How I Became a Travel Writer in Kathmandu
Returning to a place you love after a long absence can be hard. You don’t know whether the place has changed, whether you have changed, and how you will feel.
But as my Qatar Airways flight sunk beneath the clouds into Kathmandu, revealing the dizzyingly high, fertile green hills of the Valley that sat beneath the barren, snow-capped Himalayas, I knew this return was exactly what I wanted. I’d been away for a bit more than a year and a half, and in that time there had been a major earthquake–two, in fact–that had changed the surface of Kathmandu, but not its heart.
I had changed, I knew, and this time I was ready to really live here.
Like many writers’ paths, mine has not been straight. I have known since I was a teenager that I wanted to be a writer, but it’s only now, at the age of 32, that I confidently introduce myself as one. And people actually believe me when I say that.
But for the longest time I didn’t know what being a writer really looked like, how it paid the bills. I thought it was an impractical dream.
I studied English Literature and History at university, but I didn’t do much writing, beyond the necessary. Afterwards, I taught English in Japan for 18 months, because I was desperate to travel and loved Asia. I still didn’t do much writing, although the itch was building.
I started to write more and more about Nepal as a way of preserving how it had been, what my experience there had meant, to better understand what I had given up by leaving.
After my time in Japan I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself, but my partner was applying for grad school, so I also applied, to see what would happen. I was obsessed with India—although I’d never been, then—so I devised a research proposal that would mean I could go on paid research trips to India. I didn’t believe anyone would take me seriously, but they did, and I got a full scholarship at an Australian university. For five years, researching and writing about India was all I did. And travel there, of course.
But the writing was academic writing. So while it was better than nothing, after five years I had had enough.
My heart wasn’t in the piecemeal adjunct teaching and research assistant jobs, so a couple of years after finishing my PhD, I applied for an editorial job at a magazine in Kathmandu, Nepal. It was not lucrative (to put it mildly) and I’d never been to Nepal before, but I didn’t believe it could be that different from neighbouring India, which I loved.
With three weeks’ notice, I packed up as much of my life as would fit into two suitcases and flew to Kathmandu.
I loved working at that magazine — a South Asian studies publication that walks the line between a popular and scholarly quarterly. I developed my editorial skills, expanded my knowledge of the whole South Asian region, and saw that intellectual life is not restricted to academia.
But I still wasn’t writing as much as I wanted to. I’d become itchy, but with a full-time office job, there wasn’t enough time to scratch.
I was also enduring a long-distance relationship, with my academic partner living in Australia. After I’d been in Nepal a bit less than a year, he got his big break in the USA, and it felt like the right thing to follow. The USA was not South Asia, the region of the world that inspires me, but it would be a new adventure. I would finally have time to write.
But. In the USA I was cut off from my source of inspiration — a whole region of the world that I had lived in or had at my doorstep. The unpredictability and frequent discomforts of life in South Asia is not to everyone’s liking, but the way people just get on with life here and make the best of what are often bad situations, is truly inspiring.
Travelling in India and Nepal had always been my antidote to the spoilt, entitled attitudes of the Western world that I can’t tolerate for long. I thought that I would be able to write about it from afar, by focusing on literature, the arts, my past travels. But I underestimated how difficult that would be.
I became frustrated. I kept writing about past experiences, rather than the people and places around me. I spent an inspiring week in Costa Rica on a Pink Pangea travel writing retreat, and this motivated me to continue with my travel writing, but I still felt that I was in the wrong place, physically. For many genres, there is nothing wrong with writing only about the past. But I needed to be hit in the face with inspiration, surrounded by reminders of the stories I wanted to tell.
When sitting in the shade of Patan’s Krishna Mandir on a Saturday afternoon with my notebook, watching the babies playing with the pigeons and the traditionally-dressed old men reading their newspapers, I know that I am here for a reason.
The earthquakes in Nepal in April-May 2015 had a huge effect on me.
April 25th was a regular Saturday morning. I woke up and reached for my phone to check my messages. I had two emails, one from an editor friend in India. “What a horrible thing to have happened” was all his email said. I was confused. Another email from my dad, in New Zealand. “Did you see the news!? Massive earthquake in Kathmandu.”
I jumped out of bed and rushed to my laptop. I started panicking, running through my list of friends, trying to determine what kinds of houses they were living in and whether they might be safe. It took a few hours to figure out that everyone I knew was OK. But for several days, I couldn’t drag myself away from the images, the footage of the temple courtyards I used to walk through on the weekends, strewn with rubble. The silent drones flying above the crumbling monuments.
One day, I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t understand what hit me; I still don’t.
But soon I started to write more and more about Nepal as a way of preserving how it had been, what my experience there had meant, to better understand what I had given up by leaving.
In instrumentalist terms, this writing paid off, even though none of it was published in my dream outlets—my own blog, guest blog posts, some listicles.
Late in the summer of 2015, the Matador Network advertised that they were sending a travel writer to Nepal in October 2015 to join a press trip reporting on Nepal’s readiness to welcome tourists back after the earthquakes. I applied, knowing that I’d be perfect for the trip, but I wasn’t confident that my publication output or social media stats were good enough to get me accepted.
To my surprise, I got it. My writing niche and life experiences were recognised. It felt like the big break I needed, even if money and fame were still around the next corner.
The press trip itself was 10 days, but I extended for a few weeks (out of my own pocket), so I could pursue other story ideas, catch up with old friends and generally make the most of the free round-trip ticket.
I knew almost as soon as I arrived back in Kathmandu that I needed to be back here again. It took me a few weeks to work out whether that meant another extended trip, sometime in the near future, or longer-term. I decided upon the latter. I felt that I could do important writing work here. I felt inspired.
This dirty, busy, corrupt, infuriating but welcoming little South Asian capital is where I want to be right now.
So I packed up my life into two suitcases, again, and returned to Kathmandu. In the couple of months I’ve been back, I’ve been offered more freelance travel editing and writing jobs than I had expected, which confirms that I am in the right place for my career right now. And when sitting in the shade of Patan’s Krishna Mandir on a Saturday afternoon with my notebook, watching the babies playing with the pigeons and the traditionally-dressed old men reading their newspapers, I know that I am here for a reason.
I just have to write, to get to the bottom of what that reason is.
(This post originally appeared on Travel Write Away, and is reproduced with permission).