Month One: Impressions of Patan/Kathmandu

“Name?” asked the soldier, head-to-toe camo garb, body armor, birch cane at the ready.

“Sorry?” I responded, ready to stagger into my Stupid Lost Tourist persona.

“Name. What is name?” demanded the soldier once more.

“Who, me?” I felt my confidence slipping. It always starts with a name. Next, you’re in a dark room signing confession papers written in a foreign language. What the hell does this guy want from me?

“Ha ha. No. Name of dog.”

He was grinning now, the soldier. He wanted to hold Floyd, have a cuddle. Soldiers need love too. Chihuahuas like Floyd have that effect on people. Especially in this country.

It’s been a month now, here in Patan, Nepal, the quiet, relatively liveable burg adjacent to Kathmandu proper. As it’s been in all of my overseas work (not including boring Qatar, with all its sand), every day is something new and surprising.

Patan is not a place for people who sleep. My earplugs only mildly dampen the cacophonous circus that dominates the night air. Ten o’clock is when most neighbors have turned down the hauntingly catchy Nepali pop music. Also around this time, traffic noise from the nearby ring road mercifully dies off.

Lest we overindulge in the sounds of silence. At 11 pm, the dogs begin their ode to the moon. On a good night, the dogs tire and revert to their normal job: laying about in the street. Most nights though, they feel a three-set jam coming on, and need everyone to know it. Sometimes our dogs like to join in.

Midnight, the last redeye from Delhi soars overhead. Sometimes the windows rattle a bit.

We grow up hearing farm folk talking about waking with the roosters at dawn but that is a lie. Roosters are contemptible creatures that wake whenever they please, usually while it’s still dark outside. Then the demented ice cream truck horns of the three wheeled buses begins, hauling away less fortunate people who leave for work much earlier than me. By now, our dogs have finally gone to sleep, and it’s time to rise.

My day kicks off at dusk with a ponderous sit on the toilet, managing the previous day’s affairs in the special way only my vegetarian friends in developing countries will understand. Courtesy our solar heaters, I might have a warm water shower but if not, they say cold water showers do wonders for your endorphin gland.

Then some yoga. One window faces the city, another the mountains, the third window faces the guard at my gate, who’s always waving hello to me as I’m mid warrior pose. When the weather cools, I plan to take my yoga to the roof, because the local people expect to see loony antics from their foreign neighbor and I’m the man to deliver.

Put the kettle on the gas. Needs to boil rapidly a couple minutes to kill everything. Grind down my dwindling supply of Sexy Seven coffee, but no worries. They grow and roast excellent coffee in Nepal. I even have coffee berries in the orchard outside my door, between the avocados and mangoes. Give the milk a quick sniff. You can’t get it much fresher anywhere else, and yes it’s pasteurized, but lacking all those lovely preservatives we enjoy in America, milk turns pretty quickly. Yogurt to replace the probiotics I wiped out with the last regiment of anti-diarrheal meds. Add some local honey, granola, and pomegranate seeds. Fiona drinks her farmer market tea, if the dogs are lucky they get a walk, and out the door we go for work.

I won’t talk much about my job in the coming months, but suffice to say, I’m in a place where the hard work and extra hours contribute towards something great. .

And when the day is done, it is done. Nothing comes home with me, even if that sometimes mean I don’t leave until late. I’m not counting the occasional “collaboration” that happens over a couple beers.

Like Mr. Rogers, I swap my Oxfords for my sneakers (or Timberlands during the monsoon rains) and trudge the 25 minute hike home. I’ll have a bike soon, but when that time comes, I’ll miss all the things I notice on foot.

The high school soccer coach who runs his boys down the chaotic rush hour streets with increasingly more intense exercise regiments — last week they carried teammates on their shoulders. The buses with their horns that sound like miniature melodies, festooned with hand painted patterns across the panels and eyelashes on the headlights. The family of monkeys that races across the bird nests of power lines every Thursday morning during my coffee at Top of the World Cafe. The cows that dominate the roads like soccer moms in SUV’s. The SUV’s that get strong armed off the road by said cows. The soccer moms who… well, I’ve learned not to say anything about soccer moms when in a new country.

The three old ladies selling produce on the curb. The really, really old lady baking ears of corn on a smoldering log, plumes of smoke engulfing the road. That one goat, who might be “mutton” come tomorrow. Rusty the Dog. Grumps the Dog. Japanese Tracksuit Guy. The Overly Nice Korean Family. The Bangladeshi shopkeeper who insists my wife needs a bindi. The Negotiating Space Dance I perform with other pedestrians, where I repeatedly step off then back on the sidewalk whilst trying to dodge meandering motorcyclists, bossy taxis, and of course, random cattle.

Actually, that last thing I won’t miss at all.

A place is defined by its people. Patan has some of the best. Last week, little Floyd bolted from the gate, no doubt to chase his personal dragon, a toad venom addiction. The escape happened at noon, as we were informed by our housekeeper, who was in a right state. Being at work, there was little we could immediately do but print out LOST flyers. I received regular updates from our housekeeper and gardener, who had fanned out to all the nearby homes and shops, making inquiries. When we finally started our canvassing efforts, everyone showed genuine concern, even if language was a barrier. Almost all the shop and cafe owners agreed to post our flyer, which was written in English and Nepali. The local animal shelter helped us out with tape. We searched for almost two hours after work. I was nearly back home when I ran into my landlord. He too had been on the search, after our guard informed him of the problem. More than I could’ve expected from any landlord back home!

At long last, Floyd returned home more than 12 hours after his prison break. He was high as a kite on toad venom. An intervention is planned.

Since that difficult evening, people all over the neighborhood still ask about Floyd. Did he come home? How is he? Was he hurt? We are so happy you have now back your dog.

Love this place.

Here, locals consider me a “Good American.” It’s unlike other places, where my nationality was met with nonchalance (which I prefer), overly jubilant praise (usually from Arabs, which felt weird), or on rare occasions, spite (usually from British people). The Good American conversation usually sounds like this:

“Oh. You’re from Am-ERR-ica. I am surprised. I thought you were Canadian. I mean, you’re so… normal. And nice. And you haven’t offended anybody. And you said you don’t very much like war or guns or bigotry. Yes. Surprising. You are a Good American.”

Jeez, Americans! What have you been doing in Nepal these last few years?

The expat scene here is something completely different than what I experienced in other countries. In Lebanon, diplomats and UN staffers hunkered down behind barbed wire and cement walls, far and away from the joyous, frenetic, occasionally life-threatening hustle of the glorious city life. Bali was pretty much a summer camp for over indulgent grownups. Sweden, there was an unspoken climate of anxiety amongst expats, a cloud of shame that followed every person who didn’t blend, every person who failed to put forth a concerted effort to speak the language. Probably a word for that in Swedish, but I’ll never know.

Here in Kathmandu, it’s a combination of all those things. There are more NGO’s on the ground than the alphabet can handle, and everyone is very serious about their work. At least until five o’clock hits. At that point, the bars fill with boisterous conversations, fueled by local spirits of questionable origin. And yet, there’s a “face” that expats wear. A face that advertises “Don’t mess with me, I’m (practically) local.”

Maybe it’s the women who so readily don scarves and saris. Or the men with their locally tailored (read: super slim cut) suits. Or the one-upmanship of local food knowledge — tongue and guts are fine dining here (for some).

I don’t hate it. In fact, I cannot wait to immerse myself in it.