For activity week, I (Abe) was assigned to chaperone the jazz band to Kathmandu for what was billed as “the biggest jazz party in the himalayas”, also known as “Jazzmandu”. It was a long, logistically challenging trip, but it was a great success, both educationally and recreationally. I’ve never been a real jazz aficionado (though I do respect the art form) and I didn’t come away from this festival with a burning desire to play it. But I do love music, and it was great to have jazz theory opened up for us by greats like Ari Hoenig and Bug. We sat in on a practice session with local folk music heroes Kutumba and it was frankly kind of mind-blowing. These are young rocknroll guys who have gotten into traditional Nepali music and instruments, but they play with such verve and creativity that it sounds incredibly fresh and exciting. At Jazzmandu they were the only band to make people dance, and they weren’t gently swaying or folk-dancing; they were moshing. All this with acoustic instruments.
I also loved Nepal. It’s like India, but more diverse and hospitable (nearly 20% of their GDP comes from tourism), yet less crowded and less spicy hot (they use spices other than curry). Kathmandu is struggling to accommodate the rapid influx of villagers from the surrounding hills who have come in to seek work and shelter from Maoist instigators. The air in Kathmandu is absolutely the worst I’ve ever breathed and I spent several minutes every morning cleaning black stuff out of my nose. But it’s a fascinating city, and Thamel, the tourist district in which we stayed, is full of interesting shops and restaurants, most of which cater to Western adventurers seeking a piece of Eastern handiwork/spirituality/cuisine. Late October is prime tourist season and the streets of Thamel were crammed with towering Europeans in hiking boots and Northface jackets. Indeed, this is where nearly all Everest expeditions begin: in the hotels of Thamel. I learned this from Into Thin Air, which I borrowed, obsessed over, and finished in two days during our trip.
Kathmandu is a deeply religious place. There are little shrines on every street corner, and major temples are positioned strategically throughout the city. In many places the lines between hinduism and buddhism (the predominant religions) have blurred. Several of the temples we visited had elements of both, and you could tell that the locals didn’t really make strong distinctions, nor did they have any problems worshiping alongside each other at the same sites. Score one for ecumenicism. It was also interesting to me how commercialized religion had become. We watched Nepalese tourism promotional video, which was clearly aimed at Western tourists and used words like “spiritual”, “enlightened”, “mystical” to describe the culture. The major temples were surrounded by little tourist-oriented knick-knack shops. While the local Buddhists made their devotional rounds around the prayer wheels, shop owners pressured white-skinned visitors with manipulative sales pitches. Were I not Christian, it would have been deeply disillusioning, and I wondered why neither Buddha nor Vishnu ever bothered to throw out the money-changers.
The trip was made more amazing by virtue of our connections with the artistic life of the city. Distinguished alumni and parents of some of the kids got us invited to perform at Jazzmandu in the first place. They also got us invited to a concert at the US Ambassador’s palatial compound and to various free dinners at expensive restaurants, and we hobnobbed with the Kathmandu’s musical movers and shakers. It was fun for me, but what an incomparable experience for a high school kid. They set us up with guides for a hike up into the hills around Nagarkot, which revealed some of the most stunning vistas I’ve ever seen, like this one: