I had an inkling of this back in ’98 when I announced I was off to see the world, and a few months later, I stood before a teary Ma and Pa Donkey trying to be brave as I kissed them goodbye. I was dressed in a freshly-laundered t-shirt, tucked into the newly pressed, razor-sharp creases of my new saddle, which was pulled up nice and high on my chest. My teeth were sparkly, my Donkey-fluff was parted down one side and my shiny, new saddle bag sported a glittery Australian flag patch sewn on the top-flap (courtesy of Ma Donkey, “So that the hijackers won’t mistake you for an American, Dear”) and off I set for the airport.
It was dressed like this, all squeaky-clean and neatly pressed, that myself and the soon-to-be-she-loving-she-Donkey hit the pavements of Kathmandu about 24 hours later. We performed admirably for a couple of sheltered, suburban Donkeys, displaying extreme bravery in the face of the shouting taxi touts, and despite all the confusion and fear, we reached our pre-arranged rendezvous point and began a hoof-gnawing wait for our third companion, who was to have arrived in the ancient kingdom the day before.
This was when the wheels started to fall off. My Donkey-lips were trembling in fear and my knees were making an almighty racket as they knocked together (which, considering all the fur, indicates just how scared I was). What if Kenny never made it? What if he’d been abducted and sold into Tibet as a Chinese sex slave – where was I going to stay? How was I going to survive? All these things were going through my tiny, Donkey-brain when three hours later, paralysed with fear, I received Lesson #1 in the Travellers’ Crash-course on human behaviour; The Most Important Person on the Trail is You.
Kenny had indeed made it to Kathmandu, and had quickly hooked-up with some more experienced, hard-worn travellers, who he joined on an outing for the day, and very rapidly adopted that “Cool, Man, just chill. I’ll catch up with my friends eventually … they’ll be OK” mentality. An attitude he was forced to suspend temporarily when he finally met up with a trembling pile of much-relieved, but considerably irate Donkey, two hours late. After a heated exchange, all was well and he took us off into the seething mass of alternative and spiritual decadence that has been the welcome resting place for impressionable travellers for thirty years, the Thamel area of Kathmandu.
I can still remember how I felt as I trudged through this remarkable Shangri-La. I was obviously much relieved and happy that we were now three as planned, and I took in with wide amazement and exciting anticipation the rushing cycle-rickshaws, the music coming from the cafes and bars, the colourful shops with their vast array of Tibetan art, golden Buddhas, tarnished brass bowls, glittery bags and light-shades, replicas of cruel-looking Gurkha knives, sparkly, funky jewellery and, most intriguing of all for this staunchly Catholic mule (pun definitely intended), the numerous Buddhist and Hindu shrines, adorned with ghee candles and their maroon and saffron bunting, blocking the alleys and streets.
If one hour of pub education is the equivalent of one year at school, then ten minutes in Thamel should just about measure-up; seeing goats hacked-up and left on the street-side for passers-by to pick up a leg or two on the way home from work, or watching stoned rickshaw drivers cackling in the gutter – talk about a scene from Playing Beattie Bow – the snivelling, shit-scared mess of a Donkey from an hour before should have been out of his brain with fear and disgust, but already the “learning by osmosis” was having great effect, and I breathed it all in with a great sense of wonder.
I only stayed in Kathmandu for two days on that visit, but in that time I came to know and treasure every street of Thamel; every fascinating alcove of every enchanting, tortuous alley became in-printed on my memory as I replayed those two days over-and-over in my mind for the next eight years.
So when I returned last week courtesy of the good people down at Saving the World Inc, I was filled with the same jubilation and exhilaration to find all the old shops and bars right where they used to be. The goat butcher was still waving his big, rust-spotted knife at me, and the rickshaw drivers were still trying to put a dint in that almighty pile of hashish they must keep somewhere.
As I walked past the amazing array of restaurants, the bars blaring out live renditions of Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton, and the long, grey pony-tales of the stoned backpackers in their striped pyjamies, I reflected on how raw I had been, back on that first night when I had ordered Mousaka for dinner, announcing to my companions that I was going to eat a traditional Nepalese dish!
Despite my ignorance, I had certainly been open to a new world, but I had also missed so much. Life’s education has given me a great many lessons since that first drop in a developing country, so while, on this more recent visit, I enjoyed all that was going on around me, I also saw Thamel with my more-recently acquired Development-Worker X-Ray Vision. I saw the hopelessness, not the humour, of the stoned rickshaw drivers; the young boys touting for late-night business amongst the taxi drivers; the impossibly bony porters struggling to get up from all fours with three times their weight on their backs; and the child-labourers sweeping streets, selling fruit, cleaning houses, fetching parcels and serving food.
Am I happy to have this new vision? You bet! It’s a horrible thing to become cynical, but that cynicism also fills me with a compassion and understanding that I believe many of my fellow travellers lack. It makes me more determined to strive for a more equitable world, but most of all, it helps me to learn about human behaviour – who people are, what they do and why. And I reckon that’s worth a great deal more than something you might learn over a few beers in the pub.
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