This is one of only three photos I took today so it’ll have to do. Three people plotting over breakfast at the well-run Hotel Potala. It’s what one does in Thamel, the foreign backpacker enclave of Kathmandu.
I wasn’t a big fan of the saturation advertising and English-language overstimulation of the senses when I got to Thamel. Not because I think it’s for softies. I have no desire to get into a pissing contest about the rigors of travel. It was just a lot to take in. And loud.
A rafting cook staying in my hotel noted that Thamel is designed for people on their way off on an adventure or returning from one—so the creature comforts of a properly prepared latte, spinach and garlic pizza, and supermarkets aren’t intended as Destination Nepal. And even if they were, it’s still a part of Nepal, and however teeny tiny & insular it may be, it’s also the hub of the tourism that’s by far the largest industry in one of the world’s poorest countries.
But it’s another wealthy expat bubble in a dirt-poor country (and city). And sure enough, for a few days I’ll embrace my flushing toilet, hot shower, and having easy conversations and a rooftop beer with Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis. Punishing myself by refusing such luxuries is not going to help me appreciate or understand Nepal.
Just as being in the sticks doesn’t mean you’re automatically absorbing a country’s culture and better able to understand its economic and political plights, basing yourself briefly in Thamel doesn’t mean you’re ignorantly assuming anything about the country.
Hmm. This is sounding more like a confused rant than anything else. In short, I don’t have anything against Thamel, but I don’t want to be here. Maybe it’s just guilt—after working 10 years in international development and believing (right or wrong) that I was helping in some small part to make a better world, right now I’m just a tourist. Doing little more than throwing a few dollars into an impoverished country with a failing government. There’s much more I or anyone could do, on a small or large scale, but I probably won’t.
I scribbled many long pages today around this argument with myself. If I ever write a book, maybe I’ll try to make sense of them. But rich foreigner in a poor country has a million possible conversations, connotations, and considerations that explode in messy vaudeville philosophies and inevitably ignorant best-guess, tentative conclusions.
It’s been 12 years since I left the wee town of Agadyr, Kazakhstan after 18 months in the isolated accident of a settlement in the steppe and I’ve never felt like I could give a sufficient answer to the question, “What’s Agadyr like?” I’m happy to ramble about wherever I go (mainly for myself to battle my insidious memory) but it’s such a tiny sample of experience, who the hell am I to say what a place or people are like?
Okay, so now I have to wrap all this together. In short, for me, waking up in Thamel I often don’t know where I am, and when I half figure it out, I still think “Where the hell am I?” and then go eat a banana pancake and drink a small pot of filtered coffee.