Landing in Kathmandu: Part Two
I arrived in Kathmandu on the birthday of the Buddha and the city was alive with celebration. I climbed down from the plane into a heat so perfect every fiber of my skin began to dance. It is a heat that has a sweet, sultry whisper instead of a deafening shout. It is a heat that sings softly with the Himalayan breeze, a heat that is light and not heavy. The sunlight is powerful and dizzying unchecked, but the shade is still something close to cool. During a long ago conversation about my general hostility toward heat, a friend once said in gentle disagreement that to her, heat feels like a hug. I was stumped by this notion entirely, finding heat much closer to a bodyslam, until the day I stepped off that airplane to meet the gentle heat of Kathmandu. Elizabeth, my beautiful, heat-loving friend, I think that at last I understand! For the first week I wandered around in a stupor, mainly trying not get run over—just imagine the scene from Eat Pray Love when Julia Roberts arrives in India. There is so much mayhem and so much noise, so much rubble and so much dust. But beneath the veneer of grime and debris, some unnamable magic breathes. So I wandered and I wondered, searching for reasons why I loved this place with overwhelming depth. But love isn’t beholden to reasons in the end. We love what our hearts were built to love.
Aside from large temples and other massive landmarks, you can never expect a taxi driver to know your destination. Unfortunately, nothing has an actual address. You carry the name of the place you are going and the street it’s on, if that has a name. But in addition, you should carry the phone number, if not also a hand drawn map. This way, the taxi driver can call someone there and shout for directions in Nepali while careening one-handed through the ever-deepening obstacle course of motorbikes, cows, and small children. Just pray to the Ganesh upon the dashboard and have faith, for in the end you shall arrive. Therein lies a clue about my inexplicable love for this maddening, intoxicating country: it is the grand high gamut of unbeatable bamboozlement—the ultimate unknowable place. Even the taxi drivers grapple with the question: exactly how lost can one get? I could move in and stay for the rest of my life and never memorize this labyrinthine splendor. Just walking down the street is a noble act of faith because on foot, you are part of the obstacle course. An obstacle course within an obstacle course, a living puzzle piece learning how to move. It’s impossible to do without yielding, and yet impossible to do without force. A navigational paradox and an act of faith? What better way to walk down the street? As trying and intense and harrowing as they can be, acts of faith are like honey to my soul.
The city is a jungle of temples and ruins, a trickster’s test of endurance, an impossible marriage of chaos and peace, of devilish, daft, and divine. I love it because I love the impossible, because paradox has a home in my heart. I left the orphanage I came here to work with, for a number of different reasons. Many of the children were frightfully ill with coughs and fevers and chills. The dishes weren’t washed with soap or hot water, just rinsed a bit under the tap. There is not enough energy to feed Kathmandu so the power stops twice every day. It stays out for five hours each loadshedding period and one of them is always at night. Too many massive cockroaches to count would take over the orphanage at dusk and so my evenings all blended into one long cockroach obstacle course in the dark. This would have been horrifying enough without the fact that no shoes were allowed indoors. My friend Brooke from Thailand gave me the laugh of the decade when she said I needed Raid-shooting Romper Stompers for houseshoes. For those unfamiliar with Romper Stompers, click here to see a pair that doesn't shoot Raid.
I was expected to work from 7AM until bedtime and the gates were locked at sunset. If I might have managed the bugs and the sickness, I could never have managed the regret—the regret of being close enough to touch this strange city and yet quarantined from its magic and its madness. I left kindly but unapologetically, and I rented a loft near Patan Durbar Square, where the holy men walk amongst the hawkers, where art galleries hide in dusty brick alleys, where the temples tower above the ruins and smiling Buddhas keep watch over ancient streets. There's a generator that keeps the lights working constantly and it's blissfully cockroach-free. It's funny what feels like luxury to a person after living in a third world orphanage. It was foolish to accept a worktrade agreement without even asking the hours. It was foolish to expect conditions any better from an orphanage in a country like Nepal. But if I hadn’t been so foolish, I might never have come here and fallen so completely in love. I might not have landed on my own without a safety net and thus learned to build one out of faith. I wouldn’t have discovered the place that dances in my heart the way no other place has ever danced. So I say, long live foolishness. Long live implausibility and risk. Long live the kind of inexplicable intuition that eclipses practicality and caution. Cheers for the passion that outshines propriety and long may it lead our hearts astray.