Sunday, August 05, 2007

Thamel, Kathmandu (or "Rejecting Friendship")

Anyone who has been to Nepal must have laughed their asses off upon reading my last post - I laugh at its naivete myself in light of my recent experiences.

On Saturday I ventured out of Patan, where I am staying and my courses are, and into Thamel - the tourist ghetto that serves as a rough analogue to Seoul's Itaewan or Bangkok's KhaoSan Road.

Almost immediately upon arriving I stepped accidentally into a puddle of noxious, thick, sludgy, oily, goopy water collected in a roadside puddle - which serves as an apt metaphor for the area of town I was stepping into. This place collects every non-redeeming feature of every tourist ghetto I have ever been in: noise, smog, dirt, beggars, con-men, touts, tour guides and taxi drivers. Amid the constant offers of hashish, pot and shrooms, I could still, however, recognize the blessing in disguise - the sex industry that thrives in so many other Asian destinations seems largely absent here.

How to reject these constant harping nags for "friendship"? One young man consistently argued that foreigners came to Nepal "for free" and gave nothing to the people. I foolishly tried to point out that I spent money everyday in the shops and on the streets, choosing which Nepalis I supported with my purchases out of the impossibility of supporting them all - aside from the fact that I had no interest in the chintzy jewelry he was hawking. As is so often the case, I ultimately had to resort to stonewalling him and suffering his resultant abuse in silence.

This is the difficulty at the core of modern travel that I struggle with on every trip and have never come to peace with either in conscience or practice: how do I send a non-verbal "not interested" message that will be heard by the con-men and hawkers while also remaining sensitive to the plight of the people of this nation (suggestions are welcome). Also, how do I do so while not missing the opportunities for true friendship offered by some - such as the provincial school teacher I chatted with on the steps of Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple later that day?

I quickly left Thamel after a lunch of some of the strangest Korean food I have ever encountered, and dove out into the city, making my way along a walking tour of major temples and shrines south of Thamel and north of the magnificence of KTM Durbar square. On this route the noise, pollution and dirt abated not the least, but the constant harassment virtually ceased and I gave myself up to exploring the ancient pilgrimage sites that virtually litter the ancient city.

In one corner a modern building with a bathroom tile-coated niche left open in the foundation for a 2 foot tall Buddha statue from the 4th century, in the other corner a fabulous Newari style house from the Malla period (300 - 450 years ago) with magnificent carved pillars and windows - one of which named deshay madu in Nepali: "there is not another one like it".

Overall a fascinating, educational and exhausting day - but one that made me long for the friendliness and comfort of sweet Patan - loud and dusty though it be.

No comments: