Holy shit! What have I gotten myself into? These are the first thoughts that come to mind upon exiting the Tribuvan Airport in Kathmandu. My heart is racing and I’m immediately deathly-scared, probably looking like a deer in headlights, fearing I’ve blundered in epic proportions.
My backpack and cello are heavy upon my back and I’m already struggling a bit. (Why didn’t I play harmonica, and why did I feel compelled to bring a cello…those are the 2nd and 3rd thoughts). Meanwhile, the crescendo of street tumult is getting louder with each step I take. A wild throng of Nepalis are watching each of us exit the terminal. Their eyes are soft and warm, but there are a million voices shouting out trying to sell their services. I’m overwhelmed and realize instantly that I’m in for a challenging adventure.
A handsome fellow establishes eye-contact with me from among the crowd and asks me if I need a taxi. He doesn’t look like a cab river, but I do need a ride and he seems friendly enough. I say ok, but I’m very skeptical. After negotiating the fare, he reaches to help me with my bag. Part of me is all too eager to have his assistance, but I also have this feeling like I’m about to get jumped and robbed, left for dead at any moment. Please note: this is just part of the acclimation process in a third-world country…infact, it didn’t take long to realize the Nepalis are a very trust-worthy folk. But in this moment of shell-shock, anything seemed possible and as this spritely dude walks quickly towards his taxi I am doing my best to keep a hand on the bag…just in case. We get to the taxi cab and i find a rather scary dude behind the wheel. He doesn’t speak english, and so my Nepali “guide” does all the talking. I can only imagine what they are saying. Two of them, one of me…I’m definitely gonnna be robbed and left for dead.
The taxi is really small. Infact, my cello just barely even fits in the car. The driver could have gone in reverse to exit the parking spot, but instead he proceeds to hobble over a tall curb. Heartbeat increases.
Immediately, I am fearing for my life. The streets are total chaos and this driver is going really fast. Everywhere I look there is a mad procession of pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, dogs, rickshaws, and bicyclists. Everyone is carrying on in this dangerous parade within millimeters of each other, and yet it’s clear to me that this is quite normal here. My cab driver is moving so furiously fast and I brace myself as best as I can, but there are no seat belts and my knees are pressed tightly against the dashboard. All the while my Nepali guide is hammering me with questions and lighthearted conversation. I’m having a really hard time focusing on his words and just kind of drool empty responses that probably don’t even make any sense.
Meanwhile, both sides of the street are lined with an equally chaotic bazaar of vendors hawking random goods. There are dirty-faced bearfoot children approaching the taxi when it comes to a stop asking for money. A ragged older man is laying among the debris on the side of the road. Another is sifting through the piles of roadside trash and sludge. All around me, these are the kind of things happening everywhere!
The destination is the “Lotus Guest House” in Thamel, which was highly recommended by a friend. However, there was some confusion among the driver and my guide because there are a few guest houses with similar names. They seemed surprised when I mentioned this place, and once we arrived I could see why. Carefully angling my bags and cello through narrow doorways, I enter the dark “hotel” lobby and find a group of grim-looking dudes staring at me with this look on their face that was saying to me, “hmm…we’ve never seen a foreigner come through these doors before…this oughtta be some good loot.” One of them offers me the chance to see the room before I commit and that sounds like a good idea to me. Once I see the room, however, I am appalled by the dirty hovel and am immediately convinced that I will not be staying there. Surely this wasn’t the “Lotus Guest House” my friend had recommended.
My guide agrees that this place is not safe, not a good fit for me, and offers to take me to another place down the road. The next place is equally as sketchy. But the third place we come to, while dark and kinda grimy, at least it has a room that gets sunlight and a good lock on the door. So I say ok. Anything will do, I just really wanted to rid myself of this beast of a cello.
After setting my bags down I go back downstairs into the lobby to take a breather and hang out with the kind gentlemen who checked me in. He says he plays guitar and goes down to his room to get it. He begins to strum a Bob Marley song and I immediately like the guy. I start to feel a little more secure and better about my decision. I see a few backpackers come in and that’s comforting.
I contemplate going for a walk and surveying my surroundings, but instead I return to my room, sprawl out on the bed naked, and quickly slip into a deep slumber. Upon returning to the surface of consciousness, I experience a hazy euphoria, like a meditative bliss, that is a cross between dreaming and awakeness. After two days in transit with minimal shut-eye, this rest feels delightful and as I lay there thinking I realize a smile is on my face. I wonder how long I’ve been sleeping, but I really don’t care if I’ve slept the whole day away. There was still sunlight but I was cold. I knew night was approaching. I wanted to lay there forever, wishing this peace would never end. But then I remembered I was in Kathmandu– the relentless sound of car horns, barking dogs, and the city rumble tugging at my peace.
I go to brush my teeth and, out of habit, I rinse my brush in tap water. Shit! I realize my folly immediately and rationalize that maybe if I rinse my toothbrush really well I should undo the problem. (Then again, as I was brushing my teeth in the Newark Airport the other day, I dropped my brush into the public sink . Beside me several men were rounding up huge juicy honkers and spitting them into the sinks. I reclaimed my toothbrush in a flash, considered the 2 second rule, and then proceeded to brush my teeth.) The point being, either way I’m probably screwed, so a little tap water on my brush isn’t gonna be the deal breaker. Regardless, I rinse the brush with bottled water as thoroughly as I can and hope for the best.
Emerging from my dingy hotel, I follow the light out into the crazy Thamel street. Fumes, horns, bikers, rickshaws– madness everywhere. Yes, my peace has ended, and now I’m back to being frightened.
It’s not like you can just walk on the sidewalk and feel safe. No! Here it’s a a constant dance, dodging motorcyclists and cars speeding down both sides of the road. Crossing the road I feel like I’m playing the old video game Frogger, darting this way and that way just trying not to get squashed. Meanwhile, it seems like there’s always some shady dude offering me hash or tiger balm, and he’s intent in pursuing a sale, even though I’m nervously fending for my life and not even paying any attention to the guy.
I don’t really know what I’m doing here. I don’t wish to buy anything. I’m too nervous to eat anything. I don’t know anyone. And as far as I can tell, the only reason to be in Thamel is to buy cheap gifts, trinkets and imitation North Face clothes. None of which do I want.
It’s about 6pm. Maybe it’s rush hour. All I know is every one of these narrow roads are just jam-packed to maximum density with cars, motorcycles, bikes, and pedestrians. Nobody can budge. A big buss sits smack dab in the middle of it all and in this tricky Rubik’s cube of traffic, no one can maneuver themselves out of this situation. How in the world will it ever thin out? The air is atrocious. It’s all just carbon monoxide, dirt, and pestilence. I recall the peace of my hotel room and decide to head back and play cello.
It might be heavy and a major pain in the ass to be carrying, but it sure does feel good to play some music. Music is still the biggest thrill of all.
Before going to bed this night I meditate. I need it. Calm mind in the face of relentless distractions and fears– that’s what I desire. This trip is part music, part search for light. So it is fitting that I should resume my meditation practice among the madness of my Kathmandu reality. The value of meditation becomes amplified when surrounded by chaos.
Last thoughts before drifting off to sleep: the flower shall unfold in due time, for now I will try to postpone judgment and enjoy the miniature joys that have presented themselves so far.