Kathmandu – The Village That Grew Up to Be a City

Now that we’ve been at post for over seven months, I figured it was time for a retrospective. We left Hearthwood behind, rented, just barely finished, after learning just 10 months prior, that we would be going to Nepal. I remember a shadow of what I expected, and much of it is now rubbed out, replaced by images sharply in focus, like seeing the forms in a dark shadowy room and replacing them with clearly lit ones when flicking on the light. How could I have ever expected anything different than what I see now?

Nothing could have really prepared me better for the life for which we embarked except perhaps Jean’s own experience growing up this way, preparing me all these years for possible evacuations, pack outs, housing, etc. I’m amazed sometimes at the nonchalance with which she handled various things that came at us through the process. That’s not to say our respective parents and the research we did ourselves had only a small part in it, rather the combination of all these things helped us steer the trepidations we had during pre-departure and post-arrival even better.

Tuk Tuk on Kathmandu street
Tuk Tuk on Kathmandu street
Some things are annoying, some things are incredible. Everything is funny. Some things I expected, and some things completely took me by surprise, and still everything is funny. Some things, only I can appreciate, and many certainly would not. The FS life, and more selectively, the life of a Pantoflarz such as myself, is not for everyone.

Kathmandu presents some incredible experiences and opportunities that I cannot overlook. Firstly, the community of Embassy and other expats, and the locals we know (too few) make this a fun place to be. I get to go on a mountain bike ride every weekend, and go on a short one during the week as well (not forgetting the fact that I had a pretty incredible wreck recently so I’ve basically missed February. Don’t do that). Don’t think I ever got to do that before. I get to cook. I get to perfect how to make Naan (indian bread), regular bread and altogether awesome recipes, which I realize how much I missed when working full time.

Panorama I painted on a bike ride in ShivapuriWhat to do? I honestly don’t know how anyone EVER gets bored here; other places with restrictions or bad internet sure, but not KTM. First off I’ve inherited the duties that come with Jean’s high expectations of a house-husband; Christmas Cards (FAIL), Thank you cards (FAIL), keeping track of kids’ homework (FAIL), embassy social calendar (WIN), kids social calendar (partial WIN), as well as keeping the house running (paying and managing household staff) which includes buying groceries and cooking the meals. Oh, and paying bills and managing finances. Aside from that, I get to think about my personal life and hobbies. If I ever imagined I’d be idly sipping cappuccino and reading a novel (actually I’m also in the middle of three books!) each and every day, I certainly don’t think that now:) Geez, if I were single I might volunteer or something, but as it is, I’ve got my own NGO called a family. (Quick aside, if you work for an INGO, please don’t take offense, but the first time I heard this term, I asked the person if they had to clap every time they said what they did. *-I-N-G-O and Bingo was his name-O).

I have made time for my hobbies though; biking has certainly proved a lot of fun. Cycling through the city puts you on the defensive unless you get comfortable real quick about navigating around taxis and driving with the motorcycles. Not as aggressive as Paris used to be for certain, but more hectic I think. Once I get out into the countryside, the kids are super happy to practice their english and no one is easier to spot than a big westerner on a bicycle. Who else would be as nuts to exercise for fun? We’ll often see groups of kids playing badminton with pieces of cardboard for rackets, or ping pong over a row of bricks (in lieu of a net). We pass folks washing their hair at the village water tap, or little half-naked kids squealing and laughing for the excitement of getting washed in the frigid water. Water buffalos, goats, cows, chickens are everywhere, not mention more dogs and the rare cat. (Nepalis cal cats “ghosts” and are afraid of them for the most part). Acclimation to the altitude was difficult at first, but now the rides are very fun. I never really did mountain biking before now, and it’s a blast.

I get to play with the video and photos(http://gallery.me.com/eddyer – look for the movies section) I shoot on various outings too. I also play local tour guide for our guests, of whom we’ve hosted many. I’ve also picked up home brewing again and have brewed a couple batches!

You have to get over the smells, or at least be open to new ones. One second you can be smelling the most amazing fried garlic or curry, and the next you will come across the most pungent, putrid open sewer you’ve ever smelled. They come fast and furious, so be ready for the good and bad.

I enjoy the weather; supposedly a milder climate than VA, I’d agree. Sure it’s hot and humid in the summer, but not nearly so much as VA. Same with winter; dry and arid, but it doesn’t really snow in the valley, as all the cold air brings down the precipitation on the himalayas to the north of the city. In the warm seasons, the rains come every afternoon, and sometimes last through the night. The kids love getting in their swimsuits for afternoon monsoon rains in the summer time. Since I’m a beach person at heart, I have to live without that, but I’ll take the tradeoff of a six week long winter.

"Prayer Wheels" gets new tires in Patan
"Prayer Wheels" gets new tires in Patan
Driving is fun. In Kathmandu, a “road” can be defined as anything a car can fit on, or may try to navigate. A “path” is anything proven too steep or narrow for a car to regularly travel without casualty. A rear-view mirror is the only mirror in the car that will not regularly be knocked by passing vehicles, pedestrians, or livestock, not that locals ever seem to use it. Pedestrians walk out into the street, often with no warning, though when they do actively acknowledge your presence and want you to stop, they use (T term here) “the hand of power.” The hand of power gesture, a slightly raised arm, open palm, fingers up, (not a NY travel cop, rather much lazier) means “you will stop” and often has that effect. To ensure this gesture works best, use in a one-on-one scenario and make eye contact with the driver. This will stop even the most hurried local in a Suzuki Maruti, but if the driver looks foreign, prepare to jump out of the way. When in the car driving, in a “lane” anywhere, etc, one does not wait his turn, but pushes or shoves around the slower one in front. On main roads this is necessary in order not to stop traffic completely by waiting for the bus that has abruptly stopped in front of you (not at a real bus stop, but just anywhere), as the road is only two lanes wide. In grocery store lines it can be offensive if you’re unused to granny shoving in front of you with her item. Giving the offending local no leeway can be effective here, but if the grocery store only has one cash register (open or at all), you might as well let them pass. Police officers are plenty, but as with the help at some major grocery store chains, there may be an inverse proportion of help-to-helpfulness. They are largely to be driven around and/or ignored, as they often don’t do much outside of directing traffic at major “chowks” or intersections. On back roads in neighborhoods, where the clearance between vehicles is measured in centimeters, one announces oneself at an oncoming blind corner with two honks. Hearing nothing, (no response honk) proceed at speed (5-10kph). Hearing a response honk means to listen to whether it is a two-wheeled thing (slow a bit), or four-wheeled (gun it and hope you make the corner first) and announce another “I’m really coming” pair of honks. The last vehicle to the corner must relent and hug the wall, letting the other pass, or back up to accommodate.

One does not hire a driver in part or full time, in order to be driven places. One hires a driver to immediately know where to find a new car battery and not to be overcharged for it, to maintain the car, to be dropped off at a party or restaurant that does not, CAN NOT, have parking because the lot is so small, the streets so narrow, and to talk their way out of a ticket or at least pay a smaller fine than would a non-local in the oft occurrence of a fender bender or traffic infraction. Some people hire drivers to avoid road rage, but I’m of the mindset that if you have road-rage in Nepal, you need to chill out a bit. Traffic can be pretty bad around here, much like in the DC area, and one simply needs to put things in Nepali perspective. It’s not “how long will this jam take to clear?!”, but rather, “Will I let this jam affect my mood so as to ruin the rest of my day?” There, that’s no so bad, eh? Ke Garne (what can you do?) after all, as the Nepalis say.

Our House in Kathmandu
Our House in Kathmandu
Housing – I missed writing a dedicated post on housing for the weekly roundup, which Cyberbones did a great job of collecting: http://cyberbones.blogspot.com/2011/03/weekly-fs-blog-roundup-housing.html
We managed to get lucky I think. While not located in the most convenient part of town, we live in a relatively quiet area compared to some of Jean’s colleagues. Our house is also quite new, which means when things break or fall apart, at least it’s not because they are old…good or bad, you decide 🙂 The house is large and spacious, has new furniture (Drexel, anyone?) and rooms aplenty. I’ve enjoyed being able to create a garden from scratch, with the help of a part-time gardener, and get vegetables (at least outside of the rainy season) just as we would at Hearthwood.

Dogs are everywhere in the city; it’s really a disgrace. If there are 3-4 million people in the city, there are probably 1-2 million dogs. There are some organizations making an effort to spay and neuter dogs, but it will take years to have any effect at the rate they are around.

Shopping. One does not go to a grocery to buy everything, or even Wal-de-mort. There is Bhatbhateni Super Market, which is as close as you’ll get to a jumbo store in the ‘States, but for the most part shopping is a roll of the dice. Most things are available most of the time at some stores. When the store has white flour, buy it thinking you’ll not see it for another month. Vegetables are not only seasonal, they are also supplied in such a way that you’ll see fresh beans for a week or two, then brussell sprouts, then neither. Clothes are made for Nepalis, not westerners, and are sourced from countries all over, so sizes are unreliable, if even marked or legible. I have tried in vain to wear local fare, ladies have had more success, and children’s clothing is at least available. At least there are plenty of knock-off shoes and jackets that fit the whole family for inexpensive prices. The best thing about clothes shopping is getting a custom tux made, which is very inexpensive and the tailors are good.

Eating out is excellent in Kathmandu. Not that the restaurants are clean by western standards (or at least few are), or that the service is excellent, but it’s incredibly inexpensive and the food can be great. My goal is one new restaurant every week, giving me just over 100 restaurants to try in our two year tour. I don’t think I’ll ever run out. Check out my blog at www.thirdculturelife.com.

What do I miss? Wow. Salt and Vinegar Kettle-cooked potato chips. Craft brew, specifically Dogfish Head and the whole concept of a beer dinner. The ability to order and receive whatever the heck I want, without worrying about Lithium Ion Batteries or glass or liquids over 16oz…or anything in a timely manner. Inexpensive meats. Excellent cheese (not to say the farmer’s market cheeses aren’t great, but Wegman’s they are not). Fresh seafood (Nepal being landlocked, gets stuff shipped in frozen…) and a mussel dinner. The existence of traffic rules and people who follow them. People who don’t spit on a regular basis. Fast internet (I’m in tech and 1Mb up/down is not spoiling me ;). Inexpensive electronics and the ability to go to Radio Shack or Best Buy. The VA forest. Fast (or even timely) service (and the concept of service) at restaurants. Clean air in winter. Real, good, VA or Boston apples. Consistent electricity w/o the use of a generator. The ability to recycle ANYTHING and knowing where it goes. Being even NEAR the same timezone as friends and family for Skyping. Bonfires at Hearthwood. Being able to buy ANY Scotch I can think of and more. (the local selection is decent, but not a DC liquor store by any means, but it IS less expensive). A beach within driving distance.

Me on an Elephant
Me on an Elephant
Nepal has some amazing things I will be sorry to lose when we go to our next post, wherever it might be. Easy access to mountain biking. Inexpensive art framing! Inexpensive and fresh produce. Household help (I enjoy NOT washing dishes). Cheap babysitting. Walking distance to a supermarket. Not having to personally take my trash to the dump. Being able to go out and party EVERY weekend (sometimes both nights) and hire a driver to take us to and fro for $8…total. A farmer’s market with rotisserie chicken, smoked sausage, freshly made chevre and other cheeses. A strawberry season that lasts from October – March. Inexpensive Scotch (for what is available) 15 minutes from my house (Laphroaig 1L bottles for $35!!). Springtime in February while DC is getting snow days. Domestic flights to real travel destinations, not some second rate Pigeon Forge made up thing. International flights to India, Thailand, being actually affordable. A cost of living reduction that allows more than hand-to-mouth living.

Good times.

One Reply to “Kathmandu – The Village That Grew Up to Be a City”

  1. So I managed to comment on the wrong post – not that this is all good :). Love the new format and layout.

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