My first impressions of Kathmandu were a little misleading as I arrived very late on a Thursday night. Nothing too unusual about the airport; it was pretty quiet in arrivals and customs was quick. It was typically third world; small, dingy, dirty with cursory bag checks on the way out. I was waived through to the arrivals hall which was pretty orderly and unlike some other third world countries, full of friendly faces politely offering a ride into town. No pushing; lots of smiles. And, the hotel I had booked had sent their car with a driver and the manager to collect me. I quickly saw my name on a plackard being held up in the crowd. Relief. The first time I’ve ever booked a lift from an airport and I hadn’t been that sure that it would turn up (due to the upredictability in replies to my booking emails). So, things do work in this place.
The car ride into town was uneventful and I was too tired, after twenty one hours travelling, to make the polite conversation I usually would have attempted. It was disconcertingly dark (no street lights) which I later understood was due to the regular power outages. Up to sixteen hours a day, most days. We also seemed to take a lot of winding back streets with little regard to any traffic rules. I later found out there are no traffic rules in Nepal; well none that were taken any notice of.
We then arrived in hectic Thamel, the busy tourist centre of Kathmandu, full of narrow winding alleys lined with every kind of shop you can imagine. I have never seen so many shops in one place; an endless parade of colourful shop fronts displaying the many crafts of Nepal, mountaineering gear, sari’s and the obligatory pashmina’s. Everything closes down around 11pm so it wasn’t until next morning that I saw all this out in the hustle and amicable jostle of the streets of Kathmandu.
I was greeted at the hotel in such a friendly manner I felt like a an old friend and again, I later learned that the Nepalese are a quiet, friendly, dignified and peaceful group. I never saw an angry scene in Nepal; the Nepalese calmness appeared unflappable, an unaccustomed sereness surrounding all social interaction.
I stayed at the Ambassador Garden Home, a gorgeous boutique hotel of only eighteen well appointed rooms and excelling in hospitality and (yeah) local organic coffee which I found to my surprise and delight at breakfast (along with banana pancakes). Hot showers with good pressure, large comfortable beds and free wifi access. What more could a woman want?
I spent a couple of days just wandering around Kathmandu and surrounds with a couple of the other Habitat volunteers soaking up the colour and immersing my senses in the noises (yes, it was so noisy) and unfamiliar sights – many, many of these of course in a very different culture.
Tooting horns were a constant background noise. Due to the aforementioned lack of traffic rules, a good horn blast serves as a warning for impending mishaps. Everyone gets tooted, pedestrians, rickshaws, cars and strange three wheel tractor engine conversions. The roads and alleys were packed and beyond chaotic and it took me all my courage to cross one for the first time. Deep breath, do as the Nepalese do, just walk without hesitating knowing that the locals seem to have some sixth sense enabling them to come oh so close but not actually knock you over. By the time I left Nepal I had got so used to the roads that it was weird to get back to the organised rules of Sydney traffic.
It’s hard to adequately describe the amount of dust and pollution in Kathmandu. When you combine the fumes from the necessary generators, the dust of unpaved streets, the smoke from ritual Hindu blessings and wood fire cooking on the outskirts you end up with a haze over the city that rarely lifts. You just don’t see the surrounding mountains until you actually drive out of Kathmandu and even then on days of no wind the pollution just gathers in a thick blanket. It was choking and I felt like I would never get clean in the way that we are accustomed to in the West.
The amount of litter and rubbish also surprised me. And the number of dogs on the streets. I had opted out of a rabis vaccination, not really taking the threat seriously (same with malaria) but after a couple of hours in Kathmandu began to wonder how wise that decision had been. Luckily, the Nepalese dogs appeared to have the same sort of calmness about them as their fellow homo sapiens so I actually didn’t see a dog do anything other than sleep or saunter lazily around. The Nepalese have tradionally thrown their rubbish on the streets and used dogs as their garbage collectors. This worked really well until packaged goods and inedible waste was introduced. Now the whole country looks like one big rubbish tip; something I really struggled with as we are so indoctinated in Australia to put any rubbish in a bin and to pick up litter, even if it’s not ours. Though I did notice on my return that there is a lot of litter left lying around in the shopping centre and park near the kids school. It was the sheer quantity of it in Nepal that surprised me. No garbage trucks there.
After two days of self indulgent leisure in Kathmandu I was ready to start the real adventure of building a house for Mani Kala in Itahari. It had been many years since I’d travelled on my own and I actually revelled in being without three young children and my husband. To be able to do what I wanted when I wanted seemed like an impossible treat; no pangs of missing home or family yet!