When I was a little girl, about eight or nine years old, my parents bought me the computer game Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego? The game, seemingly rudimentary now, but enthralling to a child in the 90s, was educational, meant to teach rapt children like myself basic geography through the virtual hunt across the virtual globe for the notorious, glamorous criminal in the sweeping red hat.
Oddly, nine times out of ten, Carmen seemed to wind up in Kathmandu, a glitch in the game, perhaps, or maybe an intentional set up by the designers to teach young Western gamers the locations of seemingly exotic, distant countries like Nepal. Certainly Kathmandu seemed excessively foreign to me. Even the name, “Kathmandu”, sounded rather like “Timbuktu”, and I conflated the two far off cities in my mind, my only context for either the cliche phrase I’d heard on occasion, “That’s as far as Timbuktu!” Like many others (adults and children alike), I didn’t realize Timbuktu was a real place, and so Kathmandu was equally mysterious and inaccessible to me.
Apparently, interactive educational computer games are an ineffective method for teaching geography, because I remained ignorant of the location of Kathmandu, as well as the location of Nepal itself, until I was an adult. Neither the city nor the country crossed my mind much again. That is, until a friend from college invited me to join her in Nepal for six weeks, flying, of course, into Kathmandu.
My mind flickered back to the vague memories from my childhood of Carmen in her striking red coat, glossy wavy hair, and bright smirking lips, standing on the dirt streets of that remote city, and my wistful imagination began to stir. Was there anywhere more remote than Kathmandu? Anywhere more different than where I was then, living in the middle class suburbs of Dallas? I booked my flight in less than a week; a few months later, I was on my way to Kathmandu.
In the beginning, Kathmandu felt as exotic as I’d imagined it would.
My friend and I stayed for the first few nights at The Hotel Ganesh Himal, a quiet spot with a pleasant garden just a few minutes walk from the tourist district, Thamel. That first night, we went out into the cacophony of motorcycles, small white taxis, faded maroon and gold rickshaws, and torrents of masked pedestrians, in search of a cheap spot for dinner. We found one on the roof above the shops (and the dust and the smog), and ate our first meal of curried vegetables and plain white rice, raving about it beneath the soft flutter of prayer flags and the brilliant white stars.
In our excitement to see the city (and partake of its delectable foods), however, we’d failed to pay much attention to where we were going. When we left that rooftop restaurant, our bellies satiated and our hearts full of the satisfaction that comes from a good conversation with a good friend, we found ourselves utterly, horrifyingly lost. My friend, who’d been traveling across Southeast Asia for the last two months, had a bolder willingness to weave across the narrow streets, dodging motorcycles and taxis and rickshaws that have no ability to discern the difference between hitting a bump in the road and running over a pedestrian’s foot, so she took the lead. I was happy to let her.
But no amount of courage and experience was a match for the labyrinth of dusty alleyways and tangled power lines and neon lights that make up the confused streets of Thamel. We walked and walked and walked, down this street, then that, then back down the same street as before because we’d walked in a circle. Vendors rolled shut their metal doors, closing their friendly shops from us. Tourists in flowing elephant print pants and stiff hemp shirts faded into the intricate maze of rooms in the crumbling stone buildings above. Block by block, the lights of the city shut off, leaving us in complete darkness.
When a taxi rumbled past, its headlights shone like an eerie kaleidoscope through the thick dust onto the rickety wheels of a rickshaw cycling away. Nepali men hung about the street corners, smoking and muttering to one another in the dark. I felt disoriented, afraid. I felt like I was in a film noire, and possibly the pretty but silly girl in the opening scene of suspense who doesn’t make it past five minutes.
We flagged a taxi, but the driver didn’t know The Hotel Ganesh Himal. We stopped a skinny rickshaw driver who pointed in the direction we’d come from and said the hotel was that way. We found a faded brown sign that actually said Hotel Ganesh Himal, but the arrow underneath it could have been pointing down three different side streets, and we didn’t find our hotel on any.
In a final state of fear, me thinking we’d have to curl up on the dirty doorstep of a shop with the mangy stray dogs for company, we stopped a last rickshaw driver on his way home. Yes, he knew the hotel. Yes, he would take us, for 200 rupees. I would have given him a thousand just to get us off the street, but my friend’s cool head prevailed. It’s so close, she said. How about 100?
It was close; less than two minutes later, he dropped us off in front of the small blue statue of the Hindu god Ganesh, a pudgy elephant with a decorous crown, and we tumbled inside the safe, softly lit lobby. I laughed because it was better than crying. Where are we, I asked my friend?
We were pretty much exactly on the other side of the world.
In my mind, the other side of the world ought to be unusual, uncomfortable, perhaps a bit bizarre, and at first, Kathmandu lived up to those expectations.
My friend and I walked around Thamel, where young Nepali men called out from the front of their stores, which overflowed onto the dusty streets with gold singing bowls, turquoise teapots from Tibet, plastic wrapped packets of prayer flags, and lots and lots of hippie pants. “Hello, sister!” “How are you?” “Where are you from?” Catch the eye of one of these vendors and next you would hear, “You like? More colors inside.” Or, “Welcome, madam,” along with a gesture into the musty shop. Or perhaps a simple, courteous, “yes, please,” as if buying that 100 percent yak wool scarf would be a favor, not a transaction.
Meanwhile, the chants of Tibetan Buddhists streamed through speakers at a nearby music shop, incense stuck between crumbling bricks burnt steadily and sweetly, triangular tinfoil streamers strung across the streets rattled and sparkled in the hot sun, and tangled power lines spilled like masses of writhing black snakes off wooden poles into our faces. It didn’t take long before we came upon yak butter candles burning beside women selling bright yellow marigold flowers on plastic tarps and white Buddhist stupas painted with the sleepy blue eyes of the Buddha himself. Thamel was ancient wooden lattices and tin vats of steaming slippery momos and barefoot children crying, “Namaste! Chocolate?”
In other words, it was living up to its exotic reputation.
And perhaps Kathmandu would have retained this exotic veneer if we hadn’t then moved into the Alobar1000 Hostel on the other side of Thamel.
This hostel, one of the most popular in the city, was a four story maze of dorm rooms with hard bunk beds, balconies laden with crumbling terra cotta pots, and a breezy open rooftop where young Western travelers laid about on lumpy cushions smoking, drinking Everest beers, and eating fried momos. Most of these travelers were in their twenties, and almost all were on monthlong trips across Asia. Most had a number of fabulously intricate tattoos, quite a few purchased right there in Thamel. Most wore flowing hippie pants, long beaded skirts, or floral scarfs they’d also bought in Thamel. Almost all were either coming from or heading to one of the treks in the Himalayas, attending a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, or volunteering at an orphanage, organic farm, or village struck by the 2015 earthquake.
Staying at Alobar1000 popped Kathmandu’s bubble of exoticism in my mind. All of a sudden, Kathmandu, and Thamel especially, was easy to navigate with these experienced Western travelers by my side, and traveling the world wasn’t a wild, spontaneous, slightly dangerous adventure; it was natural, expected. Unlike well-to-do Americans, who go straight from high school to college to the workforce, these trendy Europeans and Aussies and Indians took gap years or monthslong vacations or simply hit the road vagabonding it until their spare cash ran out. I would be in Nepal for six weeks. When I told this to a young Westerner over plastic baskets of naan and spicy curry served in greasy metal bowls, he said, “that’s nothing.” I worried that a small scrape on my ankle might lead to tetanus; these travelers spent a few thousand rupees on sacred geometry tattoos in gritty Nepali tattoo parlors. For them, Kathmandu wasn’t the craziest place to go; crazier still was Dehli during Holi Festival or the Thai Islands any time of the year or Istanbul despite the terrorism
And through their eyes Kathmandu began to look familiar. Western style restaurants, like OR2K, where you could order Mediterranean food served by hipster Nepalis underneath trendy neon lights, were recommended as the best spots to eat. Spending the evening drinking rum and coke at a hazy bar where an 80s soft rock band played was an evening well spent. Drinking to-go Americanos bought from the clean and bright Himalayan Java might have felt like drinking a taste of the real Nepal — except the shop was secretly owned by Starbucks.
Seeing Kathmandu through the eyes of these free spirited millennials, the remarkable suddenly became commonplace, and Kathmandu felt little different than a Westerner’s playground.
Oddly, I began to feel as if I connected more with the Nepalis I met on the streets of Kathmandu than the Westerners in this hip hostel.
I was wary of what appeared to be their somewhat empty approach to travel: the sense that each city, each country, each trip was another check mark off a list of cool places to go, an adventurous story to collect, perhaps, but nothing more.
Don’t get me wrong, the urge to travel took root in me as well, and soon I too was dreaming of visiting ever far off lands — Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bali. In fact, I wondered if my dislike for this approach to travel was because it was awfully close to my own. Traveling is addictive, and my list of places to visit began to grow. But this list also felt frivolous, and a little sad. Missing was a sense of commitment to other people, to a physical place, to a mission unique to one’s own.
The Nepali people, on the other hand, though culturally quite different from myself and my compatriots, made more sense to me. While I didn’t know (and likely never will) what it’s like to sell bananas and pomegranates and apples from a large basket on the back of a bicycle, I understood the motive and intention of the Nepali vendors who called out to me, “Fresh fruit. Bananas. Apples. Fruit juice.” The vendors may have slyly snookered me into buying twice as many bananas as I wanted, but I understood and respected their goal: this was business plain and fair, and the result was money in the pocket and another hard day’s work done. I found myself having more respect for these hard-working Nepalis than myself or any of the beautiful, free and easy Westerners I met on the road.
And yet, just when I thought I was connecting with the Nepali people, I walked past a child on the street, a little girl maybe three or four, dirty and begging on a tattered purple blanket; I saw whole families washing their hair from a hose sticking out of the ground; I saw an elderly woman, her back as crooked as a hanger’s hook, ringing a bell beside a shrine to Ganesh. And I remembered: this culture, and by extension, these people, are foreign to me. As my friend aptly put it, we don’t want to be tourists when we travel, we want to be connected to the Nepali people, to live like they live, but at the end of the day, we will always be Westerners, we will always be tourists. We might as well embrace it.
So embrace it I did. I bought two pairs of hippie pants, one blue with white elephants, another pin-striped. I swapped trekking stories with a traveler from Germany over black tea and yogurt while sitting cross legged on the hostel floor. I frequented the hostel’s popular watering hole: Western Tandoori, where Nepalis churn out dirt cheap roti and Chana masala so spicy it will make your nose run. I opened myself up to the gentle vulnerability of the roommates in my 12 bed hostel dorm, and found myself warmed inside and out by their compassion toward others and their zeal for life.
And late at night, though the hostel played Justin Timberlake and Eminem like a proper Western radio, I could also hear the mad dogs barking and smell the sweet incense burning on the street, and I remembered that I was here in a city so far away from my familiar world that the notorious criminal Carmen always went to hide.