My first impressions of Kathmandu were nothing to write home about. Scenes of suicidal drivers hysterically tooting loud horns, buffalos crossing the road and open sewers reeking of stale urine did very little to impress me, as I sat speechless in a rattling tuk tuk, swerving its way through the crowded, chaotic labyrinths of Thamel, Kathmandu.
Even more shocking was the bus station. I was horrified at the scene I was witnessing that very second. Hundreds of men squashed themselves into a rusty, blue and white striped bus that clearly could not fit more than thirty people. They squiggled in like tiny worms, bent double, hanging off the sides, and even the roof. I was baffled. I mean, there were several other buses parked close by, so why the panic to get into this one? In Nepal, a bus only leaves when full – in this case, a very different significance to the ‘full’ most know.
Once in Durbar Square, however, where more than fifty imposing temples and monuments stand clustered around a large, pigeon-infested square, I began to feel more at ease and in tune with the way of life here in Kathmandu. I was especially thrilled at the fact that there were very few tourists to ruin the authenticity of the scenes that greeted me at the market square. Smells of incense mixed with curry perfumed the air, little kids ran around, some carrying babies in slings on their fragile backs. Young boys rode rusty bicycles, balancing massive bunches of rotting bananas in every possible available space. Men looking fresh in white linen kaftans sat lazily watching the world go by. I loved the warm mix of coloured saris, delicately woven with intricate golden -thread patterns, carried gracefully by petite Nepali women, who, in spite of carrying heavily-laden buckets on their heads, still managed to look elegant and poised, hair tied neatly in a bun, with not a hint of struggle or pain.
As I weaved my way through backstreet alleys, I saw a little old lady. She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. She struggled across the street, clumsily carrying a massive, ten-foot woven basket on her osteo-arthritic back. Torn sandals, sunken-in eyes, drawn face, wrinkled arms, she shuffled along the street, chin buried into her tiny chest. Within minutes, she had faded away into the distance, away from the hustle and bustle of the centre, her existence gone completely unnoticed by most, except for few thirsty travelers like me. I just love witnessing these sad yet real scenes that make my trips so much more memorable. This is what I had come to see.
As the day went by, I noticed that a large number of dirty, long-bearded Sadhus (Hindu holy men), clad in long, burnt-orange robes began to conglomerate in the square. Pacing around barefoot, one particularly skinny Sadhu approached me suspiciously.
“Namaste, madam. Foto? Foto?”
The photo, of course, in exchange, for a few rupees. I normally shy away from these tourist traps, but his eccentric face intrigued me, so I snapped away. Great. I’d always hoped to bump into a sadhu at some point. Hot and sticky, I sat in a corner of shade and marveled at the perseverance of hundreds of locals, who, having set up shop as early as sunrise, displayed their handcrafts on torn sheets in every angle of the square, and sat in the scorching sun, desperately trying to sell at least one ceramic pot, beaded necklace, bronze Buddha or wood-carved elephant head. I bought a silk sarong. Not that I needed it. I had hundreds. But I felt sorry for this particular woman. She hugged me. I had made her day.
As the sun set and I sat slurping my way through the most delicious plate of dhal baat and fresh lemonade on a rooftop restaurant, I gazed down dreamily at Durbar Square – the heart of old city, the Kathmandu I had been hoping to fall in love with – and most certainly did.
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