After three simultaneous 12-hour layovers, Saleem and I were relieved to be rid of airports. Before that could happen though we had to pay for our Nepali visa on arrival. Unfortunately neither of us had any U.S. dollars on hand. The only currency we had was Indian Rupees. We visited the currency exchange counter only to find out they didn’t take Indian Rupees and the ATM nearby was broken. We had no clue what to do. Airport security allowed Saleem to go downstairs to another ATM in exchange for both of our passports. Saleem left his things with me and hurried in search of a working ATM. Once downstairs employees at another money exchange counter called him over and offered to exchange his Rupees for Nepali Rupees. He came back upstairs where he found me waiting in line with all our bags. While he was exchanging money I was trying to hold down our place in the slow-moving visa line. An older man and his wife from Kazakhstan were trying unsuccessfully to push in front of me. After spending so many hours in airport lines and on pushy planes I was fed up with all the claustrophobia that went along with it. I found that boarding and exiting planes is when I dislike people the most. Everyone is pushing to get on, stow their bags and get into their seats, but for what? The plane isn’t leaving until everyone is on. I’d love to yell something like “calm the f*ck down,” but then I would be seen as the crazy one instead of all the irrational idiots pushing and squeezing down the isle. Anyway, with all that on my mind, it made me want to win one war, the only one I felt like fighting over the past three days. Why did this grown man want to push in front of me anyway? I was the last person in line. He knew what he was doing too; he came long after I was standing there. It’s not that I wanted my visa first, I just wanted him to know that I knew he was pushing and that it wasn’t acceptable behavior. So as he edged along making noises and tisking and trying to cut me off I just stood uncomfortably close to him right behind the next person in line. Finally a step before the counter he backed off and resumed his rightful position behind me. Victory. Well, until a minute later when the man at the desk told us that they don’t accept payment in Nepali Rupees. Yep, a country that doesn’t accept their own currency. Why? So that people like Saleem and I loose more money on yet another exchange. So that was our welcome to Nepal and it was only about to get even better and by better I mean more aggravating.
We walked downstairs, through security and towards the information desk. We wanted to go directly to Nagarkot, a mountain town 40 kilometers outside of Kathmandu. The lady behind the counter pulled out a map and told us we could take a bus to the city bus park and then another bus to Nagarkot. She also told us we could hire a private taxi. We thanked her and made our way to the exit. Before we could get out of the doors another information guy from another desk offered to answer any questions we had. We asked him the exact same things, but he gave us radically different answers. He kept urging us to stay in Kathmandu and book a hotel. He also wanted us to take a taxi to the city center instead of a bus. When we told him we wanted to go to Nagarkot he offered to book us a hotel there too. Basically he was trying to do everything for us, which meant he was looking to make a commission off of all our arrangements. He was annoying. He just wouldn’t let up. We went to leave and he directed us to his friend who kept talking taxi prices and telling us that there wasn’t a bus that would take us to the city center. It could have been overwhelming, but because I saw through all of it I was just simply annoyed. I went back to the first woman who worked with the tourism depart of Nepal and confirmed what she had told us, that there was a bus that would take us to the city center. She assured me that there was a bus and said that the other men worked differently than her, a nice way to say that they scam people into buying their services. I thanked her and went to find Saleem who was surrounded by three men who were all talking a mile a minute. I pulled him away and went to find an ATM. The only working ATM didn’t take either of our cards, which meant we were really out of options. We had to take a taxi into the city so that we could stop at an ATM before paying. On our way to find a taxi man the salesmen from before all surrounded us. They kept telling us that only our happiness matters and that they need us to be happy. Nonstop offers of hotel accommodations and taxi rides to wherever we wanted were flowing out of their mouths. All I could do was laugh and smile because if I didn’t do that I was going to speak my mind and while traveling I try to be a positive ambassador of the U.S.A. as cheesy as that sounds. So while I was smiling and staring into space waiting for a break in their persistent offers the one guy actually told me to relax. That just made me laugh more and prompted me to pull on Saleem’s arm and cross the street away from the madness. They hastily wished us a nice visit in Nepal and hurried back to their counters to pounce on the next nice looking traveler. I quickly found a driver willing to drop us in the city center for 250 rupees, which is about $3. Once we settled into the backseat of his little white car our luck changed.
On the way to Thamel, meaning city center, Saleem talked to the driver in Hindi. Saleem is fluent and I know not a word so I sat staring out the window at this completely foreign land all the while listening to their chatter. When it was time to get out of the car, the driver offered to take us to Nagarkot. It would cost about $25, definitely more than the bus ride would cost. After all our airport travel, the hassle at the border and witnessing street traffic in Nepal we were attracted to the idea of relaxing in the backseat of a taxi. We thought it over for a minute and agreed. We still had to stop at an ATM so we told the driver we’d be back as we stepped onto the curb in search of a money machine. On the next block we saw one and fortunately it accepted both of our cards; I did have to pay a stiff transaction fee of $5 though. When got back to the taxi, our driver showed us to the backseat of another vehicle. He said it was his friend and that he would take us for the agreed price. So we got in and started our hour and a half journey.
The traffic was tight. We were edging along slowly when Saleem started to converse in Hindi with the driver. I busied myself by examining the way Nepal people looked and moved. I noticed the slum communities on the city’s edge that had blue tarps for roofs. I also saw huge chicken houses where hens were piled on top of each other in buildings five stories high. As we got further and further from Kathmandu, fields of wheat bordered both sides of the road. Behind these fields I could see several skinny, but tall smoke stacks emitting thick black puffs into the air. The driver explained that they were brick factories, the material that many Nepalese made their homes out of. After a few minutes I saw all the bricks he was speaking of. Teenage boys were unloading them off of trucks near the side of the road. They were stacking them like a Jenga game. The boy on the truck would throw six stacked bricks to the boy standing on the pile, who would catch them all still aligned and stack them just in time to catch the next pile. We also drove by small markets selling clothes, supplies and food. When I saw the bicycles with large baskets attached to the back filled with fruit, it dawned on me that every country displays and sells fruit differently. Here in Nepal they have a large round basket on their bike that holds apples and mangos while bananas hang off of the basket’s perimeter. In Thailand men and women walk around pushing carts with a glass icebox filled with whole fruit that you point to and they cut up on the spot. In Vietnam ladies carry what looks like a scale, a long pole with a basket on each end, over their shoulder. They haunch down setting the baskets on the ground when they exchange their fruit for money. In Laos the fruit is piled on top of a blue tarp on the side of the road. You have to buy the whole piece of fruit, which is inconvenient if you’re like me and love watermelon. In Cambodia I never saw the fruit before buying it. Women and children would call out to me asking if I wanted to buy pineapple and when I agreed they would run to their cooler and pull out a bagful. The people in Malaysia had tables on the side of the road with whole fruits for sale. There were also stationary stands, almost like food stall counters, with bags of cut up fruit for sale. In Singapore the fruit was expensive and sold behind a counter in hawker food courts. Where I stayed in Bali it was hard to find fruit, but I saw it piled high in baskets on the roadside. I noticed it was all about the display there too. They would make a pyramid of fruit above the basket, but underneath the pyramid and inside the basket I noticed it was filled with plastic bags.
By the time I stopped thinking about fruit, our car was climbing in elevation. The road was reduced to a lane and a half and made of packed rocks and dirt. We passed by many people walking up or down the mountain. Sometimes they carried baskets of belongings and sometimes nothing at all. Two young boys walking uphill were each carrying a wooden desk on their backs. As the car unwillingly climbed higher and higher the views increased in beauty. First we saw wheat farms on the mountainside, like those in Sapa, but nicer because they were green instead of brown. Then the mountainside transformed into a forest. Tall, straight trees covered the landscape. It reminded me of a beautiful dotted quilt of various shade of green. The driver told Saleem that he loved these trees and that his village also looked like this, but the trees were different and had more leaves and when the snow fell it made them heavy and they fell too. Every inch the car moved, the view became more picturesque. I felt increasingly free. It was nice to be out of the pollution of Asia and even Kathmandu. I rolled down the window and breathed deep instead of pulling my shirt up over my nose and mouth. I could see so far in every direction that I felt like I wasn’t pinned down to the earth and it’s troubles. Even now as I sit on the balcony of my little hotel, which resembles an ancient mansion that would be the feature of a horror movie, my worries drift from my brain straight into the fluffy white clouds above me. For a few moments I thought about my budget, my dwindling bank account and my lack of job prospects and without reaching a momentary conclusion on where I stood those thoughts disappeared. Instead I’m left wondering when the clouds in front of me will clear so I can finally see the glacier capped Himalayas that I know are sitting among them. I was able to see them for a minute early this morning, but I didn’t bother taking a photo because I knew my camera wouldn’t be able to register the tiny sliver of blue and white that my eyes could pick up. Since then Saleem and I have been glued to our beds, longingly looking out the window, or up here on the balcony gazing out at the clouds hoping and joking about praying to some god that we don’t believe in to make the clouds disappear. I know it’s unlikely. Some mountains live in the clouds and just as I typed that last line the clouds started moving at an appalling pace and I see glaciers. It’s difficult to differentiate the gray and white from the fluffy puffs of clouds, but once you see the sharp edges the sun is reflecting off of it is hard to look away and it becomes clear, if not to your camera at least to your own eyes. I can understand why some are drawn to climb Everest. I felt accomplished when I reached the summit of Mount Agung, the highest peak in Bali, and now I just want to keep pushing my own limits. Seeing the snow-capped peaks is gravitating. I want to be in their presence all the time. Now the clouds are really clearing away and an entire peak is visible in the distance. Now that I see what I’m missing I just want more. I could spend weeks here in Nagakort just reading, writing and thinking all the while waiting for all these clouds to clear. Unfortunately I only have until tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. We called our taxi driver, who Saleem became good friends with, to arrange a pick-up and he said he can only come at 7:30 a.m. because there is going to be a strike in Kathmandu tomorrow and if he is stuck on the roads when the riots take place his car is likely to be flipped. So my hopes of another banana porridge breakfast at the place we went to this morning are squashed. I was excited to go back so that they knew how much I loved their porridge and chai, but hey maybe they’ll read this blog and find out for themselves.