Hot, culture shocking, chaotic, colourful, odd smells, noisy, curry to die for, dust, rabid dogs that howl at night, baaad narrow holey roads, electricity comes and goes, Hinduism meets Buddhism, good coffee, foul tea (milk chai), pestering men asking me to “see my shop, good inside, I give you discount, lady, maam”, sacred cows wander the streets, CO2 mixed with incense, F O sized mountains that are bigger collectively than any I have ever seen all around the skyline. In other words, all good here.
These were my first words sent to a friend after landing in Kathmandu three years ago. I spent time studying, volunteer teaching English in schools and then trekking in the Himalaya before heading home three months later.
I wrote at the time about the fantastic experience I had as I soaked up the culture of everyday life in the capital city. My first blog on this website recounts the highlights and images. I also came to understand the massive challenges for this country that is one of the poorest in the world, with no formalised constitution, government or "rule of law", barely any infrastructure and daily challenges that barely exist in the UK.
There were daily power outages, constant fuel shortages and little safe clean water sources for starters. Kathmandu was bordering in places on an environmental disaster with permanent piles of waste, people living on river banks and streets in abject poverty, high levels of pollution. I saw a whole site simply full of millions of dumped plastic water bottles. But the only way to guarantee a safe drink of water is to buy bottled. School classes were basic and huge (40), chalk and blackboards and few resources yet full of smiling, engaged students. 50% of girls and young women are not educated, borne out by my experience of more boys than girls in a class - I was NOT impressed with that!
It is easy to focus on the negatives. Nepal is overwhelmingly rural and poor, but it is a beautiful country that is bouncing back after a civil war that ended in 2008 and all my experiences, by being immersed in its life, gave me learning and insight and countless lessons about age old cultures, resilience, tolerance, understanding others' beliefs and what people can take from them. I experienced everything that was good and not so good.
I appreciated the humour and kindness of the Nepali people, their patience in waiting for change in their economy, health and well being, the desire to have a good economy and better education . I lit butter lamps in Bodnath, sat cross legged til they went numb in Swayambhunath's stupa for a Buddhist ceremony, haggled in Thamel, ate momos, swan-puka (lamb lungs), buff and yak cheese, celebrated Holi and Seto Machendranath, held my nose as I walked by the mighty Bagmati river and experienced thrilling and at the same time difficult, but breath taking adventure in the Annapurna Sanctuary, walking inthe tallest mountains in the world through remote areas with no roads or vehicles in sight.
That was then.
This is the first time I have felt personally connected and affected by a natural disaster and I am really shocked and concerned for the people of Nepal and their future. What we have witnessed these past two days of the earthquake in Nepal has so many dimensions. Anyone who has not been there or experienced a third world country at the coal face will probably not appreciate fully the enormity this disaster is for Nepal. It has brought to its knees a country and people already struggling with inadequacies at a such a basic level and on a massive scale.
Many of the places I walked through every day, where I lived, I have pictures of - and they are now gone completely. I spent Holi with my fellow students and teachers in medieval Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and focal point for activities and events, like Trafalgar Square or The Mall in London. It's now a mass of rubble. I have emailed those friends in Kathmandu I am still in touch with and have yet to hear if they are alive. They live in areas I have seen on the news are wiped out.
I do believe the people of Nepal are resilient and if they get the depth and scale of help they need they have a fighting chance of coming out of this better than could be hoped for. I really hope the vibrancy of Kathmandu can live on in a new way. It was awaiting social and economic development and major reform. I am hopeful it gets what it needs to emerge from the ashes.