Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fish Out of Water

(Originally written on Sunday, July 20)

Even after two and a half days, it needs to be said: I need a break from Kathmandu. I am not a city girl—I want to see mountains again (mountains, Gandalf!), and breathe air that isn’t filtered through a cotton facemask. Luckily, we only need to wait one week for such an expedition, when we visit Gorkha to observe the school placements and meet the host families there.

This weekend has contained both wonderful and not-so-wonderful experiences, all cushioned by the exotic and yet strangely familiar nuances of KTM. 

Saturday was our first full day in the city. It started early—anywhere between 3 and 6 am, depending on the ETA and how badly jetlag hit her. First priority was breakfast. As we wandered through our new neighborhood, eventually settling on the Hotel Shangri-La’s breakfast buffet, I observed a goat’s head sitting on a vendor’s scale, the rest of its body on the table next to it (in pieces).

Breakfast was lovely, with Western essentials sitting alongside new favorites like watermelon juice and “yak cheese” (although, as we learned, there are no female yaks, so the existence of their cheese was a great mystery to dear Caitlin). Lunch at Tushita Restaurant was also fantastic, with three of us ordering pasta better than what can be found in many American-Italian establishments.

The main drive of the day, however, was shopping. It took us the better part of an hour-and-a-half to reach Bhatbhateni, a shopping center of sorts, where we located many apartment essentials. Upon crossing the street (a feat in itself), we wandered into a shop specializing in kurta suruwaals, which will be our primary teaching outfit. The owner was quick with a friendly smile and offer of tea, and we soon found ourselves barefoot on a cushioned platform in front of a wall of hundreds of jewel-like fabrics. The assistants were very honest about flattering colors, and eventually all of us selected bundles of material and were measured for our custom-made outfits. We hope that they will be ready in time for the Fulbright-ETA welcome party that will be held next Friday evening.

Today, Sunday, took us out of our comfort zone. After a breakfast that was equal parts confusing for us and the restaurant workers, we headed off to Thamel—aka, the tourist district, where our experiences were a bit polarized.

Thamel is what most people picture when they think of Kathmandu: narrow streets and alleys crowded with insistent incense and mask vendors, knock-off hiking supply shops, and more trekking agencies than you could visit in a year. Some tiny stores stand out as treasure troves: a paper goods store, for example, benefitting disabled women, and a papier-mâché shop filled with brightly and exquisitely painted elephants and bangles.

Lisa wanted to get henna tattoos (a type of temporary body art done with a paste made from eucalyptus and lemon), which turned into one of our strangest experiences so far. An older woman led us away from her shop front, down an alley, and up a dark staircase strung with cobwebs to a storeroom crowded with dusty incense boxes. She shoved those aside to make room for us on the floor, and eventually her daughter joined us to help. In the end, it was a bit awkward when some of the girls, who had requested Nepali words, discovered that our artist spoke Hindi.

After that, there was an uncomfortable experience with some sketchy and pushy thanka artists, which cemented an unflattering opinion of Thamel in my mind. I want to like the district, but I hate tourist trapping, and being treated more like an ATM than a person. We do stick out like fish out of water, unfortunately, and since Nepal is landlocked, I doubt that will change (I apologize for the bad joke [not really]). I also can’t help feeling like parts of Thamel are a bit like a sleazy façade aggressively hiding the real Nepal.

Thankfully, our dinner experience turned my mood right around. Emily attended college with a girl from Kathmandu named Nikita, who invited us over for dinner. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that not only did Nikita live right next to the Hotel Shangri-La, but that her family owns it as well. The food was delicious—even the bucket of Nepalese KFC that her cousin showed up with—but as 8:30 came and went, we ETAs began to get drowsy, and Nikita sent us home with promises of near-future meetings.

A few more observations of KTM traffic:
I have not seen a single traffic light or stop sign in this entire city. They will soon fade from my memory, I fear, which will be unfortunate when I return to the US. Also, crosswalks seem to be about as effective as painting the word “VEGETARIAN” on the dorsal fin of a shark.

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