WHEN MY AIRBUS A330 LANDS IN KATMANDU’S Tribhuvan International Airport, my heart leaps with what might be called sheer excitement. Joy. Satisfaction. Wonder. Anticipation. As though this were my first journey anywhere. I have been waiting to visit Katmandu for years. And ten years earlier, I had actually been on my way and traveled half-way here, but I got side tracked in Thailand by a dubious and eclectic group of new-found friends, by a beach and a house with a view any gypsy would be proud to call home for a while, by a spiritual entity with a leaning toward sensuality, and by some pretty-heavy-duty Thai flowers. None of us smoked and certainly would never have inhaled; we just liked looking at the dried flowers and the ingenious way the Thais bundled the stuff with sticks—Asian capitalist marketing at its finest.
On Gulf Air Flight #54 from Abu Dhabi to Muscat, I am the only Westerner in steerage-class seats, and there’s a Western family of four in Business. From Muscat to Nepal, the guy beside me says he will be doing the Everest base camp hike, something like 21 days over rough terrain climbing into thin air. I remember a time where that would have been something I would have simply said, “yeah, let’s do that next week, man.” And I would have, and could have, with ease and no training. These days, it’s more like: “you’re not 30 anymore, mister, think twice,” especially when anything could go wrong and most likely will if you think, or pray, it won’t. No, no…I’m not jaded. I matured. And so did the borders of reality.
There are probably only 15 or 20 Westerners on the flight from Muscat to Katmandu. Most passengers are Nepali. These days, many Nepalese nationals leave home to work in foreign lands, many in the Middle East, some in Europe and Australia. Something like 20% of the total population works outside Nepal. These expats return to their families periodically bearing money and gifts, like kitchen sinks, toilets with seats, and vacuum cleaners. I don’t know the exact percentages, but apparently, way more people in Nepal own televisions than refrigerators.
I’m not sure exactly where the plane is when I glance out the window —Pakistan, probably. I see dry, parched land looking like an angry sea of waves. You just have to wonder what on Earth would cause the land to do something like that to itself: a rolling flat area, climbing up to a steep point, dropping into a valley, then back into a flat area, climbing up to another pointed crest, dropping into another valley, then another, for miles. A virtual seascape of hard rock and dry land. A sight difficult to forget. At my altitude, there’s no telling how high those peaks rise or how deep the troughs of the valleys. I’m guessing it’s that pesky Indian tectonic plate doing its earth-moving, mountain-building thing. But I’m no geologist, that’s just a guess.
My first disappointment arrives with the in-flight entertainment—while watching an episode of Joey for the first time. I don’t get television channels in my house, so I hadn’t seen it on TV when it first aired. If you’ve watched an episode of Joey, you know what I mean by disappointment. If you haven’t seen Joey, you haven’t wasted one moment of your life (Sorry, Matt).
My second disappointment appears as soon as I walk off the plane and enter the Tribhuvan terminal. You can get a visa upon arrival at the airport. But they are charging a whopping $35….for a visa to a third-world country. What’s up with that?
Nepal is a very poor country; incomes are some of the lowest in the world (some people live on little more than one US dollar a day); no oil lies beneath the highest mountains in the world, or we’d have demolished them all by now, because we’re human, and we do things like that to get things we want. Tourism is oil in Nepal. At the time, $35 was the highest price I’d ever paid for a visa, usually visas are free. But these days, some countries charge more than that to enter, and they also charge an extra departure fee to leave, places I continually return to, like Bali, which just this year increased its visa fee to $35.
My third disappointment comes when I climb into a van loaded with 8 other Westerners. It seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time, share a ride to town. Downside is the van would be dropping off all these people at different hotels. And my hotel is the furthest away, I will be last out of the van. You gotta love a god with a sense of humor like that. If you’ve ever driven through Cairo, or perhaps Denpasar or Bangkok, you might be able to imagine how congested and slow the traffic moves in Katmandu after dark.
There is a young Mexican couple in the van, they have not made advance hotel reservations. The driver is trying to find them a low-budget place. The couple is speaking in Spanish to each other. Apparently, the girl speaks no English (if I understood properly, she is 18 years old); the guy’s English is faulty (but better than my Spanish). The driver stops the van and yells to a man who looks like a pirate standing at the side of the road. The pirate has a room for US$4. The couple balk, and try to negotiate the price down. That’s not happening. The guy talks his girl friend into getting out of the van, so they can find a cheaper place by themselves on foot. The guy knows of a place for dos dolares (2 bucks), he’s read the guidebook. She clutches her daypack to her chest and does not argue, but her eyes say something close to: “really?” This is one of those times when you don’t want to be a young girl—a good-looking young girl wearing no bra, a flimsy cotton blouse over really short cut-off jeans—traveling with a cheap boy friend requesting you step into the night in a strange city with pirates right there. I know this because I’ve been that boy friend—we’ll call it “frugal,” indifferent, and if not just plain stupid, naïve then, and maybe a smidgeon selfish.
If this were a movie of my life, we might flashback here to a scene of earlier times. The soundtrack in this scene would not be Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias singing “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.” It would be more like Chris Brown’s “Apologize” or Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” And let’s try to imagine for a moment what tune we might use as the movie’s main theme song—perhaps, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer.” Or, The Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” I could go on…but, no. Fade to black. Present day in Katmandu.
My fourth disappointment appears when the van finally drops me off at my hotel, a reportedly good budget hotel, “very popular with Westerners” and rated high in TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. Not that you can believe everything you read. I had a reservation, but my plane was delayed in Muscat (waiting for one important sheikh), and it took a while to drive here after all the stops in the van, so we arrive a few hours late. The hotel has given my room away. “Only a few minutes ago,” says the receptionist. Jeesh, that’s just hilarious, god, you got me…a really good one. But they did have one room available in the older, original, lower-priced section of the hotel. They say they can have it ready in 15 minutes. It’s a large room with three beds, but right on the road and over the bar. Music and motorcycles and fire crackers all night long. No air con, no heat, curtains won’t open, smells like a ménage a trois of cigarettes, bad incense, and butt. An ersatz Chantilly bedspread with frayed lace and singed holes. I can’t find an adjective for the mattress. A fine layer of grit covers the floor. I’m guessing nobody’s slept in this room in a while. I’m fairly certain this room is not what the guidebook deemed “budget travel in the deluxe category.”
My fifth disappointment arrives the next morning at breakfast. The two eggs and hash browns and two cups of coffee for 140 rupees—two bucks—is fine, though more expensive than outside the hotel. The disappointment materializes, when I realize that I do not feel like exploring Katmandu according to my well-planned itinerary. I had made a list of all the places that I wanted to photograph and visit: Durbar Square, Bhaktapur, Swayambunath, Bodnath. I made maps, numbered the places, traced numerous routes. Is the worst thing that could possibly happen about to happen—am I getting sick? I do have a slightly fuzzy and dull sensation in the back of my head, almost as though my synapses are not synapsing. You know when people say “he’s not firing on all cylinders” or “she’s two tacos short of a combination plate,” or “one Bud Lite short a six pack.” That’s how I feel, not quite right, not quite who I usually am in a new place while traveling, as my Southern friend Nina would say: “whop-a-jawed.” Askew. Perhaps it’s the altitude; perhaps it’s a whole night of whiffing cigarette, incense and butt; maybe insufficient caffeine in the coffee; or perhaps, the thick and visible smog smothering the city (many people wear masks over their mouth and nose). No, I’m not sick. I simply am not me.
My sixth disappointment begins when I start feeling guilty—of all things—about my lack of desire to explore the place according to plan. I’d come all this way. I was excited to finally be in Nepal. I’ve got a definitive plan. This is what I do, this is why I gave up so many other things in life, my main purpose for being on the planet, my raison d’etre: traveling and walking down every road, any funky alley in any funky town; discovering a place, exploring and photographing its navel, its armpits and ass. A regular-modern-day Ibn Battuta. And now, I’m resisting providence? It almost feels like betraying your inner being, your true self, your soul.
In Katmandu, when someone wants to know if you have plans for the day, they say: “What’s your program?” When one of the hotel workers asks me, I feel the guilt wash over me: I have no program. And I don’t want to look at a map. I don’t want to read the guidebook. I don’t want to look at my list of places I’d planned to photograph, I don’t want to tour by the numbers. I do not want to feel the duress to see everything and go everywhere. I do not even want to search for a singing bowl. Or a statue of Buddha. Or find a prayer wheel to twirl. So I leave my list, the map, and guidebook on my limp bed. I slip my camera and a light fleece jacket into my old Mountainsmith daypack, but no water—well, it’s a city for pete’s sake, and water’s heavy, and if you don’t feel like an itinerary, you certainly don’t feel like hauling bottled water. I head out of the hotel to see what I might stumble upon—and still feeling two fries short of a Happy Meal.
Domino Harvey says, “A true adventurer goes forth, aimless and uncalculating, to meet and greet unknown fate.” Or was that O. Henry? And Lao Tzu argues that “a good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” I innately embrace these ideals, I have always been a fairly loose planner, by nature. I know some travelers who say planning is their favorite part of a trip. Planning, to me, is an arduous, unpleasant task, about as enjoyable as pinching your scrotum in your zipper. Usually, I do as little planning as possible. Sometimes, none. If I hear someone say “Lebanon cedars,” you might find me on the next flight to Beirut. But I don’t want to miss things in Katmandu. I spent days planning, years actually. Katmandu is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for many travelers. This is important to me. And I harbor the notion that I should possess an itinerary for the day, a program. And yet, something in my fuzzy-pained brain will not allow it. Porch light on, nobody home. So fine, I walk out into the streets of Katmandu with no program, a fuzzy head, and a quantum of guilt.
Lucile de Godoy suggests that “we repeat ourselves.” This is scary business here in Katmandu. Am I making a mistake, repeating myself in some negative way? Maybe this has something to do with my seventh disappointment of the trip: At breakfast, I read in a discarded magazine why Pluto is no longer a planet. I mean, can they even do that? Don’t they know about the law of inertia? Can’t we just leave well enough alone, let things be as they are? Nobody likes change. We might begin to wonder if my issue here is merely inertia, or something less benign?
I’m usually a fairly-fast walker. If I want to walk with others, I usually need to slow my normal pace. But not today in Katmandu. I shuffle down the road. I meander, traipse, loiter, amble, ramble, mope. Drift. I photograph the colors of Katmandu as I stroll. Its streets. Its people. Its architecture, and roofs. Its bollock carts. Its spiritual men in robes. Its signs with atavistic lettering. Its stone statues. Its trucks. Fruit vendors. Garland vendors. Incense vendors. Singing bowls. Buddhas. Temples. Altars. I stop and stare at ancient wooden windows with no glass, and brick buildings centuries old with their electrical wiring (an afterthought, long after construction) on the outside. Katmandu, it turns out, is a rainbow of color. A rainbow of images. Stand still in the street and look around—you see “every color of the rainbow.” You realize there is always a tomorrow. And a day after tomorrow to cross things off your list of things to do. Sometimes, apparently, you are the person you are right now, not the one you’d planned to be. And everything is still all right in the world.
Note: Obviously, I went to Nepal before the recent catastrophic earthquake. I have not been able to keep up with the news recently, and I do not know if the buildings, or the people, in these photographs still stand. Perhaps, I prefer not to know, and to remember things as they were?
Sometimes, maybe you actually want the law of inertia to kick in, you want things to remain the same, you want Pluto to be a planet, you want buildings to stand where they always have, you want friends to be there when you return. If this were the end of the movie, and the end credits were rolling now, maybe we’d play a Beatles song, a slow one: “Let It Be.”
To read other participants in WP Daily Prompt: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes
To see other photographs in DP Photo Challenge: ROY G. BIV
To see other photographs in Photo Rehab: Photo Rehab