Saturday, June 16, 2012

Kathmandu, I Love You

There are just some places where you feel it. Where you are not even off the plane, yet you know that the country you are landing in will leave an indelible mark on your very core. Then, you step off the aircraft and you feel that crisp, alpine air coarse through your nose all the way to your lungs. You feel cold and warm at the same time. You begin to walk on the tarmac and look up on the clouds and realize they're not clouds. They're the magnificently white peaks of the high Himalayas. They are stunning, spectacular, and magical.

I was only a month into my six-month trip around Asia at the time but I was beginning to lose that sense of wonder for the places I was treading onto. I was so thankful that Nepal came when it came. What can I say? It was love at first sight.

View from the plane flying into Kathmandu, Nepal
View from the plane flying into Kathmandu, Nepal

Maybe it was indeed the flight into the capital city Kathmandu from Delhi (which for some reason cost us only 80 dollars US). I specifically asked for a window seat on the right-hand side of the plane. When I got to it, however, someone was already occupying it. Normally, I'd concede. I don't really care for small stuff like that, but this was different. I made him vacate my seat, language barrier and all, and thankfully, I did. I was treated to a show like no other: one long uninterrupted view of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas.

Kathmandu, Nepal
Tibetan chortens in the heart of Kathmandu, Nepal

Sitting there, my heart started beating faster. Images of prayer flags, of mountain passes, of Tibet, of stupas and chortens, of rhododendron forests, of glacier-fed rivers, of ancient mountain trails began to race through my head. At that moment, it all made sense. This was why I traveled.

Kathmandu, Nepal
When confronted with a steak like this, tell me what was a man to do. What is the right thing to do?

Kathmandu, Nepal

We arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, after about a month of traveling around India. Anyone who has been to India will know how vegetarian that country is. There are meat dishes but they're more like footnotes on the menu. So on our first night in Kathmandu, it was steaks all around. I had grown accustomed to vegetarian dishes at that point, but confronted with a big chunk of well-done (yes, well-done) beef steak, topped with savory, garlicky gravy, and a creamy, cheesy mash on the side, tell me what was I to do? What was the right thing to do?

Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal
Thamel, Kathmandu's Tourist District

Kathmandu, Nepal

Then, there's the night life. We blew our budget right out the roof when we realized they served our beloved Filipino lager, San Miguel. At 330 Rupees a bottle, it was way more expensive than when I usually have them back home. Never mind, I thought. A live band is playing Kings of Leon in the middle of a very lively, tourist district. And I actually like most of the tourists around me. Most are trekkers. Most are there to travel, to really see the sights, and not inebriate themselves while at it. And I met some of the best of them up there in those mountains. I was grateful.

Kathmandu, Nepal
Mornings in Kathmandu's Durbar Square

Somehow, even with all that chaos on the streets, Kathamandu never seemed that daunting. Even with all those people, those motorcycles, those colorful rickshaws, the pocket-size cars, specifically made that way to be able to negotiate Kathmandu's uneven, hilly, and narrow streets, which in the end doesn't matter because the roads are bereft of rules anyway, and those barrel and tire fires, the kind you see on violent street protests, which here seem to be normal to keep locals warm. None of those mattered. Maybe we got too used to them in India. Maybe we were way too unfazed at that point. There was this German traveler we met at the Kathmandu airport who told us how crazy it is on the streets on Kathmandu. We told him this was nothing compared to Delhi. Nothing.

Chocolate Croissant and Chicken & Mushroom Quiche, Kathmandu, Nepal
Hot Breads bakery make the best mushroom quiche and chocolate croissant in the whole of Nepal.

Kathmandu, Nepal
Nepal is an outdoor gear paradise.

I found routine here. Every day was Saturday, sure, but with on the days we were not trekking up in the mountains, I was working, keeping up with my writing deadlines. It helped that every café in the tourist district of Thamel offered free WiFi, that Hot Breads bakery made the best and cheapest mushroom quiche and chocolate croissant I have ever tasted. The presence of outdoor shops, and how cheap travel and trekking gear is in this country, helped, too. It helped a lot actually. Back home, outdoor gear stores were my sanctuary, the only place I don't feel guilty splurging in. There's no room for that guilt in Nepal, especially when a rain jacket sold here would only cost four times less than if bought back home.

Kathmandu, Nepal

But most of all, I think, it's the people. Nepalis and Filipinos are very much alike. Some physical features are so similar that touts talk to us in Nepali at the bus stop when they all talk to Westerners in their excellent English, that most lodge owners in the mountain villages thought our American friend had hired two Nepali guides, Angelica and me. It doesn't end in physical features, of course. Both Nepal and the Philippines are developing countries dwarfed by neighboring giants and bereft of any large industry that they send their labor force to the Middle East. When Nepalis find out I'm Filipino, they begin to regale stories about their Filipino comrades they met when they were working abroad. Somehow the connection endeared Nepalis to me, and hopefully, me to them.

I shall be writing a bit more about Nepal in the next couple of weeks. Just a little bit more. I understand I have been off the grid for quite a bit. Too busy settling down in my new city. Nepal is still on my mind even after all that time, all those other places. I hope to get more memories in that country, though. I hope to get them this year actually. So I'm crossing my fingers. It would help if you crossed yours, too.

Have you ever had that happen in any of your travels? Fall in love with a place even before you land or as soon as you land? Where was it?

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