The heavily potholed streets were clogged with cars, bikes, people, animals. Horns blared constantly. Huge piles of trash tumbled down steep ravines into polluted creeks. Men in turbans blew their noses farmer-style, holding one nostril shut while exhaling aggressively through the other. Cows slept in the middle of the street, oblivious to the clamor around them and protected by their holy status to Hindus. Small children squatted to relieve themselves wherever and whenever the urge struck them.
I arrived at my hotel around 9am and had breakfast before heading out to explore the city. While I ate I eavesdropped on the table next to me, where a middle-aged American woman was talking to a Nepalese travel agent. “I’m a very spiritual person,” she explained. “And I need to develop my healing powers. I need to, do you understand? I’ve cured myself of cancer twice.” The poor travel agent was just trying to sell this woman a standard trek, but she wanted him to help her locate a specific monastery she’d read about in a book. It didn’t help that she couldn’t remember the name of the monastery and didn’t know the title or author of the book. I gave the travel agent a sympathetic smile.
The impossibly narrow streets of Thamel, Kathmandu’s most touristy area, were as crowded as any I’d experienced in Asia. Occasionally all traffic – pedestrians, rickshaws, motor vehicles – would collapse into total gridlock. It sometimes took long periods of time for the crowd to decipher the puzzle of the interconnected moving parts and figure out how to unclog the jam. Cars and rickshaws occasionally raced by too close and clipped my arm or leg.
With my trekking plans set I wandered south to Durbar Square, a temple-filled plaza in the heart of Kathmandu’s old town. The streets were full of amazing faces I desperately wanted to photograph, but I found it very difficult to take photographs in any of Nepal’s touristy areas. Every time I asked permission to take a shot, the response was either a curt refusal or a request for money. The Nepalese have been dealing with tourists for over 40 years and I don’t blame them for having an edge, but I hated to miss so many great opportunities.
Several “holy men” dressed up in colorful robes and face paint regularly work the Durbar Square area, asking people with cameras if they’d like a photo and then demanding money afterwards. When one of the holy men approached me I said, sure, I’d like a photo, but for free. No money. “OK, no problem,” he said. “No money.” So I took some photos. “Money!” he demanded as soon as I lowered my camera. I refused and thankfully had the backing of a couple locals who had heard our exchange.