Location: Kathmandu valley, Nepal
Walking in Kathmandu
Having spent some time now in Kathmandu, on and off, I've started to get know the streets a bit, which is impressive given that many curve and/or cut across each other diagonally. However, it's not all fun: they're very dusty, very busy narrow streets, which are typically one to 1.5 lanes wide. Imagine lots of people, motorcycles, bicycles, and cars going across the 1-lane street with fumes spewing, dust everywhere, and constant horn blowing. In some cases motorcycle horns are ear-piercing and headache-inducing that I've contemplated wearing earplugs on more than one occasion. To make things worse, even with all this traffic, some motorcyclists like to go fast in between people and other traffic, as if the streets are empty; needless to say I felt that I was narrowly missed a couple of times; actually, I have been bumped twice: once by the side mirror of a motorcycle, which luckily was going slow, and the other by a cyclist himself, who for some reason decided to ride on the extreme left even though the middle of the street was wide open.
Moreover, there are scheduled power outages across Nepal; each area is affected for 2-3 hours, twice a week. While some shops have generators, most don't; thus, in many alleys and streets, on such days, one is walking through very dark areas; at times I wanted to pull out my flashlight, as the streets are never flat, with many potholes, but as soon as I have that thought, I pass a store with its lights on.
Air quality (or lack there of)
Kathmandu's, and nearby Patan's for that matter, has terrible air pollution, causing me to buy a mask and wear it most of the time when I walk its streets. There's smog on most days, which is unfortunate, as on a given clear day one can see the Himalayas but instead one can only see as far as a few hundred meters instead. Along with the smog, and car/motorcycle fumes, there's the smell of burning garbage. For a few days, there's was a garbage collection strike in the city, and piles of it where left on street corners, adding to the wonderful aromas that one can smell already. In addition, as if the air quality wasn't bad enough with all of the above, when there's a power outage, generators are taken out to the pavement within minutes; one can smell the wonderful gasoline spewing from them as well.
However, walking through the bustling markets is extra special, and wandering through residential areas provides an interesting glimpse of Nepali life, with kids playing in the squares, men playing games, and women chatting. Going on rooftops provides great views, not only of mountains, but of everyday life: from washing clothes, bathing, napping, to having social chatting from one rooftop to the other.
A proud Moldovan
The other annoyance is of course the touts in the touristy areas, trying to sell everything from tigerbaum, to hash. I mostly ignore them but some can be persistent, which is when I have to put my mad face and give them a not so nice reply (which seems to be the only way to get rid of this type of touts). However, if I'm feeling in a playful mood then I do give them an answer to their first, standard question: 'where are you from?', to which I reply 'Moldova'. That always throws them off and gives me a chance to walk away before they know what to say, as no one has heard of it .. and that's why I picked it. I used it when I was in India many years ago and it worked well, and I'm glad to say I've perfected the process now. When one does not freeze and asks where it's from, I naturally, and honestly, reply 'it's in Europe' .. if I'm feeling in a good mood, then i pretend I'm angry and follow with 'you mean you never heard of MY country?!' and walk away; that works great most of the time. Sometimes, some can feel I'm BS'ing them and start quizzing me about it: 'what's the capital?' Tirana, I reply .. which is the capital of Albania but I'm sure they don't know that and I have no idea what's the real capital of Moldova but it's important I give an answer without thinking about it. 'What they speak there?' Moldovan, naturally! I add the last bit to turn it around and again complain about how they've never heard of my country.
Indian flashbacks and diverse Nepal
My first impression of Nepal, on my first few days here, was that it's very similar to India: the food, the clothing, the people, and of course one hears Indian music everywhere here. Some Nepalis admitted this also on my first few days; the culture is similar, and hence I do remember my time in India every now and then. However, now that I've been here for weeks, I do see many differences and recognize that Nepal has it's own distinct culture .. in fact, there are many different subcultures, depending on the region and the ethnic group. Nepal has many ethnic groups and many languages spoken; this adds to its unique flavour of having different traditional food and music, albeit most people stick to the standard Indian-style food (and pop music). The people look different from Indians and in fact from each other; again depending on their ethnic group.
Chatting with a couple of the locals about the culture here in Nepal, they noted how some tourists don't respect Nepali culture and dress inappropriately; one followed up by saying here we have the freedom to spit and pee everyone. I told: 'yes I know', and that that's one thing I like about Nepal. In fact, it's also one that gave me an Indian flashback as I did that there too. I like Nepali freedom .. if only they would get other real freedoms (given the current political situation for example).
Being around Christmas, I happened on a group near the old square (Durbar square), singing Christmas carols; they were Christan Nepalis and I chatted with one of them. He explained to me that this was not possible a few years ago; only with the current government, that the few Christians in Nepal could exercise such freedom. Later that day, I went to an Internet cafe and talked to the owner and his friend there about this: The owner explained that most Nepalis don't like how the Christian groups attract many of the poor locals through monetary incentives, and thus they're not liked much and perhaps that's why previous governments had restrictions on any public activities (that perhaps seemed promotional in nature). I got both sides of the story; furthermore, I couldn't help think that I only saw similar groups in Guatemala, last year, and Northern Thailand; all places are very poor and arguably desperate people. I couldn't help think these people are being exploited in some form.
Matt and I went to Chitwan national park; famous for its wildlife, especially the rhinos and Bengal tigers. I had a great time there, and from the start, insisted on getting to see a tiger even though it's very rare. The guide seemed very knowledgeable and more importantly can take a joke or two. The whole time, I'd make silly jokes about how we need to see a tiger before the end of the day, and that we need to capture one and barbequed it or perhaps cook up tiger curry. After a while, he got to get my remarks; he would just smile, shake his head, while his eyes saying: you don't quit with your tiger jokes, do you?
On our last day, we did a seven hour hike through the jungle and it was magnificent; we got to see many species of deer, birds, a couple of monkeys and many tiger footprints. At one point, the guide stopped me and said: do you smell it? I didn't know what he was talking about; he noted it was tiger milk. He followed up that the mother is near; at that point, I wasn't really sure I want to see the tiger anymore; I had seen its footprint and it was massive, and here we were, the four of us (the 2 guides, Matt and I) .. with sticks!! perhaps seeing the tiger isn't a good idea after all. Luckily, we never got to see it or get near enough ... phew!
Chicken: butter masala and bloody pieces
One night I had a craving for chicken tikka, so I inquired where a good place for it and off Matt and I went. Matt was smart enough to order chicken butter masala .. and it was heaven. We liked it so much, that we went a couple of times again .. and after Matt left, I went two more times! At the end, the staff of the place knew exactly what I wanted before I open my mouth; they just say the order with a smile, and I node in agreement .. yum!
In contrast, I went to a Hindu temple where many sacrifices are made and it was as bloody as you can imagine; chickens -and other animals- being slaughtered at a rate of one every few minutes. Then they are taken to the back and de-feathered, cut up and given to the owner for a nice dinner later on. I was naturally snapping photos of the area where the headless chickens were being cleaned and cut. I was taking a photo of the person chopping it up; he slammed the knife, and I felt something wet on my ear. Before I could wipe it, there was another chop and I felt more things hitting me; I looked down and there were small pieces of bloody raw chicken over my clothes and face .. it wasn't even a nice photo .. yuk!
I spend a lot of time at Internet cafes to do this blog (the photos take a long time to upload), and there is one cafe in Kathmandu that is popular as it has "Skype working" (per the sign), which meant the place is always full in the evenings, as Skype is the most popular -i.e. cheapest- way tourists call home. This can be -as it turns out- an entertaining experience: A Texan woman sat near by and talked/Skyped the whole time I was there, calling all her friends and family, to wish them Merry Christmas. It was very annoying as she was loud and kept repeating the same thing to all her friends. At one point, she called her dad and told him she's in Nepal, and he replied -according to her later- "where's that?", so she told him, she's calling from the top of mount Everest .. and I'm assuming he believed her. Then she called a friend and was trying to explain how Nepalese people look like: they've got dark hair and eyes, like latinos. She followed it with: 'They're like Mexicans, expect nicer and more subservient' .. insulting both cultures in one sentence!
Release the puppy!
Soon after she left, a young American guy walks in. Before he sits down, he asks the person working there if he's from the city or the village (keep in mind there's only one city in Nepal, Kathmandu, so most are from a 'village'); the person working there replies that he's from the village. The American then asks: do you know how to scare off a leopard? Matt was sitting next to me, and we both turned to each other with a mystified look. He started chatting with another customer, indicating that he's thinking of making a "scare-leopard" .. 'you know, like a scare-crow, but it's for leopards'. Then he called -what I presume is- an animal shelter or some animal related society in the states; I can only hear his side of the conversation (and I paraphrase): "I live in a village in Nepal and work at an orphanage" .. "there's a leopard and we're worried he might attack one of the children" .. "how can we scare the leopard?" .. "should I get a puppy .. or perhaps something like a pitbull?" .. "if we get rid of this one leopard, would that create a leopard vacuum? Or another leopard would show up?"
The whole time, I kept looking at Matt and the person working there to check if what I'm hearing is real. I couldn't believe it; Matt and I would laugh about this for several days. We even came up with scenarios of what he'd end up doing: he goes back to the village with a cute puppy to counter the leopard. In a Gladiator-like production (the movie), I imagined the following: The head of the village would give the nod to the aid, who'd cry at the top of his lungs "Release the puppy"; dozens of villagers would then churn wheels that open the massive gate .. and then the puppy slowly comes out to face the leopard. I'll stop here so that I don't ruin the ending, but it suffices to note that the rest of it only takes a few moments, and unlike Hollywood, in Nepal, it's never a happy ending. I can even imagine Part II: Revenge of the mutilated orphans.