Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

KATHMANDU AND DON’T



If there is any place I’ve been so far in the world that offers Culture Shock, it has to be Kathmandu. There are more extremes here than pretty much anyplace else I’ve traveled. Good and bad, whites and blacks, ups and downs, ins and out, and all the shades of grey you can imagine – especially in the polluted air of Kathmandu. So, for the traveler unlucky enough not to have visited this Asian Mecca, and for the traveler lucky enough to be about to go there, here are some impressions you might find useful or informative.

1. Air Pollution. Kathmandu, nestled in its own valley, and still only 500 meters above sea level, has to be one of the most polluted cities in the world. Exhaust fumes from hundreds of thousands of buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, tractors mix daily with the natural haze in the valley, along with the dust clouds raised by vehicles and people and by smoke from fires to create quite the most lethal combination of polluted air anywhere imaginable. Most days even the mountains surrounding Kathmandu aren’t visible.
Los Angeles used to declare Stage Three Smog Alerts when I lived there, which means the air outside is bad enough that people shouldn’t venture out into it if they can possibly avoid doing so. In Kathmandu, every single day is at least a Stage Nine Smog Alert, which means that, even indoors with the windows closed tightly, if you inhale more than three times during the day you will die. Many of the Kathmandunians (just made that one up) have taken to wearing face mask filters to alleviate some of the effects of the terrible air pollution. Traffic police, such as there are, routinely wear these masks, many of which are decorated with patterns and have become fashion accessories.
One often finds oneself standing on the street when a bus or truck comes by, belching huge clouds of black carbon engine smoke directly into one’s face. Yummy. You can commit suicide right there in town. So be prepared, wary traveler, for the unbelievably bad air you’ll find in Kathmandu.
Oh, I forgot to mention another source of air pollution: dead people. Yep, the Hindu method of disposing of the dead is cremation, and there is a wonderful little cremation park just on the east side of the city which runs cremations pretty much all day long. The resulting clouds of white smoke from the funeral pyres also add their interesting roast pork aroma to the other city smells. Lovely.

2. Traffic in Kathmandu is absolutely horrendous. Los Angeles, Athens, London, Rome – no comparisons. Kathmandu has no traffic flow infrastructure whatsoever. Nothing. No traffic lights, no stop signs, no lane markers, no crosswalks and probably no rules. Everyone just gets in their cars and motorcycles and buses and trucks and pushcarts and pushes and shoves their way onto the streets, oblivious of others. All drivers just cram themselves onto the roads, most of which are one- or two-lane (often made into three- and four-lane by the weaving, dodging drivers), and surge ahead. Naturally, when everyone tries to get through an intersection at the same time, everyone stops dead and nothing moves.
Motorcycles are probably the biggest traffic hazard. Hundreds of thousands of them, crowd the streets, weaving and swerving and taking up space, driven by helmeted locals again oblivious to others, and singularly intent on getting where they want to go with no regard for anyone else; let those automobile heathens watch out for themselves.
The streets in Kathmandu are often so narrow there is no room for traffic to flow. Buses and other passenger carriers stop in their unmarked lanes to accept and disgorge riders. Pushcarts have the same right of way as any other wheeled vehicles. And, since there are no crosswalks, pedestrians are always crossing the streets wherever they want, again slowing traffic, which sometimes gives way for them.
And all during this dance, everyone is beeping their horns, which leads us to Number Three:

3. Noise Pollution. Damn, Kathmandu is a noisy city. Most of the noise comes from the continuous beeping of horns: cars, motorcycles, buses, trucks, kids on tricycles, etc. Picture 200,000 demented road runners wandering blindly around the streets, making beep-beep noises to let everyone else know they are there or to get out of the way. It’s a constant din. And the amazing thing is that no one pays any attention to the horns. No one moves out of the way, no one jumps when a horn sounds next to them, everyone just goes about their normal business, walking slowly across a street or continuing to drive their motorcycle down the center of the street. Amazing.

4. People. Lots and lots of people. Everywhere. Standing, sitting, walking, loitering, jostling, drinking, driving, there are simply hordes of people everywhere. Streetside sellers of everything you can possibly imagine, people lighting fires on the sides of the roads (I think those were Buddhists burning offerings), people crossing the roads, people going about their business or about no business at all. It’s a madhouse of people. Get ready for the crowds.

5. Trash. The mounds, streams, bundles, heaps of trash leap out at even the casual observer. I never saw a single trash can anywhere in Kathmandu, which means people just throw their trash – and often garbage – on the street. Finish a pack of cigarettes and drop the empty pack on the ground. Eat a sandwich and drop the wrapper on the ground. The heaps of trash have completely overwhelmed the ability of the local government to cope, so it seems they just gave up and said “To hell with it.”

6. Lack of building maintenance. Most of the buildings are old, old, and falling down, which can easily be observed from the street. Apparently no one has the money to maintain the buildings, so they are just generally left to fall apart in their own way through misuse, bad use, overuse, etc. The resulting general filth and peeling walls and rusty banisters and really nasty toilet facilities will have Westerners reeling in dismay. Again, steel yourself for the experience.

7. Friendly People. OK, it’s about time we got to something good about Kathmandu. The people are incredibly friendly, and will talk to anyone. They always ask where you are from; my response of “Hungary” was usually met with blank stares, as most of them had never heard of it. Of course, many of the people who talk to you want you to buy some little tourist gewgaw or have your shoes shined, which is understandable in a tourist economy. The touts and hawkers are everywhere, always hustling. We all know this is common in third world countries, as everyone hustles just to put a little food in their mouth. But it does get old and annoying after awhile. My favorite was an old woman who, after I told her seventeen times I wasn’t interested in her cheap pendants, said, “No buy? Bye bye.”

8. Prices – they are usually ridiculously low and bargaining seems silly when offered a “genuine” kukri knife for about 5 euros. But the Nepalis love to bargain, and are offended if you don’t do so. Again, the bargaining culture is part of their society, and also includes talking to people and getting to know them and socializing. Food is also generally very reasonable, although the prices seemed to be climbing when I was there; however it is still often below what you might pay elsewhere. And it’s good food, too, so take advantage.

9. Weather. Well, what can I say? It was great! In late November it was still in the 70s during the day (20 degrees C). I was in short-sleeved shirts most of the time, and even the nights were still only worth a light jacket or sweater. By the time I left, mid-December, however, winter was closing in and the nights were chilly enough for heavier jackets.

10. Food. As I mentioned above, the food is generally of good quality, and is generally tasty and filling. I only got food poisoning once, and even that was fairly mild compared to the Delhi Belly I got in India. The Nepali restaurants try to please all the tourists, however, and their menus usually include dishes from Nepal, Italy, China, Thailand, America, India and Mexico. Like Budapest, most of these dishes tend to taste the same. However, when a menu says spicy, it means spicy, so be prepared to have your palate scorched from time to time. Especially try the sukuti, sort of a dried fish or meat, heavily spiced, which goes nicely with a cold beer.



Okay, those are the primary things a traveler should know and should be prepared to face in Kathmandu. It’s still a wonderfully vibrant city, even with its differences, so immerse yourself in the atmosphere and enjoy your stay. It’s worth it.