Saturday, August 27, 2011

From Bangkok’s bawdy neon to the rolling blackouts of Katmandu.

(on passing by a ‘working girl’ in Bangkok)
“A new girl I’ve never seen before tells me she loves me. Sincerity is the first casualty of capitalism.”

(discussing prayer flags)
“Blue for sky, white for air, red for fire, green for water, yellow for earth, generally in that order… The flags which carry the texts of a thousand prayers stitched into the cloth are intrinsic to Tibetan Buddhism, and you find them all over the Himalayas. The wind takes their healing meditations of the holy monks and carries them all over our tortured world; to use the wind and earth as a kind of machine to broadcast the way of transcendence is to me one of those sublime cultural achievements: would you forgive me for suggesting it beats landing on the moon?”

-quotes from The Godfather of Katmandu, by John Burdett

From Bangkok’s bawdy neon to the rolling blackouts of Katmandu.

After enjoying the modernity of Thailand’s eleven million strong metropolis Nepal’s largest city is a bit of a shock. For a national capital there’s not much in the way of infrastructure. With over one million people one might expect a stoplight or two. How about a stop sign? With few sidewalks, narrow streets in disrepair, kamikaze motorcyclists and car horns constantly blaring as black exhaust spews from their undercarriages Bangkok’s zany upbeat energy is quickly forgotten to a let’s-try-not-to-get-maimed mental zapping. The street vendors, hawkers and beggars make what was once regarded as the fabled and inaccessible Shangri-La an exhausting exhaust-filled damn-it-another-Suzuki-side-mirror-just-hit-my-shoulder Third World hovel. A quote from the Lonely Planet guidebook: “Katmandu is regularly paralyzed by political ferment, electricity cuts and traffic seizures on a scale that is almost apocalyptic… Electricity is currently rationed across the city… [and] is unavailable for up to sixteen hours a day.”

Have you ever been approached by a ragged woman holding a baby pleading that her child needs milk? She doesn’t want money, just milk for an infant for Buddha’s or Vishnu’s or Shiva’s sake. You follow her to a storefront selling formula to discover the merchant wants 1,200 Nepali rupees for a box of the good stuff, over seventeen dollars. Something isn’t right here. Okay, 400 rupees the merchant says. Which is when you know it’s a scam, that him and the lady are in cahoots, they may even be married. She’s not doing the negotiating or trying to get a fair price. She wants you to pay as much as possible for formula that, once bought, will likely be put back on the shelf for the next my-money-is-my-burden Caucasoid.

So you walk away. Right into a young man walking on his hands. He’s two feet off the ground, his legs end above where his knees should be, he’s shaking a tin begging cup. He’s grunting like a Yeti. Minutes later a man with frost-bit black limbs moans and grabs at your ankles as you stumble past. Sorry, compassion left the body even before landing in Nepal, I’ve already seen it, I’ve already spent days feeling bad for being white and, at least comparatively, well off. Now I deal with the decrepitly deprived with a quote from the film True Grit, “I can’t do nothing for you, son.” And really, I can’t. I can pay for a meal but they’ll need another, and do I really want to help sustain a cycle of begging? I realize there may be no other options. At the same time, the constant hassle can ruin a day, a locale, maybe I won’t stay as long as I would have otherwise, maybe I’ll be reluctant to ever come back. Now legitimate business suffers. Of course, I don’t have a solution. Of course, I feel terrible when I get back to my the-water-is-the-same-shade-as-rusty-metal accommodation to wash the beggars’ hepatitis-A grime away.

It’s been a long day. It’s nearly 8 a.m.

Only a few days removed and I’m longing for Bangkok’s serendipitous just-start-walking-around-and-see-what-happens fun. I’d get off the Sky-Train and saunter into Asian boy band concerts, dance contests, ritual dance performances, magic shows, fortune-telling gypsies and gratis meditation seminars (donations accepted). The people watching is unparalleled. From the Khao San street Caucasoid hippies to the pot-bellied farangs in their fifties arm in arm with beautiful twenty year-old tiny Thai girls (or, even more disturbing, boys) to the monks to the hundreds of school kids shouting ‘hello’ at you in an art museum to the is-he-pointing-his-machine-gun-at-me? Thai royal guards, Bangkok, like Saigon, is a fascinating city to set foot in. Anytime an escape from the metro-mayhem is required just wander down a soi (side street) and the pollution and traffic instantly give way to mom-and-pop restaurants and old Thais sipping tea over a chessboard. Relax, have a bowl of noodles and recalibrate before carrying on.

From man-made steel and concrete mountains to the Himalayas, humanoids have no answer, nor will ever have an answer, to the awesome power of the natural world. Nepal hosts eight of Earth’s ten highest peaks, it’s the ‘playground of the gods’. I’ve only seen them from the sky during the flight and as eager as I am to begin a twenty day lose-a-pinkie-toe-to-frost-bite trek I have to dawdle around Katmandu for a while in the hope of obtaining an Indian visa. Notorious for their paperwork, the process takes over a week, during the initial application I ran into an Irish couple who only lasted ten days in the country of cow-worshippers. They repeated the phrase ‘one point two billion’ a lot. As in people. As you can guess, they told me, it’s crowded. It’s filthy. Katmandu is like Shangri-La.

Funny, these ‘spiritual places’ seem like the last places you’d go for uninterrupted contemplation. Perhaps their impoverished disorder teaches one to find serenity in a s**t storm. The problem: I’m not sure if I want to find out anymore. My throat is already CO2-itchy, I might need my lungs for something later on in life. Like, you know, breathing and stuff. I won’t disgust you with tales of ‘the trots’, but when visiting Nepal one is advised when showering not to get the water in one’s mouth. The guidebook points out that even people who’ve traveled throughout Asia tend to come down with severe diarrhea in the country.

Well, that’s life. It’s not always the Shangri-La we were expecting.

Keep drifting.

Welcome to Katmandu, the world's coolest sounding capital.

View from my Katmandu guest house room.

Katmandu's famous Swayambunath Buddhist temple and stupa. 

Walking up to the Swayambunath stupa.

Bangkok's Siam Paragon Mall at night, with concert outside.

Thailand's Ministry of Defense

At Bangkok's Wat Pho, home to the world's largest reclining Buddha.

Wat Pho

Add caption

Monitor lizard, about two feet long, swimming in a Bangkok pond.

At Bangkok's Lumphini Park.

No comments:

Post a Comment