Kathmandu moments

old and new

I’ve always admired the way that my dear friend and fellow photographer Ben Chernivsky sometimes works his portraiture into diptychs or triptychs. The synergistic effect of multiple images showing consecutive or related moments can create a sense of mood and context hard to achieve in a single shot. I thought I’d try something similar with some of my environmental shots of Kathmandu from the past week. So this post is a little different. There is no narrative to accompany these pictures in particular, just this little meta-narrative about their formatting. This is a Chernivsky-esque portrait of Kathmandu, as best as I can capture it: the place, the people; its moods, its movement; and its light.

Our arrival in Jumla was heralded by a group of older men in traditional festive attire. They led a dance with drums and scarves. The traditional dance of the region wheels about, and all dancers follow a sing leader.

A different kind of wealth in Nepal’s poorest regions

Life in western Nepal is tough. The blood stains that remain after a goat is sacrificed are not an easy kind of pretty. But there is a beauty and richness to life in western Nepal. Pleasures are simple. Problems are real, but surmountable. The people are incredibly resilient, and a smile is never far away.

I am sitting in a comfortable café in tropical Pokhara, reeling in rich memories from my recent trek through two of the poorest regions in Nepal, Jumla and Mugu. Jumla is the 69th wealthiest of Nepal’s 75 districts. Mugu is 75th. Mugu is also home to renowned beauty spot, Rara Lake. The potential for trekking tourism through the beautiful countryside of these regions is high, but as it stands they see fewer than a hundred Bedeshi (white people) each year. Life in the area is hard. Almost all are subsistence farmers, and a bad year can mean not enough food for the family. During the sixties, the region was the marijuana growing capital of the world, but under pressure from the US, Nepal banned the plant. In Jumla you can still grow pot next to a police station without seeing any interference from the law. Nontheless, any attempt to export the stuff would be doutbless crushed.

The remoteness of the region, the difficulty of travel in and out, makes less lucrative trade an impracticality. When rice crops are poor, unable to trade surplus crops like potatoes for the rice they need, citizens of Jumla and Mugu survive on USAID rice and by leaving to find work in Northern India, many weeks trek away. The hills are a cruel environment, and growing one’s own food is a year-round occupation. In spite of this, most adults we met were vehemently opposed to child labour, and committed to education. This was not necessarily the case with the children.

Child alcoholism was a problem in Urthu, where the government school was a wreck at the hands of unruly infant-inebriates. This was not a universal problem for the region though, and the poorest village we visited, Pina, had a very smart school building, with a well organised inter-faith, cross caste village committee steering things in a progressive direction. That said, education is a problem for the region, with government attention at a minumum, and resources spread thin. Many children have to walk up to two hours, or settle in an entirely different town if they wish to receive education beyond early grades. In spite of this, I met a slew of motivated children willing to move to different districts to become doctors or businessmen. All wanted to bring these skills back to their districts, to lift their region out of poverty, and see the right kind of development come to Jumla and Mugu. And everywhere we went people smiled with an honesty that is rare in the West.

We visited the region during the festival of Dashain (pronounced Da-Sâi), one of the major Hindu festivals in Nepal. The festival is a time of homecoming, and scattered families return to their hometowns, work stops. In western Nepal, where the high castes hindus drink liquor and the marijuana plants grow tall and thick, it can also mean spirited celebration. Goats are sacrificed, and summarily consumed by the regrouped family unit. Spirits are high, and the fun-loving nature of the Nepali people is in full evidence. Even those people engaged in arduous but necessary labour met us with warm smiles and shining eyes. When life is difficult, looking out for those around you becomes a necessity. This is a kind of wealth one might have to drive into the mountains to find in Europe or the States. And here, in one of the poorest parts of the world, it lies in absolute abundance.

The madness and bustle of life in the Kathmandu valley has been a good primer for the coming move into more rural Nepal. The thing I have learned the most: to find beauty and peace amidst all of the apparant chaos disorganisation.

Getting to know you, Nepal

I have spent the last ten days getting to know Nepal a little better. From my vantage point in Kurtipor, a hilltop village on the periphery of the rich Kathmandu valley, the urban sprawl of Kathmandu city spreads out to the north-east, mingling with green fields in full post-monsoon flush. Kathmandu is home to about 10% of Nepal’s population, 3 million people. The city itself sprawls across the wide valley floor. As it spreads, buildings are interspersed between fields of rice and grains. I have been studying the Nepali language, which for most Nepalis is a second language. Nepal is a country rich with religious traditions, home to a very old brand of hinduism, birthplace of buddhism, and home to Bonism, one of the world’s most ancient living religions. Wandering through the twisted stone streets of Kurtipor and exploring Kathmandu’s major religious sights the people one meets—people who truly live these ancient religions—carry their traditions into the twenty first century. The clash of ancient and modern is nowhere more palpable than in the crowded bazaars, where vendors sell dried grains from wooden vessels, or cook food over open wood fires, alongside stalls selling cell-phones, or western clothing emblazoned with “modern” phrases like ‘sexy’ or ‘pimp’.

These men want to cook your lunch, and give it to you free of charge.

These men would like to cook your lunch.

These men want to cook your lunch, and give it to you free of charge.

After three days in Amritsar, I’m back in New Delhi, holed up in a hotel room waiting for the hue and cry surrounding today’s attacks to die down. And I don’t mind much. The attacks have given me a lot to think about, but frankly my mind is still filled with the sights, smells, and insights I gained in Amritsar. Primarily I was there to learn about Sikhism. The Sikhs are an incredible group. This story of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple, and a kitchen that feeds up to 170,000 people a day for free can do nothing if not overturn the misperceptions of us westerners left squeamish around bearded men with turbans by the constant barrage of post-911 propaganda.

The Sikh religion is a reform movement that began in India around the 1480’s. As one of its central tenets, Sikhism holds that all people, regardless of gender, religious background, race, or caste are equal. As a way to symbolise and practice this, the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanek Dev, founded the Langar, or community kitchen. Food was to be for all, the rich would eat with the poor, and it would run, by the grace of God, on donations and volunteer labour. And it has, for over 500 years. Amritsar is amazing in this regard, the seat of a major world religion from its very inception right through till today. The Golden temple is a fascinating spiritual site. But more significant to me than any of the Sikh theology and ceremony on offer is the direct practise into which the Langar puts the Sikh injunction to serve others. Their temple may be gilded, but it is the hearts of the volunteers in this great kitchen that shine the brightest

Fellow student, Lulu Mossman enjoys a moment with this snake charmer's cobra outside a strip-mall in New Delhi.

New Delhi, street life, and dancing with traffic.

New Delhi street life is a complex melange of colour, class, and seeming chaos.

New Delhi street life is a complex melange of colour, class, and seeming chaos.

New Delhi. New Delhi is one of those cities that exists beyond the realm of easy comprehension. It is a truly poststructuralist metropolis. One one way it is a more consistent urban environment than any other I have witnessed: there is a pervasive sense that nobody, save perhaps the gods, is in charge. This is not to say that Delhi is lawless or a hotbed of license, although it is I am sure by no means crime-free. The people are warm and their smiles genuine. But, there is a lot to take in, and more than a quick exchange of smiles might been being crushed by the traffic, which is in large part ungoverned, composed of all types of vehicle, and unimpeded by pedestrians. If I were to write a traffic handbook for driving in Delhi it would contain just one rule: she who honks loudest goes first. Bicycles contend with juggernauts on the freeways, and small-displacement motorcycles weave in and out of pedestrians on the unfinished streets of South Delhi’s bazaars. Life in Delhi happens on the street. Economically displaced country folk scrape a living cooking on the street, or fixing shoes, slipping into the interstices of the urban environment, building lean-to homes amongst the rubble of construction projects, and against the outer walls of the compounds of the wealthy neighbourhoods. But it is not just the sub-poor who live their lives on the street. Delhi streets are alive, colourful, a congress of people from many backgrounds. I hope the following images communicate some of the sense of wonder I feel being in the middle of it all.

Small motorcycles, freed form the press of traffic, whizz by at high speed when the road is clear.

A first walk through Kathmandu

Colours on the streets

Colours on the streets in Kathmandu are quite different from the grey of Hong Kong's.

The streets of Kathmandu could not be more different from Hong Kong. There streets were grey, and relatively empty (it was a Sunday after all), the buildings tall, and everything meticulously cleaned. Kathmandu is dirty. For the most part, dirty in a way that doesn’t feel filthy or squalid, but lived-in. Walking through the streets feels like walking through the homes of the people who live here. Life happens on the streets in Kathmandu. Men squat fixing their bedding in the sun in front of their homes. Overloaded motorcycles, bicycles, and small Suzuki Bandit vans compete for dominance against pedestrians on the streets. Chickens peck at heaps of garbage for scraps. Goats tethered at the street-side munch at the grass and shrubbery of deserted lots. Traffic dodges ducks. Their owner dodges traffic to herd them back to her small front yard. Old women sell incense beneath makeshift shelters, and temples are dotted between the houses and business. First impression: Kathmandu is alive.

The green spaces, though small, seem especially lush after the rain storm.

Hong Kong: giant; empty on sundays.

The green spaces, though small, seem especially lush after the rain storm.

The green spaces, though small, seem especially lush after the rain storm.

Hong Kong, for the most densely populated region of the world, seemed stark and empty. Almost post-apocalyptic. At least, until uniformed workers came out to squeegee the streets after it rained. We had just a few hours to explore the city before a flight on to Kathmandu. These shots are mostly atmospheric, given the general absence of people.

Into space

Airports are hollow places

Into space

Into space

The civic made it through the badlands and after some glorious San Francisco days, today has been an airport day. Airports are interesting spaces. Travelling with a group has made me look at these spaces differently. I usually find that I slip into a quiet, contemplative state in airports: I watch people. Sometimes I meet people, strike up conversation, learn things, but it always means being jolted out of that quiet head-space. Travelling in a group is different. There is conversation all the time, and it changes the way the big, light, open spaces of airports affect me. I think these images reflect that.