Dear family and friends,
So after my crazy day with the neighbors – see my previous letter – I needed to regroup. The trash incident felt like the usual push-and-pull of activism, but the police thing was way over the top. I decided to be more careful.
Teaching came to the rescue: My online course began the very next day. My anti-trash crusade was probably an attempt to contribute to Kathmandu, to give myself a meaning, to make an impact. My course allowed me to do that, but without getting yelled at (ha, except by paying students) . . .
Before the lockdown, N. and I had a number of conversations after work – it’s his ritual to go to the café at 3 pm, when King’s College closes (they start early – 7 am – and finish early). One debate, which I mentioned in my last letter, was about whether human beings are basically selfish. (I should note that N. is one of the least selfish human beings I’ve ever met. Recently, he and other King’s folks outfitted an empty building, free of charge, for quarantining nurses.)
K. argued that people take care of themselves first, then “also” (his word and emphasis) others. I argued, on the other hand, that we were “both” (my words and emphases) self-serving “and” other-serving, equally. N. could raise as evidence in his favor the case of Job: He only broke when he himself was afflicted with an illness. So doesn’t that show our basic self-centeredness?
My reply is this question: How do we find meaning? I’d say, by caring about other people, places, or things. Such was the case with my anti-trash crusade; and with the King’s folks setting up the quarantine center; and now, with teaching. I don’t think about myself when I’m leading a class discussion; I think about the students and the ideas and how I can make them more understandable.
If, then, we find meaning in our lives by being outside of ourselves, doesn’t that show, at the very least, we’re not primarily selfish? Isn’t meaningfulness a signal from our brains that we must be other-directed? Of course, when we get sick, our gaze turns inward: We become self-involved. But I’m not convinced that survival takes precedence over risking it, meaningfully.
Bertrand Russell would agree: He’d argue that we need to forget about ourselves to be happy; and he’d cite mathematics as one kind of self-forgetting, since it’s about a structure that belongs to everybody. While there have been times that I’ve so drained myself by “meaningfulness” that I get depressed, I’d like to think we need both meaning – say, in things like philosophy, or activities like cleaning up or teaching – and self-interest. I think N. would agree; the difference is simply in emphasis.
Back in the USA, I’d idealized my Nepali students; they were curious and smart. Maybe it was because they’d lived through some strange things, like a royal massacre and a Maoist insurrection. I had business and science majors, but they had a great interest in philosophy, too. The same for King’s College: It’s a business school, but it also takes philosophy very seriously. Its “progressive education” model is borrowed from the classical American philosopher John Dewey.
My high opinion of Nepali students has survived my move to Nepal – they’re still curious and exciting to teach – but it’s also become a little more realistic, just like my view of Kathmandu. They’re students, after all; they have the same foibles. I’m forced lean on them to get them to read, to show up, and to participate. But I’m grateful to them for helping to give my life a meaning. Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve felt a lot better.
And only two class sessions a week! I used to teach two per day, and I didn’t have time to recover before the next one. Teaching a good class can be exhausting; and that’s a big part of happiness: having the time to bask in a job well done. And when things don’t go as well, too, having the time to recover, and to do other things.
I continue to explore Kathmandu. A. suggested I walk over to his neighborhood – I’d only gone as far in that direction as a dusty road leading down to a polluted river; I’d been looking for a health club at the time. When I’d found it, the pool was flooded and I was advised it was too dirty to swim. (It was next to a trash dump as well.) But this time, I walked down to the river, through the dust, then up, up, up a hill; and I saw – wonder of wonders! – farmland. It was a small, beautiful valley, just outside the main Kathmandu Valley, and it looked like Switzerland – except along the valley floor ran the Bagmati River. It reeked as much here as it had by the urban shacks, but it was flanked by small, well-kept farms.
I began making it a regular stop. On one outing, I found a footbridge that looked a bit dicey; it turned out it was unfinished on the other side. (People were still crossing it, then climbing down.) But I went up an incline near it, and – again, amazing! – I found a park with almost no trash! It was a Newar park with a temple; and like the courtyard I described in an earlier letter, where Newars also lived, it was clean. There was even a trash bin . . .
On my way, I’d walked by a flood plain where a shepherdess was tending her flock, mainly goats and sheep. The plain was covered with garbage. My guess is there’d been a flood that had taken the trash from the river and deposited it on the plain. The animals just grazed around it. It struck me, as I watched another shepherd a few days later, in a canyon also littered with trash – I mention it in my song, “Kathmandu” – that what Jesus says in the Bible about a shepherd abandoning his flock to save one lost sheep isn’t crazy. A shepherd really can leave her flock temporarily without the entire flock disbanding, because the sheep will mostly stay together; that’s why we call them “sheep.”
Anyway, at the Newar park, I ended up playing guitar and singing for two women and their children. They didn’t call the police. I’d also played earlier for a nice man along the valley floor, while I sat along a wall separating two fields. (There was another man nearby, plowing with a mechanical tiller, as his wife looked on. Four little birds followed behind him to eat the seed. I thought of Van Gogh.)
I asked the man what he wanted to hear, and he said “Justin Bieber” . . . I ended up playing “American Pie.” I got a strange feeling of patriotism: I thought of the folks who’d created this music, the African-Americans who’d been enslaved and survived, in part, by singing; then the hillbilly whites who’d struggled and celebrated, too, with their music; and all of us Americans who, despite our privileges, live in a competitive world. I thought of all the awful things that America has done, all the wars we’ve started; but still, there was this great – and vaguely uncomfortable; it was unusual for me – pride. Not for my country’s wealth or its power, but for its music, for our music, for my music . . .
One of the women was the owner of a European bakery in town; her multigrain bread – which I ordered afterwards – was amazing. It was packed with rosemary and oats and grains. The woman wasn’t Newar, but Chettri, the caste just “below” the Brahmins; they arose, I believe, from intermarriages between Newars, the natives of the valley, and Brahmins, who migrated here. As we talked, a man (not a Newar, I assume) zipped his motorcycle around the park; he’d almost hit me earlier. The Newar men got together and threatened him to stop. He stopped.
Among the park-goers, some folks were playing soccer; others, cricket; still others, singing songs. The Newari song tradition is very important to them, as it contains their Buddhist teachings. My songs didn’t interfere, since I was some distance away; but it was great to be near such expressions of joy and play. (Of course, all of this was in the middle of the lockdown, when nobody was even supposed to be here; and almost nobody had a mask on . . .)
A day or two later, I woke up with a nasty eye infection.
There’s a good chance I’d gotten it from the dusty road, leading down to the polluted river. There was probably waste water flowing into the road from the adjoining houses. A viral speck of dust – one among millions – likely flew into my eye. Every day is a health risk in Kathmandu . . .
It could also have been my shower: Tap water here has the strange quality (for me) of potentially being more dangerous than what you wash off. Luckily, we’ve just gotten a new water source, from a Himalayan river that’s much cleaner (when I first arrived, the water smelled like sulfur). But it’s possible, the eye doctor told me, that one of the pipes could have had a virus in it; she never washes her face with tap water, she said. But my shower head – I have very low flow; sometimes it’s just a trickle (and you don’t get hot water, typically, unless it’s a sunny day, because the water is primarily heated by a solar apparatus on the roof) – is one of those handheld ones, so I sprayed it directly into my face . . . I also petted my Tibetan friend’s dog, and I might have touched my eye . . .
In any case, I had tears streaming down my right cheek and my eye felt like a stone. All I could think was, “I wanna go home, I wanna go home,” – with a “wanna,” not a “want to,” like a baby.
It didn’t help that K. wasn’t around. G. called him, and he called the owner of the B&B, a King’s graduate, who contacted P., who got me a cab and went with me to the doctor’s. We were stopped at a police roadblock on the way there and back; but the cabbie said he’d bribed the district head with alcohol, so he wouldn’t get in trouble.
The eye doctor turned out to be the sister of a King’s faculty member. I’d contacted A., who’d contacted N., who’d reached out to this faculty member, who’d called his sister. That’s how things get done in Nepal: You know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. Social safety net by three degrees of separation . . .
Guess what an emergency trip to the doctor, where she comes in specially to see you – during a Covid lockdown – costs in Kathmandu? About four bucks. And then you get a week of free follow-ups. (I went back the next day for another visit: free.) The medicine was also cheap, about $4.50, without any insurance. A second round of medication was $9.00. The taxi was as much – $9.00 each time – and I gave the cabbie a big tip, as, despite greasing the district head, he could have gotten impounded.
So as you can see, getting sick is easy in Kathmandu, but getting well is very cheap. I’d been introduced to inexpensive medicine when – after drinking some tap water by mistake – I’d gotten very sick. I had to pop an antibiotic from the New Hampshire travel clinic, which you’re only supposed to take if you have a fever (and I did; I hadn’t had one after the wedding). It worked like a charm. It worked so well, in fact, it made me constipated. So I went to a pharmacy – they’re everywhere in Kathmandu: tiny shops open to the street with shelves of drugs – and bought a laxative. About 60 cents for a partial box.
But enough about illness and misery. It bores me (and probably you). (Very recently, though, we did run out of bottled water, and I tried some of what K. and his family drink, from a big water cooler tank. It didn’t make me sick – it wasn’t tap water – but it made me queasy. There’s a weak feeling you get when you drink water that’s bad for you . . . So I went back the bottled stuff. The irony, given that I’ve been so obsessed with trash, is I’m producing three or four empty bottles every day. And since Kathmandu has no plastic recycling, they’re finding their way to a landfill (I hope, not a river). So maybe it’s right and proper I should’ve picked up trash – I’m doing my part to create it.)
I’ll leave you with this: the food. It’s amazing. Every time I think my life here stinks, literally or figuratively, I eat a good meal and, wow, there it is. All the colors of Kathmandu, except with flavors. And speaking of colors: I was on our rooftop another time, and it struck me, looking down, that Nepalis have an uncanny ability to use color – possessions, abodes, whatever – to make the most vital use of sight. I saw empty buckets, beautiful to look at, just because of how they were colored . . . The genius probably comes from hundreds of years of living. Sometimes I sneak into G.’s kitchen, trying to understand her magic; she’s a genius with food, and she cooks with spices in a way that they disappear individually and yet are all there – like a great painter using many colors but you don’t see any particular one: They all shine. This is Nepali cooking.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why Nepalis in Kathmandu don’t see their trash. It’s too colorful . . . The bright blue of the plastic bags complements the crumbling red brick. Well, I don’t want to make more excuses. But Kathmandu, despite being landlocked, is like a deep lake – which it was, mythically, and may forever be – and if you can stay on top of it, it’s a wonderful place to be. But if you get under water – or “immerse” yourself too far – you can feel like you’re drowning.
But no drowning today. I feel strong and I want to be happy. I hope you’re feeling that way, too.
Letters from Kathmandu #8: Sightseeing