Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Kathmandu, Nepal

I landed in Kathmandu at 12:35pm and it wasn't until 2 hours later that I felt like I took my first breath.
On the airplane ride there, I sat in between a Nepalis man named Sabin, and a Danish girl named Kristina. Sabin left Nepal when he was 12 and studied in England. He now lives and works in Sydney and was going home to visit his mother who was sick. I took the opportunity to ask Sabin some questions about Nepal and learn a few basic words. He was very kind and open with me. I had read the night before that there were over 100 different ethnic groups throughout Nepal. I asked Sabin which group his family was from. They are the Newar ethnic group, which is the original people from the Kathmandu valley. Kristina was a 28 year who was part of a tour group going to Nepal. She had done a lot of traveling in her lifetime and we got along really well. It was too bad that she was part of a tour group, because I think we would have traveled well together. Plus, she studied Spanish in Ecuador and we both shared a common love for the country.
When we landed, the airport looked like an ugly prison. We all walked across the tarmac runway to the building and lined up for the security to take our temperatures and fill out Swine Flu forms. Then we hit up the visa line. The women working in the airport were all wearing brightly colored sarongs and a lot of the men had red powder across their foreheads. I am not sure what I was expecting in Nepal. All I had imagined and prepared myself for was hiking in the Himalayas with hill villages and Sherpas. It hadn't occurred to me that we were in a country right next to India....and that the Hindu culture would be thriving. After the long visa line, I went to get my luggage. The last line was the customs area with the luggage. As I approached, there were 100s of people in line with strollers holding luggage 10 feet high. It was a mess. People were yelling and talking and I had no idea which line to get in or what was going on really. As I walked through the area, people kept pushing me forward and nodding at me to continue up to the front. In a line that I expected to take 2 hours to get through, I somehow managed to squeeze through in 5 minutes. I think the immigration was more concerned with Nepalis people returning then a lone white female backpacker. I walked out to the exit to see the pick-up area of the airport filled with taxi drivers, hagglers, touts, and people basically screaming in your face. It was a bit overwhelming. Amongst it all was a sign with my name on it. I made eye contact with the guy and we exchanged smiles to confirm the communication. As I pushed my way through the crowd, I found the guy and he took me to his car. Right as we opened the back door, a man came up behind me and grabbed my bag. He threw it into the car that I was half way inside already. My hand was still attached to the bag and I went flying into the car with my bag. As I situated myself, he leaned into the door and said "tip-tip". He was actually asking me for a tip for doing a job that lasted about .002 seconds and that I was well capable and in the process of doing myself. I was holding onto the bag when he threw it in for crying out loud. "I have no rupies yet, I just landed....I"m sorry", I replied. "Tip-tip mam, you need to give me a tip...you can give me Australian Dollars it is ok." Meanwhile, 4 other men were surrounding the car and watching the dialogue between us. The driver was getting into the front seat and not defending the situation at all. I ended up reaching into my bag and giving him a $1USD. I gave it to him knowing very well that it was way too much money, but since men were surrounding the car looking at me I decided it was worth a $1 to get my door shut. I sat back as we drove through the city. The streets were intense. We were driving down narrow dirt roads creeping our way around food stalls, bicycle riders, motorbikes, and other cars. There didn't seem to be much order with the driving....basically it was whoever could inch their way further and further through open spaces while honking continuesly. For the 45 minute cab ride I didn't take my eyes off the window. So much was happening around us that I couldn't even process it. On the side of the streets there were woman wearing the bright sarongs and dots on their head. Naked kids were running around the doorways and people were selling all sorts of goods and produce from blinkats on the dirt sidewalks. Some people had starkly dark skin with sand or green color eyes. The people were very different looking, very exotic, and some of them (men & woman) were beautiful. You could tell a distinct difference in the people and that they came from different ethnic groups. Some were very "Indian" looking while others had a mongol facial structure or SE Asian appearance. Old men were wearing traditional nepalis topi hats and walking casually down the street. I am not sure the correct term, but medicine type looking men....or shamanistic men were walking barefoot through the streets with brightly painted faces and tribal outfits. Hindu is the primary religion and it is apparent on every street corner and throughout the people walking by. There are also a lot of Buddhists and the religions coincide and mix through all the different ethnic groups. Once we arrived to the hotel, I went to my room dropped my bags sat on the bed and took my first real breath since I had arrived. As I layed there for a few minutes decompressing all that I saw, I started laughing out loud as I thought to myself "we sure as hell aren't in Kansas anymore...are we Andrea?"
That afternoon I walked through the streets to browse the shops and get some things booked with my tour agency. My friend Brad recommended this woman named Sharada to help set me up with a rafting tour and find a guide to hike with. She was a really nice lady and I immediately got a good vibe from her. Walking through all of the streets was way more intense then driving through them. I can't emphasize enough how disorderly the traffic jams appear to be, but somehow people manage to work their way through. After walking for a few hours I realized that I was completely lost. I didn't take note of where my hotel was and all the streets looked the same to me. I tried my best to look like I knew where I was going and discreetly look at my map from time to time. A man came up to me and asked me how long I had been in Kathmandu. I told him I had just arrived and he said he had just arrived 3 days ago. He was hoping I could tell him some things about the tourist sites. His name was Firdaus and he was from Tajikistan. He spoke really good english and seemed well educated. It looked like he had been doing some shopping as he was holding a few bags at the time. I told him I was lost so he volunteered to walk me to my hotel. It was about 7pm and there were tons of people still out and about so I found nothing peculiar about him accompanying me. I was actually really fascinated because I had never met anyone from Tajikistan before so I drilled him with questions about the landscape, government, religion, food, and culture. He was really nice and explained everything to me. Turned out he worked for the UN development for Tajikistan and was in Nepal for a conference. When we got to the area where my hotel was, we decided to grab a bite to eat. We continued chatting. During dinner he asked one time if I liked to smoke hashish (weed). He had heard that there was some good stuff in the area and was thinking about getting some. A lot of travelers smoke weed so I didn't think the question was that unusual. I told him that I actually wasn't too interested in doing it. I had just arrived this same day and I didn't like messing with that kind of stuff in a foreign country.....especially when I didn't have my barrings straight, yet. The more and more we talked, the more he started acting more interested in me. He would compliment me and say how he was glad that we met and it was such a nice surprise for him. He seemed nice, but I wasn't interested in him like that and was just trying to have a good chat and eat some dinner. I asked for his email though so we could be facebook friends. As we left the restuarant the exhaustion of the travel day started to hit me. He wanted to continue hanging out and pressed the hashish question to me again. I told him he was free to go and find some, but I was probably heading back to the hotel. I mentioned that I was going to try to site see the next day and wanted some rest. He was planning on site seeing the next day as well so I told him that maybe we could meet up and split the cost on transport. It was at this time that things turned a little weird. He kinda avoided the conversation about meeting the next day, but continued to press hanging out this night. He kept saying how he wanted to spend time with me since he was leaving the following afternoon. I was like...thats cool, but we can hang out tomorrow bc I am tired now. He got a weird look in his eyes and wouldn't accept that I was heading to bed. Since I didn't want hashish, he suggested that we buy some beers and the market and find somewhere to hang out. It got awkward and finally I just shook his hand goodnight and I left. I really didn't think much of it....I thought he was a bit weird for coming on as strong as he did. I wasn't sure if he was going to meet me the next day because he seemed to only be interested in hanging out that evening. So, I went to bed not worrying too much about....if he was there tomorrow then cool, if not then whatever. That night I plug his email into facebook, but nothing turned up. As I went to sleep, I wondered just how genuine of a person he really was.
The next morning I stopped into Sharada's office to finalize some plans. I told her that I was going to meet this guy to go see the sites. She stopped working on what she writing and put her pen down. "Who are you going to meet?", she asked. I explained to her the story and how he helped me back to my hotel and we had dinner etc. That it would be nice to site see with someone and split the cost of the cabs. She crossed her fingers on top of the desk like a principle and said "No Andrea, don't go with him....don't go anywhere with anyone that you meet out there in those streets. It doesn't matter what they tell you or where they are from. There are a lot of bad guys out there. You need to do the sites alone. Don't listen to what anyone tells you and accept any invitations like that." I sensed something weird about the guy towards the end of the night, but it was good to have Sharada reiterate that there are some nasty people lingering around. If he was a con artist, he really posed himself well with his shopping bags and knowlege of Tajikistan. Also, he expressed tourists statements about the city of Pokhara in which he was visiting for the seminar and how nice the lake was and beautiful the city was. With his odd hashish remarks, perhaps he was trying to get me into some sort of drug deal in which I would have to pay off the cops and in return he would get a kickback for setting me up. Or, maybe he was planning to drug me and steal my money. Who knows?
I left Sharada's office and walked past the meeting spot that we agreed on just to see if he would turn up. He was nowhere in site. I never received an email or anything from him again. The next day 3 seperate incidences of good looking, well spoken men approached me. They either had the story of how they were students trying to learn english and would like to spend the day with me chatting. Or that they would like to show me around the tourist sites. I just ignored them and went on my way. I felt foolish and dissappointed in myself. I had been traveling for 11 months and I could have potentially fallen into one of the biggest tourist scams. it is an unfortunate situation because I love talking to people and learning about their lives and cultures...and where they are from. But I won't be able to be as open in Nepal or India....especially not while I am traveling alone. It sucks and is frustrating because now I am going to view that all the locals are talking to me because they have an agenda - or they want something from me.

Sharada had given me a 2 day itinerary for all of the site seeing in Kathmandu and surrounding areas. She assured me that I could do it all on my own by walking and taking local buses. The first place on my list was the small town of Bhaktapur which was 12 km outside of the city center. It is under Unesco world heritage and has been well preserved to show the architecture and culture of historical nepal. All I had to do to get to the city was walk about 30 minutes through Kathmandu to this local bus station. It seemed simple enough to me. Well, within 10 minutes I was lost again roaming through the streets. With the madness of the crowds and traffic, it was all I could do to stay on my feet and keep walking....it was making it difficult to look for street names and markers. As I got further and further out of the tourist district, seeing westerners became far and few between. I was now amongst the inner city workings. People blatently started at me as they walked by as if I were an exhibition in a museum. I kept listening to Sharada's voice in my head as she told me it would be no problem to do all of this on my own. I was a little skeptical of her advice at that moment in time. Luckily, I stumbled across a clock tower that I knew was close to the bus station. From there, I pushed my way through the masses to the corner where I needed to catch the bus. There were dozens of rickity old mini busses with people yelling schedules and destinations in Nepalis. Locals were jumping on and off the busses as they were still moving down the street. There were no westerners in site and I questioned whether this was the correct bus station. I walked up to a small kid....he must have been about 12 years old. He was haggling people to get onto the bus he worked for. I pointed to the city on the map and he nodded yes and started pushing me onto the bus. " Wait, wait....how much is the ticket", I asked. "50 rupees mam". Sharada had told me to pay no more then 25. "How about 25 rupees?" The kid rolled his eyes....nodded yes again and threw me into the bus. I thought it was a little rude that he rolled his eyes....I figured he was frustrated that I knew it should have been lower. We waited about 20 minutes until they filled every inch of space on the bus up. Disabled and blind people would bored the bus asking for change from the locals. Everyone just ignored them. We drove by slums where kids were flying kites, women were chatting with each other, and the poor were digging through mounds of trash. Once again...my eyes were glued to the window as I watched the organized chaos happening around us. It was so different then anything in the western world. An hour had passed, and since the town was only 12km away I decided to ask the guy next to me how close we were. He said a few more minutes. The kid came around to collect the money. The kid was yelling 50 rupees again at me and some of the others. I guessed that maybe it was the correct fare after all. I handed him a 50 and then he gave me 35 rupees back in change. Ooohhhhhhhh....he was saying 15 rupees the entire time. No wonder the little weezle rolled his eyes at me. He must have thought I was crazy when I was like "make it 25 rupees and I will get on." So yeah....I felt like a dumbass...

The city of Bhaktapor was enchanting. It was so much quieter and low key then Kathmandu. In the city square there are no cars allowed so you can walk freely among the cobble stones streets without fear of getting run over. The city reminded me of Siena, Italy....or Cuzco, Peru. All the buildings and narrow streets were old and miedeval looking. I found myself walking for a few hours and letting myself get lost in the small and humble town. I peered into windows of houses and saw artisans at work. There were wood carvers, rug weavers, painters, paper makers, and pottery throwers. I wanted to take pictures of everything but I felt that it was not appropriate at that time...since the people were in their homes working. Instead, I just absorbed the elements around me. At one point it started to rain so I stopped into a small restaurant, ordered a pot of tea, and journaled as I watched people walking by me. I could have stayed in the town much longer, but I needed to get back to Kathmandu before it got dark. At my rate of getting lost....I needed ample time to find my way home again.
The next day was much better for me. My sense of direction was improving and I was feeling more confident in my step. I had to go get a hiking permit at this office which was next to the bus station from the day before. As I jumped into the crowds and meandered through the streets, I came upon a guy who looked very lost. He was pale white with blond hair and blue eyes. He was holding a map and stress was across his face. He made eye contact and headed over in my direction. When he asked for help I wasn't sure if it was some silly scam again. He told me he was trying to find the permit office. Since I was heading to the same office I told him he could come with me. His name was Andy and he was from Norway. When I told him I was from Austin he got a huge smile on his face and told me he was a musician and his band went to SXSW music festival a few years back. I figured at that point that he was probably harmless and was just a lost tourist after all. Andy was super nice and we walked through the city together chatting it up. He was impressed with my "sense of direction" and I had to laugh and admit that the day before I was a mess and had no clue what I was doing. On our way to the permit office we turned down a street and were bombarded with 100s of goats. They were tied up and people were sheparding them around. As it turns out, there is a huge Hindu festival here right now and the goats were actually going to be used in animal sacrifices in the Hindu temples. It was weird walking through them and knowing that they only had days or hours to live before they were slaughtered in the name of religion.
I had decided to do an 11 day trek in the Himalayas. I was hoping to meet some other travelers doing the same trek on the same day, but I never ran into any. Since I was unfamiliar with the terrain, royally out of shape, and a solo female, I decided to hire a personal nepalis guide. It was an expense I had not planned on, but after a lot of thought, I realized it would be a good way to learn some culture and help to give back to the Nepalis economy. Sharada set me up with this guide named Nyrma. He was 26 and when I first met him he was extremely shy and turned red in the face when I talked to him. I was a bit concerned about how the next 11 days were going to be. Sharada assured me that he would open up on the trail.
So...that is where I leave you now. I am in the town of Pokhara and tomorrow I will be setting off with my personal guide into the mountains of the Himalayas. I am really excited to get out into the nature and seperate myself from the modern world for a few days. My poor body is going to have a rude awakening, but it will be some much needed excercise.

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