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The first thing you notice when you disembark from your plane in Kathmandu is the air. For a Southeast Asian like me used to the humidity back home, the crisp midday air felt refreshing. I put my jacket on inside the plane, with thoughts of the snowy Himalayan mountains in my head. It wasn't that cold, but I'm thankful for my thick jacket.
Tribhuvan International Airport is a small-ish airport of red bricks. Definitely a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Suvarnabhumi, the airport reminded me a lot of the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, in the sense that it was quiet, not very modern, brown, incorporates traditional architecture, and therefore quite relaxing and refreshing, like stepping into a resort. I saw only two duty free shops, one selling liquor and cigarettes.
Some of the guys lined up to get their visa on-arrival. I got my 60-day visa in the Nepal consulate in Manila, so I breezed through immigration.
The airport sits on top of a hill, offering a panoramic view of Kathmandu. My first impression was, oh, I'm really in a foreign country. I could see a sea of small buildings made of concrete and red bricks. Definitely not the Manila skyline. I could sense poverty, almost the same feeling I get when I see a panoramic view of Manila's slums, but this is definitely better because of the cold-ish temperature, which reminded me of a mountain resort.
After a longish wait for my fellow observers (mainly the Indonesians because Nepal has no consulate in Jakarta where they could have procured their visa), we boarded the van sent by Radisson hotel to take us to our home in Kathmandu.
It was no drive to paradise. The view from the airport was nothing compared to the chaos of Kathmandu's roads. The number of people on the road, the heavy traffic, the dust, the decrepit buildings now seen up close, people trying to get on very full buses, the narrow crowded streets, traffic rules not being followed. It was all a bit overwhelming. It reminded me of all those footages of India, specifically Calcutta (though maybe not as bad) I've seen on TV. We were caught in traffic a few minutes after leaving the airport, caused by a demonstration being dispersed by the police (we later learned it was an anti-China protest by Tibetans). Our vehicle took us through narrow streets lined with small grocery stores, laundry, kids playing. It did not feel like we were at the capital, the main city of a country. It was like, if this is the capital, then how would the other places look, knowing that I may be assigned to a far-flung, problematic area to observe the elections. Although of course, I also know that a country should not be judged by how its capital looks like (like how Manila is NOT the Philippines). After several more twists and turns through what looked like dense, residential areas, suddenly the van pulled up into a driveway. We're actually now at the hotel? Really? The surrounding areas didn't feel like, you know, a hotel district.
We were met by ANFREL's Nepali staff, who helped us check-in and gave us our schedule for the next three days. A certain guy from India named Tenzing will be my roommate, has already arrived but wasn't around. Seeing my room reminded me of how I (believe it or not) miss living in hotels. The last time I stayed in hotels for an extended period was four years ago.
After freshening up a bit, I decided to wander around the hotel. I remember a picture from the hotel website of an outdoor pool with a sweeping view of the Himalayas. I realized that, no, that's impossible, because the Himalayas seem to be hardly visible from this part of the city. I asked for directions from the front desk on how to go to Thamel, Kathmandu's backpacker district, which I know is very close to Lazimpat district where our hotel is located. I decided to take a walk. On the way out, I bumped into a Thai observer whom I met at the airport in Bangkok with an ANFREL staff member. She was kind enough to give me a card with a small map of the area.
It was around 4:30 pm when I set out for the city. I didn't bring any jacket along with me because it wasn't cold. A few meters from the hotel I started to cough. The air was dry, mixed with what I think is air pollution. There were not many people and cars along the tree-lined avenue. This part of the city is modern, the road lined with low buildings with restaurants and shops, especially near the hotel. At my left was an area with high walls, which I learned later on was the king's palace. I was fascinated by the people walking. Are they Indian? Are they Chinese? Some looked Southeast Asian. Most of the old folks were wearing traditional clothes, the old men with vests and traditional caps, and the women with thick shawls over their long dresses. It was fascinating and at the same time disorienting, as it became clearer that yes, I'm in a foreign land, and I'm the stranger with the strange clothes and mineral water bottle. Where the heck is Thamel? I kept looking at the map and was convinced I was going the right direction. Go straight then turn right at the second corner. I've been walking for twenty minutes trying to find the second corner. By this time I began to realize that not bringing the jacket was a stupid mistake. By 5pm, the temperature dropped noticeably, and I could feel goosebumps rising. I started coughing again. I finally reached a commercial area but it didn't look like a backpacker area to me. Where are the fancy restaurants? Where are the internet cafes and the mountaineer shops I saw on the internet? I saw an overpass. Finally the second corner! I climbed the stairway and crossed the street. What greeted me at the other side was blissful chaos.
Women in traditional clothes selling strawberries on the sidewalk. Narrow cobblestone streets bursting with people, cars, motorcycles, vendors pushing carts of produce, walled by red brick buildings up to four, five stories high, some with balconies, with shops, gazillions of them, selling shirts, fruits, vegetables, copper and brass wares, lots of jackets, shoes, shawls. It was exactly my fantasy Middle-Eastern bazaar made real. Music blaring from radios. Relentless noise from the vehicles trying to get out. A few meters laters I started hearing live music. A street band was playing. Is there a parade? A wedding? I continued to walk, a crowd of people going both directions, employees coming home from work, teenagers in uniforms coming home from school, local tourists, white people with sunburnt faces in their shorts and hats with mineral water bottles in hand. The smell of spices and incense filled the air. I came upon some sort of a square. There was this small temple wherein people were circling clockwise and then striking the small bell by the door. More vendors sitting on the ground, selling chilis and other exotic spices bursting with colors. Men and women in their stalls selling different kinds of incense, flowers, candles. Watch out for the renegade motorcycles coming this way, jeez they nearly sideswiped me. There were also these shops selling exotic paintings. Are those Chinese? They look like Buddhist paintings? But isn't Nepal Hindu? Lording over this area is a very high pagoda-style temple? What country is this again? A man came out of nowhere and approached me, asking for a ticket? What ticket? No, I'll just turn back, I said, it's not tourism day today. I turned back to see three narrow streets in front of me. Which one to take? Who cares, just pick one. Don't worry getting lost, just take a cab back to the hotel. I passed through more narrow streets, with throngs of people walking or buying food, household stuff, people-watching. I lost track of how many alleys I dove into, with more shops. Jeez, I know a lot of people back home who'll go crazy in a place like this, where so much stuff, exotic and cool stuff, are being sold. I then came upon another commercial square, this time bigger, with the stores a lot more Western-looking, but selling mostly traditional textile (from India?). Many women in colorful saris on this street. And is that a German bakery? Are those pretzels? Pastries! More strawberries being sold on the sidewalk. Taxi. Now. I could feel my feet complaining. I bet I could pass as a Nepali, but the mineral water bottle is a dead giveaway that I'm a tourist. No, traveler. How much, I asked. Two-fifty. (Don't give me that crap.) One-fifty. I'm sure that's still expensive but I really don't know how much the actual fare is so take me to Radisson. It was six o'clock.
At night, we had a welcome dinner at the hotel. The core ANFREL staff from Bangkok - Sui, Ichal, Song - were all there, as well as the other long-term observers from Myanmar, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan (the group from Sri Lanka hasn't arrived, and there was still no sign of Tenzing, my roommate). My god are those gulab jamuns??!? With vanilla ice cream?!? I love gulab jamun, my favorite Indian desert which I buy at the grocery shop near the Sikh temple in Manila. I tried to convince my fellow observers to try this fab desert, with success. Mmm, a truly welcoming treat, and a perfect way to end my first day in Nepal. I'm excited with what's to come.
(Note: Yep, I did get lost and did not reach Thamel that day after all. I later realized that what I reached was the outskirts of Kathmandu's Durbar Square, or main square. What I thought was the first corner was actually the second corner. But who cares?)
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