My laundry is sun-kissed by the Saturday Kathmandu sun and it smells like a long-lost memory that’s gently nudged to remembrance. The cotton feels rough, that particular feeling of crisp cloth that’s dried in purely natural forces without fabric softener. Earlier in the day, sometime between showering and breakfast, I was crouching over a bucket full of suds and laundry on the rooftop of my Nepal home. The soapy water was refreshing in the already harsh heat of late June. As I kneaded, the water turned dark gray from all that my clothes had inhaled of Kathmandu. I’m overly conscious about water here and I just rinse once. A dark monsoon cloud dropped its load as I finished at the clothesline, but no one rushed out on the other rooftops to take their laundry in so I decided not to bother either. Sure enough, the rain passed as swiftly as it came. It seems that Nepal will not only be embedded in my skin, but in my clothes as well.
For those of you who are not physically near me, the air around me in general smells like ghee. And the fingers and fingernails on my right hand are all stained yellow with turmeric from the daily helpings of curried vegetables. I’m pretty sure it seeps from my pores too. I perspire Nepal. Or I’d like to think so. Maybe that’s me romanticizing the fact that I’m sticky with sweat that runs like a broken faucet even on the coolest rainy days, hair poofy and confused from the metallic smelling water, and sunglasses sliding down my non-existent Asian nose bridge as I strut up the rocky streets. On days I accidentily step in the deadly puddle mixtures of unknown substances and substances of unknown people, I laugh and thank my mother for the positive humor she has passed on to me that seems to keep my love for this place undamaged.
“What you think…about Nepal?”
My host mom, among so many other Nepalis, has asked me this question and it’s almost surprising to myself that the word “dirty” or any of its kind never registers in my head as an accurate description.
I say this even when I have learned quickly to identify different kinds of poop that lay in my path everyday. When it smells like a barn, all earthy and reminiscent of that odor when you approach Central Park from the south side, there’s a hefty pile of greenish cow pies that’s usually been run over a few times by various vehicles. When I smell a less pungent, grainy stink, I’m approaching chickens cooped up in cages ready to be sold and chopped up by the end of the day. When the stench is strong and really attracting flies, it’s usually dogs. Or humans. Especially in the allies between houses. The omnivores provide the best droppings for those winged things.
Not dirty still, as I cross over the Bagmati on the tempo, giving off the odor that will shoot right through your mask that you bought from the vendor that ripped you off with the sweetest smile. This river that once quenched Kathmandu and its surroundings is now a graveyard of trash, animals and sewage.
Even when the smell of urine suffocates me on the streets of Thamel, I cannot dismiss this place as the filthy reality it often is.
Maybe it’s because I know that someone had cleaned the big pile of poop that laid in that tiny ally everyone uses for a shortcut. (There was no trace of that smelly thing the next morning. It was completely removed.) Maybe it’s because I hear all the Nepalis speaking so fondly of their country and its beauty, minus the politics. Maybe it’s because spices and incense and oddly comforting odor of sweet sweat, in the most audible and asserting whisper, all tell me of life that color every inch of this palette called Kathmandu. There are no white spaces. Even the dead, the inanimate, the silent; they all speak.
I may run out of excuses for Kathmandu. It could possibly happen in the last week of my stay here that seems so far off but I know will be rapidly approaching. But the frustration and criticism, no matter how severe, will undeniably come from the attachment and fondness this city has already planted in me. And the smell will always be a patch in the back of my nose, the chaos of wet mud and dry exhaust with a hint of pee.