Monday, March 22, 2010


The River Bed
Shanty Town on the River. Yes, People live here.

The Woman sitting on the ground is selling snacks.

Every vacant lot doubles as a dump.

Goods going to market on unpaved roads.

These men are making new mattress to sell.

These are the ordinary everyday scenes of life in Kathmandu. You may be able to click on these and explore more deeply.

I'm back from Nepal and am slowly digesting this surreal journey. This wasn't an ordinary trip for me. This time I felt you with me and I was trying to be the conduit for your senses. I took photos for you, and narrated the details of my experiences to you in my mind, jotting down notes occasionally. I wasn't as much in Nepal as I usually am; this time I was like a spectator watching myself travel through Nepal.

A discussion about pollution was not really the way that I wanted to begin describing Nepal to you, but it is the current reality of Kathmandu, and I want you to experience Nepal as if you were traveling with me. It has been a few years since my last visit to Nepal, and pollution was the first most portentous assault on my senses when I arrived. It has always been dirty in Kathmandu, filthy really. The dirt from unpaved roads kicks up into the air and even the hairiest nostrils can't keep it from getting into one's lungs. This time, however, the exhaust fumes from vehicles mixed with burning trash piles, including plastic, burned my throat and stung my eyes and left me choking. Every evening I spent some time hacking up the dirt and blowing black mucous from my nose.

With a few years passing since my last trip to Nepal, I could more easily compare how shockingly gritty life had become in the valley. Every day, a brownish haze hung in the air over Kathmandu. Above the haze the Himalayas were still visible, but as our plane flew lower, the Himalayas faded and were barely perceptible. I didn't see them until I was well above the valley again. Years ago, I could at least catch a glimpse of the snow covered peaks from time to time within the valley.

Exiting the airport, I was greeted by the usual crowd of hopeful taxi drivers carrying hotel signs. There is always the chance that someone might arrive in Nepal completely unprepared--that is how I arrived the first time, 18 years ago. But that type of rambling world traveler is not as common as they were before our great travel fears and the economic crisis. I was graciously received at the airport by one of my shipper's chauffeurs. It is not quite as glamorous as it sounds. Still, it was a relief not to have to haggle over a taxi with broken seats and no suspension immediately after the exhaustion of a two day journey from the other side of the world. Someone did grab my bags without asking me, and then they asked for money after having carried the bags a couple of feet. I know the drill. I could have said, "Put them down!" But, I didn't. I gave him a few rupees and settled into the truck, happy to be on terra firma once more.

Plastic bags and candy wrappers, snits of rubber and string and paper covered the dirt outside of the airport where grass used to grow. I would often see cows wandering the streets here in the past, but I saw none the day I arrived. Instead, I saw women with small children peddling snacks to the locals. Their open baskets of roasted soy beans and nuts were unpackaged and open to the elements. They sat amidst empty cigarette packs and trampled plastic water bottles, more plastic bags, broken bits of brick and general rubble. Their children crawled over them next to the busy road. Motorbikes, taxis and trucks wailed on their horns, shrieking without restraint into the ears of these children. The children were deaf to the cacophony, absorbed in playing with balls made of black rubber bands, sticks and dirt.

One old woman sat on a hill, her cloth-covered bottom sitting in the dirt, her top open, exposing her breasts. This is not a common sight in Nepal. People are modest here. The elderly woman sitting in filth with her breasts exposed was an image that haunts me still. Perhaps she was out of her mind with no one left to care for her. Only tenuously here, her body was in the material world but her soul had moved on to the next plane of existence. I have seen the look before, in places of great despair.

Lament for Kathmandu, by Butternut Squash

Oh Kathmandu!

Your holy rivers overflow with human excrement.

What demon has treated you so cruelly?

That unholy stain, damned spot!

A poor washer women beats her clothes on a rock

in fetid water.

To my friends in Nepal, I love you, and I know that this is not all that Nepal has to offer. But it is the truth that postcards and pretty pictures never tell.


  1. These pictures brought tears to my eyes. How is it, when we have so much, others have so little? There is more than enough - of EVERYTHING - to go around. So why can we not make that our reality? Why is there such disparity?

    I cannot imagine traveling the way you describe. I guess I've gotten so used to the horror stories and the fear that I am not terribly comfortable with travel in general. Isn't that a shame?

    Thank you for taking the time to begin describing what you encountered. It is quite the eye opener. Probably a necessary one.

  2. I had a long comment but I deleted it. I don't know how to convey what I want to say without sounding heartless. It pains me to see this.

  3. hello butternut! somehow the world will find its centre. i'm not big enough minded to be able to predict how, when, or even why it will happen but it will. in this moment, it is devastating to see any portion of this world, human or otherwise, reduced to a state beneath its dignity. my father visited kathmandu and interestingly left with something of the impressions you share here. he was similarly devastated. thanks for your truthfulness. steven

  4. Fascinating and priceless picture of Katmandu. Thank you for the reminder that the world is in desperate need of help. The mental picture of the woman exposing her breasts was a metaphor for the picture you paint of this city. Thank you for taking the time to educate us, Butternut.

  5. This makes me very sad. I remember how filthy India was in the late 1980's. I saw many similar scenes. Somehow I think of Kathmandu as being more pure, maybe because it's up in the mountains. How naive of me!

  6. I'm so glad you're back. These photos are fascinating and sad. Somehow, it's not how I thought of Kathmandu. Eagerly awaiting more on your journey.

  7. I can only imagine how difficult it was for you to see the changes that have come to Kathmandu. It is heartbreaking. I wish I knew what the solution was, where to begin. I know that travel to third world and developing countries all my life has defintely had the biggest influence on me. As hard as this is to see, I know there is great beauty there too and I would love to go. I'm glad you're showing us both sides Jeri.

  8. it all well and good for me to sit back and "tsk-tsk" the state of the living in other places so far from my reality. Would I travel there- not likely- it would be my undoing- no point in undoing myself over that which I have no effect.I can only hold that population in my highest of high thoughts and best wishes.Thanks so much for this post and for your compelling travel.

  9. my heart aches as I read your words and feel the truth of what you share with us. I feel saddened that the world has been so unkind that pride and balance have fallen away. When things go out of control it is like an avalanche rolling down a hill gaining momentum, so sad. Thank you for sharing what you experienced.

  10. You paint such a realistic picture. I felt as if I was there. This reminds me again how privileged we are and how sad it is in parts of the world. My brother came home from his travels years ago and told me about the shock he was in when he experienced life on the dark side in india. He however also said that the people there, with all their hardship appeared a lot happier than here. He was very impressed by that as well

  11. This might sound a little twisted, but I was somewhat relieved by this post. I came over a few posts later and saw the beautiful gated compound and thought what of...? and here is the what of. It's an unfortunate what of but real. So it is in too many cities around the world. This reminded me of Manila for me in the late 90's. Heart breaking, but we remember that we leave, and that this reality is overshadowing the beauty that was and that still is perhaps, just harder to find in the big cities themselves. I'm relieved though that you saw it, and that you bear it here for us to see.

    I ache for that woman with her breats exposed. It is as though she has given up on even modesty. I ache for the women selling snacks. I ache for the children climbing their mothers. I ache for the men too, heavily loaded and to market. It is a hard life. I hope there is some of that green somewhere in their lives that exists beyond the gates at that compound.