The dust of Kathmandu settles in small piles on the streets, and as I walk, I hold a scarf to my mouth and nose. It is loud here, and in some moments I feel like I might just dissolve into the noise of this city. Motorcycles and tuk-tuks weave through the streets, seemingly independent of anything that resembles traffic laws in my home town. There is a sort of blind faith that I must have to walk along the road – I trust that, if a motorcycle passes too close to my turned back, the driver will beep and I’ll move to the side. In some ways, I like to offer these drivers such trust – it feels like I’m also placing faith in this city and its people, though indirectly.
I walk from Bhatbetini, a department store and complex of shops near our program house, where a few students and I spent time searching for cotton towels, toothpaste, bananas and lapsi (plum) candy. We counted Nepali rupees in our palms, offering them with soft smiles and light bows before we parted, heading home to our homestay family’s houses, each in different neighborhoods of Kathmandu.
I walk to Sukhedhara alone, my sandals leaving prints in the mud along the roadside. The afternoon sun is full and hot and thick, and I almost feel held by its closeness and weight on my skin. Passing by an open shop with spices and grains in burlap bags, I realize that I don’t know where I am – vaguely, if at all. I ask a traffic policeman for directions, and she points me back to where I came from, laughing gently at my broken Nepali. I call my homestay mom: “I got lost, but I’ll be there in 20 minutes!”
As I walk, I lift my eyes to this city of color and sound and earth. 2 million people call this valley their home, and I am only beginning to find myself in the hustle and chaos of this place. I am thankful and terrified all at once. To my left and right are shops I do not recognize – I walked this way this morning with my homestay mother, but after a full day of shopping for kurta fabric in the Ason bazaar, I do not remember the way. I approach a young Nepali woman, saying, “Namaste – Sukhedhara kahaa chha?” She nods down the street, smiling lightly at my accent and foreignness.
So much of this process – moving and searching and finding – relies on my capacity for shameless confusion, childlike wonder and curiosity. On my walk to the program house this morning, I pointed at everything I could see, asking, “Nepalima kasari bhanne?” Tree: rook. Friend: sathi. Toast: pauroti. I know that people watch me as I walk past, and sometimes I miss the feeling of invisibility that accompanies home. But sometimes, I also feel unbelievably seen here in ways I never have. Three days ago, we visited Pharping, a small town two hours outside of Kathmandu. The roads were wet and muddy with recent rainfall, and I slipped and fell while searching for butter candles and bar soap. A short, elderly woman with deep wrinkles immediately moved to me, yelling words of care and compassion and lifting me to my feet with a strength I couldn’t comprehend. As I assured her that I was okay, thanking her again and again, she almost looked like she might cry for me. I left with a nice bruise and a full heart.
I watch the street as I walk, beginning to notice familiar buildings. I’ve fielded a few calls from my homestay sister and mother, explaining that I’m on my way to the water tank where my homestay mother waits. It’s 5:10 pm, and I was supposed to meet her 40 minutes ago. The noise of the city settles into my footprints as I turn the corner, eyes wide and questioning. I am not worried; I have faith in this city, and in myself. I raise my eyes to the cityscape beyond me, and – there! – my homestay Mother walks to me with open arms.
She takes my hand and we walk home together through the dust of Kathmandu.