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Final Thoughts On Nepal

So, we are at the end of our time in Nepal, which we are profoundly sad about. This country has joined the short list of countries we hope to someday revisit, as one of our favorites. Tomorrow, we will board a flight that will take us through New Delhi and Hong Kong en route to Taipei. We'll spend a little over a week in Taiwan before flying on, to Fiji. That is a recent development, because upon researching tickets, I saw that we faced an 18-hour layover in Singapore if we flew from Taipei to Auckland, New Zealand. For no additional cost, we are flying through Fiji, where we will spend two full days laying on the beach before continuing on to NZ. We won't be stranded for some terrible layover that way.

We have had a very laid back series of days after ending our trek. We stayed an extra two days in Pokhara, because it is so much calmer and cleaner than Kathmandu. It is a different kind of city. The first day, we rented a rowboat and spent well over four hours struggling around Phewa Lake. We managed to row all along its border; getting to the far end was pretty easy, but then we realized that we had to return, and by the time we cranked our way back to the dock, we were pretty worn out. Maybe that is why we did absolutely nothing the next day. We read books in the sun, on the patio of our hotel, for most of the day, leaving only to find food and tea. Hard life, I know.

Our return to Kathmandu was yesterday. Earlier, I wrote that the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara is pretty well-maintained. For a developing country, it really is, but it still has plenty of bumps and potholes. The difference from our first trip to our return trip was that on our return trip, we had a bus with no shocks. Needless to say, it wasn't the best ride of my life, more like eight hours going down washboard road. It was interesting watching the life go on outside the window, though, so that kept my attention. We arrived into Kathmandu mid-afternoon, and resettled into our hotel. Of course, we went back to the steakhouse for some juicy burgers, mainly because you get a nice Irish coffee free after your meal. That is a big perk in a country with a poor (and expensive) beer selection.

Today has been a very special day for us. I wrote earlier that we'd gotten along well with our guide, Manish, on our trek, and at the end of the trek we took him and our porter Dep out for a pizza lunch in Pokhara. We were all sad to say our goodbyes, and Manish invited us to visit him at his home for a tea. Perhaps he didn't know we are the kind of people to will take up such an offer, because he sounded a bit surprised when we Skyped him last night to tell him that we were back in Kathmandu and hoped to see him and to meet his family. He extended his invitation, though, and early this morning he arrived outside our hotel to take us back to his home.

Being with Manish, we decided it was just the opportunity to experience the local transportation, which is always one of our goals in a new country or city. Here, figuring out which bus or matatu (minivans that ebbs and flows with passengers) go on their particular routes is very confusing, in a large part because most of the routes are written in Nepali (which looks like Hindi), and the boy who hangs out the door calling out future stops rarely speaks English. Besides that, we can't pronounce anything right here, so we can't even ask, even if we knew where we wanted to go. So, of course, it was a perfect time to test the public transport. Our first vehicle, which took us to Manish's neighborhood, was a bus. It wasn't a big bus like the tourist bus that travels to Pokhara and other cities, nor the colorfully painted regional buses that dangerously lurch along country roads. This was even smaller, more like a short bus, painted green and looking the part of the vehicle that plies the dusty, potholed streets of this crazy city, which is to say that it is pretty beaten up. We found three seats in the back, and the experience was on. With the four six lanes of traffic struggling down streets designed for two lanes, traffic didn't move very fast, so I had plenty of time to watch out the window. We very quickly left Thamel, and entered the real Kathmandu. This city, filled with more than an estimated million inhabitants, is incredibly bizarrely designed. Half of the city appears half done, like an orgy of building was started and then left unfinished when the money ran out. Rebar pokes out the top of many buildings like whiskers along with the starting of the next floor, either hoping for someday to be continued or perhaps just because they realized they had reached the end of their design. Piles of rubble and broken brick lay next to partly demolished walls and buildings that obviously once had another outside layer; Manish explained that they've been planning to widen many roads for a long time. Other than frequently being narrow and tall (four or five stories), most residential buildings have no common design and are many dozens of different colors. Manish explained this by saying that most people design their own buildings, leading to such a varied landscape.

At the street level, life goes on in many interesting ways. Small garage-like shops sell any range of goods or hold repair shops for motorbikes, autos, tools, whatever. People eat their lunches in cafes sitting next to butcher shops with huge sides of meat hanging in the open air. Vegetables salesmen bless their wares by poking sticks of incense into an old head of lettuce to create a thick perfumed cloud. Dogs, some tattered and some robust but all dirty, scurry amongst the rushing buses and bikes and tuktuks, in a decidedly poor environment for dogs, given all the wheels of danger. Temples and stupas and small monuments to both Buddha and a multitude of Hindu deities sit in the middle of squares or hide in dark corners. People walk along the tight streets doing their business, or sit talking to their friends, or sip tea and look surprised when they see a blonde, bearded goon looking out the window of a beaten bus. In other words, Kathmandu is, in general, much like the crazy bustling cities of many other developing countries. It is both exhilarating and allergy inducing, fascinating and stinky.

We rode the bus to the end of its route, which was at the Kopan monastery. Situated on the top of a hill looking out over a much less busy and polluted valley of the city, it is like an oasis of quiet and peacefulness. Young little Buddhist monks stream around its grounds, but the top of the hill is a grassy knoll where a picnic would be perfect for reflection and a break from the city. My nose stopped running in the fresher air at its top, where the pollution was much less. We spent about a half hour walking around the grounds before heading down into the surrounding neighborhood to Manish's home. We wandered through a neighborhood that though it had dirt streets and its empty lots were strewn with trash, it was quiet, safe, and instead of buzzing motorbikes and honking horns, all around were the sounds of children playing and of people going about their lives. I was glad to see that there was this kind of neighborhood in Kathmandu. There is a strange trend the most visitors have during their visits to this city: they feel safer in Thamel, with all of its Western influences and North Face knockoffs, so they spend their entire time in that neighborhood, but doing so, they end up spending their time in the most hectic, loud, and the least Nepali part of the city. That is just unfortunate for them.

So, we were pretty lucky to have Manish to take us out of Thamel. As we neared his home, he seemed a bit nervous, starting to apologize for the trash that lay all around us. We stopped him, telling him that instead of being the fault of the people, it was a failure of the government, for what good is putting trash in a can if system exists to come to take it away? I found myself wondering the thoughts going through Manish's head: he was an experienced guide who has seen the lifestyles and manner of dress, as well as heard descriptions of developed countries, from many Western tourists, so he has a much better idea of the world that Jess and I come from than the typical Nepali. Yet, somehow the two of us made him feel comfortable enough to open his home to us, which was a huge honor for us. Really, a massive honor.

We arrived at his building, a standard looking K-du multilevel building, and took us to the second floor. There, he, his wife, and his two children live in a single room the size of a standard bedroom in most home in the US. They have two beds, as well as a cooking setup with a couple of burners, a table, and a cabinet for dishes. There isn't running water inside their home, they share a toilet and sink with the other families living on their floor, which there seemed to be four in total, and dishes and clothing are washed in tubs outside. He explained that this was a typical living arrangement for Nepali people, especially for those living in the city. His home was very neatly kept, clean and bright from two large windows. His children were very energetic and some of the happiest kids I've seen, and his wife seemed pleasant and kind, though she didn't speak much English. They served us tea, and then to our surprise, they filled two plates with dal bhat, the vegetarian rice dish that is the main dish of Nepal, often eaten for all meals. Dep, our porter, had also arrived after us, and he, the kids, and Manish ate with us; Manish's wife kept filling my plate until I left a little there to make it plain that I was finished. After eating, we sat and talked with Manish, laughing while his kids, seven and four, ran around and climbed all over him. They showed us their exams from school (with his wages from guiding, Manish is able to send them to a private school, where they get a much better education than at the government schools). I was floored looking at the exams. Their four year old daughter was already learning both English and Nepali (pages of questions were intermittently in English and Nepali), could write out the entire English alphabet, could not only count to 30 but could fill in omitted gaps between numbers, and had a remarkably steady hand at coloring in spaces and tracing designs. There was more, too. It was amazing. When I was five, I went to kindergarten, where I learned to sit still long enough to have the teacher read to us, and to raise my hand. We also raised some butterflies; other than that, I didn't get much out of it. Here, in Nepal, they are giving children an intense, bilingual education, and as smart as that little girl is, she ranked third in her class, so they all are getting such an education. At 33, I speak less of a second language than little Sanmina and her brother Samjot (I just killed their names, too).

Eventually, the kids were getting tired, and it was time for us to move on. After our farewells to his family, Manish went with us to find transport, which was in the form of what I call the matatu (a term I picked up in Kenya; every developing country has these little minivans, which fill far beyond capacity, and here I was a little surprised no one tried climbing on the top, like they do with the buses). We caught the matatu early in its route, so it was fairly empty, but soon it was packed to the gills, people standing in between seats (it's a short minivan) or sitting on the laps of others, or even hanging out the door, as a few brave young guys did. Being more cramped, it wasn't as comfortable as the bus, but it took its time getting through the neighborhoods, so we had plenty to look at. Students getting on board took advantage us our (likely unlikely) presence and practiced their English, asking questions and throwing in the word "like" as much as possible; they've watched too many movies from the, like, 90s, I guess.

One thing that was apparent on our ride back to Thamel (and present for every moment of our time in Nepal) is the poverty that hangs on the back of this country like the nappy monkeys of the Monkey Temple. It is everywhere, you cannot escape it or avoid it. This is a country where the average yearly income of people is $440. Stop reading for a second, look around your room, and find an item that cost $450; that represents a year's worth of money for the average person here; on the other hand, many people here make less than that. By some estimates, half of the population is unemployed, and a third lives below the poverty line, meaning they make less than $1 a day. On top of this, there is the caste system, which Manish spent a fair amount of time telling us about, which isn't as strong as the caste system of India but is still crippling for many people. The resulting standard of living is something that is frequently a topic of discussion among travelers, but we can't begin to imagine what life is like here. To see Manish's home, and to realize that he makes relatively good money compared to many others, is very educational; even more stunning is the realization that the population here in Kathmandu has doubled in the last decade as people come here to escape the harsher poverty of rural life. People here have a hard life, there is no doubt about it, and for Jess and I, it caused us to look at our own lives, at the materialistic impulses that we have along with much of the Western world. If nothing else, it has caused us to appreciate everything we have, the opportunities that literally make themselves available for us, the standard of living and the quality of life that we enjoy.

For a bit of humor to enhance my point, realize that much of the developing world does not use toilet paper after going to the bathroom. They also do not eat or shake hands with their left hand. These two things are closely related.

Back in Thamel and our at our hotel, we finally had to bid farewell to Manish. Jess cried a bit, Manish and I even hugged, something I have not seen yet in Nepal before. He shook our hands many times, turned down our offers for tea because he needed to get back to his family, and like that, Manish was gone. Since Nepal is now on our short list, though, we have strong hopes of seeing him and his family again.

Until next time, be safe.



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