Looking back on my first days in Nepal
The descent unto Kathmandu Airport is steep and swift and puts a lurch in my stomach. Being in such a mountainous landscape, this is one of the world’s shorter runways.
A “VISIT NEPAL 2020” poster greets us as we enter the airport building. But that tourism marketing campaign is now obsolete. It is the last day that Nepal is letting any foreigners into the country, in a surprisingly decisive attempt to protect this under-resourced Himalayan nation from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus far, there has been only one officially confirmed case in Nepal. The true number is most likely higher. Still, this feels like one of the safest places on the planet to be right now and Jonathan and I are very relieved to have made it in.
As we walk down the arrivals hallway, an airport worker in uniform standing on the sideline wields a hose and unceremoniously – and without any announcement or explanation – douses us in what we assume is disinfectant. He employes his anti-viral weapon haphazardly so that, depending on the speed and exact location of the visitors walking by, the liquid is dispersed very unevenly between some people’s shoulders, others heads, and others not at all.
We are among the first to walk in and push forward to submit our visa applications. This is done by entering our personal and travel information on dusty computers lined up on one side of the single hall in the airport building. We alternate between the semi-functional touch screen and partially jammed keyboards and I have to start all over again at another monitor as my completed application won’t complete its upload. Printed application slip finally in hand, it’s on to paying the fee for our initial 30 day visa which we plan to extend once we know our onward travel plans. Big posters above the teller announce an exciting new step toward modernization: visitors can now pay for their visas by credit card! Rupees as accepted, too! This is not true. As we arrive at the counter, the man behind it explains that we in fact will need to pull US dollars from the ATM, then have these converted into rupees, and then return to his counter to actually pay for our visas. “Welcome to Nepal”, Jonathan says, rolling his eyes.
Payment slip in hand, we proceed to the exit line. I watch the immigration official grill the young woman in front of me, wanting to know the exact location and duration of her intended trek as well as her date of departure. When she has been let through, Jonathan and I nervously step up to the window. Jonathan has briefed me, “Just say you’re visiting friends in Kathmandu, then going on a guided trek. Do not mention volunteering! They’re wary of volunteers who keep extending their visits indefinitely.” I give the officer this story (which is also true, just incomplete) and Jonathan, when asked whether he’s been in Nepal before, reassures the man that this is only his second visit (not true). To our surprise, no further questions are asked and we are waived through. I’m in Nepal! My first time in the Himalayas.
Outside the airport building we immediately swarmed by taxi drivers vying for our business. The going offer is 900 rupees for a ride across town. Jonathan knows that the moment we get away from the vicinity of the airport the price typically drops to 400 rupees, and he tells the drivers so. One man, however, is so persistent, and we haggle so successfully, that we finally settle on 500 rupees with him. With the claps of tourism in the country imminent due Corona, we don’t mind paying a little more than the usual rate. We follow the taxi driver across the lot to his ride: a tiny white Suzuki – a model from the 1980s – with seats covered with thick blankets. Jonathan and I squeeze into the back and give the driver directions to our friends Bruno and Thomas’ house in Lalitpur. Our driver takes us South, through a central part of Kathmandu that still has mainly unpaved roads, and past the city’s river which is clogged with garbage and has taken on a sickly muddy color. The driving style for most motorized vehicles in Kathmandu is hair-raising: cars squeeze by each other, motorcycle drivers, and pedestrians with hardly a hand’s width to spare and barely slowing down. As we enter Lalitpur, the roads become mostly paved, an indicator that this is the preferred residential district for Kathmandu’s expats. Bruno is one of them: he’s Belgian and works for a non-profit that has made him country director of their Nepal office. His partner Thomas is attempting to get a student visa so that he can stay in the country long-term with Bruno. They are friends with Conscious Impact’s founders and their spare bedroom is always open for CI staff that are coming through Kathmandu. Bruno’s employer has put them up in a three-story house with a roof terrace. Despite the luxurious amount of space they have, they are still affected by some of the typical inconveniences of life in Kathmandu: they need a generator to compensate for the frequent power cuts and depend on a solar heater for warm showers. It’s been mostly cloudy for the last few weeks, so we have to do with cold water during our visit. To my surprise, I learn that there is an active LGBTQI scene in Kathmandu that Bruno and Thomas are a part of. Nevertheless, they still tell the massage parlor that they frequent that they are “cousins”, not quite trusting that a gay couple would be granted the family membership. As Jonathan and I unpack in the guest bedroom on the second floor I step out onto the balcony and catch a glimpse of two straw-blonde little boys on bicycles arriving at the neighboring house. The wall facing their backyard is covered in a mural depicting a wind-mill. Bruno confirms that they’re a Dutch family. The boys attend the English-speaking school in the neighborhood.
On our first evening in Kathmandu, we decide to take advantage of what city life has to offer and have a “fancy” meal. We settle for a Korean restaurant and order vegetarian bibimbab and kimchi-filled momos, a delicious Korean-Tibeatan fusion. Then we shop for health food and snacks at the Farmers Mart, a small co-operative that sells organic produce and products. I am surprised and delighted to find Seabuckthorn juice, bee pollen, dark chocolate, green tea, apples and yoghurt. To make our breakfast spread complete, we stop at one of two (!) German bakeries in Kathmandu and pick up a delicious loaf of whole-grain bread.
After breakfast the next morning, it’s time for my first round of sight-seeing. And my first motorcycle taxi ride in Kathmandu. We download the Tootle app which works just like Uber. A driver picks up our ride and we can see him approaching on the map. Despite having entered our exact pick-up and drop-off locations, the driver still calls repeatedly to ask where we are. “At the location we indicated on the app”, is all we can say, and finally he finds us. I hop on the back and take off while Jonathan waits for his own ride. But only after he has confirmed the destination with the driver, who doesn’t seem to be familiar with the common English name of the famous temple we want to visit. Thankfully, I find his driving style to be reasonably safe and I enjoy taking in the houses and shops and people we pass at street-level. I am safely dropped off at the Monkey Temple and Jonathan arrives just a minute later.
The temple is way more quiet than usual. Clearly, many tourists have already left the city. I feel for the locals who depend on income from tourism, but personally, I am quite happy to not be shoulder-to-shoulder with the crowds. Instead, we follow a trickle of locals up the steep steps to the hill-top temple. Prayer flags flap above as a view across the entire city opens up. We reach the top and stand at the foot of the central stupa. In distinct Tibetan style, it is white and painted with a giant pair of narrow Buddha eyes. Colorful prayer flags contrast with the golden spire while devotees and a few foreigners walk clockwise around, turning prayer wheels. There is a smoky smell in the air from tea lights and fires burning. Despite the Tibetan style and scripture on the central stupa, other areas of the temple are devoted to Hindu deities. It is very common in Nepal to see a melding of the two religions.
As we continue walking around the hill to other gathering areas, we run into a small procession of about fifteen people. In the front, several men play drums that are slung around their shoulders. The few women in the group bring up the rear. There are also two areas around the stupa where groups of people are cooking and sharing large meals of dhaal bat. A man plays the harmonium while the group around him chants.
For lunch, we stop at a cafe that is set back from the street in a garden. The menu consists of Japanese-Nepali-Western fusion food and I order a salad with yak cheese. It is dry and salty and delicious. We spend the rest of the day in the tourist district of Tamel – eerily deserted now – checking out the many shops that sell trekking gear – some of quite decent quality – at a fraction of the price at a US retail store. I pick up trekking poles and a pack cover and we stock up on dried fruit, nuts, chocolate and local honey. The day ends with a treat for me: Jonathan takes me to his favorite massage parlor in the city. With the decline in tourism, only one masseur is still working and Jonathan insists I take the last available appointment. The Japanese-style treatment is painful but effective. I drift back to Bruno and Thomas’ house feeling mellow and soft as pudding.