Where am I? This is a question that has come up a lot lately, both literally as I prepared to travel to Kathmandu and figuratively as I entered the city for the first time.
For starters, the basics: Nepal is a small country on the north-eastern border of India. It borders Tibet, making this small country something of a buffer zone between the world’s two largest countries, India and China. The language is Nepalese (which I will be learning starting this week!), though some indigenous groups have their own languages and a fair number of people speak Hindi. Nepal is definitely a “developing” country (more on that in a bit), but it is also a pretty major tourist hub. Nepal is most famous for being the home of Mount Everest and the Himalayas, which take up the northern-most third of the country, and tens of thousands of people flock here every year to do the treks. But, in this small land, you can also find rhinoceros, elephants and even supposedly Bengal tigers living near Chitwan National Park in the swampy southern region, so it is definitely diverse.
I’m here for four months volunteering with the Israeli NGO Tevel B’Tzedek, or Earth in Justice. There are 22 volunteers (I think), most from Israel but a few others from the US. We spend our first month in country living together in Kathmandu and taking intensive Nepal language courses and learning about politics, development work, social justice and globalization. After this intense month, we are split in to groups, and some people will be staying in Kathmandu and some will be going out to a village near Ramichap, which I believe I was told is in the eastern part of the country. I don’t know yet where I will be or what I will be doing there, but I will keep you posted.
So that answers the literal “Where am I?”, but answering the question on a more metaphysical level is going to take some time. I must admit that the days leading up to my departure were extremely stressful, as I struggled to cobble together even a remote idea of what I faced when I arrived in the country. I don’t have any particular reason for being here, and I know no one in the country. Honestly, I decided to do this because I wanted to be the kind of person who would later say I spent four months volunteering in Nepal (and then an as-yet-undefined period of time backpacking elsewhere in Asia). As the departure loomed closer, the “it will be amazing, and it will change me” reason seemed a little foolish, and multiple times I questioned my decision with an emphatic “What the *&!% were you thinking, Deena?!”. Every time my friends said “don’t be nervous, it will be awesome”, I was just left wondering “but what is ‘it’?!?!?!”. Therefore, it was with a few tears in the airport that I left the US burdened with backpacks and laced in to my new, super-sturdy hiking boots.
Traveling alone across the world definitely made me a much more friendly and outgoing person than normal, and I made friends on both flights. From Chicago to Istanbul I sat with a Nepali young woman, who introduced me to a few other Nepali people who were on our flights during our five hour layover in Istanbul. Then, I boarded the plane in Istanbul and found myself seated alone in an exit row…until someone showed up. I had no time to be bummed about gaining a seatmate, because this “someone” turned out to be an incredibly hunky Italian young man named Tomazedo who also happened to be fluent in English. Hunky Tom was not just handsome and charming and generous (he gave me his water cup when I said I was feeling dehydrated), but he was also excellent company—turns out he works with refugees and asylum seekers in Italy! In my sleep deprived, emotionally exhausted, caffeine-headachy state, I became nearly convinced that Hunky Tom was my soul mate. I fell asleep cuddled on his arm, dreaming about the two of us taking pictures together with monkeys in Kathmandu. Just go with it.
The weird thing about traveling alone is that you can instantly bond with someone else; Hunky Tom and I talked most of the plane ride, then navigated our way off the plane, in to the airport and through the visa and baggage claim chatting like old friends. When both of our bags arrived (and I nearly cried with joy to see my bag unscathed and in Kathmandu), we hugged and parted ways. To everyone reading this, if you ever find yourself traveling alone, be like Hunky Tom and let the frazzled girl traveling alone next to you fall asleep on your shoulder. It’s good karma.
Leaving the airport and driving in to Kathmandu was one of the most surreal, mind- blowing experiences of my life. There is simply no way to describe the streets of Kathmandu accurately, but suffice it to say that if you told me that my airplane was in fact a spaceship that transported me to a different planet or even a different dimension, I would not question you. Many of the roads are unpaved, or may have been paved in a previous incarnation, and there are certainly no such things as lanes or stop signs or traffic signals. To my uninitiated eye, it seems like absolute chaos—motorcycles dodging everywhere, tuk tuks (three-wheeled bikes) weaving about, busses and taxis squeezing past one another through openings that I swear are smaller than the vehicles themselves. I began to wonder if the same magic that Ernie, the driver of the Knight Bus in Harry Potter, used to squeeze his bus through oncoming traffic, is in practice here. But, I have not yet seen anyone get hit, vehicle or pedestrian, so I assume that there is a logic of movement here that I do not understand. I need to spend sometime observing how people move through space to feel more comfortable here, I think. I just cannot yet wrap my head around the fact that I am standing on the same hunk of rock as you, reading this on your computer screen somewhere.
Well, the power just went out as it is wont to do, so I am sitting here in utter darkness. I will take that as a sign to wrap this up. More to come on my initial touristy adventures, now it’s time to succumb to jetlag.