An Expat’s Life in Kathmandu

And now, the end is near, and so I face my final curtain…

For the first five-months of 2017, I was living and working in Nepal. Patan to be exact. One of the three historical cities in Kathmandu valley that now make up what many people simply refer to as Kathmandu.

Life here is different. And for any of you fellow expats (Western-immigrants), I am sure you can relate to the loves and laughs, and the trials and tribulations of this wonderful place.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

From the airport, you may encounter an immediate problem. Though you may have the address of your hotel written down or printed out, in all likelihood, it will bear no relation to the real world and the taxi driver won’t know where it is or how to get there. Why? Because Nepal doesn’t have addresses. Over a fairly lengthy Skype call I tried to explain this to someone from the HMRC, stating that they couldn’t send me any correspondence, because I have no address for them to send it to.

The best method of directing someone to where you want to go, is by naming a famous landmark, hotel, or restaurant nearby, and then issuing instructions from there. The address of my last house was simply “near Summit Hotel”. No wonder Amazon hasn’t taken over yet.

Though electricity access still hasn’t reached all of Nepal’s population, the WiFi seems to be everywhere in the capital. It is better than the West in so far as you don’t have to pay for its use and each café or bar has a creative password to provide access. My personal favourites have been: “1212121212”, “0123456789”, and “IDontKnow”.

As long as there is electricity there is WiFi, and though I am told the power situation is much better, there will be times whereby you will have to play chess by candle-light.

Weed is everywhere here. It grows beside the road, is offered to you as you walk through the busy streets of Thamel, and is even smoked to celebrate religious holidays on certain days of the year. That’s right, in Nepal, despite being criminalised in the 1970’s under international pressure, for at least a few days a year, a deity requires worship so everyone gets baked.

In all honesty, the fact that it is illegal here, doesn’t seem to stop 90% of the people anyway. A taxi driver I had a few months ago had an array of pre-rolled spliffs on his dashboard which I took to admiring as we clattered along.

Don’t ever expect anyone or anything to be on time. Just don’t. By all means stick to the schedule, but don’t be surprised when you’re the only one who is following it. The Nepali response to my mild annoyance: “you may have a watch, but we have the time” – though strangely, put a Nepali behind the wheel of a car and this rule seems to go completely out the window. They wait for no man and their impatience is devilish.

As darkness descends, the city becomes both black and quiet. Most of the roads clear by 8pm and the stars become visible in the night sky – a sight which won’t greet you in too many other of the world’s capital cities. Despite the all-enveloping blackness, I have never once felt unsafe walking the streets. At least not because of the people.

At night, it is not the gang of youths who patrol the streets, striking fear into anyone not from the area, it is instead the packs of street dogs. As night falls, Kathmandu’s canines wake from their dusty roadside slumber and roam the neighbourhood looking for prey (and by prey, I mean scraps of food that have been left out).

The dogs are the sole reason that I have taken to religiously wearing ear plugs when I sleep. They must have their own form of governance because at night, debates rage for hours on end.

Incidentally, if all other things were equal, skin colour, language, clothing, etc, you could still tell the foreigners apart from the locals. The foreigners are the ones that pay attention to every street dog that they pass. It doubles the time of the morning commute, but they are such good boys.

In the early days of me being here, before we had the courage to face these four legged, wet-nosed demons, a friend and I actually caught a taxi to navigate the streets and get back home from a party. When confronted by at least seven dogs at the end of a dark alley at three in the morning, we decided that we just didn’t want to risk it.

In those early days of me being here (January/February), I used to wear multiple layers of clothes to bed and get dressed without leaving the safety of my sleeping bag, a sleeping bag which was made for -20c temperatures. As I settled in for the night, I could see my breath as I exhaled in my bedroom.

Showers occurred very rarely back then, partly because of the air temperature and my unwillingness to get naked, but also because I only got hot water from the shower 50% of the time. Hot showers may be another luxury that you shouldn’t expect to receive in Nepal, and don’t rule out the possibility of having no shower at all. The water tanks are mostly stored on rooftops and if there is no water in there, you will remain as dry as a bone no matter how long you stand under the showerhead. Go downstairs, turn the pump on, and wait 45-minutes, then try again.

I was told that Nepal is the only country in the world where you can stand half in the shade and half in the sun and get frostbite on one hand and sunburn on the other. Never has a more truthful word been spoken.

Even during the day, the weather changes as often as a Nepali government. Sitting outside having lunch, my colleagues and I could be cowering beneath the umbrella sheltering from the sun’s rays, and then 30 seconds later we could be running indoors as hail stones start bombarding us from all directions.

It is essential that when you leave the house in the morning, you are dressed for all eventualities. If there are no clouds in the sky, pack a rainjacket. If you can’t see through the rain at your window in the morning, take some shorts.

Unlike in the majority of other places in the world, in Nepal, an umbrella is not used to protect you from rain, it is used instead to shield you from the sun.

On the rare occasions when it does rain, it is so intense that nobody bothers to venture outside anyway. I worked out recently that in the month of July alone, Kathmandu gets a third of the rain that Swansea does in a whole year. In the build up to, and during the monsoon season, you will bear witness to some wonderful thunderstorms.

Despite the dust, rain, mud, and general natural inconveniences of the city, the women still make a noticeable effort to dress well and present themselves as glamorous. There aren’t too many high heels on show, but simple make-up, traditional dress, and subtle jewellery can all be seen. I have said it once before, and I still stand by it, Nepali women are beauty personified.

The men on the other hand offer something quite different. At least to my eyes. One of their favoured practices, that I have noticed, is to roll their t-shirt up and reveal their belly to the world. Walking round with a male crop top, the dal bhat filled stomach proudly displayed to all who pass. Like many Middle Eastern countries, men are not ashamed or embarrassed about holding hands with one another as they walk down the street. No, Kathmandu is not full of gay people, if anything it is still slightly behind in terms of accepting the LGBT community.

Another favoured practice of Nepali men is the old throat-clear-and-spit. A delight on both the ears and eyes, and along with barking dogs and beeping horns, one of the most common sounds to be heard.

The Italians have pizza and pasta, the Indians have curry, the Brits have fish and chips, and the Nepalese have dal bhat and momos. I have heard rumours that if you don’t eat at least one of these each day, you have your Nepali citizenship revoked. More time and energy goes into constructing momos – a sort of Nepali dumpling – than goes into any other event that I have been witness to. It is an art, and they are bloody delicious, especially with chilli sauce.

On the topic of food, prepare for spice, and the almost inevitable Delhi Belly. People with IBS need not apply.

Weddings appear to be momos only competitor in terms of time and effort, but apparently you have to invite the entirety of Kathmandu valley to these events, so it is understandable.

Nothing ever quite seems to get done in Nepal. That’s just how things are, for a number of reasons. Strikes are a common occurrence, shutting down roads, factories, and schools, and construction is a task handled gradually. A number of times I have walked past a “construction site” and seen a group of five men standing and chatting, whilst one lone hero uses the only visible spade to continue work.

The ratio of workers to tools is much like the ratio of humans to insects.

Each morning I am greeted by a few pioneering ants as they crawl across my bed, managing to avoid my flailing limbs and navigate the mosquito net draped around my bed. Two-days ago I came back to find a procession of ants carrying a dead moth across my bedroom floor.

By and large I have managed to avoid the worst of the mosquitoes, but one night I have to admit that I was the perpetrator of a massacre. In the pre-mosquito net days, I was an all you can eat buffet for the little bastards and they had their fill. I know they had eaten well because when I squashed them against my walls, the paint was stained with my own blood. It gives it a nice collage effect I feel. Makes everything more homely and personal.

Beds are at best firm, and at worst back breaking. A Nepali mattress is a very different creature to a British one.

I tend to have cereal for breakfast most days, but even that is not a sacred place. When I opened my box of cereal the other week and tipped it upside down over a bowl, the first thing that plopped out and scampered away was a cockroach. A few of his much-extended family have also found their way into my cooked food at times whilst I have been here. Luckily, I managed to avoid them whilst eating. I am a vegetarian after all.

Personally, I don’t particularly like eating dal bhat with my hands, but don’t be shocked or appalled to see it being done routinely by the locals. If nothing else, it saves on washing up.

If you do come over to work, I highly recommend that you “work” by the Nepali calendar. There are so many holidays and celebrations in Nepal that the working week lasts six-days to make up for it. Sunday is not a lie in, it’s just a premature Monday.

As well as the weed smoking holiday – sorry, I don’t remember the real name, there is also the paint-yourself-get-water-thrown-at-you celebration (Holi) and the lets-build-a-chariot-40ft-high-and-then-drag-it-through-the-streets-severing-electricity-cables-celebration as well.

The constant severing of electricity cables may explain why there is such a mess of them on each pole. Rather than taking down those that don’t work or have been cut, they are just added to, a practice that seems to be done by pretty much anyone, whenever and wherever they feel like it. It speaks volumes that I was not surprised to see a man scaling a pole as if it was a tree and he was hunting for a coconut.

On the festival of Holi, I had the delight of being given some acid which made the entire occasion wonderfully exciting and then slightly too intense, causing me to retreat back to my home to wait it all out.

Weddings are also a time of celebration, and true to their rural habits, many of Kathmandu’s residents decide to hire a band and walk through the streets in a parade of two dozen people. Nevermind the traffic, and people wanting to get places, this is just how things are done.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that Nepal got its first road, and it seems like they still haven’t completed it. If you use “road” in the loosest possible sense of the word, then you get an idea of what people drive on over here. This almost complete lack of decent infrastructure means that a 100-mile trip, from Kathmandu to Nepal’s second largest city takes about six hours.

No doubt some of this time is spent navigating the roads which are littered with rocks that were previously used as make-shift handbrakes. To ensure that their vehicle doesn’t roll away whilst they are on their drinks and toilet break, drivers often put a rock behind each wheel to prevent it escaping. When it comes time to leave again, these rocks are then left in the road.

Travelling anywhere takes a long time. Bring a book. Charge your i-Pod.

Since I have been here, the valley has been engulfed by an almost constant cloud of pollution and dust. It is now Dustmandu and around a quarter of people here now wear face masks when they go outside. Whilst it is admirable that the government want to improve the sewer system and the sanitation within the city, no environmental assessments have taken place at all, or if they have, they have obviously been signed off by someone that thinks dust is a natural element of life in a developing city.

Dustmaggedon forces a change of thinking in attire. Don’t wear white. It simply isn’t worth it. And remember to wash your hands at least twice a day. Though they may not look like you have submerged them in an old ashtray, the water runoff will remind you of the effects of just being outside.

On the issue of wearing white, I should note that I packed three white t-shirts for my trip over here. None of these are going to make the journey home. Though one was the victim of a Holi paint-covering, the other two were ruined by a Didi in one of my apartments who, despite being paid to clean and do laundry, clearly hasn’t learned that you can’t mix whites with colours. (Didi is a Nepali word meaning “older sister”, but they are essentially maids within a household.)

Environmentalism still seems to be a developing ideology, with the government seemingly willing to abandon protecting nature and wildlife due to their constant desire to improve the country. It is for this reason that tap water cannot be drunk, why you get a waft of raw sewage anytime you are near the river, and why you often see burning piles of rubbish on the roadside.

The few items that are recycled appear to be collected by men pushing bicycles early in the mornings. They call out to houses as they stroll through the lanes and hope that they can persuade the occupants to part with their cardboard or plastic. I know for a fact that beer bottles are recycled, and the reason I know this is because a friend pointed out to me that I was drinking Gurkha (Nepali beer brand) from a Carlsberg bottle.

Along with the travelling scavengers intent on loading their bicycles with recyclable goods, there are also cobblers sat on street corners, ready and willing to shine and/or fix your shoes for a small fee. (shoes which you must take off before entering any house).

This culture or repairing, mending, and making do reminded me a lot of Cuba. In both these countries, there is far less available than what many Westerners will be used to. In most cases, you cannot simply go out and buy a new one, you make do with what you have and fix it to the best of your ability. Even this can be a challenge though, as I discovered when I spent over two hours trying to find a shop that sold a specific length of screw.

Taxis are my main form of transport, on the odd occasion I need to get somewhere that isn’t walkable. If you’re not Nepali, taxi drivers will inflate their prices to squeeze as much money from you as possible – “400 rupees to Thamel!?”. Haggle and decide on the price before you get in. You’re likely to be paying twice as much as a local, but at least it isn’t twice as much again.

Restaurants, some shops, and cafes tend to have menus with set prices, for everything else, haggle. The salesman will start high, so offer him 50% of what he is charging. Continue to negotiate, and when all seems lost, start to walk away. With any luck the salesman or taxi driver should call you back over and an arrangement can be made.

With regards to the awful roads, the horrendous traffic, and the hordes of mopeds and motorbikes, a friend of mine once said: “don’t worry, nobody can ever go fast enough to cause a serious injury.” Let’s hope he is right because nobody wears a seatbelt in the cars – which incidentally look like they would crumple like an empty packet of chocolate digestives, and though mopeds and motorbikes carry three, four, sometimes five people, only one of them will ever have a helmet. Just today I saw a man on a bike driving down the road, with a baby no older than a year, asleep on his lap and resting against the bike’s body.

Needless beeping on the roads has recently been made illegal, and according to the local English-language newspaper, has already resulted in a drop in the number of accidents. (previously when vehicles were overtaking or turning they would just beep their horns and hope everyone else moved out the way. I think the new system is a marked improvement).

Another quirk of Nepal’s traffic, and one that subverts the intended purpose of an indicator, is to flick it on, left or right, when you want the person behind you to overtake. Indicators are not used to signal when a car is turning, and are instead used as encouragement for the drivers behind you to jump a place in the queue. This offer will be taken up more times than not, as there is a high likelihood that the car behind you isn’t following the lines on the road which mark different lanes, and is already pulling alongside you, hurtling forwards on the wrong side of the road.

Pavements are used by pedestrians, but more often than not, people will just walk in the road here. This is a practice most commonly seen at night, where without streetlights, it is easy to stumble on any uneven surface. The road is flatter, and therefore safer.

During the day, people use the pavements as and where they can, but something I have noticed is that you allow someone to pass, or if you step aside to make room for them, they will not thank you, so don’t expect one.

Be wary of the odd person squatting at the roadside, it seems to be a favoured past time of the people here, content to just sit and watch the world go by.

As well as the honking swarm of mopeds and motorbikes on the “roads”, you do also find the occasional cow. Or herd of cows, just lying down on a roundabout like a handful of misplaced speed bumps. The cows wander wherever and whenever they wish, and I have even seen one queuing outside a shopfront waiting to get in. Unlike their unfortunate cousins the buffalo, cows do not form a key ingredient for momos.

I would encourage anyone to get out of the city as quickly and as often as possible. The scenery of Nepal is astounding, but the dust and pollution in Kathmandu valley obscures most of it. Nepal’s landscape cries out for hiking, trekking, and walking, not that I know the difference between the three. River rafting, mountain biking, and bungee jumping are also available, and photographers and artists could find enough inspiration to last a lifetime. For those more inclined to the spiritual side of things, yoga retreats are a big hit.

This influx of tourists is a huge source of revenue for the country, providing a major portion of its GDP. With this being the case, the people working in the service industry are eager to please, and at times are a little too over-eager. Service may well be a case of polar opposites, you can either get no service at all, or you will receive an awkward over-eager member of staff helping you to hold your cutlery and place your napkin on your crotch.

I noticed that on many people’s mobiles they had a form of ring pull stuck to the back which can be used as a stand when watching things or as a finger slot to help stabilise the all-important selfie.

Despite the time that has passed since it happened, the country is yet to recover from the earthquake that killed so many people and made many hundreds of thousands homeless. Wooden poles propping up buildings is a common sight and hardly fills you with confidence that they are stable and safe.

The homes in the neighbourhood where I lived seemed mostly unaffected by the quake, but they all seem to follow the same curious habit of embedding upturned nails and broken glass into the walls surrounding their gardens and courtyards. I was told this was to prevent burglars climbing over, but I had never known an entrance gate to a Nepali house to be locked anyway.

And this attitude is something that I think typifies Nepal and its people. It is the welcoming nature of those you encounter and the hospitality you receive whilst there. No matter who you are, where you are from, or what you are doing, Nepal’s laid back, community-focused style provides a comfort that the car rides and beds almost definitely won’t.

Embrace everything the country has to offer. You won’t regret it.


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6 thoughts on “An Expat’s Life in Kathmandu”

  1. Thanks for a great read to understand the complexities of the city. Perfect as I’m arriving in Kathmandu in two weeks for 5 months teaching english!! I’ll remember not to wear white!!

    1. HI DonnyBoo, just wondering how you found your time in Kathmandu? I am looking at heading over in March to volunteer.

  2. That was a most interesting piece on living in Nepal. Entertaining too! I hope I make it there someday.

  3. I am a Nepali just moved back after 20+ years residency in California. Excellent writing mixed with humor. I think few things have improved. Maoist is in mainstream politics, so insurgency and bandhs is a thing in the past. Government hired an excellent Chief Executive in the National Electrical Agency and he was able to get rid of the inefficiencies that was causing the power outages. So long electric outages are a thing of the past. Melamchi water project to get rid of acute water shortage in Kathmandu is now complete, so water isn’t a issue anymore. Internet is as fast as I used to have in US. villages are much more accessible with more roads and it is better than nothing. I am happy the country was never colonized and the changes are internal.

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