I have just gotten off the airplane from Kunming, China, and have somehow made it into a taxi outside the Kathmandu airport.
I’ve researched a lot about getting from the Kathmandu airport to Thamel, but that doesn’t stop me from practically missing my driver altogether. But we finally connect, my bags are hoisted into one of the tiniest cars I’ve ever seen, and we’re off!
My driver immediately begins swerving around other cars and motorcycles before we’ve even left the parking lot. I’m jolted to the right and left, thrilled to not be wearing a seat belt. This is exactly what I’d imagined – chaotic roads, constant near death experiences, and the cacophonous honking of horns invading my eardrums at every turn.
We weave through side streets until we come to a main road, and just as I’m musing “Oh, they drive on the left here! That must be because of the British influence in India, and -”
We swerve right and begin driving directly towards oncoming traffic. At the last second, the driver swerves back to the left and we continue on.
The strangest part about it is that I feel completely safe and utterly free.
I brace myself against the back seat window, confident that my driver’s aggressive nature means he has a lot of experience driving in Kathmandu.
I relax completely, much to my own surprise, and finally allow myself to take in the city….
It is twilight, and the last twinkling strands of sunlight are setting over the ancient city of Shangri-La.
People are everywhere, walking up and down streets that vary from paved to rocky dirt roads. Cars and motorbikes weave and wind as quickly as they can through traffic-choked thoroughfares, being careful not to hit any of the….oh my GOD, is that a cow?
Cows are everywhere, jauntily strolling down the middle of the street, or parking themselves in the middle of the sidewalk to kick it in front of their favorite food stall, or convenience store, or radio repair shop.
Bicycles weave in and out of traffic, the music of their tiny bells attempting to compete with the cacophony of horns.
My driver lays on the horn about every 3-5 seconds, but he doesn’t seem upset. The horn seems to mean “Here I come! Don’t hit me and I won’t hit you! Thanks buddy!”
Because there is no ill intent, everyone honks. Constantly.
My brain searches in vain for patterns in the faces of the people, in the ways they dress, in where they seem to be going. The search is in vain – there is no rhyme or reason to these bustling, pulsating, loud, electric streets.
I see women balancing perfectly folded stacks of clothing on their heads – and walking with their hands occupied by some other task entirely.
I see young teenagers, dressed in dark, shiny Western clothing, texting on cell phones from the steps of their family shop, their mothers squatting behind them, shucking beans into large baskets.
I smell incense and garbage and smoke, and soon begin to choke on the exhaust of the vehicles surrounding us.
Every sense is accosted simultaneously, and I feel happy and tired and thrilled.
The Starbucks Street
We eventually make our way down a street that looks different from the others. It’s a wide boulevard flanked with two-story malls and high end shops.
“Starbucks” points my driver, proud as punch, though I don’t see an actual Starbucks Coffee shop anywhere.
“Very nice” he says.
The street seems to be the city’s attempt at the exact kind of Westernized commercialism I was excited to have a break from. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a skinny vanilla latte as much as the next girl, but I was so excited to be somewhere where people never took their coffee to go, and certainly never inquired as to whether the syrup was sugar-free.
I make a vow to avoid this particular street like the plague.
Welcome to Thamel
The streets begin to wind and twist, and it starts to feel like we’re going back the way we came.
Dark faces, chestnut faces, Indian faces and Hmong faces begin to dance with white faces, Western faces, tourist faces. This must be the place.
In the past, I have felt alternately relieved to tears to see blonde hair (Shanghai), and repulsed and insulted to see blonde hair (Taipei). (I have nothing against blondes, btw, it’s just a stark indication of an American, European, or other fellow Westerner in your presence).
I now feel neither comforted nor threatened to see my countrymen and women strolling around a place that I, too, have journeyed to.
Perhaps this is because I still see mad amounts of locals out of the street – packs of young Nepali boys walking arm in arm, mothers driving scooters, their infants slung casually over one shoulder, and impossibly skinny humans carrying impossibly large, heavy-looking bundles on their backs.
I have officially arrived on what seems to me like a completely different planet.
This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available November 1, 2014 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!
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1. Don’t arrange for a tax beforehand unless you can find one for under 500NPR. The airport to Thamel should cost 450-550 rupees, no more.
2. Allow time for traffic, especially in the late afternoon. Nepalese work on Sundays, so there is a definite “rush hour” in Kathmandu.
3. The airport is only about 20 minutes from Thamel, but in traffic this ride can take up to two hours.
4. Kathmandu is INSANE AND AWESOME.
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