I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, late at night, dazed and exhausted after a journey of several days and many delays. Propelled by a human wave toward the immigration counters, I was then spit out into the baggage claim area where an ancient carousel slowly emptied with no sign of my belongings. Suddenly there was an unintelligible announcement and a mass movement to another conveyor where, miraculously, my duffel tumbled down the chute and onto the sputtering belt. I pushed into a jumble of men to retrieve it. There were very few women at all on my flight from Abu Dhabi and there were certainly no women traveling alone; for one of the first times in my life, I felt a bit intimidated as I heaved my bag onto my back and prepared to leave the hectic airport.
Walking as purposefully as possible out into the dark, I was immediately swarmed by dozens of men trying to take my bags and put me into their cars. I kept shaking my head NO and searching for the driver I’d arranged to pick me up, but the airport police insisted that I move on, rushing me past all the men with signs. I never saw my driver and he did not identify me – how, I don’t know; I’m sure I was the only foreign-looking single female in the entire airport. Finally, after wandering a shadowy parking lot with cars backing up and jerking forward chaotically, I defied the traffic police and went back through the line of people with signs and found my driver.
The airport had been a mere warm-up; the ride into town was my true baptism into the reality of Kathmandu. I’d heard the city was dirty, but it was the filthiest place I’d ever seen. Apocalyptic was the word – all rubble and dust and smoky haze in the air, dogs roaming everywhere, garbage strewn everywhere, dogs eating garbage everywhere.
Electric lines converged in snarly tangles overhead, and the acrid smoke of small fires singed my throat while their eerie light cast a sickly orange glow over the wasteland. The car jounced and rattled over potholes on the good streets; on the bad ones there was no pavement, potholed or otherwise, to speak of. Staggering into my lodging half an hour later, I located my nearly subterranean room with a rock hard bed, badly stained carpet, dribbles of water from a calcified faucet, and a powerful aroma of mildew.
Morning and daylight did not illuminate any formerly unseen beauty; in fact, a slight feeling of jet-lagged queasiness quickly grew to full-fledged nausea. The city broke over me like a rogue wave; every time I came up for air, another sound or smell or sight seemed to knock me to the ground. I jumped out of my skin every time a noisy motorcycle swerved past me, and I shrank to avoid touching their hot exhaust pipes as they brushed against my bare legs. Gaps in the gridlocked human mass revealed cow flanks and tails, swaying sassily like Hindu royalty down their red (or asphalt) carpets.
Today – a special Hindu slaughter day – blood pooled in small rivers in the streets as goats were led bleating to their sacrificial deaths. Dusty simians at Swayambhunath, the monkey temple, scratched lewdly at their private parts as we walked up the stairs, and the view from the top was a jumble of poorly constructed buildings as far as the eye could see in the smog-infested valley below.
As the afternoon faded, I became wholly unable to escape the smells and sights of animals, garbage, and pollution. I had met the first city on earth that I might truly hate.
Two weeks later, I returned to Kathmandu after a blissful and invigorating trek in the Himalaya. After weeks of unheated mountain lodges and cold showers, the same Kathmandu hotel suddenly seemed like a retreat, my first surprise. I lucked into a clean room on the top floor with a view out over a pond, gardens, and a Hitchcockian gathering of pigeons and crows each afternoon.
On the streets, the assault of exhaust, beasts and their dung, the incessant horn honking, and tightly-packed crowds were still there, but I found myself embracing the bedlam this time around, surrendering to the entropy of Kathmandu. Even the smells seemed tamer; in Thamel, pot smoke wafted and mixed with saffron and cumin and garam masala. The Asan Tole market cows bumped my legs, but this time my nose perceived sweet hay over dung. Suddenly and inexplicably, I found myself beguiled instead of repulsed.
With my fellow trekkers, I settled into tiny cafes for momos and Ghorka beers. We roamed Little Tibet, where the largest stupa in the world sits like a pacific Buddha in a bustling square of Tibetan shops, homes, and restaurants. Visibly cleaner, quieter, and calmer than any other part of Kathmandu, Little Tibet was literally a breath of fresh air. Even a morning at Pashupatinath, a temple and series of cremation sites along the Bagmati River, could not faze me now. It was still disturbing to watch as bodies burned on their pyres on the ghats, the ashes swept into the holy river that flows from the Ganges, and to see the super-weird sadhus, holy men with long white beards and painted a ghostly white color. The sadhus seemed lost in some higher mental realm; in fact, many of them were high in a more worldly way – pretty much stoned according to our local guides – and I smiled at their lassitude rather than shrinking from their freakish appearance.
Kathmandu in my final two days was more than tolerable; it was fun! I accepted the disorder and wandered for hours out in the streets that were a human and animal mosh pit. My senses were still flooded, but they were no longer overwhelmed or shocked as they were in those first days here. Walking among people, cattle, dogs, and honking vehicles was becoming routine, and my newly serene attitude opened me up to more interactions with the local shopkeepers and vendors. One afternoon I settled in with a friend and an especially friendly jewelry seller for a cup of chai; he sold me more than I planned to buy (including the endless knot medallion I use as the gravatar for my blogs), and I remember that relaxing chat as one of the best memories of my time in Kathmandu.
On my final walk back to the hotel, I saw a sparking electrical box on a pole and just as I beat a hasty retreat to get behind a corner wall, the thing exploded and sent sparks and smoke throughout the entire block. A sign that it was time to leave the Danté-esque landscape of Kathmandu, I thought, but not enough to keep me from going back. I fell in love with that crazy city when I gave it a second chance, and I have every intention of returning.
Have you ever changed your tune on a place? (I could write another whole post on the hate-to-love transition I experienced with Lima, Peru!)
Click here to see other interpretations of Transitions.