December 16, 2012
It’s early morning and for the first time in months, I’m waking up under warm, cozy covers. I’m in a hotel in Kathmandu and a bright sun is streaming through my window. Last night, my first night in the city, temperatures dropped and the fresh air breathed winter – it finally felt like Christmas time outside. This morning, though, it feels like fall.
As the days go on, I quickly realize Nepal is the perfect place for me to live – I love the diversity of the seasons, and in Nepal, you get each season every day. Morning is autumn, with some frost or fog but crisp, cool air penetrated by a waking sun. The sun is strong and hot by mid-afternoon and it smells like summer. The fresh air of the early evening brings spring, and by night, after the warm sun has set, it feels cold enough to be snowing, and diving into your cozy bed covers has never felt so good.
No, I’m not in Nepal to analyze the weather, but the varied temperatures are a nice change from the constant ninety degree days of Colombo! I’m in Kathmandu for a Fulbright conference and am joined by the other Fulbright ETAs from south and central Asia (India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan). We’re here to share experiences and teaching techniques and to connect with folks from the State Department and various Fulbright commissions who manage our grants. After a long middle-of-the-night layover in Mumbai – in which my fellow Sri Lanka ETAs and I crashed a deserted airline lounge to spend the night in – we’ve arrived and are ready to spend a non-stop week in conference sessions and exploring as much of Kathmandu as we can.
It was amazing flying into Nepal and seeing part of the incredible Himalayas! A sign at the airport informed me that Nepal is home to the highest place (which I knew) and shortest person (which I didn’t know) on Earth. Driving from the airport to the hotel, I was struck by how dusty Kathmandu is – many people were wearing surgical masks or bandanas to protect their noses and mouths. There were many half-finished buildings, motorcycles/mopeds everywhere, and lots of people bundled up in winter clothing. (I looked down at my tank top and capris and quickly realized I was not in the tropics anymore!) After dropping our things at the hotel, a group of us went exploring. Despite the dust, I couldn’t stop taking deep breaths of the crisp air, and I got a little homesick for the freshness of North Carolina in the early winter. After walking around some, we stopped at a little restaurant, took off our shoes, kneeled around a small table, and enjoyed cups of masala tea as the sun went down.
I am quickly fascinated by Nepal. It’s been a while since I’ve spent time in a new country and my senses are on overload here as I try to smell, see, and listen to all that’s going around me. Despite the very apparent poverty, Nepal seems exotic, in many ways, compared to Sri Lanka. In some parts of Kathmandu, the air smells like oranges. Crumbling stone is everywhere. Bustling mornings unravel as storekeepers sweep the steps in front of their shops, men in bulky winter hats yawn as they walk, dogs run around. Women make spicy tea on the side of the road and the steam (it’s been so long since I’ve seen steam) swirls up to the small Hindu stupas that seem to exist on every corner, where people are lined up to pay their morning respects with prayers and colorful flowers. Hinduism deeply permeates Nepalese culture, and the gods here are living, breathing beings. The intermingling of traditions, festivals, and doctrines in Nepal make religion the heartbeat of the nation, and the religious tolerance and harmony is almost palpable. I certainly felt it when one early pre-conference morning we crawled into almost-broken-down taxis to visit the Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu, a world-famous holy place for both Buddhists and Hindus – and one of the most beautiful religious sites I’ve ever been to.
When we weren’t in conference sessions, I was exploring as much of Kathmandu as I could. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy being around my fellow Fulbrighters and State Department folks, but this is Nepal, after all. The conference, however, was a lot of fun, and very informational. Many of the other ETAs had been in their countries for many months and were almost done with their grants, whereas some others had only recently arrived. People had some very interesting stories to tell – some good, some bad – and there was a fair amount of frustrations being laid out. I realized how relatively few challenges my fellow Sri Lanka ETAs and I face here – life is fairly simple, and while teaching can be hard, it’s enjoyable, and we’re able to run our classrooms well. The cultures of each of our countries very much impacts how effective we can be in our teaching, and, well, I’m grateful to be where I am.
Near the end of the week, all the ETAs went on arranged excursions in and around Kathmandu. We enjoyed a lovely hike with magnificent views and visited famous Durbar square. I opted out of a Nepali dinner one night so I could visit family friends, the Lohof’s, who live in Kathmandu. Amy and Tim are friends of my parents’ from Germany, and I hadn’t seen them for six years! It was really nice to reconnect with them, pick their brain about long-term living overseas, and enjoy homemade pie while sitting by their CHRISTMAS TREE! That evening and the afternoon excursions were definite highlights of the week.
But the best was yet to come. While we hadn’t planned on doing this, a group of us organized a mountain flight to see Mount Everest! I had read about this in the Nepal Lonely Planet guide and decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (except I really do want to return someday to hike from Everest base camp!) that I didn’t want to pass up. So, at oh-dark-hundred Friday morning, just hours before our flight back to Colombo, seven of us went to the domestic airport, piled into a prop plane run by Buddha Air, sat in giddy anticipation on the runway until the fog cleared, and took off on an hour flight to see the Himalayas and Mount Everest.
Seeing the highest place on Earth was breathtaking. We were each allowed to go into the cockpit to see the view, and while I was in there, I actually did hold my breath without realizing it. There is something so regal and spectacular about vast mountain ranges like the Himalayas, and seeing them from so high up was magical. And Mount Everest! It’s so funny how unassuming it looks, tucked behind what I think is either Nuptse or Lhotse peak; it looks like your “average” mountain peak. But while staring at Mount Everest from the cockpit, thinking about all the stories and ascents and lives intertwined with that one mountain, its significance took on a whole new meaning. (I’m already re-reading Into Thin Air because I know it’s going to read completely different this time around.) It’s been the pinnacle of realized dreams and of failed goals, of rebirths and of many deaths. I suppose anyone seeing the highest point on Earth takes a moment to think about such things, and for me, it was a strangely personal moment. All I can say is, it’s worth the trip. Mount Everest, Kathmandu, Nepal in general – I already can’t wait to explore more of it someday.