How could you not love this place?
Admittedly, as I took the evening flight from Malaysia to Kathmandu, I had my reservations about Nepal. I was one of only a few foreigners on the flight, I was definitely the youngest by a long way and there was only one other woman. As I squeezed my way towards my seat, I found myself to be the only foreigner in my section of the plane, wedged between a sea of Nepali men eyes unashamedly locked on me from the moment I appeared. I figured it was novelty and that the novelty would wear off but each time I shifted in my chair or woke up during the flight, I’d find myself locking eyes with one of the men in the next row. Rather than looking away, the man would just keep staring. If anyone fancies training for a staring competition, it seems Nepal is the place to go. At one point some way through the flight I woke up and found the guy in the row in front staring at me through the gap in the chairs which, it must be said, was pretty creepy. I think it shows how tired I was by that point that I simply nodded at him and went back to sleep.
However, my first day in Nepal completely disproved any assumptions that may have formed on the plane. As I took my first tentative steps out of the hotel, avoiding the motorcycles that raged through the rocky, unpaved streets, whipping round corners at the speed of lighting, I was struck by the people. Yes, they stared but they smiled too.
Before long, my mental GPS had abandoned me and I declared myself lost. The second I got my map out, a young lady tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I needed help. I nodded. She pointed me in the right direction and off I went. This happened again and again – and again every single time I looked even vaguely lost. As I browsed stalls, the sellers were keen to chat and tried eagerly to persuade me to buy things but it was nothing like what I’d experienced in Cambodia and Vietnam. They weren’t pushy in the slightest and if I left empty-handed, they let me go with a smile and a wave.
Kathmandu does not look like a city that was nearly destroyed by an earthquake six months ago but equally there’s no hiding the fact that it is still hugely under-developed; the roads are little more than dirt tracks, street drainage is rubbish-filled roadside gutters, everything shuts down by 9PM (good for sleep, bad for Friday night plans), I could go on. However, such details quickly faded to the back of my mind and instead I found myself focusing on the people. The people just captivated me.
While I always try to avoid making sweeping generalisations, I’ll make an exception because the Nepalese are wonderful. They are so incredibly warm and welcoming yet resilient and determined in the face of the hardship that threatens to engulf them. One thing that struck me soon after arriving in Kathmandu was the lack of beggars. All morning something was feeling strange, good strange but strange. Then I realised it was calm. Nobody was hassling me, there were no children chasing me down side streets screaming at me for dollars or mothers thrusting their emaciated babies in my face begging for loose change. I asked one of the locals I got talking to why, despite the fact that most of the people in the city live in poverty, there are so few beggars – I counted one in my whole stay. Eyeing me up, he told me proudly that the Nepali people have no desire to beg and that begging won’t rebuild the country. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the most important thing needed to rebuild the country is tourism and begging is detrimental to that. Tourism, he said, is the backbone of the Nepalese economy; without tourism, the country struggles. So instead, he told me, the Nepalese want you to come to Nepal and to support the local economy by buying local handmade souvenirs, hiring local guides and local drivers and supporting initiatives that train and employ locals – not by handing out loose change.
So, with that in mind, I changed my plans. I hired a guide called Himal (check him out below!), hired a driver and went on an eight and a half hour hike from Chisapani to Nagarkot. I hadn’t originally planned to do any hiking as I figured I didn’t have enough time but after chatting to that guy and realising ‘where there is a will, there is a way’, I thought why not!
In the short amount of time I spent in Nepal, I came to respect and admire the local people’s resilience and determination in the face of adversity. It was an incredibly inspiring journey and I left Kathmandu with a new perspective on life and renewed motivation to achieve my own goals! I hope I’ll have the opportunity to return one day…