I am not someone who is accustomed to travelling the world. I have many friends who have visited several continents, spent months in different countries, and have been medically diagnosed with the most itchy of diseases – the travel bug. Me? I have only been outside the UK three or four times, and never outside of Europe. In September 2015, I was given the opportunity to move to Kathmandu, Nepal, for one year. Before moving, I was warned of the mysterious, dreaded ‘culture shock’ – a reaction to moving to such a different place that would be so severe I would need a few weeks (or even months) to get over it before I could truly get comfortable with my new life in an Asian country.
To give you some background: I am nobody. I am just a guy from a generic working class family in Britain. I am cursed (and blessed) with those typical British traits. I’m pale and never even think to wear sunscreen. I’m fine in my comfort zone, thank you very much. I’m cynical to an extreme. In a way, I don’t like to enjoy myself. I whine, I complain, and I like the rain. Someone like me would be the last person you would expect to see in Kathmandu – with its pollution, bumpy roads, constant (and I mean constant) beeping cars and motorbikes. Not a Tesco in sight for me to grab a quick sandwich, can of Coke and a packet of crisps. What the hell was there for me in Kathmandu?
As it turns out, the answer was everything. From the moment I stepped foot on the dusty roads of Kathmandu I was in love. This ‘culture shock’ never came. I, a nobody from a small city in Wales, had made it half way across the world to this strange and alien place. And I couldn’t be happier.
I really enjoyed myself over the first weeks – hiking through the trees and up, up, up the tall stone steps for hours to reach Nagi Gumba (a monastery) in Shivapuri National Park, hitting up the main temples of Swayambhu (the monkey temple), Boudhanath (sadly damaged by the earthquake last year), and Pashupati (where I witnessed the cremation of the dead). I spent two weeks in Pokhara, a town about six hours away from Kathmandu, where I stood in awe, dwarfed and half blinded, by the huge white walls of the World Peace Stupa, rode a bicycle at full speed along the chaotic motorway to Begnas Lake, and sat under the stars with beer and popcorn at an open-air cinema to watch The Great Dictator in a crowd that was intimately connected to each other without even saying a word.
I entered Nepal with an open mind, and appreciated the privilege I had to see more of the world every single day. I didn’t even realise that I had developed any attachment to the country until I met other people who shat all over it.
A big criticism leveraged at Nepal by tourists is getting ‘hassled’ in the street. Thamel is the main shopping/bar area for tourists and, walking through those narrow windy streets, you are definitely going to get called at by a travel agency, a shop keeper, or a lady selling water in the street. If you enter a store, then it’s likely that the person inside will try to convince you to buy things. Of course, actual harassment is never okay, but I have never experienced that here. Saying no and walking away is usually all it takes. I understand that if you are new to the country then this might make you feel uncomfortable the first or second time. I have, however, met many people who have been in Kathmandu for an extended period of time who still find this unbearable. I think that if this makes you feel uncomfortable you really need to ask yourself why. When I first came to Nepal, it made me feel a bit flustered because it was so direct – and I honestly felt a little guilty about saying no to people because I understood that, while everything seemed so ‘cheap’ (relative to the UK), and it wouldn’t actually make a huge difference to me to buy things, it probably would make a big difference to the individual selling them. We have become so accustomed to dealing with large corporations and unmotivated employees behind a cash machine, that we have become completely detached from the small business owner trying to make a living. I also find it interesting that we allow ourselves to be solicited to buy goods from the safety of our sofa, and in front of a TV screen, but when approached by an actual human being, we recoil. Why is there this divide? It’s a sad state of affairs that we live in a time when a little human interaction can ruin an experience for people.
I don’t want to make it sound like I do not have my own criticisms of Nepal. I have met people on the complete other side of the spectrum who have said to me that the West is bad, the East is good, etc. This kind of mentality, too, is so self-limiting. Why take such a binary view towards travelling/the world? It was funny that this person slated the UK/the West for a good five minutes, but when I expressed my own views about missing the convenience of a Tesco meal deal (I won’t keep going on about that but GOD DAMN I MISS IT), he laughed and conceded. Obviously this example is meant in a light-hearted way but the point remains. Convenience is not to be underplayed. Many of the things I took for granted in the West I do not have anymore. Viewing the world through such a binary lens of developing/developed, East/West etc. does a great disservice to the diversity that is out there in the world.
This guy was part of a ‘type’ of traveller I would describe as quasi-philosophical ‘anti-tourists’. These people pride themselves on not being tourists, but rather as enlightened travellers on a journey of self-discovery. While having this mantra of spirituality and acceptance of the world, many people I have met seem to think this makes them better than the ‘other’ tourists. One of the main lessons I have learned being in Nepal is that if you have to tell everybody that you are enlightened, then you probably aren’t. I’m eager to say here that I am not painting all tourists or backpackers with the same brush. Everybody has an element of self-discovery and self-exploration when travelling the world and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. What I do have an issue with is when these tourists come to Nepal, take what they can get, and then leave. This problem has already been documented in plenty of detail. I don’t have much more to add than my own personal experiences. I met a group of guys a few weeks ago who had come to Nepal to do volunteering. One of them took the opportunity to tell us that he quit after one day because the children he was working with were not educated on basic hygiene in the bathroom and he said this was off-putting. This kind of ignorant, snobby, disgusting attitude is what gives tourists a bad name.
My biggest problem with many of the people I have met since getting to Nepal, whether they are the type to complain about the infrastructure, or proclaim that they ‘get it’ and are having the ‘authentic’ traveller experience, is that it always come from a self-centred place and completely lacks self-awareness. On the one hand you have those that criticise Nepal with no concern for the people who live here. One person we met described the Annapurna Circuit (a popular trek in Nepal) as “disappointing” and “not worth doing” as a road had now been built. The fact that a lack of roads might have been a problem for the people who lived there was never considered. On the other hand, you have these people who come, have their ‘enlightening’ experience, patronise the people who live here by absorbing their culture for personal gain (i.e. boasting about their adventures to their traveller friends), condescend the other tourists who are after their own experiences, and go home. Both sides of this coin share a common trait: obsession with the self while disregarding for the local population.
But even worse, I’ve met very few people who are happy with not being an extreme. You can open your mind and enjoy a foreign country without condemning your home. Equally, you can have your moments of self-discovery without then telling everybody you meet about them like you are part of some exclusive enlightened club. For a place where ‘spirituality’ and ‘acceptance’ is so big, the people who come here to practice it are, sadly, still out to prove something.