Listening

I record everything at first. The traffic. The mud. Tourist stalls. Crunching gravel slicing high on makeshift concrete mixers. Honking horns. Competing karaoke cover bands. Everything is novel, and I soak it in.

As is my way, I began close to my new home base, wandering in slow concentric circles. I like to be on the edge of the familiar—as far out as I can, just as far as that last thread of connection will take me. One foot knows the way home. The other itches for un-trod ground.

Slowly, as the initial glut of colour and sound begins to receed, my filming becomes more conscious. More paced. I start waiting. Listening.

I’m here in search of something. What, exactly, I’m in the process of unraveling. I’ve brought my camera, my most prized possession—not for its metal and pixels, but for its process. When I don’t understand my world, the camera is where I turn to make sense of things. The simple act of composition helps me to slow down and listen. The weight of the camera as a physical and psychological presence forces me to be attentive to the rhythms of a place, to its heartbeat. As I do, things start to come into focus.

This time is a bit different. I’m feeling unsettled for some reason. Every other trip like this, I’ve had some kind of guide. It could be a project for which I’m filming, a local fixer, a common cultural base or something as simple as a Lonely Planet book. These guides create a safe zone, a picture frame within which the rest of the action can take place. Here in Nepal I have no guide. The action can happen in any direction, across a culture I don’t yet understand. And that’s already played itself out.

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The karaoke bars and blaring horns are the first tip. I unintentionally landed in the midst of a tourist ghetto to start my trip. Thamel is a small corner of Kathmandu, and admittedly it’s more a reflection of western consumption than of anything Nepali. Hospitality and friendliness still shine through, but the place has an ugly social veneer, westerners rabidly feeding at the trough of exotic trinkets. Manipulative and degrading human behaviour are on display in locals and visitors alike.

The more serious discovery is that I’m afraid. I’ve put myself so far to the edge of my abilities that I’m overwhelmed, and I’m using my camera to cope. Instead of using it to create something beautiful, I’ve been using it as a shield against the powerful emotions bubbling up in the chaos. I’m observing without the deeper human connection that I’m truly here to participate in.

Filming is a solitary experience. That’s what drew me to it. The camera is a way to process complex experiences into a series of micro-moments. I can be surrounded by a crowd of thousands, yet behind the camera I have a quiet corner all to myself. I’m an observer rather than a participant. And on this trip it means I’m on a different journey than many of the travellers I’m bumping into. We chat in coffee shops and share stories over dinner, and then go our separate ways. My slow, observational pace means shared itineraries are incompatible. Travelling solo, with my camera, has led to a certain kind of isolation that is colouring my experience.

It makes me wonder about the wisdom of bringing my camera. The slow meditative process is wonderful for enabling absorption of the deeper elements of what I’m seeing. Yet by its very presence it’s changing my experience. A twist in my stomach makes me wonder if I’m missing what I would otherwise see if the camera were not here.

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At the same time it’s unlocked doors. Outside the dusty corners of Thamel, people are genuinely curious and often pleased to have the lens turned in their direction. It creates a conversation and a friendly exchange, one of the things that I find sacred about filmmaking. The camera opens doors that are otherwise closed to outsiders.

And it’s given me something to share back with you. The sonic landscape of the place, the visual texture, the emotional tapestry is impossible to communicate using only the fragile lattice of language. Moving images can in a small way transport you to see with not only your eyes but your heart what I’m seeing as I travel.

I came to Nepal wanting to listen. Within the first few days, not only what I’m listening for, but my way of listening is in question. It’s is a place that changes you, people say. I think that’s at least in part because people come here to be changed. There’s something to it, though. There’s a feeling to this place that’s both ancient and friendly that interrupts my expectations. Inside the stone walls and bright colours is a heartbeat, something special and unique. And I want to keep listening.

I’m continuing to publish thoughts from Nepal while I’m back in Vancouver. Thanks for everyone’s concern re: the recent trekking tragedy in the Annapurna region. My thoughts and best wishes go out to those who’ve been affected.