I had a red-eye flight from Rome to Kathmandu on Sunday night, with a 4-hour layover in Qatar. I am cursed with the inability to sleep on planes, so arrived to Nepal, after crossing several time zones, completely exhausted around 5PM local time the following day. Next came an hour-long taxi ride to Balaju Chowk, the area of town where my Couch Surfing host lived with his small family.
In the smoggy evening haze of a Kathmandu Monday, my taxi careened down potholed or dirt roads, kicking up clouds of brown dust and narrowly dodging a never-ending onslaught of motorcycles, cars, pedestrians, buses, dogs, bicycles, cows, tempos, and rickshaws, speeding from seemingly every direction. My ears filled with the clanging cacophony of horns and shouting drivers, and I instinctively covered my mouth and nose with my scarf to keep from inhaling thick clouds of exhaust and dust. My mind filled with memories of a similar taxi ride in my first-ever trip outside the USA, when I arrived to Nairobi over three years ago.
I soon learned through a series of convoluted phone calls – involving my taxi driver, my Couch Surfing host, and myself – that my host was unexpectedly out of town. In his place, his wife Sita fetched me at our designated meeting point, carrying along her two young children. Sita spoke no English, but welcomed me into her family’s small apartment near Balaju. Three rooms – a kitchen, a bedroom, and guest room – cool cement floors, paintings of Shiva on the walls, a rustic bathroom with occasional running water, kitchen counters piled high with metal plates, tomatoes, potatoes and beans.
I removed my shoes at the door and gratefully dropped my 20-kilo backpack on the floor of the guest room, stripping off my jacket and scarf. Though the room was cool and dark, I was sweating and uncomfortable from a long travel, lack of sleep and dealing with the constant on-and-off maneuvering of my pack. I felt unpleasantly gritty from the new layer of dust clinging to my damp skin.
Sita silently brought me an aluminum plate loaded with an enormous helping of white rice, curried vegetables, and daal, the traditional (and, I’d soon learn, delicious) Nepali lentil soup. She handed me a glass of recently boiled water and a cup of sweet milky tea, shutting the door to my guest room behind her as she left. Feeling a bit awkward – does this mean I should stay in here? Should I try to visit with Sita and her kids? Is she being polite, or am I being rude? How can I communicate my gratefulness other than saying Thank You a million times and smiling? – I wolfed down the food.
I slept fitfully that night, my body’s rhythm skewed from the change in time zones and the lack of a real “night” the night before. I awoke Tuesday morning feeling pretty shitty, still not really having any concept of time or, for that matter, place. As soon as she heard my movements, Sita entered the room with another massive plate of food – white rice, curried vegetables, lentil soup. This new breakfast experience seemed only to contribute to the surreal nature of the morning.
Sita’s husband Bijay, who spoke some English, was still not back from out of town, and without him to communicate with, I hadn’t the slightest clue how far I was from downtown Kathmandu, how to get there, if I could walk there, or even what my options were for transportation. Usually when I Couch Surf, I am able to glean a bit of information from my hosts then be independent for the most part. But in Nepal, the absence of my host meant I had no idea where to begin. Perhaps I should have prepared better, but after months of seamless CSing experiences, there was nothing I could have done to anticipate Bijay’s absence upon my arrival.
I felt aimless all day Tuesday, unable to find an English speaker in the town, nor the Internet to show me where, in fact, I was actually located. I tried and failed to discover the way into central KTM through attempted conversations with the very friendly locals, including Sita. Further, I had no map for the area and was hesitant to just “wing it” as I usually do, foreseeing an obviously greater challenge in relocating my home base than anywhere in Europe (there was no street signage in Balaju and the narrow dirt roads all looked quite the same). Thus, I had to rely on Sita’s hospitality, which was immense: though I’ll never know for sure, she didn’t seem to mind me resting in the guest room at various periods during the day. She fed me a huge amount of rice and lentils, and we did our best to have tiny, broken conversations, mostly centering around the activities of her children, where her husband was, and that no, I couldn’t help with anything at all.
Tuesday night, I didn’t sleep. Hating myself for allowing myself a bit of rest during the day, I tossed and turned until dawn, promptly dozing off just as the sun came up. My alarm buzzed around 9:30, and I felt even worse than the day before. I’d never experienced jet lag this bad before, and compounding this exhaustion was my inability to communicate and total lack of awareness for where I was. It’s a strange feeling, not having any idea, for over two days, exactly where you are. Sure, I knew I was at least somewhere near Kathmandu, but other than that, all I could tell was I was possibly the only non-Nepali speaker in a relatively small KTM suburb full of adorable schoolchildren, crowing roosters, stray dogs, Coca-Cola signs, open storefronts, dirt roads thick with brown dust, crazy motorcyclists, and non-English speakers.
Wednesday, Bijay returned, and he showed me how I was actually within a 30-minute walk from central Kathmandu. Bijay and Sita were extremely kind to me, but I decided that night, I would try to find a hostel in the city center. I felt I simply needed my own space and a place where I wouldn’t feel like a bad guest just sleeping until 1PM if that’s what I needed to get back on my feet. Further, I did not want to overstay my welcome, and felt that in my current state, I was contributing very little in the cross-cultural exchange that is a main purpose of CSing. Kicking myself for feeling a bit incompetent, and disgusted by my apparent sudden inability to feel comfortable in any given situation, I thanked my hosts with some Italian chocolates and headed into Kathmandu.
I had acquired a basic tourist map, but after a few hours of walking, found it ultimately useless. Most streets in KTM do not have signage, and not all streets were represented on the map. Further, the streets curved and forked when the map showed them as straight, and were straight when the map showed them winding. Eventually getting my bearings, I relied on memorizing landmarks to find my way: “second left after the yellow house”, “turn right after the blue Pepsi billboard”, etc. Though a better plan than using the map, this strategy also had some holes. For example, my directions to “take the alley by the Coca-Cola sign” or “it’s by the brown door with the orange flowers” proved pointless, given my far-too-late realizations that there are approximately one million identical Coca-Cola signs, and that every door is brown and adorned with marigolds. Nevertheless, I finally found a cheap (less than $5/night), basic guesthouse in the city center, and offloaded my packs once again, collapsing onto the hard mattress in a cloud of dust and dishevelry (it’s a word!).
I’m a little embarrassed to write this blog post, because I like to think of myself as someone who can handle extremely new and intense experiences with at least a stumbling grace, even as a solo traveler with tremendous jet lag. But more important than that, I want this blog to be honest. So, you’re getting the real deal…
In my guesthouse that night, I cocooned myself in my sleeping bag and tried to come to terms with the fact that I felt completely lost in a completely unfamiliar city in a completely unfamiliar part of the world, not knowing a soul and not being able to speak the first word of Nepali besides the obvious greeting, “Namaste”. I tried to stop with the constant self-shaming I’d been doing since arriving, but struggled to forgive myself for feeling so alien. I’d put myself in this position on purpose, after all. It was all a very deliberate shoving of myself out of my comfort zone.
Before sleeping, I waited for the power to come on and took my first shower since leaving Rome 4 days earlier, feeling extremely American as I stripped, shivering, and cursed the icy trickle of water. Who am I? I thought, disgusted with myself for feeling a general lack of enthusiasm. Aren’t I the same person who traveled alone to Kenya for 3 months at the age of 21, loving every moment of the challenge and rusticity I faced there? Yes, I think I am the same person. It’s just that sleep is extremely important to me and I was about to begin night #5 of “basically none”.
I still didn’t sleep perfectly Thursday night, but I was able to have a restful morning in my own space, rising slowly and gently yoga-ing my way into a fully awake state. In the early afternoon, I decided I’d had enough of this jet lag bullshit, and headed into the city to begin exploring. I forcefully threw all my anxiety out the window and adopted a “f*&$ it!” attitude, pocketing my map after the first 10 minutes of walking and just meandering through the winding dirt alleys and maze of shops, stalls, carts, shrines and stupas, soaking it all in with an open heart.
Kathmandu is fascinating. It’s a complete sensory overload, but you can see beauty and kindness everywhere. I found the people extremely friendly – to the point where they will give you directions even if they have no idea where you’re trying to go (lesson learned, but effort appreciated!). Tourists are few in number and all decked out in some combination of hiking boots, trekking gear, dread locks, and towering backpacks. They all look unshowered and mountainous, the men bearded and the women makeup-free. The city’s shops and stalls sell beautiful artwork, silver and stone jewelry, Tibetan singing bowls, spiritual artifacts, tea and incense, wooden mala beads, handmade carpets, colorful weavings, spices galore, fruit, beans, dried fish. The streets are a speeding chaos – no, a frenzy – of animals, traffic, and people, requiring constant alertness and more than a little courage to cross the road. Everywhere you turn there is a statue of Shiva, a Buddhist stupa, a Hindu temple, a stream of waving prayer flags.
I was helplessly – yet calmly – lost in KTM until well into the night, but the city never shut down (although the power did!). And finally, as I aimlessly navigated my way down a dark, crowded sidewalk, finally, after nearly 5 surreal, intense, sleepless days in the country, I grinned involuntarily and had that magic mental moment I’d been desperately waiting for: “Oh my god, I’m in Nepal…I’M IN NEPAL!!!!!”
Suck it, jet lag, culture shock, cold shower, disorientation, self-disgust, and lack of sleep, toilet paper, electricity, and all forms of communication. I AM IN NEPAL ALL BY MYSELF AND IT IS CRAZY AND INCREDIBLE AND DIFFERENT AND AWESOME. Journey on, Winter. Journey right on.