The streets of Kathmandu made no sense to me. A neophyte in the ways of travel, I looked down one street, studied my map, scratched my head, and a wave of hopeless terror washed over me. I wanted to cry. I knew where I started, but within moments of walking, I was lost. The layout of the city – haphazard and random – completely confused me. I had grown up with the orderly grid of New York City; without it, I floundered. There weren’t even any street signs to help me, and on the map, only some roads were labeled. I had a similar problem in Seoul when trying to navigate the city. Streets there also lacked signs, but I was never far from a subway stop. If I got lost, I hopped on the subway whose color coding was extremely user friendly.
In Kathmandu there were no subways to save me. Streets jutted out of each other forming unnatural angles, or they were oddly bent and curved. Half the time I couldn’t distinguish a narrow alley from a regular street, and I wondered if they were both included on the map. I looked to the sun, hoping to gauge its placement in the sky for a clue as to which way I should hold the map. But the sun, imprisoned behind a wall of steel gray clouds, proved a useless tool. Trapped in a labyrinth, unable to speak the local language, I struggled, certain that I had made the greatest mistake of my life in going to Nepal. If I couldn’t find my way from one end of the city to the next, I had no right to venture up into the Himalayas all alone.
For what felt like an eternity, I stood still, like a lost child waiting for her parents to come, take her by the hand and claim her. But at twenty-two, I was too old for such foolishness. I knew if I didn’t move I’d be sick to my stomach. I should have heeded my parents when they tried to talk me out of this ludicrous trip. They had wanted me to return home immediately after Korea to look for a real job, one that would ground me. Wandering the world was a waste of time. They expected more from me.
Once upon a time, I had expected more from myself, but those days seemed an eternity ago. The dream that sustained me in my youth, the dream upon which I built my life shattered my sophomore year in college. As a child, I loved nothing as much as I enjoyed playing basketball. I spent all my free time shooting hoops and fantasizing about the day that I’d become a star. If I was ever going to become famous, if I was ever going to leave my mark on the world I knew it had to be as an athlete. There was no way I’d ever be successful if I had to rely on my brain.
School had always been a challenge. I hated it. I always felt that things came easier to my classmates, and since I never did well on standardized tests, and I frequently did my homework wrong, I learned to believe that I wasn’t smart. In high school, I often made the honor roll, but I never stood out in any of my classes. No teacher ever doted on me or said anything to make me feel that I had any special skills. But on the court, I’d hit an outside shot or nail a break-away lay-up, and the crowd would cheer. With a basketball in my hands, I wasn’t a nobody. With practice, I could become someone important.
In the absence of any life-long academic goals, I had no desire to go to college. But my father gave me no choice and the thought of playing ball for four more years made the prospect of college less daunting and dreadful. Originally, I wanted to play for a NCAA Division I school. In my dreams, I’d be recruited by a top school, but as the season of my senior year drew to a close, I had to accept the fact that my dreams did not match my ability. I was good, but to turn my fantasy into a reality, I’d have to be great and I wasn’t.
I ended up at New York University, a Division III school. While there, I practiced hard, but my skills lagged behind those of my teammates. For two years, I rode the bench. Not playing made me miserable. Then one day, shortly after my second season ended, I acknowledged the death of my childhood dream. Basketball had gone from something I couldn’t live without, to something that filled me with a great deal of despair. Feeling empty and depressed, I quit the team. Without basketball, I lost my compass. I had no other goals in life, no other aspirations, nothing except a vague desire to see the world and escape the pain of not being good enough.
Now that I had done just that, I couldn’t seem to forget that my flight into the world had been precipitated by what I had come to regard as my first great failure in life. I had failed in the one thing I had spent every waking moment trying to perfect. Even though I went on to minor victories – school records and a trip to nationals as part of the track team – nothing could erase the sense of inadequacy that haunted me. I was a loser. Everything that didn’t quite go as planned proved it. I disappointed my family then, and I would disappoint them again when I returned, unless, somehow I drove out the part of me that had wrongly fallen for a woman.
The map in my hands was useless. I stuffed it into my backpack and randomly selected a direction to walk. There were things I wanted to see, such as Durbar Square, but for the moment I would simply observe my surroundings and attempt to absorb them. This city, after all, was surreal, so unlike everything that was familiar and I wanted to better acquaint myself with it. Besides, I had always enjoyed walking, even more than I liked running. Having a nearly inexhaustible stamina, if I didn’t have any time constraints, I often chose walking over public transportation. Once on a beautiful spring morning, having nothing else to do, I set out to hike across Seoul. After seven hours I stopped only because I had dinner plans.
A year ago, when I first arrived in Korea all I could focus on was how it differed from New York. The language was jarring, the malls were open spaces with stalls selling various goods, I had to use chopsticks instead of a fork and for the first time in my life, I was a teacher instead of a student. By the time I left, I could find more similarities between New York and Seoul than I could find differences. They were both modern first world cities. Cars polluted the air, and the crowds during rush hour were best avoided. Historical sights and museums were great places to visit on days off. And on the weekend, there were bars to escape to after a long week of work. After a year in Korea, I had carved out a niche for myself and had started to feel as if I belonged there. Of course, that night Itaewon changed all that. Now, I could only hope that if I immersed myself within the chaos and confusion of Kathmandu, I would eventually find a way to be comfortable there as well.
The narrower, less significant roads had no sidewalks. I walked in the street amidst other pedestrians, bicyclists and the occasional man on a moped. Since the majority of the city’s residents were poor, I rarely saw a car. The cars I did see had drivers who seemed determined to mow down anyone in their path, as I had witnessed earlier. The streets were muddy from a recent downpour. Mud, mixed with feces and urine from goats, cows, dogs and other animals fouled the air. A layer of rubbish coated some of the alleys. A few times I caught myself holding my breath, so that I wouldn’t gag. Initially, I made a grand effort to walk deliberately, trying to prevent my boots from kicking up thick globs of mud, but it was like swimming in an ocean and trying not to get wet. I didn’t take many steps before my calves were encrusted in muck.
Luckily, not all the smells that surrounded me were rancid. The alluring aroma of incense filtered out of many temples tucked into corners of the city. I closed my eyes and permitted the incense to fill my lungs, which somehow calmed me. Briefly, I felt less shaken, less unsure of myself. The inviting scent of spices also occasionally drifted out of restaurant windows and permeated the air. The last meal I had eaten was on the plane. When I left the guesthouse I did not feel hungry, but as I roamed the streets, the smell of butter and spices was intoxicating. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to eat, but the anxiety of walking into an unfamiliar restaurant, with food I most likely wouldn’t be able to recognize and an inability to communicate, forced me to ignore my rumbling stomach.
All around me, decrepit brick buildings – broken-down houses and dilapidated stores – lined the narrow city streets. None of them rose higher than three or four stories. Compared to New York and Seoul, everything seemed small, but somehow the smallness felt just right. Soaring skyscrapers and high rise apartments would have been glaringly out of place, which was how I felt wearing a sturdy pair of hiking boots while everyone else was sloshing about in flip-flops.
Hung over many doors or windows were signs – some colorful, others bland. In Thamel, many of them were written in English, a clear indication that all the businesses in the area catered predominantly to tourists. I could have eaten there, in a restaurant with a menu written in English, but I had already blown my budget on the hotel. Besides, the urge to see the city was stronger than the urge to eat. As I passed into other sections of Kathmandu, moving further from the center, I noticed fewer and fewer signs that I could read. They looked to me like doodling done by children who have not yet learned how to write. Stopping in the middle of one street, I stared at a yellow sign with black squiggly lines strewn across it. A part of me wondered, if I stared at it long enough, would the marks begin to move, wiggle around and reconstruct themselves into letters, words, I could understand. But nothing moved, nothing changed. For the second time in my life – the other time was when I first landed in Seoul – I was exposed to information that I had absolutely no way of processing. I hated it.
Illiteracy was greater than the inability to write a letter, read a newspaper or fill out an application. It was a guarantee that you would spend much of your time lost, unsure of where you were, or what your options might be. The sign on the door was a mere speed bump, a book would have been a mountain. I couldn’t fathom living in a place where words were strangers. It was as if the whole world was privy to a secret from which I was excluded. Is that why I felt so lonely?
The rains came from nowhere. One moment the sky was cloudy, not a deep dark gloomy grey, just a light almost soothing grey, and the next the world was a wall of water. There was no warning drizzle, no sudden darkening of the sky, no haunting breeze, just an abrupt downpour. One minute I felt sticky and sweaty, and the next I could have pulled off my shirt and wrung it out. There were no individual raindrops, no space between various water particles. The rain came down in sheets – a typical monsoon rain. Glancing around, I sought shelter, but found nothing. In my backpack, I had neither a rain jacket nor an umbrella. Knowing it was monsoon season was apparently much different than experiencing the rains directly. Drenched, I trudged on, still unsure of where I was headed.
Less than twenty minutes later, the rain ceased as suddenly as it began. Before I could take another dozen steps, the sun ripped apart the clouds and bright blue filled the sky. The water from my clothes still dripped onto my skin, droplets running down my arms and legs. As I raised my face to the heavens and smiled at the sun, I had no doubt that I would soon be completely dry.
“Good afternoon!” A voice from behind startled me out of my musings. Turning around, I found a young man dressed in black slacks and a wrinkled white button down shirt holding out his hand. Suddenly on high alert, afraid that I might get scammed again, I offered him my hand which he stiffly shook. “It is nice to make your acquaintance.” He spoke as if he had been programmed. He smiled, a mouth full of yellow teeth, and I felt certain he had some scheme he intended to execute.
“It’s nice to meet you too.” I offered to be polite, but I didn’t want to get trapped. I started walking way.
“Where are you going?” The man raced to keep up with me.
“For a walk.” I didn’t wish to engage him in conversation, so I kept my answer short.
“Where are you walking?”
“The Monkey Temple?” he asked, his stride surer than mine.
“No,” I snapped, though that was where I hoped I was headed.
“Let me take you,” he demanded, stepping in front of me and walking backwards so as not to disrupt my gait.
“No!” I tried to make my voice sound sharp and in command..
“We are not far.” He turned around again and fell into step beside me.
“Please leave me alone,” my voice faltered. I didn’t know how to shake him. If only I knew where I was and how to get where I wanted to go. If only I was competent and could rely on myself to read the damn map.
“But you are new here. This is my home.” He held one hand against his chest and made a large sweeping motion with the other. “Let me be your guide.”
“Ugh,” I groaned more loudly than I intended, my frustration fueling his determination. “I don’t need a guide.”
“It will be fun. You will see.” He put a hand gently on my shoulder, resting it for no more than a couple of seconds before removing it. “With me you will not get lost. No one will cheat you.”
“Except you,” the words leapt out of my mouth before I could restrain them.
“You have it wrong,” he assured me. “I am your friend. All I want is for you to enjoy my country.”
I didn’t believe him, but like a leech he had latched onto me. The last thing I wanted was trouble and so I didn’t make a scene. Tagging along or leading was tantamount to the same thing – I was stuck. For the second time that day, I found myself looking for an out, but I came up empty. Briefly, I considered running. I felt confident that I could out distance him. But where would I go? He knew the streets better than I ever would. There was no escape. He won because I was too polite to blow him off and too scared to sprint into the unknown.
Soon after my unwanted shadow emerged, the landscape started to change, becoming more rural. Narrow streets grew wider and the crowds began to thin out until there were long stretches where I didn’t see anyone other than the man at my side. Small, square, red brick houses strewn out across the countryside replaced multistory cluttered and cramped buildings. And grass, so green it looked unreal, carpeted the ground. I felt lost in a fairytale.
After about twenty minutes, we reached a footbridge that spanned a shallow and practically dried up body of water. My interpretation of the map led me to believe it was the Vishnumati River. The water – dark gray and thick – looked like sludge, but the naked children, young elementary age boys and girls, splashing around in it didn’t seem to care. As we crossed the bridge, the sound of their laughter floated up to me and tickled my ears. I wondered, do these children even know what clean water is? What do they drink?
Scattered on the far bank of the river were dozens of water buffalo – large, black, imposing creatures with gentle eyes and two giant horns curving out of their massive heads. As I drew closer, they didn’t even bother to raise their heads or show any indication that strangers were approaching. Instead, they went about their business, lounging on the ground or wading in the water. Did they belong to anyone? Or were they wild creatures, free to come and go as they pleased. I considered asking the man who insisted on accompanying me, but I was afraid that if I reached out with one question, he’d have assumed that I was contracting his services.
Not long after we crossed the river, a distinctive stupa – a dome shaped structure – rose up out of a hill in the distance. I recognized it from a picture – Swayambhunath, better known to tourists as the Monkey Temple. I was close to my destination, and so I doubled my pace. I knew better than to believe I’d lose my unwanted companion, but I suddenly didn’t care. Racing towards the temple, eager to embrace my first sight-seeing expedition in Nepal, a part of me couldn’t believe I was actually there. Until five minutes ago, the temple was nothing more than a photograph. Now, suddenly, because I had laid eyes on it, it was real. It was as if some enchanted spirit had breathed life into the structure.
Halfway up the hill, I paused to catch my breath. Leaning against a tree, allowing my eyes to slowly scan the landscape, I tasted it as though it were a potent glass of wine. I felt drunk. My body felt weightless, as though I were drifting in a dream, a dream from which I wished never to wake. Surrounding the hill where I stood were the Himalaya Mountains, revealed to me by the distant parting clouds, curtains rising to introduce the setting of my upcoming adventure. Never before had I ever been so excited – and scared – about anything. I took a deep breath and incense filled my nose. The few clouds that lingered, white puffy bands of cotton, capped the mountains like haloes of newly appointed angels. Ice and snow, which clung to the mountain peaks, reflected the sun. I had to shield my eyes to keep them from hurting. Closer, much closer than the mountains, were smaller hills blanketed with dark green grass and tall silent trees. Reddish brown houses dotted the landscape like Legos scattered across a child’s bedroom floor. And people, blotches of paint dripped on a nearly dry canvas, were moving sluggishly through the day.
To the many men and women whose lives briefly brushed up against mine, I was apparently an object of curiosity. Heads turned to examine the resting stranger. Eyes rolled over my body until I felt naked and exposed. The paleness of my skin alone made me as conspicuous as a patch of snow on a dusty dirt road. I was the “other,” a tourist passing through who in all likelihood would never return. My skin, however, was not the only discernible difference between them and me. My dark brown hair – shorn practically to my scalp – was shorter, my clothes were undeniably western and my pockets heavier.
My hair hadn’t always been that short. It was thick and full, and my mother raised me to be proud of it. In high school, it grew down passed my shoulders, and before basketball games she would weave it into two French braids then tie ribbons on the ends. Unable to French braid my own hair, and finding that pony tails gave me a headache, long hair eventually became a hassle. And so, not wanting to deal with it while traveling, not wanting to lug around shampoo or be bothered combing out knots, the day my contract in Korea expired, I had my head buzzed.
For years as a child, I had envied my brother. I remember sitting in the barbershop on Myrtle Avenue in the early summer heat watching the barber buzz my brother’s head. It was the same barbershop where my father had gone to have his hair cut since he was a child, the same place I used to go until my mother deemed me old enough to go to the salon with her. In a few days we would be heading out to Long Island for vacation, a month of swimming in the Peconic Bay and soaking up the sun. Getting a crew cut was a summer ritual for my brother. For most people the unofficial start of the summer was Memorial Day. For us, it was the day my brother got his head shaved. While he sat in the chair, I watched impatiently.
“Can I get my hair done next?” I begged.
“No, girls don’t shave their heads,” my mother explained for the millionth time. I wanted to ask what exactly being a girl had to do with getting a haircut, but the look on my mother’s face didn’t invite further questions. So I sulked in my seat, my irritability angering my mother.
When the barber finished with my brother, he lifted him off the chair and deposited him onto my mother’s lap. “Oh, your head feels so soft,” my mother crooned as she rubbed her fingertips over the peach fuzz. “Do you feel cooler?” she asked. My brother, never much for words, simply nodded his head. It wasn’t fair. I had to wear my hair long. It sat on my head like a wet soggy sweater after a swim. And the knots! Oh how I detested combing out the knots at night.
My gender and culture denied me the comfort of trouble free hair and a cool head. At six years old, I envied my younger brother’s hair cut. At twelve, I was jealous of the fact that he was allowed to ride his bike in the street. And at sixteen, I resented the fact he took the subway into Manhattan alone. I never had.
But now half way around the world, with no family or friends around to judge me, with no one to seek out to gain permission, I could do as I pleased. I could dress as a boy, as long I continued to wrestle with other unwanted feelings. However, the eyes of the Nepalese cautioned me against getting too comfortable. Their judgment might be different, but judgment on some level was perhaps unavoidable.
Continuing onward, the young man still at my heels, I made my way to the top of the hill. I was welcomed by a troop of monkeys – self declared guardians of Swayambhunath. Long ago, they had taken up residence in the Buddhist complex and never left. Never before, even in zoos, had I ever seen so many monkeys congregated in one place. They walked freely over the temple grounds, swung from trees and sunbathed with their chests puffed out and their heads held high like well paid and well respected sentries. They were neither friendly nor aggressive; they simply watched me with an air of detached interest.
Looking up, I saw the piercing eyes of the Buddha. They were staring out at the Kathmandu Valley. The eyes – two colorful almond eyes and one tiny round eye set between the other two – were painted on all four sides of a golden cube atop the stupa. Even though they were inanimate, I could not shake the sensation that they were probing my soul, reading me more deeply than I ever read myself. Before them I stood not judged but questioned. I wondered if I would ever measure up to the expectations I placed upon myself. If only I could remove my fear, set it down before Buddha and beg him to take it. But I knew, without it wrapped around me, I’d only end up feeling naked and cold.
Fluttering above the temple and attached to lines draped down from the stupa’s spire were dozens of colorful – red, yellow, blue and green – cut and torn pieces of cloth. These prayer flags, according to my guide book, carried mantras. When the wind blew, it whisked the holy words away. Surrounding the stupa were a multitude of dark wooden prayer wheels. Craftsmen had carved Nepalese letters in the wood and these letters once again served as a reminder of the limits of my literacy.
My unwanted guide made an effort to give me a tour of the temple, but my mind was distracted, and I had trouble following his words. His accent didn’t help either. If I had tried harder, I’m certain I would have understood him better. After all, I had lived in a country in which I was a foreigner and I had gotten by in part by understanding choppy, garbled English. Deciphering broken sentences and muddled words had become second nature. But my resentment got in the way. While his voice rattled on, I ignored him. Instead of embracing his knowledge, I scorned it.
By the time I finished wandering around the temple, it was getting late. The sun was low in the sky, stretching ceaselessly toward the horizon. Walking back down the hill, I realized with horror that I wasn’t sure which way to turn, or how to get back to Thamel. Silently, I reprimanded myself for not paying closer attention earlier, but before I panicked, the young man I had tried so hard to ignore emerged from the shadows. Without a word, he resumed the lead. I followed, head bent like a penitent child.
Reaching the center of Kathmandu, the young man abruptly stopped walking and turned to confront me. “I am a university student,” he explained. “My parents are poor. Since I have been your guide, it is only right that you pay me for my time.”
“Excuse me,” my voice had a sharpness to it that I didn’t recognize. Of course he wanted money. Why else would he have been so patient with me? I knew this was coming. What upset me most was that I had needed him. Without him, I might never have found my way.
“Please, I need money for books. I show people like you my city so that I do not have to beg.”
“People like me?” My insecurities rose to the surface. I heard a reprimand that wasn’t there. “A helpless woman, is that what you mean?” I was helpless but so was he. He needed money for something I always took for granted. I reached into my pocket and surrendered rupees to the man whose face now stood in shadows cast by the evening light. “Thank you,” I croaked and turned away. Would I ever feel as though I had control over my money? Lately, it slipped through my fingers.
Close to tears, and not entirely sure why, I walked without direction, having not a clue as to where I was in relation to my guesthouse. I pulled my guidebook out of my backpack and stopped to consult the map, a useless endeavor. Staring at the black and white page, tears burned in my eyes. It was pointless. Trapped in a maze, I saw only one way out.
A rickshaw is a tricycle like contraption. A seat for two – though sometimes entire families of four or five squeezed in and held on – is propelled forward by a single rider who pedals his way through the city streets. Like a taxi, you simply tell the driver where you want to go and, for a fee – determined by distance and passenger experience – he will take you. It is cheaper than a taxi and used much more frequently for shorter trips. Since there is no set fee for any destination, I had read that if you do not settle upon a price before boarding, you can expect to pay an exorbitant amount once you arrive.
Most rickshaw drivers – the majority of which are concentrated in tourist sections of the city – ride up and down the streets of Kathmandu all day, searching for fares to convert into food for themselves and their families. All the drivers I encountered were thin, seemingly malnourished; some even looked emaciated. Most of them appeared to be boys in their late teens or men in their early twenties, but I saw drivers that spanned the ages of ten to sixty. Not once did I see a female driver.
I despised the thought of paying someone to carry me across a distance I was more than capable of traversing myself but, at that moment, it wasn’t a question of physical ability. My mental faculties had let me down. Frustrated and disappointed with myself, I struggled to accept the fact that giving in to a rickshaw ride was the only way I was going to get back to my room. Across the street from where I was in the midst of a minor breakdown, a rickshaw driver watched me with a great deal of interest, sensing my desperation. His feet barely reached the pedals. He was young, but seasoned enough to identify a likely fare. Survival, after all, was determined by one’s ability to read a person’s face, the look in their eyes. The moment I made eye contact with him he started pedaling and, in a matter of seconds, he was beside me.
On my map I pointed to where I needed to go. He nodded silently. I sat down, not yet hardened enough to have negotiated a fare before he took off. The ride lasted less than five minutes, and when I stepped down in front of the guest house, the boy demanded an excessively high fee. Taking a deep breath, I suddenly felt very tired. It had been a long day and I hadn’t slept since my last night in Korea, nearly forty-eight hours ago. Maybe sleep was all I needed, and in the morning things would be better. Realizing it was futile to protest, I paid the boy and then retreated inside, eager to end the day.
I was famished, but the thought of stepping back out into the city and trying to navigate my way to a restaurant was too overwhelming. The last thing I wanted to do was risk getting lost again. Since I had no faith in myself, I chose to skip dinner. Besides, I skipped lunch because I had blown my budget on the room. It only seemed logical to skip dinner due to the added expenses of my unwanted guide and the rickshaw. The scales had to balance. I couldn’t spend more than I had. In my rucksack, I had some Korean rice cakes – a pastry made of rice with a red bean filling – that I had purchased before leaving Seoul. I intended them to be for a snack, but they would suffice for a small meal. Instead of eating in the stale emptiness of my room, I took the rice cakes up the roof where there were a few chairs set up for guests.
Staring out at the world from my perch on the roof, I could see the top stories of several buildings, behind which the Himalayan Mountains rose with cottony clouds nestled around their peaks. The setting sun had painted the sky a pretty pastel pink. I sighed wondering what the sky in Seoul looked like at that moment.
“May I join you?” The accented voice shattered my musings. Opening my eyes, I saw Rimal pull up a chair.
“Sure.” I answered flatly, unenthusiastic about his company.
“Did you enjoy your walk this afternoon?” He asked pleasantly enough, but I sensed that his friendly chatter was simply a warm-up to something else.
“Are you considering the possibility of trekking in the mountains?”
There was nothing to consider. The decision had been made months ago, but he didn’t need to know the details. “I am.”
“Alone?” he cocked his head to the side and raised his eyebrows.
“But you are a woman. That is not wise.” He rested his hand on my knee and I could feel my flesh writhing beneath his touch.
I moved my leg and locked my eyes with his. “That is no concern of yours.”
“But I can recommend a guide – cheap and reputable.” He pressed on, not breaking eye contact with me. “Tomorrow, I can introduce you.”
“No,” my voice was ice. Hadn’t he cheated me enough for one day? If I accepted his guide, he’d haunt me for the rest of my trip and what I wanted most was to forget about him and his sly ways.
“But alone, how will you find your way?” he asked, confident that his words would make me crumble, reconsider. Had he been watching me?
“Again, that is not your concern.” Wanting to be rid of him before he knocked me further off balance, I left, retreating into the silence and stillness of my room.