I spent my 20s bouncing in and out of Kathmandu, Nepal, where I drank too much gin and smoked too many cigarettes. Somewhere in that foggy mix, I was conducting research toward a PhD in anthropology and teaching university students, but mostly I was hanging out, observing the lives of others and having no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
By the time I hit my thirties, I had dropped out of the PhD program and was climbing my way out of the contradictions that come with expatriate life: being neither here nor there, local nor foreign, mature nor immature.
As a result of a short, sudden epiphany, I decided to move back to the U.S. to grow up and take charge of my path.
Life in the U.S. was hungry and glamorous. Résumés, portfolios, networks, meetings, high heels, dry cleaning — all felt so good and sexy after the filth of the developing world. Clean drinking water, 24-hour electricity and political stability felt like indulgences. I relished every minute.
But sometimes I would lie awake at night missing the strangeness of Kathmandu, the wild freedom and directionless spill of a city on the brink of anarchy. I couldn’t always explain this to people, and whenever I tried, I sounded like a drug addict romanticizing years spent living in squalor.
I wanted people to understand, or maybe I wanted myself to understand, how there was something so unreasonable and untamable about Kathmandu that it could unhinge you in a way that nothing in a perfectly calculated New York life ever could.
Kathmandu could wash you away.
To survive in such a place as the Nepalese capital, I had to forfeit control without flinching. I had to let friends and strangers steer me through dusty streets I did not know, as if I were nothing more than a sack of rice strapped to their shoulders. When I rode on the backs of motorcycles and on the roofs of buses, I knew I couldn’t reason with the driver to go more slowly and I couldn’t tame the insane geography of the streets.
There was no point in owning a watch because no matter what, no person would ever be on time. Ever.
If you try to fight with a Nepali, if you try to ask him why he’s late or why he didn’t meet you when he said he would, he will smile and go silent. You can shout at him until you’re blue in the face, begging him to respect your good ideas and to understand that order doesn’t just benefit you but also benefits him, and he’ll look back at you with this infuriating grin.
You will grow to despise that grin, and finally, you will go home or give in. I recommend giving in. You’re not a captain in Kathmandu. You’re not even a sailor. You are a stowaway, meaningless and humble.
The soul does unusual things in that situation. You begin to see aspects of yourself and your life that you didn’t know were there. Everything suddenly makes sense, even though absolutely nothing makes sense. There are lepers and street children and all sorts of macabre spooks that scream at your sensibilities and tear apart anything you ever believed.
All the stuff about good governance or God or Hollywood’s latest campaign to fetishize good washes away into nothing but empty promises. You, your education and your ego all break down into nothing. Pretty soon you too start to wear that same infuriating grin.
Living breaks free.
It has been 10 years since I left Nepal. I’m getting pretty good at being the captain of things again, of making decisions and managing situations so I can get what I need. I can shout at people to do things my way, and I can seize opportunities. I am becoming a natural American go-getter.
Every night when I assess the day and its little achievements and failures, I hear the streets of Kathmandu. It is as though they are reminding me that as much as I am becoming the confident captain of my life, I am also nothing but its stowaway. And although I will try to build myself up, there will be a time, with or without Kathmandu, when once again, unapologetically, it all washes away.