Memories of Nepal: Part 1 – My First Days in Kathmandu

Hands for Help Nepal

Hands for Help Nepal headquarters

It was one week ago today that disaster struck the beautiful country of Nepal. I spent a summer volunteering there with Hands for Help Nepal way back in 2003, a whole year before “Thefacebook” came to be in Mark Zuckerburg’s dorm room. Since my photos of that special time in my life have just been sitting in a weighty scrapbook on my living room shelf and have never seen the light of day on social media, I thought I’d start sharing a few of the digital files that I do have to shine a little light on the Nepal that I got to know and love. (Needless to say, the photo quality is not the best, as these images were taken on film – remember film? – and then converted.)

My first memory of Nepal was getting off the plane at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu and getting hit with a blast of heat when I stepped on the tarmac. After making our way inside and quickly negotiating baggage claim and customs – guards with big guns! – we found our airport pick up (or, truthfully, he found us – as two pale blonde girls, we didn’t really blend in) amid the sea of unofficial cabbies jostling to grab our bags.

a quiet corner of Kathmandu

I remember this being a quiet corner of Kathmandu, which is hard to find.

From there it was a blur of crowds and cows – cows! everywhere! – as Hands for Help’s then Executive Director Anil Bhusal drove me and my grad school classmate to the organization’s headquarters on the outskirts of the sprawling city.

rooftop restaurant

We ate lunch at this lovely rooftop restaurant in Thamel.

We settled in at the spacious office/guest house, where we would spend a few days before heading to our volunteer assignments in Pokhara receiving lessons on Nepal’s culture, history and politics, and as well as important instruction on how to eat dal bhat with our hands and use squat toilets.

Thamel intersection

This is a relatively spacious and uncrowded Thamel intersection.

On our down time, we wandered around chaotic Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist and trekker mecca, its narrow streets lined with guest houses, coffee shops, Internet cafes, restaurants serving everything from hamburgers to momos, and store after store selling North Face knock-offs.

monkey temple

I took this photo on the way up the steep staircase to Swayambhunath, also known as the “monkey temple” due to its pesky inhabitants (You can see a few further up the stairs to the right). Dating back to the 5th century, it is an important site for Tibetan Buddhists. One of the princesses of Bhutan was there the day we visited, so were ushered into a side building and not allowed to take photos. Fortunately, the magnificent stupa is still standing, but many of the structures surrounding it were destroyed in the earthquake.

While I admit that we did enjoy some of Thamel’s western comforts – I remember one particularly tasty meal at an Italian restaurant – we also took time to check out just a few of the 2,700 religious sites scattered throughout the Kathmandu valley.

view from Boudhanath

This is a view from Boudhanath, the most important Tibetan Buddhist holy site outside of Tibet, and one of the largest stupas in the world. It dates back to least the 8th century, and fortunately, only received minor damage in the earthquake.

Nepal’s constitution declares it a “Hindu Kingdom,” and although there is no official state religion, more than 80% of Nepalis are Hindu (Buddhists are the second-largest religious group). My only previous visit to Asia had been to China, so this was my first exposure to the Hindu religion and culture, which I got to explore more deeply while living with my host family in Pokhara (I’ll share more about that in another post).

Pashupatinath Temple

The 1500-year-old Pashupatinath Temple – located on the banks of the Bagmati River – is one of the most sacred Hindu temples in the country and a popular cremation site. (The smoke in the photo is from a funeral pyre.) As non-Hindus, we were not allowed to visit the temple, but we were able to climb a hill above and witness the fascinating goings-on from up above. Sadly, the temple is now struggling to keep up with cremating the large number of earthquake victims.

Have you ever been to Kathmandu? Do you have any memories to share?

If you’d like to support earthquake relief efforts, here are my recommendations on where to donate.

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