Happy 4th of July from Asia: WHY I LIVE IN THE 3RD WORLD

Every day Nepalese people clean and decorate their gods’ temples


© Mary Ann Davis

My love affair with the Third World began within minutes of our meeting, about twenty years ago.  Shopping for clothes was one of a hundred experiences that seduced me.  Happy to say, I’ll never be able to really leave.

This great love began with Kathmandu in 1993.  When I’d been there about a week and jet lag was easing out the door, I noticed that my clothes from Colorado were wildly ragged. I phoned my Nepalese friend’s father, the man who’d picked me up at the KTM airport, and he sent his daughter on her motorcycle.

In a developed country, you drive to a store that sells what you want, buy something and go home.  That’s that.  A nice walk, a bus ride, coffee at $3.50/cup, singing birds, traffic, automated check-outs or whatever the scene is where you live.  Case closed.  In Asia’s Third World, ‘shopping’ requires a dip into the smells of curry, incense and mud; it also demands strength and mental flexibility.

That November day in 1993, Sujata suggested I try Nepali dresses. I was game, so she revved up her bike and off we went.  In 1993 KTM’s narrow half-paved roads were similar to what we see now. However,  there were only about 50 cars in town then. Kathmandu was one of  Asia’s  “motorcycle cities.”  (Other mo-towns included  Taipei and Delhi.) Kathmandu had three traffic lights then, too.

At any rate, Sujata and I zipped out a-shopping, but as soon as we hit Indra Chowk  (a 2-way through street opening from huge Hindu temples) we joined a  jam of motorbikes that inched and fumed.  But that’s the moment I began to get hooked.

These weren’t bored office workers listening to their ipods or talking on their cells, or even holding their stick shifts with angst and sighing, like we did in the 90’s.  Most of these folks were exotic Nepalese women, a jeweled nose-ring in every left nostril.  Golden thread glittered in the morning sun, while turquoise, yellow and red veils fluttered in the breeze.

Nearby temples sent incense billowing onto the road; exotic women, colorful flowers in their hair, calmly waited; and my half-dead senses stirred.    Jolted and staring, I saw that I was alive.  Not only was I alive, but I was at that moment in the other half of the world!

Some of the women drivers wore helmets, some didn’t, but every woman was gorgeous.  Indra Chowk  was quite literally alive and overflowing.  Bright soft veils foamed across  lovely shoulders, and we were surrounded by all the colors of life.  Everyone, including me, wore sandals.

Some of the passengers were gentle-looking women dressed more traditionally in saris, but most women wore the more casual  salwar kurta/kameez, or pajama suit.   Most women drove, but others rode side-saddle while men drove.  The city was wonderful to see: shoppers, clerks,  people taking their children to school, and others enroute to temples,  carrying little brass trays covered with embroidered or knitted cloths.

Balancing big motorcycles in such a place seemed tricky to me, but the women had it very much under control.  One polished toenail stretched to the curb,  balanced the bike and held it steady.  The  road was filled with roaring motorcycles and exotic people, and there wasn’t an inch to spare.

We curved around to our first shop, which wasn’t at all what I’d imagined. It was much, much better.

It was a stall — more properly an open-air shop supported by dark brown wooden pillars.  Our shop was one of many such businesses along this slightly smaller street, which was also unpaved.  The manager smiled broadly at Sujata,  performed a slight bow and held his hands together near his heart.   Sujata spoke under her breath, swiftly telling the manager what we wanted.

The manager sat cross-legged (half-lotus, to be precise) on the floor.  I noticed that the floor was completely covered in something that looked like a pillow case, and it made the floor soft like a pillow.  The floor-covered -with- a-white- pillow was, of course, completely normal to everyone but not to me.  All the employees were graceful and barefoot.   One employee, a servant, led us to a bench against the wall.  Next came the moment that caught me.  From that second until this, I fell irrevocably in love.

Still sitting half-lotus and not moving an inch, the manager stretched one arm to a shelf.  He  grasped something from a stack of neatly folded items that reached to the ceiling. Then he majestically hurled one item, and sent it  flying to our feet.  Mid-air, a  loud snap occurred, and I saw one of those glorious embroidered pajama dresses strike the ground in front of me.

He continued grabbing and snapping. Within seconds the floor was knee-deep with   gossamer bright cotton kurtas.

Paisleys more delicate and intricate than the 60’s had ever dreamed of were stretched close to me, perfectly open to view.  Richly colorful, silver and gold-edged clothing lay right in front of me.   Watching the snapping, flying dresses, smelling incense from the nearby temples, I was completely content.  The perfect set of impressions now thrilled through my veins.

Just then the servant brought us two golden-rimmed cups of steaming Nepalese tea…


Life is still glorious out here. Come visit, come.

Enjoy the 4th , and your own independence.  Hope to see you, hear from you soon.

Mary Ann Davis,  in Asia

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