Dear family and friends,
We are locked down in Kathmandu. But that makes it a great time to “trek,” that is, to hike, around the city. There’s some debate about whether or not you’re allowed to do so without an “essential” reason, but I’ve passed by a number of police and they haven’t stopped me. So I do it. You’re also not supposed to drive a vehicle unless you’re “essential,” but there are scooters and motorcycles on the roads. One person I know wears a hospital lanyard to keep from being stopped. If you’re arrested or if your vehicle gets impounded, you’re one of the unlucky ones. In that sense, it’s similar to the United States; most of us speed, but very few of us get a ticket. But the amount of active, intentional disregard for the law is greater in Kathmandu. I’ve participated in it: My friend A. and I got pizza delivered last night (it was his idea, but I was appreciative, because he was trying to make me less homesick – and he paid); and that wasn’t “essential” (though, given how homesick I’ve been lately, maybe it was).
Because of the lockdown, more police have been called out; but they mostly stand around and look intimidating. Some have assault rifles (a student of mine says they’re empty); others have canes that you might see in, say, Singapore. I was intimidated enough to change my route to the “Monkey Temple” – more on that below – but when I found myself in a narrow street within six feet of the police, they said nothing. So I’ve decided to trust the U.S. embassy, which hasn’t mentioned any new pedestrian rules, rather than rumors.
It’s nice to walk during the lockdown, because, with fewer vehicles out, there’s less honking and beeping. Some drivers, though, can’t resist, even on an empty road; I saw one guy teaching his kid how to use a horn; it’s a deeply-engrained habit. Meanwhile, it’s become noisier at home, as the neighborhood kids are off from school and there are some real screamie meemies around. They play, among other things, a version of “Jaws” (the swimming pool game), but in this case, the kids have to make it across the alleyway. Then there’s the dogs, of course.
My poor Doberman! He’s only got a plywood house to sleep in, or pee on, unless he’s peeing on the wall, the floor, or his dirty blankets . . . He sticks his head through the guardrail, his back legs shaking with desire; he wants to run and jump and play. Then he pulls away, turns in circles, and comes back, barking and whimpering. When he hears his owner near the patio door, he cries; he sounds like one of the birds here, so that I’ve come to think, when I hear the bird, the Doberman is whimpering. It’s not easy for anybody with half a heart.
There’s also a yippy little white dog who stays mostly out of sight. Where the Doberman usually barks for a reason, the yippy white dog is a head case. He (or she) goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on . . . There’s hardly ever a quiet moment, between the dogs, the rooster next door, the crows (who are huge and evil-looking and now I know why Alfred Hitchcock made The Birds), the mating cats, the colicky babies, and the man out my back window who, a couple of times a day, coughs up his guts . . . I get peace, ironically, by taking to the streets.
I’ve found destinations from our rooftop – it’s four stories up – or by wandering around. Kathmandu has all sorts of surprises; like Paris, you can turn a corner and see a new wonder. The temples, especially, are everywhere: A few are well-kept; others are strewn with garbage and pigeon poop. (Pigeons rule the roofs, when the crows don’t.) I happened by a Buddhist temple the other day where a group of men were gambling (I think); meanwhile, a lazy dog sat in the corner and the back was strewn with garbage . . .
I’ve been told the “muy” at the wedding was diluted with tap water, which explains my continuing digestive problems. Kathmandu remains undiluted: The bricks, the wires, the broken sidewalks, and the broken buildings are like a heavy impasto painting. There’s an “organic” quality here that feels undesigned, except by fate; it’s constantly aesthetically satisfying. Again, it’s like Paris, if Paris had more life and had been scrambled in a giant blender. And if it were a ruins: Sometimes Kathmandu strikes one as nothing less than a ruins with three million people living in it. Not just because of the 2015 earthquake (though that’s one cause), but because of the lack of care it’s gotten.
On this: One of my Nepali students, in a moment of frustration, said, “Oh, Kathmandu is a sh*thole.” I was shocked. But he wasn’t totally off the mark: In general, the citizens of Kathmandu are good at taking care of their own private spaces –which sometimes have high walls and locked gates – but they don’t seem to give a damn about the public spaces, which they literally trash, when they’re not spitting giant loogies on the sidewalk (a particularly awful habit of some men, and a few women).
Trash is simply everywhere in Kathmandu, in almost every green space and on empty lots. “Litter” is too neutral and kind a word for it. There’s no photograph that could adequately represent just how bad it is. I remember as a kid, visiting New York City, and coming up out of the subway in Hoboken, New Jersey: I was shocked by the garbage. That shock reverberates with me now. It’s one thing to have destruction from an earthquake – that’s tragic – but it’s offensive when you trash your own city. Some of my King’s colleagues joke about the apathy of some Nepalis: “They don’t care! And they don’t care that they don’t care!” It’s funny, as we say in the States, because it’s true . . .
A few days ago, I walked along the Bagmati River on the way to Swayambhunath Stupa, the “Monkey Temple.” I was totally flabbergasted. The Bagmati River was an open sewer, with indescribable garbage . . . Piles and piles of it. Living next to it were poor people in tin shacks. Riverfront property is not prime real estate here; it’s where the poorest of the poor live. This seems surprising in a Hindu country; rivers are sacred, as beside them, the dead are cremated, and in them, the devout bathe. But the rivers near Kathmandu (and, I’m told, in India) are garbage dumps. Before I came, I’d read about a small town in Nepal that dumped its waste by a river; they had a famous temple but didn’t seem to mind destroying a “sacred” place. There doesn’t seem to be a rational waste disposal system in Nepal; if I was going to do one thing for this country, it would be to create one. (Somebody will make a lot of money by doing so, if the government ever passes a “Clean Water Act,” like we needed in the U.S. when the Cuyahoga River was burning.)
The vision most Americans have of Nepal is snow-covered mountains and meditating monks; my vision is now clouded with rotten vegetables, plastic bottles, and snack bags. An Indian newspaper declared of Kathmandu, “The city of temples has become the city of pollution,” and it’s largely true. Kathmandu has a lot of temples, but it has a ton – probably many tons – of pollution. Water, air, noise, you name it. It can be a very unhealthy place to live.
A theory: Maybe it’s because Hindus traditionally burn their dead by the river that they dump their trash there. Garbage is something, like the dead, that needs to be disposed of. We think of funerals as sacred rituals, and they are; but they’re also the removal of something that can’t be kept around. Westerners bury their dead below the ground; so too, we bury our trash. Near my hometown in New Hampshire, there’s a giant landfill, almost a mountain of trash, covered with dirt, with pipes coming out of it through which, no doubt, methane courses, contributing to climate change, our “First World” means of polluting the public space . . . But in Nepal, they burn their dead and they burn their trash. Again, the identity of funeral practice with waste disposal . . .
But again, for every horror in Kathmandu, there’s a treasure. I was on my way to the Tsoknyi Gechak Ling Gumba, a hilltop Buddhist monastery with a grand pagoda (which is also surrounded by tin shacks and trash) and I saw . . . a Ferris wheel! It was an abandoned amusement park. I found another ride, “Break Dance,” circa 1984; both were near a monument to Manjushree, the bodhisattva who, according to tradition, cut a notch in a ridge and drained the Kathmandu Valley, which had been a lake, to pluck a lotus flower. The Manjushree monument reminded me of totem poles I’d seen in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; but I couldn’t help but wonder – seeing the broad, unfinished stone steps before being chased away by a security guard – the money could have been better spent, say, cleaning up the Bagmati River.
Nepal is such a poor country that it hasn’t even obtained “developing nation” status. The Tribhuvan Airport is a shambles; it’s got worse facilities than the local airports in the United States. Sadly, the Nepali government is spending all of its money on Prime Minister Oli’s hometown, which has improved, I am told, and on massive residences in Lalitpur. When I first saw these buildings, I thought they were apartments. No, each one was for a government minister. A. told me they plowed over a huge green space, where children used to play, to make room for them. And this is a “communist” government . . .
K. had loaned me an umbrella – to return to my story – for my walk to the Monkey Temple, since rain had been predicted; but it turned out to be handy for fending off a stray dog. In general, as I’ve said, the strays are indifferent; no doubt this is because they need to conserve energy, and barking uselessly wouldn’t be efficient. They need to beg for food, too, which makes them more pliant: Beggars can’t be barkers. But one dog near the Bagmati River came after me, growling. I noticed later that a stray dog at the Monkey Temple, too, was barking and growling at me; I wondered if my umbrella wasn’t causing the very reaction I needed it against. A lesson for the U.S. Department of Defense . . .
Many temples in Kathmandu have statues of animals on either side of them, protecting their inner sanctuary. I’m told they’re lions, but they look more like dogs. Which leads me to another speculation (please forgive all of these): I wonder if hundreds of years ago there were also stray dogs in Kathmandu (and why wouldn’t there be?) and they hung around the temples, warning off the more unserious worshipers, like tourists . . .
But the other animals I saw on the steps up to the temple (it was way, way up) – besides the homo sapiens playing target practice with a slingshot – were the monkeys. My colleagues find it amusing that I get so excited by monkeys; but I’ve never seen them outside a zoo. I love them. I absolutely love them. They’re so human, with little fingers and faces, like newborn babies, and they sit and comb nits out of each other’s hair. I saw a child combing his mother, then eating the lice s/he found. When you get too close, they don’t growl – though one mother did show her teeth at me – they turn their backs. You get shunned. It’s a wonderful reaction: They want their privacy and you’re disturbing it.
One monkey managed to get comfortable with me – I stood near it and did not look at it – so he shut his eyes and took a nap. I almost swooned: Halfway up a flight of steps to a temple celebrating peace, I was watching a monkey . . . sleep. One of those magical moments.
In any case, I’ll continue my narrative in my next letter. Until then, I hope – on the other side of the world, where it’s nighttime – you’re sleeping well. May we all sleep like monkeys, safe under the gaze of the Buddha . . .
Letters from Kathmandu #4: Trekking in Kathmandu