The Tourist Hospital, Fireflies, and Lots of Time To Think

I mentioned in my last post just how chaotic, loud and overwhelming Kathmandu was. But right in the middle of all of it, off a little alley in Thamel, was a peaceful oasis – and that was Fireflies. This is the story of how I ended up at Fireflies, got acute bacterial diarrhea, had some comforting epiphanies and changed my sleeping habits.

Finding Fireflies

There are times when it’s incredibly exhilarating to just go to a city without any idea of where you’re going to spend the night. You wander around through a maze of alleyways adorned with brightly coloured tapestries and wall hangings and the smell of fresh spices and the sweet intoxicating haze of incense fill your senses, until you catch someone’s eye, swap a shy smile and follow them back to wherever they’re staying. That was my experience of Morocco a few years back and I’d kind of laboured under the delusion that Nepal would be similar. I was very wrong.

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Of course, I only got clued in when I visited Bhaktapur during my Yoga Retreat – all of a sudden my plan to vagabond through Kathmandu in the hopes of finding that perfect place seemed naively idealistic. And so it was that I got to frantically Googling and sending messages out to friends who’d visited Kathmandu before, asking for recommendations on where to stay.

I had something very specific in mind – I wanted to meet both Nepalese locals and travellers, but I wanted to meet young, progressive Nepalis, not conservative middle aged men running the family business as obsequious hoteliers. I wanted to be somewhere that felt like a home, and that was cosy and chilled – not where the employees would constantly be waiting on me and hoping for tips.

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And that’s how I stumbled upon Fireflies. It was a tiny little hostel, new, with hardly any reviews. But the few reviews that were there mentioned that it was a place for artists and musicians to feel at home – and warned away typical backpackers because if you came here you had to be willing to become part of the family. It sounded perfect.

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Getting there, however, was a little harder. Here’s a little tip – if you’re going to Kathmandu from somewhere remote – and I was, from Nagarkot – it’s ridiculously hard to know where to get off the bus. We went through streets saying ‘Kathmandu’ for what seemed like hours, and there was pretty much no way at all to figure out which part of Kathmandu we were in and where I should be getting off. I mean I could have used the GPS on my phone, but I didn’t even know where the bus route went – you can’t find that information anywhere – I know, I tried. Luckily there were two girls who jumped on the bus who were university students and spoke English, and when I told them where I was headed, they told me they’d take me there.

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Funny little side story here – the way I started talking to these girls is that one of them came over and whispered to me frantically “I think you’re having a wardrobe malfunction” and pulled my jacket down over the bottom of my dress. It took a while for me to figure out what she was talking about – there was a little rip in the side, just above my knees. I wear skirts waaay shorter than that back home so I’d never considered this inappropriate – but as I realised, looking around, I couldn’t see any Nepalese women even showing their knees. Kathmandu was definitely a more conservative kettle of fish than I’d expected it to be.

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The next lesson I learned was about how to find a place in a city that doesn’t really have street addresses. I literally spent ages wandering all around Thamel trying to find Fireflies. Let me explain to you how this works: They tell you that their hostel is near a famous landmark. You go to said landmark, call them up, and they’ll tell you another, smaller landmark that those in that vicinity will know off. You hand your phone to the closest local, who’ll chat to the hostel, and then give you directions. You go to that next landmark, call them up again, and continue the process. The mistake I made first was trying to use Google Maps to find my hostel – Protip for future travellers to Kathmandu: Don’t rely on Google Maps here. You’ll go round in circles and then the place you’re looking for will be nowhere near the pin on the map.

But after all of that, finally getting into Fireflies totally made up for spending the morning wandering around frantically with a heavy rucksack in the afternoon sun- hungry, thirsty, sweaty and sore. The guys working at the hostel – Sange, Bishal and Shiva – introduced themselves, carried my bag up to my room, settled me in and were wonderfully cheeky and easy going. Inside there were paintings all over the walls, and people painting even more on other walls. There was a hammock, books, musical instruments, a very placid dog, and lots of cushions around low tables that people were chilling on. They made me a cup of tea, sat me down, and had a lovely little chat to welcome me to the family – I’ve been to hostels where the staff are friendly before, but I’ve never been to a hostel where one of the first things they do is sit you down and really get to know you.

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How do I adequately capture what it was like being at Fireflies? It was a little like being at someone’s house. It was small and cosy, so it wasn’t hard to get to know everyone. The staff made a huge difference – everyone made an effort to get to know you, introduce you around, and make you feel at home. If someone wanted a cooking lesson, they’d pull out some tables, grab some ingredients from the kitchen, and stage a cooking class. Some nights one of them would want to cook a special dish that they liked, so they’d cook a huge amount of that and add it as a daily special – all the food was amazing already, and they had a little menu, but the specials were the best.

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If a couple of the guests wanted to go somewhere, they’d organise for a group to go together. One night it was someone’s birthday so they took everyone out through the city, bought a birthday cake, and we all sat eating it at the top of one of the temples in Durbar Square. I spent ages talking to both the staff and other guests about philosophy and religion and our dreams and fears and just having really deep discussions. I learned so much about a different side of Nepal to what most tourists see.

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Nepalese New Year was the best – they put on a little party, and everyone got their groove on in the living room, dancing and drinking and playing games. You forgot that this was a hostel, because it never felt like it. The staff didn’t feel like staff, they felt like friends whose home you were visiting. They were genuine, and they shared so much of themselves- and encouraged all their guests to do the same. Out of everything I did in Nepal, staying at Fireflies was probably the part I enjoyed and learned from the most.

Getting Sick and Going to CIWEC

I love street food and I don’t get travellers who are super cautious about what they eat. You just miss out on so much, what’s the point? And sure, you may get sick once or twice but it’s part of the experience, it’ll strengthen your immune system, and it’s so easy to get sick in Asia anyway that I feel like it’s much too big a sacrifice to make for very slim gains. I am a little biased though because I’m definitely a huge food enthusiast, and I guess if you aren’t then you won’t feel like you’re missing out.

Having said that, here’s another Pro Tip for travelling in Nepal – if you can, try to avoid meat and only eat vegetarian. It’s a mainly vegetarian country anyway so it’s not hard to do, and it may save you from getting acute bacterial diarrhoea….. which is what I got just after returning from Everest Base Camp.

Why do I blame it on the meat? One of the really common sights around Kathmandu is tables of meat sitting by the side of the road, completely open, out in the sun, dripping blood down the table legs and into the dust, with dogs sitting underneath and flies crawling all over. I felt super awkward just going up to one of them and taking a photo, but here are some that other people have taken:

Kathmandu Butchers
Photo by Kristina Drage – http://www.trover.com/u/2829815380
Kathmandu Butchers
Photo by Leah Olson – leahrolson.wordpress.com

I feel like I’ve written a lot about the various times I’ve been sick on this blog so I’ll spare you the gory details, but long story short, I got back from the Everest Base Camp Trek, had a few days in the Kathmandu Guesthouse before the Annapurna Circuit Trek was meant to start, and instead of spending that time relaxing, ended up spending a whole night collapsed on the toilet, with my body wholeheartedly and emphatically expunging whatever had upset it from both ends for hours and hours. I’m not exaggerating even a little bit – I actually wondered if I was just going to die from dehydration. I was so weak and exhausted I couldn’t even move for ages. Luckily our room had a whole bunch of water bottles in there, and I kept downing them to replace what was coming out until finally, at some point in the morning, it slowed down enough for me to call up Intrepid’s local tour operator and ask them to take me to hospital.

I don’t know if Intrepid are just awful or their local tour operator were awful but they made me wait for ages so they could finish having their tea before being willing to take me to the hospital. And by ‘take me to the hospital’ I mean, spend ages walking around with me looking for a taxi to take me to hospital, which I then had to pay for. They were super unhelpful, and I had to call up and make sure that my bags were put in storage and organise everything else for myself.

I was taken to CIWEC, the tourist hospital, which was crazy expensive. They gave me a lot of pills, stuck an IV drip in, ran some tests, and kept me there for a few days on a diet of mainly fruit. While there, I had to pee into a measuring cup every time and write down all my fluid intake and out-take. Incidentally, if anyone is interested, I usually pee exactly 400ml, but every now and then that number jumped up to 500ml. I didn’t have my things with me so I mostly just slept and talked to myself, feeling like I was going slowly insane, and wishing desperately that I was somewhere else. I wish it was compulsory for hospitals to come stocked with books.

Anyway, I got hit up with a bill of $1000 US/day, plus extra for the ‘consultations’ and tests – HUGE shout out to Medibank for covering those fees. I don’t understand how they can legitimately charge that much just for slipping you pills and an IV. I had to call up Medibank to confirm that they weren’t just scammers and that I was really sick – the staff at CIWEC told me to call them and hang up so that they’d call me back and CIWEC wouldn’t get charged for the international call. Incidentally, CIWEC keep emailing me asking for donations. In case you can’t tell, I’m not a huge fan.

When I was finally released from CIWEC, I had to make my own way back to the Kathmandu Guesthouse, Intrepid didn’t even come pick me up. The bit that I felt was the most unfair was that they wouldn’t let me switch to another departure date for the Annapurna Circuit – even though I’d already paid in full and they told me they had a space on the next trip because someone else had pain in full for that one too and had then had to pull out. Instead they offered me a discounted price if I wanted to do another trek – but their ‘discounted’ price was way more expensive than the regular prices of most of the other local tour operators.

Just to make it clear, I was doing the Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit as one 31 day trek, they weren’t booked separately. I got back to Kathmandu feeling really let down by Intrepid and just feeling really ripped off altogether. What’s a near broke 23 year old to do?

Some Epiphanies

There’s nothing to make you feel lost and alone like getting incredibly sick and feeling hard done by in a foreign country on your own. The friends I’d made had departed for other parts of the world, and while Fireflies had made me feel comforted and looked after, I was told that my digestive system wouldn’t be working properly for a while and advised to get my own room with it’s own bathroom so that I could spend a few weeks just sleeping and recovering.

I ended up staying at this little place called Hotel Nana, and spending most of my day reading and sleeping. I’d wander down through Mandala Street, which was my favourite part of the whole city, and go to different restaurants to sit and read. Sometimes I’d pop up to yoga classes and other times I’d listen to live music playing from the New Orleans Cafe, and if I was feeling up to it I’d walk down to Fireflies and hang out there.

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Funnily, I think those two weeks changed me the most. I’ve never been a morning person in my entire life, and almost anyone who’s met me will tell you that the one thing I do really well is sleep. I’ve fallen asleep standing on trains, in a mosh pit, at lectures, at the theatre, at movies, while talking to people…. And yet after those two weeks I suddenly became a morning person. My body would just wake me up at around 7 and I couldn’t fall back asleep. And I stopped falling asleep everywhere! Maybe I’ve just been incredibly sleep deprived all my life and what I needed was a few weeks of deep sleep to catch up.

The more significant change, however, came from what I saw as I would wander around. Nepal is so poor that I don’t think any adjectives could quite convey the extent of poverty they face there. Here are some stats:

Over 30 per cent of Nepalese live on less than US$14 per person, per month, according to the national living standards survey conducted in 2010-2011. While the overall poverty rate for Nepal is 25 per cent, this figure increases to 45 per cent in the Mid-Western region and 46 per cent in the Far-Western region. In these remote hill and mountain zones, the terrain is rugged, rainfall is low and the poor-quality soil is difficult to farm. Agricultural holdings per household are the smallest in the country.

About 80 per cent of Nepal’s people live in rural areas and depend on subsistence farming for their livelihoods. Household food insecurity and poor nutrition are major concerns in these areas, where about half of children under five years of age are undernourished. Most rural households have little or no access to primary health care, education, safe drinking water, sanitation or other basic services.

– International Fund for Agricultural Development

So many of the people there subsisted on barely anything. They didn’t have many clothes, they’d have hardly any food, and they had very few belongings. And this was in the capital. And yet juxtaposed with this was the tourists who’d come here for spiritual fulfilment and buy heaps of cheap jewellery and other paraphernalia to take back home by the bagful, bargaining for the cheapest prices on everything from the artwork that I’d watched a local man spend hours delicately painting to necklaces made out of carved wood.

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And I know, I know, this is ‘good for the economy’ etc etc. Sure. But Nepal was just so dirty. And besides all those nice handicrafts, a lot of what seemed to be getting flogged was cheap plastic shit. There was so much waste everywhere and so much unthinking overconsumption from travellers compared to the locals.

And I just felt like that was so wrong. I hated that you had people here just trying to produce as much as possible at the cheapest price possible with huge environmental side effects. Occupational Health and Safety are just starting to become a thing there and welfare is woefully inadequate and people work under awful conditions just to survive and travellers come in and buy armloads of cheap things.

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I know I sound like an idealist and probably super naive but I started reading this really cool website called Enough: A Critical Look at Consumerism, Poverty and The Planet and it changed the way I look at things.  This probably sounds really preachy and zealous but I guess I just got over the need to have things, if that makes sense. Which is really freeing – not that I don’t own things because I do, but I try to make ethical buying decisions, I’m not very attached to my possessions, and I don’t like receiving gifts unless they’re experiences rather than things. I’m not fussed about buying a nice car or ever owning diamonds or pearls.

I feel like I probably sound like a bit of a kook at this point, but that was probably the biggest shift in perspective I’ve had in my entire life. It changed what I wanted and I feel like I discovered a sense of purpose and freedom.

So if this story has a moral, it would be this: sometimes the parts of your travel that you hate the most – the most painful, money wasting, lonely and uncomfortable bits – are the experiences in which you find what you were looking for: yourself.

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