Beyond the sights: Becoming a student of place
A meeting of minds, traffic chaos, and alternative travel in Kathmandu.
I STOOD ON THE BORDERLINE to Thamel, the toe ringed tourist district that’s loosely unplugged from the high frequency of the city that straddles it. I leaned on my recently purchased, injury-prone bike after we had worked our way doggedly through street brawl traffic. It’s a bit like playing Tetris at that last-ditch moment when there’s only one space left. The rules of the road take some getting used to but there is an underlying method to the madness.
The drivers honk their horns as if they get bonus points for doing so but it’s a sign that they acknowledge your presence as you stake your rickety claim in a narrow piece of tarmac between stuttering engines. My bike has been my loyal steed for over a week now and it’s far from a thoroughbred. I sometimes feel like I’m riding an overripe silver fruit with chocolate bars for pedals.
“Yo, Dikson?!” his quasi American-Nepali accent coasted its way over the city’s soundscape. I was meeting Yanik Shrestha. I had been in touch with Yanik and a handful of other people from Kathmandu who are involved in the arts. He could so easily have been from the underground community in the backwaters of any major city. Jeans rolled up above the ankle with a tight fitting navy shirt and one or two piercings framing his greeting.
This world is as small as it is big.
“What’s up man, welcome to Kathmandu.” I pushed my fecund silver fruit along the sidewalk and into the tourist Mecca, Thamel. Travellers were decked out to the max in ballooning parachute pants, many of which will surely find a home on the top shelf of a neglected wardrobe somewhere.
The area has a lot going on and hosts some really funky bars and restaurants sardined along its narrow streets. After a few confusing turns we arrived at a little hole in the wall that does great local food. We sat in the courtyard and ordered Dhal-bhaat, a rice and lentil based dish with the option of meat (a lot tastier and more dynamic than it sounds). Yanik told me a bit about what he’s up to. It redefines the blurry edges of what you believe in, and why, when you are reminded that there is an army of people who you share so much with in places you will probably never go.
As we soldiered through the second hospitable serving of rice we talked poetry, festivals, and photography. Yanik is a poet / MC with his first photo exhibition coming up. I had my first exhibition last month. We both work within festivals and are dedicated to music and the arts in the small countries we call home. His girlfriend went to my university in the UK and he had visited the city I lived in for a few weeks. We empathised with one another operating as artists or organisers in, often, fickle cities. Aside from the passions we share Yanik is a cross-cultural ambassador and alternative trip planner.
Yanik told me that he runs an organisation that aims to engulf its students in Nepali culture by giving them a genuine and hearty experience focussing on people and practices rather than just the sites. From hands-on courses in Ayurvedic medicine and Thangka (Buddhist iconography) painting to hopping on a bike and heading for Tibet. If a student ventures down a path of spiritual enlightenment and finds Buddhism bores her then he’ll throw her in a more suitable direction, like stone carving or, in his words, “anything under the sun.”
Yanik explained how fascinating the crossroads of tradition and modernity is in Kathmandu. Whatever course students or travellers choose they will see the city and culture for what it is day in day out. From old and new harmonising in art and music to traditional forms and icons trundling towards extinction at the feet of the modern world. These kinds of ventures depend so much on the people who run them and I’m convinced that students and travellers would be in good, subversive hands.
My huge silver plate now looked like a half empty stadium and still the waiter was making advances as I tried to give him the evil eye. I stood my ground and managed to fend off his ruthless generosity. As we wound up our meal we talked about organising an event in November in a way that came so naturally. I caught glimpses of inspiring and creative conversations like this that I had in Zimbabwe and the UK and now I was having it in Nepal. This world is as small as it is big. Your causes feel somewhat justified when you come across your “kind” but the magic shimmers in the knowledge that there is a global community of cool cats that are on your side whether you know them or not.
Find out more about Yanik’s programmes.