Vendor and Rubble

SYNOPSIS:  The devastating state of a square, a city, a country.  Coming too late.

In graduate school, for one of Professor Kane’s classes, I once wrote a paper on Newari Architecture.   I have no idea anymore what I wrote.  But I remember two things:  The town squares of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur seemed like enchanted fairy tales from a distant past miraculously still standing, and I knew there and then that someday, I would be in those squares, looking at that very architecture.   And, I remember that Professor Kane gave me and A, and even put a comment on the paper that she liked my writing, particularly my conclusion.   And for all those years in school and the half dozen classes I took with her, I only remember two incidents of praise, this paper being one of them.

When I decided on where to stay in Nepal, I did not care about cost or anything else but the fact that I would visit all three of these squares, and stay as close as I could to each of them, in authentic Newari-style architecture accommodations.  In Kathmandu, the World Heritage Hotel fit the requirements.  I arrived at the periphery of the square by taxi and entered the Hanuman Dhoka or Durbar Square as the central square is known, with all of my luggage, on foot. 

It is hard to describe the shock that went through me when I first entered the square.   Nothing looked like the numerous photographs I had studied.  As most of us know, in 2015, a devastating earthquake hit Nepal.  The Kathmandu Valley was badly affected.  I had heard of it, I had seen pictures of it, but the reality hit harder than knowledge or images.  The roads were ripped up everywhere, the pavement was gone.  You could taste the dust that was turning the air brown.  Many buildings had crumbled.  Some buildings were propped up by wooden or metal beams.  Others were leveled and their existence only marked by a corrugated metal wall with a few lonely historic photos pinned on them to remind the visitor of what there once was.  I was almost in tears.

Nothing of the medieval coherence of the square was left; only a few remnants.  Vendors had their wares spread out on the street, motorbikes pushed their way through the dust and the people, even though the area was marked as a “vehicle free” zone.  Many more modern buildings surrounding the square were still standing and got away with a few cracks.  There is no justice in earthquakes!  Why take the old buildings down and leave those ugly concrete monstrosities?  Worse, now the idea comes about that the old buildings are not earthquake safe and are dismantled in the outskirts of the square, instead of being renovated!  The square itself is UNESCO protected.  Will that mean complete reconstruction someday? 

As I wound my way through the dust with my duffel bag, wheels grinding through the rubble, I wondered if my accommodations would be anything like I had imagined.  But just like a tornado takes down some things and leaves others standing within a stone’s throw, so my hotel had escaped the entire earthquake without a crack, standing only 30 meters from the center of the square!

For three generations, this Newari-style home had been in the hands of one family.  Only a year before the earthquake, the current owner had transformed his family home into a guesthouse.  It had all the features of Newari architecture:  the brick walls, the wooden grid-windows, the nooks, the crannies, the beautifully carved window molding, the small bracket statues.  It is dark in my room.  But that is part of the experience.  Two beautiful walled in courtyards now serve as a restaurant and a common area.  I just love the ambiance.   

And for the ambiance’s sake I will put up with the dust that is kicking up with every motorbike going by.  Every morning I can wipe my finger across the wooden table in my room, making a line into the new dust layer.  My computer and my camera are dust covered and so are my lungs…

One week in Kathmandu will likely do as much damage to anyone’s lungs as 10 years of smoking.  But what the heck.  I am at Hanuman Dhoka; one of the most unique architectural spaces in the world.

But I am two years late.  And I can’t even quite comprehend what this earthquake did to the people who lived and live here. 

Life is not fair!

6 comments so far

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  1. The place where you are staying looks absolutely wonderful!!

  2. Except for the cozy courtyard and your neat, spacious room inside, the whole place looks rather sad and dilapidated.

    • There are pockets of little paradises left. Overall, the picture indeed is sad. I can’t even imagine what it must have looked like 2 years ago.

  3. There was a special on the earthquake on PBS that you would find fascinating when you have the chance back home to sit back and take it all in.

  4. Newari House is beautiful…BUT…considering it “survived” an earthquake of that magnitude, one might not want to do any heavy aerobic exercises like jumping etc. in your room. You’ll have to go outside for that. LOL

    • I am restraining myself. 🙂