Note: elements of this story have been omitted in case of future presidential ambitions
Additional note: there are lots of great pictures to go with this post, but WiFi in Nepal is such shit that the fact that you’re reading this is a blessing from Lord Shiva
I’ve been in the city of Kathmandu for less than 24 hours and never before have I been surrounded by such a swarm of people, cars, motorbikes, merchants, beggars, and really the sheer possibility of just about anything under the moon. Last night, while trolling around Thamel–Kathmandu’s Templebar meets Tenderloin district–I was offered hashish (from everyone), sex massage (from fewer ), cocaine, pollen (hash slathered in hash oil), and once, an open ended ‘whatever you want’ from a entrepreneuristic but clearly accommodating young kid on the street.
Other than the rifle-toting police that seem to break up bars at last call (no one really seems to even acknowledge them), this city seems to have no rules. It is by far the poorest city I’ve ever been to; just taking a taxi around and about uncovers sore sights that this Westerner finds maybe just a little depressing. However, this is their life, their world, and they live in it and off of it. I can only judge it based on the life that I came from, which is as foreign to them as theirs is to me.
The Nepalis are extremely friendly, but one thing I’ve noticed that that many of them–at least the ones ‘on-call’ in Thamel–are constantly trying to suck you in. The merchants, the taxi drivers, the beggars and the businessmen, are looking out for you as you’re walking down the street, and will come up and assault you with their offers until you have to manually shake them off. Friendly yes, extremely. But they have little sense of different cultural comfort zones.
But that said, why should they? Kathmandu is a startlingly destitute place, and the only way to get by is to hustle, hustle, hustle. It’s this attitude that does get them the cab ride (and stay at my brother’s hotel!), or the sale of the singing bowl, or the trekking package, or the kiss on the cheek from the pretty white girl on the street. These are a crumbling step above a slum, there are nearly no rules, and the thing keeping it alive is the fact that the Hindu/Buddhist culture really does inspire people speak and behave from the heart. And the Nepalese have humongous hearts.
After checking into my room at the Kathmandu Guest House, I spent an hour or so just wandering around Thamel. I was severely jetlagged after 30+ hours of travel, and had been up since midnight. My plan was to check in, unpack, and walk around the neighborhood before crashing out early, in order to fill my Saturday with sightseeing around capitol city before flying to Pokhara on Sunday.
Thamel is only a shade less intense than what I’ve always though Delhi would be like. The streets are absolutely filled with people, cars, and motorcycles, without any sidewalks or guidelines as to where anyone should be walking, leading to incessant honking and shouting, traffic jams and intense and angry glares. But no one cares, this is daily life. Merchants clog the arteries of the neighborhood; back alley explorations reveal riches of extreme poverty. Everyone is trying to get you into their shop–some go to obnoxious lengths to do it.
Fortunately, I’ve long been trained not to get sucked into street-wise sales pitches. At some point, a kid in a nice blue plaid shirt came up to me and said “How are you? First time in Nepal?” I said yes, because in fact it was true (for hours off the plane true). Little did I know that this was a common phrase Nepalis give to tourist-lookin’ folk; a pleasantry, but an quick and way to suck you in. Nepalis are looking to suck you in. We started talking, he seemed nice enough and wasn’t trying to sell me anything yet. I broke it off, and we went on our way.
I was dead tired, and went back to the hotel room to relax for a minute. That turned into a three hour nap (come on, I’d been up since midnight.) and I woke up to the sounds of what sounded like two cover bands shittily and simultaneously playing Creed covers. Let me tell you it was an effective alarm. I walked downstairs, and lo and behold, my hotel is right next to two live music bars, both with live bands shittily and simultaneously playing different Creed covers. And off I go…
Thamel at night is a bizarre bazaar, where the dark sky is the imit. It’s dirty and distracting, ghetto glitzly and full of rancid party fever. I was told it’s really the only nightlife in Kathmandu, and that makes sense–everyone in Nepal who would be out is out. It was early, only 8pm, and unfortunately I wasn’t hungry–though I think that sign says Chicken & Falafels…–so I just kept walking around and exploring the nooks and crannies of this third-world Polk street.
A truly sad looking young boy came up to me at some poit and started pointing at his mouth. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen this, but this time for whatever reason it just broke my heart a little more. I said ok. He walked me to a nearby corner shop and started towards the back. I tried to get his attention and pointed towards some snacks near me, but he kept walking all the way to an obscure aisle ’round the bend. He spoke no English, just pointed at a box of infant formula. No, this food wasn’t for him, it was for a child, a young sibling no doubt, who was starving and needed food. He sucked me in, but I bought the box for him. I just fucking had to.
Later in the night, I ran into that plaid Nepali again. He almost seemed to recognize me, and I certainly recognized him. He tried to sell me hashish, and I said no thanks (I don’t know the rules and didn’t want to get arrested on my first night. I think Nick has a betting pool on this…), but he wanted to hang out anyway. I knew not a soul out here, so why not? He asked me what I wanted to do. Alone in Kathmandu? What do I want to do? What a question!
I’ll spare the details (hi mom), but we had a killer night hanging in a killer rooftop bar featuring COBWEB, one of Kathmandu’s finest bands (so they just covered Metallica and Rage songs. It was in Kathmandu and it ruled). We smoked pollinated hookah, rapped about the city, and taught each other the quirks of our languages. They were genuinely upset when I told them I was leaving, and couldn’t stay to be shown around the city all week, to stay and teach them English.
Alas I cannot, dear buddy Arjun. I can’t get sucked in. I’ve got plans.