Published on November 2nd. on Page 2 (Metro Section) of The Kathmandu Post.
Six weeks ago I stumbled out of Tribhuvan airport and into a hazy September afternoon loaded with a rucksack twice my size and enough luggage to make a Sherpa look twice. Nepali bureaucracy and the infuriating immigration desk aside (including the hike in tourist visa prices from an amiable $25 for the first 60 days to the current $40 for the first 30 days and $2 a day thereafter), I was relieved to finally be in Kathmandu after an uncomfortable journey from Kerala and 15 hour transition in Delhi airport.
Having made it safely out of the airport, successfully avoiding the touts trying to squeeze whatever money they could out of a white face, I breathed a sigh of relief as I slumped, exhausted, into a taxi seat. My reprieve was short lived however, as the taxi soon joined the beeping throng of traffic sitting noisily within the city’s pollution. I began to soak in my surroundings, trying desperately to stop my thoughts being drowned out by the infuriating background noise coming from the traffic all around.
It felt strange to be back after four years. As we snaked past Pasupatinath and I inhaled a pungent cloud of smoke, memories from last time I was here came drifting into mind. What had changed? I certainly felt different. As we sat in one of Kathmandu’s infamous jams and indeed in the subsequent days afterwards, I already felt exhausted. I simply couldn’t be bothered
disclosing my “good name” or dealing with the uncompromising taxi drivers, the persistent coughing from pollution, overpopulation, hoards of hippies and tourists (I was last here in 2006 when tourists were scarce), avoiding the gangs of stray dogs and the general chaos that characterises every day life in Kathmandu. I literally couldn’t hear myself think.
The Kathmandu I fell in love with seemed alien and distant. Whenever family or friends asked why I kept returning and intended to settle here, my answers were vague and ambiguous. “It just feels right,” I’d say, more than a little aware it made me sound like one of the masses of tourists that come here to find their spiritual home.
I must admit, I began to agree with the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) latest ranking of the world’s most/least livable cities. Out of 140, Kathmandu is ranked a meager 133 (Vancouver, if you’re interested ranks first). Variables of stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure are ranked (however, cost of living is not). Maybe with age I’d become high maintenance, unable to bear showering in freezing cold water, breathing in the dust and fumes and never getting a minute’s peace. I was utterly miserable for the first week or so, craving the relative calm of Kerala where I’d previously been working.
It may have taken some time, but I’m happy to say that the city’s charm eventually wore me down and I felt bad at judging the city so harshly. Once you have adopted the ‘Ke garne?’ attitude (essential for survival in Kathmandu), the city literally is your oyster. After six weeks of experiencing the best and worst of Kathmandu, I’m beginning to think the Economist Intelligence Unit ranking is totally off the mark.
The thing that strikes me most about Kathmandu is the people. Fortunately, the vast majority I’ve encountered have been warm and amiable. It never ceases to amaze me when you’re in a micro or walking down the street and people actually smile back. And yes, even the taxi drivers can be friendly once they discover you can communicate a little in Nepali and won’t be taken for a ride (forgive the pun). I should be charging by the hour to listen to taxi driver’s woes and their staunch political views.
The EIU also considers recreational ability in its ranking. Surely Kathmandu should be close to the top, in this regard. It is impossible to avoid Kathmandu’s rich culture which can be a literal attack on the senses as you walk along the street and see Nepal’s ethnic mosaic going about their daily lives. For such a small country, to an outsider, the differences in physical features are particularly fascinating and I never tire of seeing a myriad of ethnic groups each day in such a small city.
Kathmandu’s history is also impossible to bypass. Going for dinner with friends can be combined with a free stroll around Bouddhanarth, something you’re unlikely to get in Vancouver! You’re never too far away from one of the city’s stupas, countless temples and historical sites.
Should you want to take in a concert, there are inspiring full moon classical shows and rock gigs alike to choose from, scattered throughout the city. If, as an expat, you’re used to going out at the weekend there is a wide range of bars, from classy cocktail ones on Durbar Marg to tea shops selling ‘chang’ in my neighbourhood as well as more touristy bars and clubs in Thamel.
I firmly believe that it’s the people who make a city, something which the EIU doesn’t take into account. While the politicians bicker among themselves and the constitution drafting process lags, the majority of Kathmanduites I’ve met continue to be good humoured, kind and friendly, despite living in such an apparently unlivable place.
(Delaney, a British National, is an intern at The Kathmandu Post)