Much like how other adventures initiated, through a series of random occurrences I have found myself in Kathmandu, Nepal. Why am I here? I ask myself that question even when I am sitting in a comfortable, familiar setting at home. The goal since September when I left my year-long home in Milford Sound, New Zealand, has been to travel with a purpose.
As I stated in my article about Milford Sound. It is a place with quite a dichotomy between the natural beauty and the influx of tourism. Therefore I felt that instead of just travelling and having a look around (nothing wrong with that). I felt the urge to get involved, to immerse in a non-Western culture, to learn, to gain new perspectives.
Therefore through recommendations, I am volunteering with the U.S.-based All Hands Volunteers for a few weeks here in Nepal; assisting with the 2015 Earthquake Recovery. I created a personal fundraising page here if you cared to donate to the organisation or just have a look. For an exceptionally thrifty individual, I valued that All Hands desires volunteers for their labour and optimism and less so for their personal funds.
21 February 2017
With that mindset I boarded a flight in Brisbane after saying goodbye to my lovely Chelsie; knowing that I desired this sort-of selfless immersion before moving forward to the next stage.
Expectations of Kathmandu were based on friends’ accounts and a few blogs I read. The accounts were all over the place about the confusion of visas, to transit from the airport, to accommodation. Overall I was surprised at the smoothness, mainly because my expectations were of intense chaos.
22 February 2017
A comfortable ride on Singapore Air from Brisbane brought me to Singapore. With only a 3-hour layover at Changi and no time to think about jet lag, I hopped on a Silk Air flight to Kathmandu. I’m always amazed at the connectedness of the world and overwhelmed by the commercialism of major airports.
Visa and Immigration
Therefore I was looking forward to a rumoured rustic Kathmandu airport. I was slightly worried here as I had forgotten to acquire passport photos which Nepal, along with other countries, require for entry. However on arrival at the Kathmandu Tribhuvan Airport, the entry was a sinch. An electronic machine took a photo and then I paid an official $40 USD for a 30-day visa. No worries and I was in. Tribhuvan was not modern in many ways and seemed to be running, like other infrastructure bits in Nepal, way beyond capacity. I waited an exceptionally long time at baggage claim; the other tourists seemed full of consternation, but I used the time to soak it in.
The world is easily accessible; everywhere is. We board an airplane, close our eyes, and that metal fuselage takes us to a foreign place. Then, boom, you are somewhere else. I always take a few breaths and concentrate on the change.
Here in Kathmandu the air is volatile, it is its own entity, full of character and moods. Stepping off the airplane I could sense the change in altitude, the air a few points less rich in oxygen than sea level. I tasted the dust, a plague of pollution in the city during the dry months. Then a slight breeze whisped by and a wave of excitement flooded through my bones. I breathed in a chilly, alpine breeze. My first smell and taste of the Himalaya.
23 February 2017
My good friend Ronán’s father, Niall, lives in Kathmandu and I met him in the Thamel District. He led me through a whirlwind of a day.
Outdoor Shops and Gear
As you are probably aware, tourists come in droves to Nepal, nearly exclusively via Kathmandu to trek amongst the world’s highest peaks. Therefore, as many humans are, the enterprising locals have set up countless outdoor gear shops aimed at their clientele. Name brands such as “The North Face,” “Patagonia,” “Mammut,” and “La Sportiva” proliferate. And almost without exception, they are all fakes.
However being a knock-off brings a decent discount; and I needed some equipment for my trip to Thulo Sindulpalchowk for the volunteering. Niall guided me through with some haggling for a camping mattress and sleeping bag in one of the faux trekking gear shops. Later we took off in the city mostly on foot to see the sights.
The UNESCO-listed Durbar Square was the first destination. I arrived quite ignorant of significant places and historical events; thus lacking expectation and welcome the impromptu tour of the city. Durbar Square suffered severe damage during the earthquake and the remaining structures are all propped up by support studs in hopes of a engineering miracle to make them earthquake secure for the future.
A taxi journey through the dusty streets and hectic traffic brought us to the stairs leading up to the Swayambhunath Temple (Monkey Temple to those not accustomed to Nepali vernacular). Climbing up the stairs to one of Kathmandu’s holiest sights, we both were winded by the top. But that is all part of paying homage to the Buddhist beliefs. Niall respects the Buddhist traditions and thus we circled the temple at the summit three times whilst spinning the wheels full of prayer flags sending good wishes into the atmosphere.
Descending down we walked through more narrow streets and through a neighbourhood of exiled Tibetans to the Three Buddha Park where we repeated the triple circumambulation. In Niall’s easy-going fashion, he told an unaware Hindu family, “clockwise, three times.” The looked baffled, but then changed direction in respect of the Buddhist ritual.
Being open to the chaos and walking about with a smile on your face and willingness to say “Namaste” to other passersby will alone fill you with a warmness to see the smiles in response. Niall does this to most of the people that come close-by. Or he greets the school-age children further with “Namaste, the Future of Nepal,” which provokes laughter all around.
Its a mixed experience here so far, but that is to be expected. Kathmandu is in Nepal. Dealing with the poor air quality is, for me, just a temporary annoyance, for the locals it is a serious health concern. I am a visitor here, and it all should be embraced while maintaining a humble sense of privilege. Just because I happened to be born in the late 20th Century in a Developed Country, that I have an opportunity to travel for sheer curiosity and to labour for free.
However I am looking forward to building even more perspective by joining a team that is here to help those affected by a natural disaster that rattled the foundations of humanity itself here in Nepal.