I am dismayed have to say that my first impression of Kathmandu has not been a pleasant one. Air is so polluted that I have to wear an air filter mask across my face whenever I go outside into the street, and if there is one thing that I hate above all else, it is having my face covered. I did get myself a nice stylish mask before I left, with blue flowers and green leaves, but it doesn’t change the fact that I feel smothered. However, as unbelievable as it sounds to even me, the air that I breathe through the fabric and filter is clearly better quality than that which I inhale if my face is uncovered. I watch in awe all the people who walk about with their faces uncovered as if they haven’t a care in the world. Those of us who are either too sensitive, or too wimpy, or are simply just too protective of our long-term respiratory health, to —— are relatively few. Certainly many of the young man who ride around on the, once again, ubiquitous motorcycles that fill the streets wear masks. And one of my regular taxi drivers does as well. But for me, the thought of having to put someone over my face is enough to stop me dead in my tracks if I contemplate taking an idle stroll. Idle strolling around one’s neighborhood just doesn’t seem to be in the cards in Kathmandu.
Kathmandu ranked # 2 on the pollution index mid-year 2018. I had no context in which to understand such a statement until now. The air is gray, the Himalayas are blurred by a cloud of particles demonstratably hazardous to one’s health. I have to wear a filtration mask when I am out and about in traffic. I hate having my face covered, of course. Someone suggested to me before I come that I buy a good mask so I got a stylish one adorned with flowers and leaves. It matches your outfit one of my new colleagues announced when he saw me. I am mystified at how lackadaisical everyone appears to be about living under conditions that are documentably hardous for your health. What is perhaps even more interesting is how, once you leave the street and enter a residence or a hotel, you are lulled into believing that the air you breathe indoors is better than what you breathe outdoors. Actually, this has been my experience, but I wonder if it is actually true. Perhaps the truth is that you just can’t see the pollution indoors.
To be honest, I have, until now, taken fresh, clean air for granted whenever I am outdoors. Indoors was another story. Because I have allergies to mold and house dust, I was vigilant in keeping my living spaces dry and relatively free of furnishings that can collect dust, and would avoid moldy-smelling buildings which were, unfortunately, plentiful in Vermont, particularly older buildings. I used to have to hold my breathe when I went into the Putney Town Clerk’s office to pay my taxes. I couldn’t understand how the staff could work there day after day and not be affected. I also avoided homes with large dogs who would eagerly swish their tails with pleasure in meeting me because this would spread their dander throughout the air, and I am very allergic to dog dander. Not all dogs as it turns out, but most big dogs.
According to my new allergist, it is the mites in dust to which one is allergic. Kind of creepy to think about all the dead bodies of microscopic insects in all our furnishings. Another kind of pollution that most of us try not to think about, or the existence of which we are actually unaware.
So what is it about the air of Kathmandu that worries me, really? As a child born with severe allergies which have, luckily, become much less of a problem as I age — presumably my body now has less energy to generate a robust reaction to unseen enemies in the air that I breathe — I have always spent my life managing the air I breathe in one way or another. Now I just have to manage it in a new way. Just as I find myself adapting to the different cultural surroundings when I move to a new place, the same always happens with physical surroundings. I trust that my initial shock at the perceived danger to my precious respiratory tract will dissipate as I learn how to manage the air that I breathe in this new context. Can one get HEPA filters here? Yes, I can!
I imagine that I will, as everyone else who comes to Kathmandu by choice to live and work here apparently already knows, discover that the joy of living among the delightfully friendly Nepali far outweighs the inconvenience of donning a filtration mask, or installing an air filter at home and office, in order to live in what is, by all reports, one of the most vibrant and fascinating cities in the world.