If you just go with the flow, no matter what weird things happen along the way, you always end up exactly where you belong. —Tom Upton
FIRST, YOU HAVE TO GET THERE. MY DRUK AIR FLIGHT was supposed to leave Bhutan at 0900 hours, but they cancelled the day before and gave no reason. Lotay and Fin warned me this might happen. And it happens more times than you might imagine in a country with a king who hits the bulls eye with a bamboo bow from a football field and a half away, with airlines owning a monopoly on flights, where the former king supported four wives (all four sisters), and where nobody panders to backpackers.
So now I’m scheduled for the earlier 0700 flight. Luckily, the airport is only 10 minutes away from my hotel. As Fim likes to say: “expect the unexpected.” Go with the flow. I’m usually better at flowing than I am at hard knuckling a pre-set plan, but I’m ambivalent about this change: I prefer later flights, even red-eyes, so I don’t have to worry about missing them. But on the other hand, if you arrive at your destination at 0800 in the morning, you have more of your day to play.
I have one goal at 0500 in the morning: change my Bhutan ngultrums back into dollars. Important because you can’t exchange ngultrums (the “g” is silent) in other countries (who even knows what they are?). Same goes for Myanmar rupees. I know this now. I didn’t know it before I left Myanmar.
Lesson learned: change your currency before you go through security check in tiny foreign airports with only two gates, many do not have currency exchange booths, or much more than seats, past immigration inside the terminal.
In Myanmar, I had gone through security without a thought to changing my money into Bangladesh taka or back to dollars. So I now possess a wonderful souvenir of 193,000 Myanmar kyats, worthless anywhere else in the world. You’d think that neighboring countries all with worthless currencies would exchange each other’s worthless currency for their own worthless currency. Apparently, no matter how worthless your currency is, nobody wants nobody else’s worthless currency.
Another thing I didn’t know was this: Paro Airport is probably the most dangerous airport in the world, so dangerous only eight (8) pilots are qualified to land there. The plane has to weave between 18,000-foot mountain peaks and then slither down the mountainsides into valleys to land (with houses and trees right there, so close you see people and dogs in the yard), and the runway is shorter than the elevation of the valley.
What I did know was that the Himalayas would be on the right side of the plane as we flew from Bhutan to Nepal, so I requested a seat on the right. Soon after take off, a menagerie of mountains appears, one leviathan after another, a wild skein of natural beauty perched precariously on top of the world. We see Lhotse, at 8516 m (27940 f). We see Nuptse at 7,855 m (25,771 ft) and Changse at 7,580 m (24,870 ft).
And then the South Face of Everest peers through our window like the king of the pride, wearing a wild and flowing white mane of cloud. In Nepal, they call Mt Everest Sagarmāthā, and in Tibet, Chomolungma. I believe in both languages (say them out loud to yourself), it means something really close to “freakin-ass-big mutha.” If you could climb to the summit of Everest and not die trying like the 219 climbers who have died trying over the years, and you spread your legs, you would have one foot in Nepal and one foot in China.
At my hotel, they inform me that Katmandu shuts off the power everywhere in town for at least three hours every day, so no place in town has electricity during that time. They say there will be no wifi, no lights, no hot water in my room. It feels odd that Nepal has a problem with electricity while so nearby, Bhutan’s main export is electricity. Perhaps if they don’t exchange currency, they don’t exchange exports either? The electricity never went off in Bhutan, a rare and wonderful experience in this part of the world where in most countries here, electricity “black outs” are just another quaint tic box on your agenda.
I’m not here, however, to sit in my hotel room, I won’t need electricity. I will walk and explore the streets of Katmandu. Another blogger, James, suggested since my stay in Nepal would be so short, that I spend all my time in Bhaktapur. And that was actually my original plan (thank you, James). But then, more ambivalence seeps into my day: I had stayed in Bhaktapur the last time I visited Katmandu, in a hotel with a view of the backside of the Bhairabnath Temple. Bhaktapur has been described as the best-preserved medieval city here. I absolutely loved the town, it’s temples, its statues, its narrow streets brimming with atavistic buildings; its shops, its people, its aura, its vibe, its array of aromas. Its color. It’s cafés, so traditional and non-Western.
During that trip a few years ago, I also fell in love with this building and this woman of Bhaktapur who I never met, nor spoke to, but only photographed. She never noticed me below her window, never glanced my way, never moved. I’m still in love with her. I still try to imagine what she was thinking, what so thoroughly consumed her thoughts. I wanted to return and possibly see her once again, or at least to photograph the window even if she wasn’t there.
The other side of that coin is that I had heard the earthquake in April of 2015, almost a year ago now, devastated Bhaktapur. That earthquake, known as the Gorkha earthquake, killed over 8,000 people and injured more than 21,000. It had a magnitude of 7.8 and a maximum Mercalli Intensity of IX (that means freakin Violent). I know one thing about violent earthquakes: they are not pretty. In 1985, I was living in Manzanillo, Mexico, when an earthquake hit, its epicenter just off the coast of Manzanillo. I sat drinking my first coffee of the day and watched my books fall off the shelves, I watched as the water in the swimming pool sloshed out of one end and then rushed and poured over the other end of the pool as though it were in a pail being carried by a careless boy. The ground under Manzanillo is rock and solid, so there was little real damage there. But nine hours away (and 900 kilometers), Mexico City, on unstable land, was devastated — it is built on the former lake that surrounded and protected the city during the Aztec period, and that ground acted more like jelly than rock.
I decide I do not want to see a devastated Bhaktapur; I want to remember Bhaktapur the way it was, a 500-year-old city with unique architecture—atavistic, sensual, whole. A maiden at her window. I spoke with a woman who had seen Bhaktapur recently. I asked her what it was like, hoping for a positive answer. “Bad,” she said as she pursed her lips and slowly shook her head sideways, “real bad.” I just didn’t want to experience a real-bad Bhaktapur, I didn’t want to talk about a real-bad Bhaktapur, I didn’t want to write about a real-bad Bhaktapur. So I stayed in a hotel near Durbur Square in Katmandu. But I was not quite prepared for—nor will I relish writing about—what I found there, either.
It’s true, Katmandu almost appears normal in some areas, and you can still find interesting sights you may see nowhere else.
And many buildings are still in tact, show minimal apparent damage.
People go about their day as if the very earth below their feet were stable and dependable instead of a moving and fractured fault line, which shoved Mt Everest 1.2 inches to the southwest during that last earthquake, the opposite direction it had been moving for centuries. Makes you wonder if it grew taller, or shorter. Or just moved sideways.
Many other buildings portray a more dangerous story, with cracks and loose bricks in the walls, yet they still stand and are livable, if a little dicey. And a bit scary.
But once you get to Durbur Square, it’s a different story. Many of the older structures that survived so well during the last 5 or 6 hundred years are falling down, or gone.
The Hanuman Dhoka Palace is being supported by scaffolding.
The walls and roof have been weakened and ruined.
The street is barricaded around some buildings to protect people. It appears they may be working on the buildings trying to restore them. However, I saw no workmen while I was there.
Last time I visited Katmandu, I stood atop this structure and photographed a holy man wearing dreadlocks, an orange robe, and large beads around his neck.
This wall and ancient windows seem totally unscathed. Why can’t all graffiti be as beautiful as those cave drawings in Lascaux, France? Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?
A rickshaw awaits its driver in a narrow alleyway off Durbur Square.
Many structures and temples still stand, with the help of wood support beams. People seem unconcerned about potential problems. Is it a lack of fear, ignorance, denial, faith? Acceptance?
It feels comforting on one level to know that some businesses are not disrupted in the least by earthquake damage, like this shoe repair shop complete with stool for customers waiting.
You pass piles of bricks, which were formerly walls, layered in thick stacks throughout the town. As you wander, you might realize there are way fewer tourists here now than in the past. More ambivalence: if you’re a tourist, prices are lower, but at what cost to Nepalis?
Confession: I have coveted one of those hammered singing bowls for years, decades really. I walked into a shop on Freak Street merely to window shop. One bowl stood out above all others: its vibe, its feel, its sound all spoke to me. But once again, I had left most of my cash in the hotel believing I was not going to need it, I had not intended to buy anything. I had only sixty dollars in my pocket and a few thousand Nepal rupees. Binod, the shop owner, was asking $175: the bowl was old, it was in perfect condition, it was very thin and the highest quality, its sound was superior. Remarkably superior—you could easily hear three different tones at once. I wanted that bowl. But I simply did not have $175.
Long story short: Binod sold it to me for the $60 and another 1500 rupees. The bowl fits easily into my Mountain Smith fanny pack where I carry my camera on day trips. When I got home, I looked on Amazon, and a bowl half the size of mine, and visibly thicker, is selling for $128. Ambivalence—ecstasy and guilt—runs through me like muddy water in a beautiful rice paddy.
The Kumari Bahal is the home of the Kumari, the girl selected to be Katmandu’s “living goddess” until she reaches puberty and reverts to being a normal mortal—the structure is damaged, weakened, yet still in surprisingly good shape. You might begin to wonder just what can be done to facilitate repair of this town. You might imagine this is the kind of help some richer countries would be able to offer. But apparently do not. You might wonder why. Shouldn’t the “bottom line” be raised up to where people are, rather than simply puddling down around the ankles of the world where money lies?
Wander a little further, and you find boys playing around the town square water well. Last time I was here, this whole plaza was filled with vendors and tourists.
A wild berry vendor shoos the flies and bees away.
You might wander past some businesses utilizing private petrol generators to run their operations during the electricity black outs. And weakened buildings leaning askew just across the way.
Other businesses, luckily, don’t seem to need electricity, or walls, like this drum maker’s shop on Freak Street.
Anywhere you walk, you will easily discover statues of Buddha, and masks of various deities who help ward off evil…if not earthquakes, which perhaps are more about karma, or mere reality, than evil.
No matter where you roam, you will always find something to eat in Katmandu, like a vendor selling six varieties of banana or the smallest watermelon in the world.
At the airport when I leave Katmandu, I decide to upgrade to Business Class, which is less expensive from here; and after all the travel, all the flights, all the hustle and bustle, all the rickshaws, boats, taxis and tours, all the planning, all the meals with noodles and rice and spices and names I can’t pronounce, I just want to relax in a big seat, with legroom. I want to believe I’ve earned it, but I surmise the truth is merely that I am just plain tired.
I realize I’m no longer the young man I once was: the kind of man who would never consider Business Class, the kind of man who would carry his bag from the ferry to a hotel in the heat of day at the equator, the kind of traveler Bhutan boycotts. The tired man I have become walks into the Business Class lounge in Tribhuvan International at 7 pm on 9 April 2016. They have brownies, and ice cream. I have a whole couch and a corner of the room to myself. I begin to feel almost normal.
And then without warning, it hits: an earthquake tremor. In downtown Katmandu and Durbur Square, people run outside to open spaces. They move away from the buildings reinforced with wood beams. Fear runs slightly amok. A young girl carries a small dog in each arm. The tremor measures 4.5 on the Richter scale. Inside the airport, some travelers wobble slightly as they wheel their carry-ons. Inside the Business Class lounge, people sink into their chairs, their eyes widen, eyebrows rise, foreheads furrow, lips part. A grizzled old man wheezes as he sighs. Nobody moves. Apparently, we do not harbor the same level of fear as the Nepalis; maybe we imagine this more like a fire drill—if we ignore it, surely it will go away. Perhaps we have faith in a benevolent god. Perhaps, we’re good at going with the flow and believe we are exactly where we belong. I take a bite of brownie—if this is the end, I’m going down with chocolate in my mouth.
ENTER THE BADFISH PHOTO CONTEST!!
Here’s your chance to win big money. It’s easy to win.
THE RULES: Guess how many photographs I took on my recent journey to Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Katmandu.
THE PRIZE: 193,000 Myanmar kyats (caveat: winner pays postage)
If you’re considering a visit to Bhutan, I recommend booking with Bridge to Bhutan — a highly-respected, local and low-key tour company operated by two very interesting and highly intelligent brothers: Fin Norbu and Lotay Rinchen. They offer trips of three to 30 days, and will make you feel like an honored guest in their home. They can set your itinerary, or you can create your own, or change it while on the move.
You can find other entries in Jo’s Monday Walk here: Monday Walk
You can find other entries in Lucile’s Photo Rehab here: Photo Rehab
You can find other entries in DP Photo Challenge here: Dinnertime