My intended two-week stay in Nepal turned into three weeks, but not because I couldn’t bring myself to leave. Upon arrival, Vivek (from my Tibet tour) and I checked into the same hotel, but different rooms. I was so happy to have my own space again! Hotel Family Home was perfect, situated in the heart of tourist district Thamel, but down a quiet-ish alley. There are a lot of good things about Thamel. Restaurants, shops, cafes and bars are all within easy walking distance, some right around the corner. Lots of people are on the streets in the evening, so it’s safe to walk home alone. While there are some Nepali restaurants, many are international serving everything from salads and sandwiches to hummus to grilled chicken with potatoes. Since I still couldn’t look at a plate of curry from my months in India, this was good news indeed.
On the negative side there’s the noise. Cars and motorbikes are constantly blowing horns as they make their way through the narrow streets. Plus, there are no sidewalks so you have to share the road with the honking, swerving motorists hoping you don’t get in the way. Then there is the occasional “no street at all” scenario where the road is literally jackhammered up and left in a pile.
Vivek and I visited the Boudha Stupa, one of the most sacred Tibetan Buddhist temples in Nepal, and part of a UNESCO World Heritage site (along with other temples in the area). After Tibet, it was not the most impressive temple I’d seen. It’s a large, white, concrete dome where visitors do their kora, walking in a clock-wise circle around the outside. The sun was hot so I preferred our stop for flatbread and sangria from where we could watch people perform their meditative walk.
I spent the next few days sightseeing and hanging out with an Aussie I met, drinking Gorkha beer and contemplating the world’s problems. Ok, sometimes we’d veer off into slightly less profound topics like comparing words in our fair language. I’m sorry, it’s not a singlet. It’s a tank top.
My next planned move was to see Pokhara, a town in the mountains. Travelers often use it as a starting point for treks like the Annapurna Circuit, and I heard it was everything Kathmandu was not: tranquil, beautiful, relaxed. So I bought a bus ticket… and then I returned the bus ticket. I developed a ridiculous sore throat that kept me in bed for several days. As it turned out, however, it was a good thing I stayed in “the Kat” because a lot of logistics were in my near future. I got a message from a friend in India telling me she was getting married. This was shocking news because I knew she had no interest in marriage, but her parents arranged it. Yep, it still happens. She said she REALLY wanted me to come and reminded me of a promise I made to come back to India for her wedding. It’s true, I did say that, but I figured it would be awhile before she tied the knot. I already had a plane ticket to Laos, so I told her it probably wasn’t possible. But then I thought about it more and really wanted to try to make it happen… plus going to an Indian wedding was on my bucket list.
I went to the Thai Airways office and was able to cancel my flight with only a $40 penalty. Score. Plans subject to change, right? Ok, next stop: Indian visa office to apply for yet another tourist visa. I remember from doing it the first time that you have to be very careful on the four-page application because any errors will cause it to be kicked back. So I took great care when filling it out online, reviewing each page before continuing to the next. When I was done, I saved it to my USB drive and walked around the corner to a shop for printing. The next morning I haggled with a taxi driver to take me to the visa office where I pulled a number and waited my turn- a system that was surprisingly organized for both Nepal and India. When called, I walked up to the window and produced my application, photo of the proper size (yep, it has to be a specific, non-typical size), passport copies, etc. The woman hands me back my application and says the name on the application doesn’t match my passport. I forgot my middle name. I FORGOT MY MIDDLE NAME! How on earth did I do that? She unceremoniously handed everything back and told me to return tomorrow. I wanted to cry.
Of course I couldn’t just pull up my existing application and edit it- nope, I had to fill it out all over again. Then back to the copy place, then a return to the visa office the next morning. It was accepted, and the woman told me to come back in seven days to find out if it was approved. If so, I’d get my visa the following day. That’s eight days of waiting. No wonder people are discouraged from visiting India. China was bad with three trips to the consulate in Kuala Lumpur, including an interview where I had to lie to the government about visiting Tibet, but even that was better than India. I have a theory that it’s a weeding-out process. If you can’t get past the visa application, you probably won’t survive in the land that logic forgot.
Now I had a new logistical hurdle: the standard Nepali visa is only valid for 14 days, so I had to get an extension just to wait for my Indian visa and book a flight out. This meant going to the immigration office where I found out they only accept applications online (no mention of that on the website), but not to worry, they have a computer system in the office. So I waited in the long computer queue before moving on to the next long queue and finally ending up in yet another one to pay. Luckily I only had to wait about 20 minutes at the end of everything to actually get my visa extension. Great, logistics done! Well, sort of. Once I finally had my passport with Indian visa in-hand, I had to book my travel to Kolkata… but of course that wasn’t straightforward either.
I had been in touch with Dan the Aussie who was in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India. I told him he was welcome to join me for the wedding if he wanted to come to Kolkata. He was game. There were no direct flights available from Kathmandu to Kolkata, so I had to fly to Delhi where I’d meet Dan… somewhere… and then we’d take an overnight train to Kolkata. Ok, the convoluted plans were in motion (and trust me, I left out many details like jumping through hoops to buy the train tickets and getting “waiting list” status). Meanwhile I’d seen a lot of my hotel room walls, and a lot of government offices waiting for documents. Sadly I never did make it to Pokhara.
One morning in Kathmandu when I was feeling better, I went to Pashupatinath Temple with an Australian girl I’d met (sensing a trend here?). Pahsupatinath is a very holy Hindu site- not to be confused with the very holy Buddhist sites. Cremations are held quite often on the ghats of the river that flows through it, similar to the rituals in India. We happened to catch such a cremation and watched from the other side of the river. Wood was carefully stacked with brush on top for kindling, which smoked lightly. Then the plumes increased until it started smelling like a Sunday barbecue. That was my cue to relocate. There are two things I found interesting about the cremation site. Right next to the ghats is a cornea donation center, which I thought was really smart. But on the other side is a home for the elderly. Well, I guess it’s convenient? Perhaps their brochures read, “Walk in the front door and get carried out the back”. If not they should hire me.
And so rounds out my time in Kathmandu. It’s not exactly what I expected, but traveling rarely is. Sometimes it’s fun, inspiring and eye-opening. Occasionally it’s mind-blowing. But it can also be frustrating, lonely (especially when you’re sick) and downright sucky. Hopefully I’ll return to Nepal and get outside of Kathmandu to experience the beauty I heard about. Next up: my return to not-so-tranquil India. I sure didn’t think this would happen so soon! Sorry, Laos, I’ll have to save you for another trip.