Newly-hatched ducklings fall for the first thing they see - mama duck or not - and will follow whoever, or whatever, this being is wherever it goes. The ducklings imprint on the first being - dog, duck or human - they lay eyes on, and that becomes central to their understanding of the world.
Or so I learned in high school biology. This theory may have been overthrown by now, but at the time I was fascinated by the idea that one brief experience could so profoundly shape the trajectory of the duckling's life.
I think it's the same with international travel. Wherever you go first, as an impressionable young thing, shapes all future approaches to travel.
Oddly, my first significant overseas trip (beyond the family jaunt to England when I was six) was to one of the least developed countries, half a world away. It now seems strange that growing up in a midwestern suburb, I would set my eyes on Nepal for my college semester abroad. Couldn't I ease into foreign travel, like my friends who studied in Florence and London? No, my rationale was that those places would always be there, but I would only be young and adventurous enough for the remote corners once.
I dove into the deep end, a distant place, foreign to my experience in every way, that expanded my brain until my ears were ready to pop off the sides of my head. The city was green, cows and bicycles vastly outnumbered cars, huge smiles lit the faces of everyone I met. I was in the thrall of the exoticism of the place - fragrant smoke from temples and kitchens hung in the air, around every corner lay a surprise, some curiosity I had never dreamed of - and being so far from home for the first time.
Since then, returning to Nepal, and especially to Kathmandu, feels like a sweet, crazy reunion, like re-meeting an exotic, jet-setting spinster aunt, whose bracelets jangle and whose sentences never quite make sense.
More than a decade after my college experience, a research fellowship granted me a year in Nepal, during which I kept a flat in Kathmandu, and spent months in the mountains. I fell in love with the city, even as it had grown choked with villagers fleeing Maoist rebels in the rural areas.
Car and motorcycles clogged the streets, the two-stroke engines causing a thick pall of pollution to fall over the bowl-shaped city in the winter. White shirts were grey by the end of the day, and a trip into the city center would result in hacking up black phlegm.
The friendliest people in the world were now suffering a deep depression as a civil war wracked the country and the throngs of tourists stayed home. No one wanted to take a vacation in the middle of someone else's war, much to the detriment of the Nepali economy. Despite the violence, pollution, curfews, and demonstrations, Kathmandu was still magical, the colors of saris and salwars a delight to the somber Western eye, the juxtaposition of religious monuments with urban squalor a constant reminder that enlightenment would not happen at some future place or time, it had to happen in the midst of the chaos of life.
|Mt. Everest, the world's tallest peak, viewed from a plane.|
A few years after that, I returned again, for a winter holiday break from my Himalayan research. Kathmandu, with its cosmopolitan tourists, banana pancakes, North Face gear, and trendy restaurants was the best approximation of home I could devise. I meant to attend a friend's wedding as well, though, confusingly, information about the date and time never materialized. These things happen in Kathmandu. Time is a malleable concept when living in the present. On New Year's Eve, the streets were packed with revelers from all over the world.
|New Year's Eve, 2007, Thamel, Kathmandu|
Now, once again, my bag is nearly packed with two methods of water purification, a voltage adapter, an unlocked cell phone, sunscreen, layers, long pants, and plenty of books to keep me busy on the 14 hour flight. Kathmandu, here I come!