I leave Nepal on Sunday. A few short stories from my time here…
With the power still out, the lift wasn’t an option, so I took the stairs down. Eventually I reached the lobby and headed for the exit, but two men blocked my way. One was dressed in army fatigues, the other in a dark suit. Both wore grave expressions. Neither looked Nepalese. The suited man raised a palm and spoke to me as I approached: “We saw you on the roof just now. I’ll need to see some identification.”
“If she’s a man, then she’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen!” Joe laughed at my quip, but he still wasn’t convinced. A very masculine vibe, that’s what he’d said about her. He had me rethinking things now: That husky voice, the fact that she’d never wanted to go beyond first base… But nah, she coudn’t be. I’d seen her on stage at the club, and she danced like no man ever could.
It was my first time riding a motorcycle at night, and I was lost. Loadshedding in effect, the only light came from my headlamp, passing vehicles, and via loud roadside generators. I considered stopping and asking for directions, but I didn’t appear to be in a tourist-friendly part of town. So I kept moving, pointing my front wheel downhill and hoping for the best.
“Excuse me, do you have any free coffee?” The barista looked at me strangely. “You know, free coffee? I don’t pay, I just have it for free, yeah?” He raised an eyebrow and shook his head slowly, but I could see the hint of a smile crack his lips. He was amused by this strange white man. I felt confident I’d be drinking a complimentary dark roast within a minute or two.
I saw Sunita up ahead. She was there every night, limping up and down the streets of Thamel, smiling at the tourists and flashing her batch of purses at them. I’d never seen her sell one. She must have been in her sixties, always wore the same clothes. Seeing me, she came hobbling over quickly and pressed a piece of paper into my hand. “From Japanese girl,” she said. “She here before, crying.”
It was one of those little things that nobody else seemed to notice, but which bugged the hell out of me. Men, women, children: didn’t matter. They’d all done it to me dozens of times, walking out of a side street or doorway with nare a precautionary glance. I was always the one to break stride, never them, even if they saw me coming from the corners of their eyes.
Each step felt risky. I was beginning to regret not squatting at my friend’s place. Now I was walking gingerly down some dark, blacked-out street in Kathmandu, ten minutes from my apartment, ten minutes from my desperately needed release. One misstep into a pothole and the diarrhea would likely get the best of me. I had to focus. I had to hold on.
He was a good liar. I knew he’d knocked on her door intentionally, but listening to him plead his innocence with that handsome smile upon his face, he nearly had me believing otherwise. His charm didn’t seem to be working on the girl though. She stood there still furious. I couldn’t help but admire her. I knew she was scared to confront him, but she wasn’t about to let herself be a victim.
It was a few seconds before I realized he’d turned off the main road. I’d been in Kathmandu less than a week, but I was pretty sure we were now headed the wrong way. Before I could speak up, the driver patted my knee and said, “I take you back to hotel soon, but first we go for tea. I want my friend to meet you.” I just smiled and said okay.
There was a knock on the door. Shit. It was one of the helpers. He asked in a whisper why I wasn’t down in the hall with everyone else. I told him I felt ill and wanted to meditate in my room. Immediately I regretted that lie. There was no reason for it. I’d already decided to leave. I should have just told him straight that I was done. It would have been fine.
It was her last night in Pokhara. I really didn’t think I’d see her again. She hadn’t answered her phone. I had no idea where she was staying. It was just after nine when she called. She sounded happy. It was good to hear her voice. “Wait, which hotel are you staying at?” I told her again. “No way, me too!” I’d never have believed her, but there we were a minute later, hugging in the hallway.
The elderly, bearded American dude was angry. “You’re ruining my dinner! This is a restaurant, not a bar. It’s illegal to smoke here. You damn smokers are the scum of the earth!” With that he called for the check, paid up, and left in a huff. I leaned over and asked the young Nepalese guy taking another calm drag on his cigarette. “No,” he told me, “It’s not illegal. This is Nepal.”
Engine still running, I surveyed the wide, rushing stream ahead. If I hadn’t just dropped the bike (twice!) and scraped up my leg, I might have felt braver. But this was the only road to Birethanti. I could either chance the crossing, or try make it back up the brittle hill to Naya Pul. I stayed put for a minute more, weighing my options, breathing deep.
You could say she wore me down. She’d been asking me for money ever since I’d met her. I liked to tell myself that I’d gotten to know her and was confident she’d put the money to good use. My gut told me it was the right thing to do. She’d asked for two thousand. I handed her three. I made her promise to pay forward the extra 1k, but I doubt she ever did.
I awoke again to the loud sounds of scratching and scampering. They came from the ceiling. The sight of a rat no longer bothered me, but I was pissed whenever one got between me and a solid night’s sleep. I lay there wondering how an animal no bigger than my forearm could cause such a ruckus. Then I remembered the monkey I’d seen on the roof several hours earlier.
I’d come to recognize a half dozen of the street kids. They slept on the pavement and spent their days sniffing glue and hustling tourists. They knew me by now, too. One kid had ugly burn marks down his face and neck and was missing a few fingers. Now he was standing a few feet away from me, smiling and posing in anticipation of our latest mock kung fu battle on the streets of Thamel.
I was sure he was just some guy who had the wrong number. But he kept calling me, asking who I was. His broken English told me he was local. I was at the falafel stand when he called for the third time. Now he sounded angry. His question gave me pause: “Are you the motherfucker that give number to my sister on the street today?” Shit. I was indeed that motherfucker.