do hit someone. He said he has seen crowds form, pull a driver from their car and light it on fire in a matter of minutes. This might seem like an exaggeration but given the heated arguments I see in the streets on a daily basis and the crowds that do form instantly it’s not a stretch to imagine the flying fists turn into flying matches. Another story we heard was of a member of the Russian delegation who got pulled out of his car by a crowd and thrown onto the ground while three policemen stood by and watched. We are convinced to avoid driving.

In Dakar there was a learning curve of figuring out how to be independent, what was safe/unsafe, how much things should cost, etc. It’s not easy in a new country, particularly a developing one. Even at the end of my time in Dakar I would still sometimes make mistakes, overpay and get cheated. It happens. There is a lot that I learned there that is serving me well here though. It’s important to be cautious but not intimated, to try many new things (within reason) and to try and meet the people who actually live where you are visiting. So far I have taken my first taxis and minibuses, traversed much of the city on foot, seen a bunch of temples, eaten some Nepalese food, drank some traditional Indian milk tea in an Indian’s tent–home and gotten lost several times (successfully finding my way after asking for directions).

Simple politeness and efforts to speak the local languages go miles (*ahem*, kilometers. What are we doing U.S.?). Even if your only reward is a big smile and they point you in the wrong direction anyway (since the Nepalese think it’s more polite to guess than to tell you they don’t know the direction) it seems more than worth it for me. But often you get invitations to sit down and have some tea, talk, and learn a lot. In business dealings it can be crucial – the difference between being taken as an ignorant foreigner versus someone who has come to learn about the culture he is living in.
On a less savory note, I have contracted my first health issue here in Kathmandu: diarrhea. I’m not concerned given how exceedingly common traveler’s diarrhea is. It’s also not much of a surprise since I haven’t exactly been as careful as I should be with the food. If I am lucky this will blow over soon!

A few things I have noticed in the past week:

-    There are a lot of people who make money solely by carrying huge and immensely heavy loads across town. The work is, literally, backbreaking … the trick seems to be angling the body forward so that the weight is distributed mostly on the hips and forehead via strips of fabric that brace the load on the head. Most of the loads are taller than the men who carry them. A lot of the men who do this work are extraordinarily old and it’s heartbreaking to think of what doing that every day does to their bodies.
-    Face masks are quite common, on the major streets I would guess 1 out of every 10 or so people are wearing face masks of different qualities. The air here is not fun.
-    I’m really not sure how the Nepalese deal with homosexuality, but I have noticed that men seem comfortable with extensive physical contact much like in Senegal. So far I have seen lots of men walking down the street holding hands, something not uncommon in Senegal but rarer in the U.S.
-    Heading into Thamel, a touristy part of downtown where there are many guest houses, hotels, vendors, trekking/outdoor sports agencies and general tourist catering, I was surprised to see a huge overabundance of signage. It reminded me most of images I have seen of East Asian countries. Talk about visual pollution … as Coline said, it’s silly because having so many signs is self-defeating since you never focus on one and can’t find the one you want.
-    I love the music, especially in public transportation like minibuses.

That’s all for now, wish me good health! We are off to Patan for this afternoon and tomorrow.