Monday, December 13, 2010

Mr Smith Goes to Kathmandu- One Year On

So today this blog turns one year old! I had no idea what I would be writing about when I originally put this together, and looking over the posts from the last year it's interesting to me to see how it all shaped up. All in all I've had a great experience over the last year, from the final preparations to come here in December to now when I'm planning to leave Nepal for the first extended period since coming here (I'm heading to Thailand/Cambodia for a short time). While any experience has its ups and downs, this one has been mostly ups and a great experience over all that I'm glad has been a part of my life. Not everything goes as expected, but that is in an ironic way that's something we expect.

So before I left I wrote a post on Why would you want to move to Nepal, and now that it's been a year I thought it would be interesting to revisit some of those thoughts and see what I have done, what I haven't done,how reality matched up with expectations, what I'd still like to accomplish and what was just naive thinking. I'll use Italics to quote the original text.

1) Experience. This one kind of goes without saying and is what many assume is the only reason. I Have always wanted to stay for an extended period in one country as opposed to moving quickly from one to the next. This gives the opportunity to form some real friendships, learn something about local customs and language, as well as expose oneself to a different way of living.

Well this one has been mostly accomplished. We've made friends, learned plenty about local customs, holidays and such but I have yet to learn more than a few words of Nepali. I attempted on several occasions early on, but in the end there are just not that many opportunities where it was really relevant and I was unwilling to really commit the amount of time that would be required. Saying that it isn't very relevant may sound odd, but really almost everyone I interact with speaks English and when they don't I'm usually just asking for a service like a taxi, haircut or the like where hand gestures do the trick just fine. I have actually learned the words for right, straight, and left just for taxi's but again almost everyone seems to speak English. Pradip suggested I should learn Nepali so I don't get ripped off, but I avoid this for the most part by shopping at fixed price stores, using meters on the taxi's and when purchasing services going through other expats or highly recommended Nepali agents.

The best part, in my opinion, has been the exposure to another way of living. There's a different flow to life here, and while at times it can be maddening if you don't come around to understanding it, it has been something that I am very happy to have lived around. The biggest differences between east and west is not philosophy or religion, it's in the slight shifts of the simplest values such as time management, family, what "working" is, how you go to the bathroom, and what constitutes a good meal. I've gone over these in other posts, and both ways of living have their ups and downs. For instance Nepal's laid back family oriented schedules make for less stress and shorter work days and despite 'working' six days a week, what qualifies as work here is quite slowly paced and the days are interrupted often by many cups of tea, and late starts because mornings are often spent having hot breakfasts and chatting with family. The downside of this is that nothing gets done here, and the most mundane tasks can take an entire days. Efficiency, as we know it in the United States, is not a virtue here, but I guess I'm bleeding into goal number three now.

 2) Climate. This is not a tropical paradise by any means, but Kathmandu sits at about the same latitude as Tampa Florida, though the elevation makes the temperatures swing a bit more. That said it is much warmer than Maine, and the average lows in the coldest months are still above freezing, much better than the frequent sub-zero temps we endure. The drastic elevation changes in Nepal allows for some variation at any time of the year as well.

The climate here is nearly perfect in my opinion. The seasons are different enough that you certainly notice the change in temperatures, precipitation and foliage, but all year round the climate is very livable. Right now Kim would argue that it is far too cold, but as we hover around 60 degrees even in the evening I have trouble eliciting any sympathy from friends and family back home. Now and later in the winter the sun remains quite warm and it is almost always comfortable outside if it's a sunny day. Speaking of sun, Kathmandu must be one of the sunnier cities on the planet, it's always sunny here, except for the monsoons- but even then it usually remains clear and then clouds move in for a brief storm. The monsoons are really quite nice, and the rain is usually just a few hours each day and is quite warm, and the clearing of the dust and pollution is quite welcome.

Which brings me to the one thing you could complain about here, which is the pollution that sits in the valley, which is quite a bit worse than when we first came here. A climate scientist we met believes that much of the smog that settles into the Kathmandu valley each morning comes up from India. He also noted that the constant burning of trash, and especially plastic, in the streets doesn't make matters any better. Even now there are days where you can see the snow capped mountains to the north and east, but through a thick haze of pollution.

3) Time. America is a busy culture, we are obsessed with doing things constantly and we make very productive use of our time. That can be a great quality, but as it spills over into your personal life and you begin to shut out what you actually love in life for more productive time to make money there is a balance that has been abandoned. Nepal takes life at a slower pace, and a little extra time to talk over tea is what I'm looking for at the moment.

Check. As I was saying in post one, time is experienced at a different pace here and I pity anyone who arrives here thinking they're going to move projects like they do in other parts of the world. I've had plenty of time to get many things I've wanted to do done. I've done some travel writing, I've written and continue to edit a book, I went to Tibet, got a chance to do half a dozen hikes, and plenty of time to leisurely take in Kathmandu. I've strolled through the less touristy parts of the city, wandered around stupas and temples, and have had many, many chats over a couple cups of tea.

4) Hiking. I love hiking and Nepal offers trekking that is unlike any other place on the planet. Not only does the terrain consist of the highest mountains on earth, some jungle and Tibetan plateau, it also has the cultural experience of the tea-houses and villages that you stay in over the course of the hike. Some of my most fond memories in life are on Nepali hiking trails.

Check. I've really been lucky on every single trek that I've done here. Kim and I did the Tamang heritage trail last March, in May I went to Annapurna, in July Donnie and I went to Langtang  and over the Gosainkund pass, at the end of September I got to go back to Everest and visit Gokyo for the first time and at the end of October Mark and I got to really explore the upper end of the Langtang valley for a few days. Every single trip was an awesome experience, and every one has stories that I'll probably tell until I'm senile...and even then they may be told with just a bit more hyperbole.

5) Simpler Life. Maybe this is in part a combination of point number 1 and number 3, but it is just the desire to get away from do I say this without sounding like a dirty hippy...a cluttered consumer culture. As I become an increasingly bigger fan of a fairly Spartan lifestyle I find that I would rather work less and just have a cheap lifestyle, and few places are cheaper than Nepal.

This has been essentially true in that you can pay much less and live on a bit more. The consumer lifestyle is almost primal though, and although it is not exploited to the same degree here, it is not that there is less of a desire for expensive trivial things. The biggest difference in Nepali and American spending habits is simply the lack of access to credit cards and easy loans here. Regardless, my lifestyle is definitely simpler, as the current power outage attests to. In fact today I had to go buy bottled water, have our non-drinking water pumped to the roof after running out, I washed my clothes by hand, and I'm writing this in the dark due to a power outage. I've learned to travel even lighter than before and when I fly to Bangkok this Sunday I'm bringing one small day pack for the three week trip.

6) Volunteer. I would love to take some of my time while I'm over there and try to volunteer in some capacity to help out people that are truly disadvantaged. I will very likely look into some kind of teaching or coaching opportunity while I am there.

This is something I have still not done, more due to my own apathy about seeking something out than anything else. My better half has been teaching girls at Sasane, an NGO that trains woman who have been trafficked to become paralegals,  how to use computers. There are plenty of organizations here, and many of the most deserving ones that actually do some good are the ones most underfunded it seems, so I really should try and seek one out and see if there is anything I can contribute. As far as coaching goes though, while south Asia loves cricket, there doesn't seem to be any kind of culture of competitive athletics, nothing like what we have back in the States. India has the second largest population in the world, and how competitive are they in the Olympics? So if I do something I imagine it will most likely have something to do with English or computers.

I finished that blog entry up by saying;

Then there is always things like what an amazing city Kathmandu is, how unique a place it is, and how friendly the Nepali people are. There is the natural beauty of the country, its proximity to other places I want to visit China, parts of central Asia and Bhutan, and that certain satisfaction one can take from finding something a little crazy that they have wanted to do and having the courage to go through with it. Even if my move there is a dismal failure and I come home poor and jobless, it far better than to remain comfortable but always have wondered what might have been.

I stand by every word of this and it rings true to me today. I have already had a chance to visit Tibet, and I hope to get at least a trip to central Asia in before the next year is out. Nepal is a beautiful place, even a year in I still find Kathmandu an intriguing city and when I leave I know I will miss the smell of incense in the mornings, my runs to Boudha, and the occasional cow in the road which is good for a chuckle. I was 100% correct that having gone ahead and done this was far better than have stayed with the status quo and wondered what could have been, and if tomorrow I had to go home penniless, I'd still do it all over again.

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