I’m writing this as I sit in one of my favorite restaurants in Thamel, the backpacker ghetto in Kathmandu. I officially finished my volunteering period with Tevel B’Tzedek on Saturday night, and Sunday morning I packed in to a van with a dozen other volunteers to go to Pokhara, a beautiful resort town on the shores of Phewa Tal (a lake) at the foothills of the Annapurna Himalayas. I spent the past week in Pokhara, looking at the Annapurna mountain range and relaxing after a beautiful climb up (and down) to the World Peace Pagoda, and then in Chitwan National Park in the south of Nepal, traipsing around the jungle on foot and elephant back looking for rhinos (seen) and tigers (footprint seen). From here on out, I “live” nowhere, but will be bouncing around Asia with my backpack and Lonely Planet, exploring India, Cambodia and Thailand over the course of two and a half months.
More than four months after I arrived in Nepal, I am now a tourist, and it feels weird. After months of traveling on local buses, eating at the cheapest local places I could find and interacting with the same people in the same places, I suddenly find myself traveling in private vehicles or tourist buses, eating at restaurants and interacting with people who are supposed to “serve” me. Maybe it’s because I really felt like I lived in Kalimati, but I feel almost wrong being a tourist now. Pokhara is such a beautiful place, and definitely felt like a resort town with beautiful weather, restaurants and cafes galore and millions of “Shanti Banti” clothing shops. Chitwan was even more “touristy” feeling, with my package deal for food and tours and the cheesy “cultural” show. Now I have two days in Kathmandu before I fly with a friend to India.
The idea of leaving Nepal is suddenly sad. Arriving back in Kathmandu this morning after week of tourist pursuits felt like coming home, even if I never learned to love this city. The difference is between a place I know and nine weeks of places I don’t know, some of which will also be with people I don’t know. Months of preparing and being warned again and again by family about the dangers of India combined with the abrupt sadness of finishing Tbt, and I have worked myself in to a bit of a frenzy about the next stage. Over the course of this week I sat with my iCal and counted the days until I go back to the US, considered abandoning the money I deposited on my yoga teacher training course and changing my ticket home, and silently cursed myself for signing myself up for this stupid “adventure”.
But, of course, I shall do none of those things. As I calm down a little after a very sad and hard goodbye from some of my TbT friends, some of whom I may never see again, I am getting excited for the travel. I think I have basically read every single thing there is to read about India, and it’s time to just jump in to the wind and accept the adventure that is to come. One of the biggest sources of anxiety as I think about the trip ahead is the difference between being a tourist and a resident. I felt I got a good mental work-out in Nepal, where I was constantly confronted by poverty, social problems and local institutions. As you may remember from my first Nepal post, Kathmandu basically slapped me in the face upon arrival, and for almost a month I was unable to look (or think) past the smog, pollution, traffic, noise, animals, poverty, dust and so on. Seeing as the longest period of time I will be in any one place until I get back to the US is 30 days in Thailand, I really hope I don’t have a one-month adjustment period to the places I will travel.
I hope that the last 18 weeks in Kathmandu have helped train me and desensitize me to deal with whatever will come. I’ve heard that India is like Nepal with the volume turned up; I expect culture shock, but hopefully it will be manageable enough that I can relax and see and enjoy. Part of my ability to see so many things in Kathmandu and think about so many issues was that I was eventually able to focus less on the (daunting) task of daily life, and look around while I walked. Though I had a few near-misses with cows, buffalo, dogs, people and crater-sized potholes, Nepal eventually proved to be an edible portion of the developing world.
One of the last things I did in Nepal before turning in to a pumpkin, I mean, tourist, was visit a brick factory about an hour outside Kathmandu. We went as part of the closing seminar for TbT, and I was chosen (or, more accurately, chose myself) as the group photographer. There is a lot more I can say about the place, and maybe I will catch a quiet few minutes before I leave Kathmandu or during my time in India to write about the brick factory in more detail. In brief, the opportunity to shoot in a place where photographs, let alone foreigners, are usually forbidden was a huge honor and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The brick factory was emotionally and physically overwhelming, but seeing it as “the group photographer” helped me process it better. In looking for good shots, I tried not to look for anything specific but look for little moments where a disconnect in color, size, shape or movement caught my eye. I mostly took pictures of individual people or pairs working in the factory, but was caught by the immensity of the fields of bricks. I also shot most of the day in black and white, in an attempt to show how much the work in the factory strips people of their color and their humanity.
Sometimes when shooting while traveling, I feel like I am missing some of the place by looking through the narrow lens of the camera. But, at least for India and Cambodia, maybe that will be the best way for me to manage and make sense of the places. India in particular is too big to eat all at once, and obviously I won’t see even a small drop in the huge pond. A few captured moments of beauty, chaos, humanity or scenery seems about the best thing that can come out of these travels.
And don’t worry, Mom and Dad, I’ll never go anywhere alone except the toilet, and I will be super careful! Danyebaad, Nepal and Namaste, INDIA!