Caught by the River

From Kenython to Kathmandu

11th January 2012

Seth Jackson, son of artist, environmental activist and Caught by the River contributor Kurt Jackson, is in Nepal working with the WWF for four months. He’s keeping a blog which I’ve been enjoying reading so I thought I’d pass it on. The post below dates from the start of the blog, August 2011:

From Kenython to Kathmandu:

I wake to dawn over the Admiral Emirates. A fat orange sun hangs over a sea of sand that’s been tortured; it’s been piled up and dug away, scraped and shaped and squared off. Roads and canals slice through it and fences try to divide it. In every direction diggers and cranes scatter the sand-scape relentlessly trying to tame it, but failing. Sand is everywhere, including the runway.

6:30am and the heat hits me in the face as I step off the plane. Sand and dust obscure the horizon, blending land with sky. Abu Dhabi is a strange sandy place, it dulls everything, including the ugly new buildings. The desert is reclaiming this place. The place looks temporary.

4 drawn-out hours nursing red raw sunken eyes and contemplating the pros and cons of drinking a coffee, before squeezing into another small plane and trying to decide which curry I want for breakfast.

The plane finally descends into Kathmandu valley, leaving the sunlit clarity of the cloud-top views, and the brief glimpses of North Indian canals; and points towards the towering monsoon clouds gathering up front. They darken in colour as we approach, and the turbulence increases, until we finally disappear into the thick dirty haze; streaking the windows with dusty rain.

The plane drops out into a surreal looking place. The foothills of the Himalayas are back-lit from the sinking sun and covered in deep green vegetation. Tiny one story tin shacks dot the landscape all of equal size and shape; and every now and then bizarre looking buildings protrude from the tree tops. Tall blocky concrete structures that look as though they were once part of a huge terrace that disappeared, dwarf the smaller tin shacks.

The forest comes to an abrupt halt and is replaced by paddy fields, grown right up and around the weird concrete buildings, which begin to cluster as Kathmandu approaches (but in no apparent order or symmetry). As we decrease in altitude the sinking sun illuminates the buildings from the side, enhancing the contrast of their random designs and multi-coloured paint-jobs. They look like Lego.

Getting a Visa takes ages in the small overstaffed empty airport. So sweaty. I realize I’ve landed in a developing country as soon as I enter the toilets – flies, over-flowing urinals, no taps and an over-powering stench of old urine.

All the other passengers are Nepalese migrant workers returning from Abu Dhabi.

I’m picked up at the airport by a WWF driver holding a piece of paper with my name on it and a picture of a panda, plus a beggar (I take to be a member of staff) determined on shaking my hand and extracting some rupees.

The drive to Bijan Gurung’s is an assault on my sleep deprived brain; but seriously entertaining. 4-5-6-7 lane traffic tackle a barely 2 lane strip of tarmac that overflows on either side with people. It takes a while to realize that the drivers are mainly trying to keep to the left. Suicidal cyclists, mopeds, bikes, walkers, cattle, goats, beggars, carts, kids walking back from school, old men and women, impotent traffic police,and monkeys fill the tarmac, while everyone leans on their horns and does what they want.

The air is thick enough to see and taste – burning my lungs and stinging my eyes. Every building seems to be simultaneously being built and taken down, whilst managing to look derelict despite the huge numbers of people that spill out onto the street from every door and window.

People are everywhere.

Pockets of forest explode between the buildings. Huge birds of prey circle the rubbish tips, whilst cows chomp their way through it.

Everyone is selling something.

It’s the beginning of Tij – a three day ‘womens festival’. Women are dressed in red sari’s everywhere, it’s the build-up to a day of feasting, dancing and singing, followed by a day of fasting and washing themselves of their sins (having a good time and leaving their husbands at home). “It’s because it’s the third day of a new moon” my silent driver briefly informs me.

Roasting, boiling, frying, eating, calving, chipping, painting, building, demolishing, singing, dancing, sitting, contemplating, staring, frowning, smiling people everywhere. The smell of frying onions and spices, battles with the smog.

I see one other white westerner on the whole trip; a scared looking backpacker wedged at the back of a seriously over stuffed blue bus.

Chickens are everywhere. Old women with impressively wrinkled faces sweep the streets with clumps of dry grass. So sweaty.

Bijan is a smiling friendly person from Pokhara who (slightly apologetically) shows me where I’m going to be staying for the next three months.

A faded pink 3m x 3m room with strips of old carpet on the floor, stained with suspicious brown watermarks. In one corner there’s a thin single mattress and in the other is a huge metal wardrobe/safe thing that smells of moth balls. There’s also a tiny computer desk and chair, and some nice polyester curtains covered in poppies.

The windows are open (the first time for over a year apparently), but I’m told I should shut them as quickly as possible so no one steals anything. The windows are covered by metal bars and wire mosquito netting.

The kitchen is tiny, but the fridge is huge – sat right in the middle taking up most of the space. The surfaces and floor are covered in various plastic and terracotta bowls and containers with nothing in them. A small table holds a bowl with four packets of instant noodles and a packed of McVities, whilst the fridge holds half a block of old processed Swiss cheese and a bottle of soy sauce. Bijan has studied in Geneva and Tokyo.

There’s a camping stove linked to a huge gas bottle, and on top sits a potato stuck with a few old birthday candles and a stick of incense. The windows are covered by layers of faded curtains and worn-out towels, giving it a gloomy cave-like feel.
Between my room and the kitchen is the bathroom. To get in you have to squeeze past another gas bottle, which provides hot water for the shower in the winter (end of Dec beginning of Jan only).

If you wanted you could sit on the toilet, have a wash and use the sink at the same time, whilst smiling at the faces watching you through the gauze covered window.

Bijan’s room is the same as mine, but with a double bed in it, and opposite is the sitting room containing a huge monster of a TV, an old duvet and, a ridiculous tangle of wires (one of which has internet coming out of it). There’s also a large water-cooler style water bottle with a jug next to it for drinking.

Should do the job.

Bijan takes me for dinner. A night time walk through dark winding backstreets passing packs of stray dogs, groups of people listening to radio and open-fronted cave-like shops, whilst avoiding the motorbikes, cars, taxis, dog shit and open drains/sewers that appear out of the blackness.

Daal bhaat and roti.

Tomorrow there’s a strike (bandh) – not good – and my camera has fogged up in the humidity. I’m also meeting the famous Tariq Aziz.

I hang my mosquito net up and give sleeping ago in the sweaty humidity of my first night in Nepal. Crickets, car horns, and barking dogs; I haven’t slept for 49 hours.

Seth’s blog.