Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Kathmandu Revisited

I first visited Kathmandu as a mere youngster, in travel terms. It was the first city to captivate my imagination, and grab my soul. As soon as I set foot outside the airport, I somehow felt more alive, and the feeling didn't go away until I waved goodbye to the dry brown valley on my return flight, the snowy peaks of the Himalaya towering in the background.

I'd visited a couple places in Central America, but the assault of the Third World, commingled with such a bustling and established tourist scene was fascinating, and I recall spending days on end wandering aimlessly through the grungy labyrinth of Thamel, being amazed that shop after shop after shop after shop sold nothing but tourist junk! The entire neighborhood existed for no other reason than to keep travellers like myself fat and happy, and I indulged.

Fast forward five years: Now a veteran of the world (or so I sometimes like to think to myself), Abby and I arrive in Kathmandu after an unbearably uncomfortable 7-hour bus ride, having spent the entire day trying to determine the proper technique to staying seated in the back row, with overhanging backrests due to the rear window, and seats proper that are all sloped slightly downhill. Every small bump in the road found me sliding uncontrollably forward, trying to avoid banging my shins on the seat in front of me. I also felt myself becoming sick. As we start and stopped our way into town through rush hour traffic, Kathmandu captivated neither my imagination, nor my soul.

We've been here almost a week now, and I still haven't found that same old magic. Some of my memories are completely accurate – I found the tiny hole-in-the-wall where I had the best tandoori chicken of my life, and the same two bakeries gracing the main intersection are still chocked full of the same delicious pastries – but I also remember being less…annoyed. Overwhelmed, and wide eyed, certainly, but it was all so new, and vivid, and alive, that I never stopped long enough to think about what was around me. It's still that wonderful, energetic place that initially captivated me, full of sights and sounds and a mystery that makes it different from every other place I've been, but I also find myself looking deeper into the fabric of the city, seeing things I didn't see, pondering issues that never occurred to me on my first visit. I'm trying to figure out if it's Thamel and Kathmandu that have changed, or me.

I'm wondering if I'm getting old. Old, and serious. Old, serious, and cranky. Not really, but kind of. Mostly I think it's a function of comfort zone – the bigger it gets, the more it takes to stretch it. Packs of street dogs, sadhus taming cobras, the filth of a third world urban river – these are all things that I've become accustomed to seeing. They no longer shock me. I've come to expect them upon reaching a big city, developed a way of steeling myself for the brace of contact with the vendors, the touts, the beggars, the street kids.

I've also been quite sick. I spent the first three days in town tossing and turning in my unbearably uncomfortable bed. My neck was on fire, my knees throbbed, and my head felt like it was splitting apart. Halfway through the day, Abby helped me shuffle the few blocks to the doctor, where I was asked a few questions, pricked for some blood, and given a ridiculously small stool sample bottle (ever tried to fill a thimble with mashed potatoes from a big pot - with no utensils?). After a 20 minute wait, my diagnosis was ready. I had giardia – a lot of giardia. The doctor assured me that it had nothing whatsoever to do with any of the symptoms that I was currently exhibiting, but gave me some "atom bombs" that would "destroy all those little critters inside". Uhh, what about the other things. You know, the things I came to see you about? "Ah, viral. I'm pretty sure it's something viral. Wait and see". So I waited, and saw. I saw fevers, and shakes, and sweats, and a blistered brain, and burning forehead, and pain – lots and lots of pain. The next day, I returned to the clinic. Different doctor, similar questions, same prognosis: Virus. "Could be anything. Not typhoid, not meningitis, not encephalitis – nothing major – so we'll just have to treat it with Ibuprofen." Awesome. What about malaria? "Maybe a 1 percent chance." The matter resolved to his liking, he packed me off with some overpriced pink pills and a heftier than imagined bill. I hope insurance pays for things like this.

I feel much better today. Abby and I, along with our friend Rose, went on a little road trip across town. We were excited - Jane Goodall, one of the world's foremost wildlife biologists is in town for three days, and was supposed to give a talk this afternoon. We made the confoundingly confusing trip across the river and upon our arrival were greeted with an ominously quiet building. We walked eagerly up to the ticket counter, were told with a happy little smile that the talk had been moved, and that it had actually been from 10-11, not 4-5. Didn't we read the paper this morning? Yup - Abby checked it at breakfast, and it had definitely said 4-5 pm, Patan Museum, Patan. We were now standing in the Patan Museum, Patan, and there was definitely nothing to be seen, other than a small, sad poster pasted deep in a corner of a side alcove, and some small, sad-looking gringos. It started to rain, and a single lonely tear rolled slowly down my face.

It turns out that the afternoon was quite interesting. We found a café and talked about moral responsibility and begging, and social consciousness, and all these troubling issues that have been hounding us for months across the subcontinent. Rose works for a non-profit in Ladakh, and is trying to build a career in the field of international development. It was good to hear a well-informed third opinion to stretch the bounds of what Abby and I had already gone over again and again between ourselves, although in the end we resolved nothing. We decided the issue is unresolvable. There is no right, there is no wrong, and there are certainly no magic bullets.

With the rain dissipating, and the light quickly fading, we climbed in a shared taxi back to Thamel, and here I am sitting in front of a computer. Of course, the internet isn't actually working, but I've been assured for the past hour that it will be coming back online in "5-minute". That hasn't stopped the business from welcoming customers with warm smiles and inviting them to sit down and try their luck, but hey, who's being cynical?

I'm feeling healthy again (my best guess is that it was something viral) so we've decided to go trekking again. We've arranged to get flights to Lukla, in the Everest region, and go up to Base Camp and around. We've also planned to climb another mountain – Island Peak (6189m), an offshoot of the Lhotse ridge that looks out on the massive Lhotse Face. A little mountain air, a couple of peaks bagged – I'll be good as new and ready for… The Return to India, Part II. Stay tuned…

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