In I’ve been to plenty of third world countries, but nothing prepared me for Kathmandu. It was as if a time capsule, the Thai Air Jet on which I arrived, dropped me into a medieval village.
From the airport we barreled in a beat-up mini bus through potholed twisted lanes teeming with people, cars, bikes, cows, buses, and motorcycles going in every direction – most of them straight at us, veering off just milliseconds before impact. I could not watch what seemed like my imminent death, and so I turned and watched life on the street as it reeled past: A cacophony of people, food vendors, shops, children, blacksmiths, men squatting around fires warming their hands, raw slabs of red meat splayed out on iron benches, men at foot pedal sewing machines, splashes of color in fruit, vegetables, and saris, and buildings a tumble everywhere.
Tony Cohen, author of “Mexico Time” speaking to a group of travel writers at a conference two years ago said, “There is a huge audience of ‘displaced’ people searching for the right partner, a new career, and a new location.”
I am one of them.
But where to start? Over the past two years I’ve been meeting expatriates in Central America, Europe, and now Asia in my quest for the perfect place to spend the next half of my life. I’ve long been curious about the special fascination that Californians have for Asia. In the 60s, hordes of spiritual seekers and hippies headed east and returned to the West bringing with them a new way of life. They imported Eastern-influenced music, yoga, medicine, religion, incense, philosophy, trekking, and long flowing skirts, beads, and various forms of fashion dubbed “hippy” in the Western Hemisphere. Thirty years later, Asia’s influence on Californian culture is pervasive.
Many of those who went in the 60s and 70s, stayed put in Kathmandu’s mystical mountain-bowl setting. There was the legality of hashish (now illegal), the incredulously low cost of living (one can live on as little as $500 a month in a palatial home with servants), spiritual mysticism, a welcome attitude towards foreigners, and the quaint, innocent ambience of a country that was until the early 50s shut off from the rest of the world. By the late 80s it was outdoor enthusiasts who were going in droves to Asia, drawn to the world’s most beautiful mountain range, the Himalayas. What is it that pulls divergent thinkers from around the globe to Asia, specifically to Nepal? Is Kathmandu still The Place to go or is it The End Times in the words of one expatriate?
I moved to Kathmandu, Nepal five months ago into an expatriate household in an expatriate neighborhood to live like an expatriate to find out.
A week after my arrival, I wrote from a hill resort near Kathmandu: “The sounds of children at play in the hills below seep into my room where windows frame the Himalayan Mountains. There’s no alpen glow finish tonight, just a quiet deepening blue, much like the streets of Kathmandu this past week. All is not well in Shangri-La. The tourist district of Thamel, once jovial with Tibetan music, thick with sweet incense and streets full of trekkers jostling elbow to elbow has gone silent. Our professor and we six students are the only people dining in Kilgore’s Restaurant. We are in fact the only white faces on the streets of Thamel. After dinner, we quickly bid each other goodbye and make haste past armed guards on empty, dark streets, to the safety of our rooms. I am the only guest in my hotel. Due to a growing Maoist insurgency and a government-declared State of Emergency, tourists have all but cleared out of Kathmandu, taking their dollars with them.
“In a way I feel lucky to experience Kathmandu sans tourists, but under the peace and the beauty there is fear that is palpable – mostly that foreigners, whom Kathmandu has come to depend on in more ways than one, will not return.” Four months later I write, “Is Nepal going down? An increasing number of expatriates are taking lifeboats out of Nepal. But others, like the orchestra on the Titanic, keep playing. The Nepalese, if the country sinks, will go down with her.”
Kathmandu, Nepal the Place
Situated between China and India, the Himalayan Kingdom of 19 million immigrants shares over a dozen languages and at least two dozen different cultures. Tolerance and diversity are a hallmark of Nepal which along with a low cost of living, and its beautiful mountain setting, have made it the ideal expatriate melting pot. Nepal’s capitol of Kathmandu has half a million residents with an expatriate community of approximately 2,000. The numbers are dropping rapidly due to political instability and a choking economy. Remaining expatriates are for the most part development project employees and volunteers. The rest are made up of foreign embassy employees, students, business entrepreneurs, trust fund babies, retirees, and part-time expatriates who divide their time between their home country or another expatriate haven. In the past 30 years laws have been passed which have made it increasingly difficult for a foreigner to become a permanent resident of Kathmandu. At present, one hundred fifty days per year is the longest period for which tourist VISA may be extended. Most expatriates get around that by getting work or student visas, both which require extensive documentation and lengthy hassles.
A friend at the British Embassy told me that if he were considering coming to Kathmandu now, he’d probably not bother. “Things are changing so rapidly that it’s impossible to predict what will happen.”
The Party Goes On
I accompany Melissa, a yoga teacher, to the annual pre-Losar party at the home of Dylana, a nurse who lives half the year in Tibet providing pre-natal education to Tibetan women. In the large flowering garden surrounding her stately home, middle-aged and younger expats sit on blankets chatting. Inside the house Buddha Bar is playing on the stereo, and friends are crowded around a table with an assortment of food from Indian naan and dhal bhat, to pigs in a blanket and apple pie. I wander around the groups of graying friends gathered in various groups on the lawn to eavesdrop on what it is that the old friends are discussing at the first big expat party of the year.
“So you’re back from England. How was it?” “Mom’s worse than ever. Her hip never healed properly. Looks like I’ll be going back in six months.” “You’re going to Bangkok? I’ll be there that week too! Let’s meet for dinner….”
An expatriate photographer from America is filling his plate and saying, “The galleys are out and the book should be at the publisher’s by next week. Thank God. Money is tight. We’re looking for someone to rent a room in our house.” An attractive 30-ish woman says to a small group of women, “I’ve just sprung a consulting job in Vietnam with a Japanese Aid organization. I’ll be setting up women’s craft cooperatives. Work has all but dried up in Kathmandu.”
I meet Natasha, the owner of Wild Earth, a Himalayan Herb Exporting Company, She’s just returned from a business trip to India. In one hand she carries a paper plate bent under the weight of food and in the crook of her other arm, a curly headed blonde toddler. She sets him down and then herself on a blanket on the grass upon which several ladies sit wearing straw hats. I’m sitting on the back porch with Melissa when a 60-ish woman on her way out shakes my hand. Her tanned, deeply lined face is framed with cropped silver hair. Melissa tells her between drags, “I quite smoking months ago, but I’m being bad today.” The woman says, “I quit 2 weeks ago,” and then whispers, “I’ve only sneaked a couple of cigarettes and a joint a day since.” Everyone seems to be talking about either coming from or going home. A woman in her mid-fifties says, “We go home, but we always come back because life in Kathmandu is just so spicy.”
Later that week, another party invitation arrives via email: “Don’t miss this!!!! It’s the annual Losar party one of the expat’s houses. The biggest and best expat party of the year. You are cordially invited to the 61st annual Losar party at the Yantra House.