Discovering Kathmandu With a Toddler

Features Issue 75 Jul, 2010
Text by Wakanyi Hoffman

The best way to discover Kathmandu is through the eyes of a toddler. With a great sense of adventure and a strong tolerance for chaos, Kathmandu is a free-spirit’s haven.

Toddlers are open-minded and in tune with nature, the perfect attitude needed in a city where trekking and hiking is the norm, and monkeys, stray dogs, cows and goats all share the nonexistent pathways with the fleet of motorists.

Our adventure began soon after we landed at the Kathmandu International Airport. Hardly had we adjusted to the 10 hour time difference, when we found ourselves right in the middle of famous Thamel, a tourist’s delight.

Before stepping out of the car, I lost all feelings to my legs. I became apprehensive over the prospects of navigating my way with an active 19 month old, through the narrow streets filled with vendors, beggars and shops lined door-to-door.

My daughter could hardly contain her excitement, especially when she spotted a stray dog that proceeded to approach us. I froze. A choking fear tightened my throat as I came face- to-face with this mongrel. I barely managed a strong grip on my restless child who was screaming for a chance to pet this dog. My first instinct was to protect her from this disease-carrying creature. But the dog did nothing. He stood there and watched us, both sensing my fear, and my child’s excitement. We all had a moment of silence, as we watched him slowly walk away, with the tail held up, revealing a very dirty rear end. My daughter burst into laugher at that sight. I joined her, relieved.

A quick scan of my surrounding unfolded the shopper’s haven that I had been anticipating. All around us were fabrics, jewellery, bags and rugs. Filled with confidence, I safely strapped my tot in the baby backpack carrier, an essential travel gear for any smart mom. I was ready to discover Kathmandu. We later made our way to Swambhunath, the famous Monkey temple, a beautiful Buddhist shrine that sits atop the Kathmandu valley, from which the view is breathtaking.

To get to the top, you must climb a long stairway, and to do this with a 15 pound child, you must have the stamina of a sumo wrestler. I chose to let my daughter loose at the bottom of the steps sensing that even though she had been enjoying the vantage view from the top of my head, she preferred being on her feet.

All toddlers are known for their boundless energies, but mine scores a ten for being mischievous. No sooner had she felt her feet on the ground, than she took off, up the steps, chasing the monkeys. I ran madly after her, panting and sweating, hoping to get to her before the monkeys. I called out her name in vain as I became self- conscious of the beggars and vendors lined up the steps providing an
unwelcome audience. They were joined in laughter by the hordes of tourists snapping their cameras away.

To my relief, a calm Nepali man grabbed her while I struggled my way up the steep stairway. As I prepared my stern lecture, the kind man held her gently while pointing to the dogs and monkeys for her to see. She remained calm, as if hypnotized, an oddity for my stranger-anxious, strong-willed toddler. I watched in amazement as she giggled and enjoyed watching the playful animals, coexisting in harmony.

I took her, and thanked the stranger profusely. As I watched him make his way down the stairway, I was filled with such serenity. Perhaps it was the presence of Buddha, I thought. But I soon realized that in Nepal, amid the chaos, there is an inexplicable peaceful calmness. My daughter must have sensed this in the stranger’s demeanor, which made her feel safe.

We finally made our way up through the masses of people, some chanting and praying, others just enjoying the experience. We took photos of the Kathmandu valley with monkeys as our backdrops. One monkey became hostile as we stepped into his comfort zone. We soon learnt that there is a line to draw. Exhausted but content, we returned home. As I was soaking in all the details of the day, I wondered what a normal family life here would be.

The answer to this came shortly on our first visit to the Bhat Bhateni grocery store, when my daughter spotted another curious-looking toddler. She went up to her and they immediately hit it off as the mother and I began to make small talk. She invited us to a playgroup, where we met other moms and children, and this opened up the chain of Kathmandu expatriate network. From there we learned of all the child-friendly places to visit. With this long list in hand, we visited a fancy French  restaurant in town for brunch and got a treat of the familiar taste of Western cuisine.

We then discovered The Garden of Dreams, a hidden gem in town. It is just what the name implies. Set at the outer edge of the busy Thamel area, this garden is like a little paradise caught back in time. It is a lush green facility, with little ponds filled with goldfish and numerous species of flowers and trees heavily pregnant with exotic fruits.

Once inside the gardens, you are completely deaf to the sounds of traffic and, instead, your ears become attuned to the sounds of the water jutting out of the magnificent fountains that adorn the landscape. For any toddler, this is the perfect space to run around without inhibitions. My daughter immediately went for the goldfish. I caught her just in time to dip her hands in the still pond water. Despite this being the perfect opportunity to play Splash, for any ultra- protective mom, this just spells disease.

All in all, if you can talk your child out of drinking the fountain water, or throwing rock pebbles into the fish ponds, you can sit back and enjoy a nice picnic, while your child enjoys the freedom of unorganized play. That is the way Kathmandu is. It is a playground for those willing to bring out the child within. It is also where saying Namaste, a simple gesture of hands clasped together as if in prayer, fills your heart with a spiritual calmness.