Monday, September 9, 2013

Nepal: Kath-MAN-DU!

Can you see Mt. Everest?

Please support Nepal's efforts to survive and rebuild the historic sites mentioned below by giving to Earthquake relief funds like this one or simply text "Give Nepal" to 80088.

Kathmandu must be one of the most beautiful places to arrive by air (likely also meaning most complicated for pilots!) – as you dodge mountains and the bustling city teems from below, it feels like you’re about to land on a different planet. On the way in, you also have the opportunity (if the weather is right) to catch a glance at Mt. Everest, its outline barely visible; you have to train your eye to recognize the snow vs. the clouds. Great, I thought – I don’t have any need to climb Everest (though it might make headlines), I’ve already seen it!

For all the serene beauty on the way in, you’re about to land at one of the least-updated airports in the world. And, of course, authorities at Tribhuvan attempt to make a buck off everyone who enters. You need this or that visa for this many days – so much to hike, so much to climb. Many are not prepared with cash for the required permits and fees - I watched some young people struggle to find an ATM. My biggest problem:  I lost my pen to fill out the long visa on arrival application.

Landing in Kathmandu
I made it through security and looked for my gracious host (don't have a host? read here) – of course many taxi drivers approached me – but I found his Land Rover (in the diplomatic line) and we raced out of there. It's nice to have friends in the Foreign Service, especially when arriving in such a… unique place! Yet even diplomats can’t avoid the diarrhea – I think I got it from plane food, but it didn’t really stop while I was there. Shit just flowed; I didn’t ever have an emergency but my body just reacted, seemingly to just being there!

Hand-written sign at Airport security

Nepal is a beautiful and friendly country – but living there can be terrifying, especially if you’re driving – and even worse if you’re on a motorbike, like most Nepalis.  Despite the constant near misses, it appears people survive. Yet, when you see accidents happen after being somewhere only a week – you try and look for that seat belt again (its likely not there). The “roads” are also terrible – it’s like a trip on an old-fashioned rollercoaster – with ups and downs, zigs & zags and abrupt stops and starts. There’s no real possibility to relax even as a passenger. Unless you really “drive like a top” – I suggest having a driver, if you live in this challenging place (a driver, as you might imagine, along with a housekeeper & a gardener, is not expensive!).

A culture with such explicit carvings on
their temples has to accept the gays soon!
My first "I'm in an impoverished country" moment was walking along and hearing Rihanna blasting from a stereo – it was being played from a wooden shack with corrugated metal roof – and I could see inside some young guy just lying on a dirt floor. No running water, real walls or shelter, but he could listen to western music (at least when the power flowed or batteries lasted).

So Rihanna is available, but gay life is difficult to find – I apparently made it out on the busiest Thursday in a long time; about 30 people attended! In any case, if Nepal is the "gay haven" in South Asia, that's not saying much. We arrived at "Fire Club" in Thamel, the main tourist area, about 11:15pm. A few people were there, but quickly more piled in. A few people tried to make advances, and I socialized a bit – but there was not really anyone I felt strongly about. One guy I recognized from social media – and he made some attempts to talk with me; I kept it friendly. At midnight, almost exactly, the music stopped, and we could hear shouts from below. Not only is a midnight curfew the law, but it was enforced with patrolling police that must have visited every establishment. The bar owners and bouncers didn’t force us to finish our drinks – it was uniformed police incessantly blowing high-pitched whistles that drove us from the club – we did our best to be very annoyed but not outrage the local police.

All the guys hold hands - a sure sign they are NOT gay!
The government has proclaimed that club culture is “against the culture and traditions of Nepal” but it's really just another dysfunction of the government and it can’t be helping tourism either. However, maybe someone looked at places like Siam Reap, Phuket, or Bangkok and decided they don't want a terrible, drunken tourist town.

To find gays in Nepal – you needed to go online, whether it's Grindr or Jack’d. Of course, there's the old fashioned way of just finding those clearly interested eyes on the street, which I attempted.  I was just taking pictures – and there was a group of guys who I assumed were in college. So I started chatting with them – soon (like the Peter Pan I am) I had about 7 guys just wandering with me (and when you can hardly communicate, the number of people matters very little!). What I didn’t realize is that we then exited the Bhaktapur historical area – which I had entered through a back route “illegally.”

Music video being shot at Bhaktapur Dunbar Square
Rant on crazy costs: The price to view these historic sites is excessive considering the reason for the charge, "the upkeep of the monuments," is definitely false. These dirty, crumbling monuments don't have any "upkeep" - I’m pretty sure I know where this money must go.  Furthermore, I’m also interested in where all the “Thangka school” painting money ends up.  Experienced tourist hockers run (too many) painting "schools" where they employ painters of traditional Nepali Thangka painting and charge tourists as much as they are willing to pay for them. The style & paintings may be routed in culture and religion, but the prices and number of these places seems excessive. Know you’ll be shown some paintings when you meet someone friendly on the street near the tourist areas – and everyone is friendly here in Nepal anyway – so you chat with them, but then you ask, what do they do:  “oh I am a painter.” Just be prepared to negotiate a good price.

New friends return to Kathmandu together from Bakhtapur!
So (back to Bhaktapur) when my new friends led me out of the historical "zone" – I realized I missed seeing the largest temple! The focus inside was some South-Asian music video being filmed with the temple as a back-drop - so I figured I should re-enter, but I didn't realize I had left since I had entered from a different entrance! Plain-clothed officials asked for my ticket; I pretended to have lost it. After being refused, we went a circuitous way around back into the zone. But this time, those in charge – tourism officials, or whomever, caught on, and met us at the next passageway, requesting payment to enter again – and not just requesting. Although not in uniform, they remained steadfast and insistent.  So we went back towards the entryway into the city, later taxiing back to Kathmandu together and enjoying coffee at Himalayan Java, a key meeting point for both locals & ex-pats (and often gays). The cafe has multiple locations all with (sometimes) operable wi-fi and the best, busiest cafe is near the Garden of Dreams, which is a lovely walled-off enclosure and green escape from brown & bustle of the city.

One of the largest stupa's in the world!
After 2 months of new places every week or weekend, Kathmandu was a breath of fresh air - literally - yet I didn't travel outside; I didn’t do trekking to Pokhara, for example - but all these trips require internal air travel, which remains a bit dangerous in Nepal. I did visit a hiking/bungee facility near Nepal’s border with Tibet (I hiked, no bungee for me!). And I saw all the sights, from the "Monkey Temple" at sunset to circling (always clockwise) around one of the largest stupa's in the world and made my own cultural tour, witnessing the last rites at Pashupatinath Temple as Nepalese burned their dead river-side as well as a wedding on the other side of the river.  This page provides a good summation of the best sites and here you can find more great information, plus gay tours of Nepal!

Nepal would be a challenging place to live for those used to western comforts – even walking down the street we were almost hit by metal roofing when a huge gust of wind blinded us with dust and we had to rush to shelter.  Still, it is possible to walk into a restaurant or bar and step into Paris or New York. So visit, hike a mountainside, meet the incredible, friendly people and find ways to reach out and touch them-they will want to do the same. Live there if you want something new and exciting – a place where everyday you’ll be frightened but also pleasantly surprised by its majesty.

Panoramic of Sunset at the Monkey Temple

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