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Letter from Kathmandu - Namaste from sunny KTM!

By: Jo Chaffer, posted 21st March '10

My name's Jo and I'm living and working in Nepal's happily chaotic capital city, Kathmandu. Some of you may know me as a leader of KE treks and other mini adventures and some of you may meet me in this capacity over the coming years. In between treks I teach at the British Council and as a coach, trainer and development consultant for other organisations in the area.  Since moving here last autumn I've been learning a lot about life in this amazing and challenging country - mostly the hard way - and I thought I'd share some of the most weird and wonderful of my experiences with you!

View of Kathmandu cityI have a small, rooftop apartment in the northern edges of the city. From my bright sunny terrace I have great views over the whole of the city, the Shivapuri National Park (my morning bike ride and running grounds), the gilded eaves of Kapan Gompa (for good karma) and the snow-capped Langtang peaks shimmering beyond. I love living here - partly for the above and partly because I'm one of the few to still have water and electricity as we come to the end of winter (more on this in later blogs).

Staying true to my cultural roots I thought I'd start by writing about the weather!

Shopping in KathmanduSpring has now officially sprung in the Kathmandu Valley - green shoots (though maybe not of the oft promised economic recovery) and white and pink blossoms are popping up all over the valley's fruit trees, it's warm and light enough for evening G&T's on my terrace and the end is finally nigh for hot water bottles at bedtime!

I now know that if I studied my Nepali-Hindu Calendar properly I would have known the exact date for the arrival of spring well before it happened. Another item to add to my ever expanding ‘things I should know about Nepal' list!

It turns out that each Hindu festival is marked not just by flamboyant rituals and colourful parties, but also by a significant weather event.

Kathmandu Holi menOur first big Festival was Shivaratri (Feb 12th) where it really did rain as predicted. Now that wouldn't be such a wonder back where I lived in drizzly Ambleside, but here and now, the probability of rain is fairly long odds. To give you an idea, we've only had three downpours since I started work here last October. That frequency would count as a full-scale drought back in Lakeland!

Shivaratri is the day to celebrate Lord Shiva, the most worshipped of all the Hindu Gods.  Shiva goes by many different names but is celebrated on Kathmandu Pashupatinaththis day as ‘Lord of the Animals' (Pashupati) and Protector of Nepal. Pilgrims from all over Nepal and India come to the sacred site of Pashupatinath on the eastern edge of Kathmandu to take a dip in the river, enter the temples and bless the many Shiva lingams. I went down to Pashupatinath at dawn before the crowds got too crazy. Even at this early hour there were already thousands of women patiently queuing to get their two minutes of worship by the phallus of the mighty protector. With each married woman brilliantly attired in her red wedding sari the long lines snaking back and forth across the temple site appeared like a long glowing ember in Shivaratri - Pashupatinath Kathmanduthe haze of morning sunlight -   a vermillion thread rippling with each slow shuffle forward. Spectacular, colourful and also possibly the only time I've ever experienced Nepalis in an orderly queue!

My friends and I left after a hearty breakfast of hot samosa, chhana dhal (chick pea curry), puri (sugary fried breads) and a masaala chai (tea) spiked with black pepper! By this time hoards of young Nepali guys were starting to appear: their uber-cool biker jackets, designer shades, misfit jeans and the latest mobiles all seemed out of place amongst the red and orange robes of the devout. I've seen UK teenagers hanging out in churchyards, but generally not with parishioners and certainly not for worship. Mind you as I remember most Kathmandu Hindu Festivalvicars don't have free, legal hashish on offer.....even at Christmas. For one day only everyone can get stoned - and they do!

I learnt a new English word on Shivaratri. Whenever I've asked my Nepali students what they do in their free time they've told me ‘roaming around with my friends'. I've duly corrected them with ‘hanging out' with my friends. But I was wrong! Nepali's really do roam around - they're on the move all the time purposefully going nowhere in particular - roaming! We hang out, sit around, chat and drink - they get out, roam around, chat and smoke.

Then we had Holi (Feb 28th) - the festival of colour and the date that marked the start of the warm days of spring, but I have to admit I'm still not entirely sure what it was all about: something around a female demon, Holika, who kills her King Brother's son for being a Lord Vishnu follower. Whatever the story, the reality is that anyone (mostly under the age of 30) goes crackers throwing lolas (water bombs in balloons) and smearing themselves and all and every passer-by in the hottest colours under the sun. Kathmandu Street scene

However I'm in need of some goodness from the Gods. My nine lives are slowly being used up in the city of colour and chaos...........   Last week I was all set for my early morning good karma cycle (I go past a couple of temples) pedalling off down the road to enlightenment when I was mown down by an eejit in a fast car driving on the wrong side of the road. Smack! Time stopped. The driver was a national Thai boxer putting a bit of a va va vroom into his ego and a large dent in me and my wheels.  A very nice man took it upon himself to retrieve me from the enormous crowd that suddenly appeared (crowd duties seem to be: dust me down, go oooh, stroke the bike, ooh and aaagh, dust me downCycling in Kathmandu once more) I got sent to ‘ER' and my bent and broken bike remains got banged up at the police compound. The nice man came with me to make sure I got proper treatment and not left alone with the flies and fffff... other unpleasantness of local emergency care, then left just as suddenly - not sure if I dreamt him.

So I spent the rest of the day variously in hospital, trying to find my bike and then (once found) hanging out at the cop shop watching a police woman make an excellent job of scouring the inside of first her left and then right nostrils whilst a very irate single mum encouraged her dribbling toddler to crawl and leak all over me in the fly infested ‘admin' room. 

Kathmandu Tourist PoliceAt some point in this stinking sweaty haze the bling bling macho boys representing his boxerness turned up - lovely fellows in bright, shiny and elegantly food stained t-shirts stretched tight over their burgeoning pots; hair puffed into slicky Elvis quiffs and chunky ‘gold' rings and things. It turns out the police involvement is merely to oversee the negotiations between victim (me) and hitter - or in this case his reps - on how much the payout is. There's no chance of anyone being accused, prosecuted or anything else requiring paperwork.

Kathmandu So discussions began. They: ‘yah, yah madam one lakh (one hundred thousand rupees) no problem - my fellow is very big man in Nepal' ‘yah yah you are very lucky that he braked at all yah'.  Me: I don't care, please fix my bike and let me go home.

Happily my lovely local doctor friend was there to translate my rage and exhaustion into something sensible. I've no idea what he said but the boxer boys backed down and signed the legal and binding payment agreement  - a few lines in a school note pad scribed in bestest handwriting by a young lad in a Man Utd tracky top. Then we sat around some more before hobbling out (me), carrying bike remains (me) to find and pay for a taxi (me) to take us all to the bike shop for a quote.................Such gents! 

Kathmandu Street sellerWe all sat in the bike shop for another two hours as it transpired that ‘yah, a lakh is nothing yah' fixers were having trouble raising 10% of that to cover the repairs. Eventually a man rolled up and handed over a bundle of bills much to the relief of the bike shop boys and we headed off home to (proverbially) lick wounds and contemplate the meaning of life. One week on my bike is mended and so am I - mostly - and even been out for a pedal on the mean streets of the holey land.

The Spring trekking season starts next week and I'm heading out to the hills for another carry on up the Khumbu with a new group of friends.

Hope to see you there!

Pheri BheTaunlaa

Jo

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