Kathmandu, capital of Nepal. A name that Swami Basho, my local yogi guide told me stood for 'Never-Ending Peace And Love.' And despite its status as a dirt-poor third world country, it still has the ability to evoke the senses and conjure up a sort of magic that only a different culture to that of your own can offer.
Kathmandu, from the outset, was a sort of madness. Hailing from the picturesque seaside city of Sydney, no amount of films or stories could have prepared me for what lay ahead upon arrival. I'd wondered what I'd gotten myself into on the cab ride to the hotel, a terrifying, smog-ridden journey through gravelly streets packed with tuk-tuks, motorcycles, women in sari's the colours of the rainbow and stray dogs. I'd gripped onto the upholstered seats and laughed, watching the driver's miniature prayer wheel on the dashboard spin around and around, apparently meant to make your dreams that little bit closer to becoming a reality at every turn.
First of all, there are no road rules in Kathmandu. It's a land of every man for their own, I'd found out. Surprisingly though, despite the number of beeps I heard (which rivalled the number of beeps from cars I'd ever heard in my lifetime) the roads were safe. In this city, there's no time for waiting on the curbside, the time was the present. And it was perfectly alright to march straight into a full intersection of moving traffic and not expect to get killed. There were no sidewalks, just potholded road and streetvendor stoops, awnings stretching as far as the eye could see.
It felt like the whole world was present, not just because of the variety of international tourists in Thamel but because of the all-encompassing racket and olfactory experiences. Old salesmen walked the streets, bodies hung with local wooden instruments with tiny bows that emitted an ancient sounding, high-pitched keen, yet was still shockingly beautiful. Incense was everywhere, so much so that it seemed part of the aura, not originating from any one location. And it was the sweetest thing I had ever smelt in my life, mixed in the haze of cloudy smog. Even now, when I catch a whiff of car exhaust, it takes me back to Kathmandu.
And the colours. Colours were everywhere, no space devoid of them. The rainbow of patterned scarves, felt items and novelty beanies in the markets, but also the scattered bunches of vibrant yellow marigolds, the saffron painted onto the temples, the dyed, blood-red rice on the pavement, snacks for overconfident monkeys. And the sunsets. Nowhere have I seen a sunset like the one I experienced on my second night there. The sky had turned the world into a haze of pink and deep purple, not just the skyline, but covering the pigeon-lined rooftops and temple-tops, reflected from the glass of windows.
Yet despite all of the beauty, the city was still riddled with unavoidable sadness. Young boys begged at car windows in traffic jams, women, arms laden with jewellery and trinkets, followed you for streets begging you to purchase, a man with stumps for legs dragged himself along, daughter at his side. And dogs, dogs everywhere. Placent dogs, lying curled in doorways and on the sides of roads, with distinctive bushy, curled tails. They looked like the unfortunate descendants of wolves. They'd roam the streets at night in packs, rifling through the piles of scattered rubble and trash. Even having heard of this kind of misfortune doesn't come close to experiencing it. It was all you could do to press some notes into the hands of beggars and hope you made any sort of difference.
Death, in this place, seems a very obvious thing. Not hushed up, not romanticised excessively. Traditionalised, of course, but that comes from centuries of practise. I saw my first dead body while in Nepal. Pashupatinath Temple, one of the world's holiest Hindu temples dedicated to the deity Shiva, located on the banks of the river Bagmati, was lined with smoking pyres. Though foreigners are forbidden to enter the temple, the banks of the river were shrouded in the thick smoke of burning bodies. We stood on a bridge, watching the rituals. Bodies were covered with vibrant orange shawls and laid to rest on stone jetties at the waters edge. Only men were present at the ceremony. People bathed in the water metres away, washing clothes, playing with children.
Things are simpler in that land, things we take for granted do not exist, but it doesn't necessarily mean that our beliefs are gospel. In Kathmandu, it was all too apparent that something in the Western world is rotten.
Despite hardship, all I saw was smiling faces, kind greetings, humility. I ate lunch in my guide's family home, a tiny, rectangular wooden shack that housed five, and I saw no signs of discontent. I saw old men bent under the weight of loads meant for wagons, plodding up hillsides so steep that I was still struggling at the base. I saw grown men holding hands, not afraid to show due affection.
I would return in a heartbeat.