This weekend, I travelled to Nagarkot, a village on the edge of the Kathmandu Valley with amazing views of the Himalaya. Though it has been nearly a month since we moved in to our areas and the shock of being placed in Kalimati instead of in the village has worn off, the adjustment to thinking of myself as a resident of Kathmandu is still hard. I’m not much of a city person to begin with; I much prefer nature, quiet and open spaces to the hustle and bustle of a big city.
Kathmandu, with its overpopulation, pollution, dust, unbelievable traffic and relative lack of municipal services and parks, is not just “a big city”, but also a city in the developing world. After my disappointment about being placed in the city, I decided the best way to deal with my situation was to be as perceptive as possible to what it feels like to live in a city in the developing world. Though I certainly cannot pinpoint where I will live in the future, it seems unlikely that I will make a permanent home in the developing world. Kalimati, my home within Kathmandu, is a particularly good place to try to understand the “more developed” end of the spectrum within a developing city.
Kalimati is a mixed-income neighborhood within Kathmandu that is home to the city’s largest Tarkaari Bazaar, or vegetable market. There are several houses in the area that are quite nice, and in one or two we have even seen lights on during a power cut, signifying that the family is wealthy enough to own and run a battery. On the other hand, the building across from my window looks decent on the outside, but has several dozen people residing in it- one family per not-very-large room. There is also, as I mentioned in the “development” post, a slum along the banks of the river directly behind our house, and several dozen perpetually drunk men who sit in the alley leading to the main street. Power cuts black out entire areas of the city every morning and night; currently they only last for several hours a day but the time is growing as the power generated by the rivers diminishes in the dry season. And, as I have mentioned before, there is no true running water system nor water purification system in the city, but rather each house has its own well which can be pumped to provide water in the house (when the well is full).
When I moved in to the neighborhood, these conditions were frequently on my mind, and every dusty field full of garbage and children playing, traffic jam of cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuks (a sort of 3-wheeled wagon used for public transportation) and cows and group of unemployed drunk men shocked me. Yet as we drove out of Kathmandu towards Nagarkot and I saw all of these things out the window, I didn’t feel shocked. In fact, what I thought to myself was “If this is the developing world, it looks pretty normal to me”. This is exactly what I was waiting for when I moved here and wrote about the mind-blowing shock of arriving in Kathmandu. I wondered if I would ever be able to look past the chaos of the city and feel at home. And while I still cannot say I enjoy living in this city, I certainly no longer look at my surroundings in shock.
In fact, one of the projects that I am helping with while here is designed specifically to bridge this gap between chaos and peace. The project, being developed by my friend during this volunteer period, is a “roof garden”, where we are growing various foods and herbs like garlic, lettuce, coriander and spinach. The goals include helping youth understand that they can be responsible for some of their own food sources, teaching them about proper nutrition and injecting some greenery in to the grey and brown-dominated cityscape. For now the project is just in the very initial stages, but we hope it will eventually be successful and motivate the community members to grow plants in the spaces available to them. Even within the noise and confusion of Kathmandu, stretched to the seams with people and vehicles, it is possible to find room to innovate, grow and maybe create a little peace.