More clear headed today we awake with senses more coherent than dazed, more eager than retreating. There’s a world outside the window of our guesthouse but it’s barely outside at all, sounds wedge themselves into every nook of this city including our room. And so the slow resurrection from travel coma takes place, drowning in the sounds and smells of a chaotic and over populated mecca we paddle against the tide of fatigue to be delivered into this crazy new world. It seems the world won’t wait, we have to call a local contact made through a friend at home, a tea trader who wants to catch up. A local interaction is great but the persistence is not, a list of essential chores for our hiking trip awaits us, we put the meeting on hold.
Like a slap in the face the doorway to our guest house seems more like a science fiction portal to a parallel universe. Across dusty broken streets we stumble into a post post-apocalyptic scene roaring at our senses. Humanity has destroyed itself and now rebuilds within the dilapidated structures left behind but without the resources to rebuild effectively, order is so far away and no one seems intent on looking for it. This futuristically ancient style feels like it should be depressing, threatening but it’s quite the opposite. People all around display bright intelligent eyes, an explosion of colour adorns busy postures within the heady musk of incense, victorious people adorning streets of apparent defeat.
Hippies abound in a tailor made setting for middle class righteous escapism, it’s white kid in nose ring and pashmina heaven. Beggars line the streets and cry out displaying their grotesque deformities, scooters pile through laneways made into haphazard streets beeping horns in repetitive predictability. The tide of people flows, there are no rules, we dodge the scooters, the scooters dodge the hippies and the hippies dodge the beggars to the realisation that no one really knows who is dodging who. Across the bumpy cobbles that shout from a time long past we dance, duck and weave in this activity called walking, painted faces move in rhythm, blazing costumes glitter with sparkling gold and a hum of noisy repetition drives the throng forward. We’ve barely walked ten metres in this drag show made into a city that needs no party drugs to heighten the senses, if anything this place needs a downer or two, it feels more like 3am in a gay bar and the crowd is pumping, welcome to Kathmandu.
A quick walk to the tourism office goes more smoothly than planned and before long we’re back in the guesthouse keen for a relax, but no our tea guy Keiron is really insistent and apparently there’s people waiting. People waiting we think, did we ask for people? This is sounding less like a great travelling opportunity to see a local gem and more like a traveller pressure scam as the minutes go by. Scam or not we steel ourselves for some possible confrontation and jump in the cab. The cab ducks and weaves through streets that have no rights to channel cars and onward out of the denser parts of the city centre. Past a putrid river the scene is bleak, the scourge over population is alive and well in Kathmandu, foetid squalor forms a home for so many.
Moment of truth, we’re greeted more like foreign dignitaries and welcomed into a shabby business building that embodies the run down aesthetic of this city. Formal couches are laid out and we’re ready for the hard sell but oddly feel no pressure, moreso respect. Apprehension flies away on a whisp of incense, it looks a lot like we’re viewed as import opportunities via our friend at home, Mark. An inner sigh of relief envelopes us as we try tea and get an education from a true tea guru Nepal style. The tea god slurps tea and intakes his breath with a pomp and concentration to outshine the most snobbish of wine tasters, this is a true art. We chat as knowledgeably as we can but ultimately defer any hopes to our friend at home. Past a veil of concern for this meeting we have indeed had a rare gem of an experience, we float from a cloistered scene of hidden dealings that make Africa seem like a time before the apocalypse destroyed records, what a difference a day makes.
But as the saying goes, don’t judge a book by it’s cover, Kathmandu looks like a society defeated living in squalor but one taste of a local Nepalese delicacy reveals nothing of desperation or bare necessity. Like Australia, Nepal’s culinary identity borrows from it’s neighbours; Chinese, Indian and Tibetan blend in a spicy mix of flavour, heat and aroma. Momo’s are the dumpling flagship dish but a day filled with noodle soup, hand rolled pasta dumplings, masala and everything in between has us in food heaven. We had thought the food journey would kick off in China but it seems the boat is leaving early.
Like a first contraction of pupils in a room with a light suddenly flicked on Kathmandu reveals a crowded space backed up by a flood of smells and sounds too numerous to catch. The potentially forlorn scene to first greet our eyes belies a motivation and energy of a people living big in a place that seems so otherwise. Endless streets of decay support an even greater array of beautiful crafts from fine metalwork, gorgeous textiles, stone carvings and musical instruments. On a canvas of such dilapidation an artwork takes shape of unimaginable colour with no shred of the defeat one senses on that first flick of the light. We look, we digest and at each passing moment the cover to this book seems more and more inaccurate; this book needs a new jacket but we’ll keep reading. Or maybe it’s perfect after all.