The bright sun shines into the immigration hall, where we first need to purchase visas before gaining access to Nepal. Applying for a visa on arrival at Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu is easy. We simply wait in line for one of the kiosks, where we fill out our visa applications and submit them electronically. Next, we head to the payment counter to exchange our money for a visa sticker, which looks like it could have been made using Microsoft Powerpoint.
I take that back, it is a nice sticker, I am just upset because the border control agent uses up an entire page--when he easily could have just used half--when he affixes the sticker. We leave and this Uberless nation forces us to negotiate a fare with an actual cab driver. At least we think he is a cab driver. When we get him down to 600 Rupees (5 bucks) for the drive to our hotel, he shows us to a car with a driver already inside and hops into the passenger seat himself. Over the drive, he reveals that he is not a cab driver, but the owner of a local travel company. In other words, he is drumming up business of the out-of-town-tourist type by pitching to captive audiences in exchange for lower cab fares. I happily take his number, with hopes that we can use this off-season lull to catch a tour up to Tibet, but it becomes clear that trips to Tibet are more than just 4-hour car rides north, as Google Maps says it will be. After Nepal’s earthquake some years ago, your best way into Tibet from Kathmandu is a private chopper or commercial flight to Lhasa. As budget backpacker/blogger, I elect to remain in Kathmandu for the predetermined stretch of four days.
Our driver and de facto guide also mentions that Gai Jatra, a festival that both celebrates cows and the remembrance of the dead lost in the past year, will be taking place in the city, and recommends we check it out as he drops us in front of our hostel. After leaving our bags on our beds on the top of the 10-story walk-up, we do some shopping and ultimately join the parade of mourning Hindus converging on Durbar Square, the center of the festivities.
Though many are clearly lamenting the losses of loved ones, and some have even had T-shirts made with the name of the dead, the parade is also one big party. Kids dressed as lions are given candy and fruit, and large drums are beaten powerfully as masked men dance and flail. Flags of Nepal fly, and people are smiling, greeting each other as if to say it’s been awhile. From there we make a quick stop for momo, an authentic Himalayan dumpling, before arriving at Buddhist Swayambhunath stupa, known colloquially as the ‘monkey temple’ for the many small primates residing near the stupa’s path. The path leads up a steep hill, and my father and I take regular ‘monkey-watching’ breaks to hide our exhaustion from one another. One would think that climbing to the Tiger’s Nest would get us both in shape. As it turns out, exercise is not something you can do once a year and expect to reap the benefits.
What a scam.
After an evening dinner of vegetarian dal bhat, composed of small cups of curries with a large helping of rice, I sleep well despite a hundred-pound comforter that presses down on me like a panini press, yet still allows flesh-access for Kathmandu’s mosquito population. This is the penthouse hostel for which I paid six whole dollars. Despite obvious drawbacks, I can easily steal WiFi from the neighbors up here, and this four-day retreat in urban Nepal is starting to look like a great time to fall back into my early teenage habits of binging a Netflix show and forswearing normal society in favor of the digital.
Losing My Religion
The following day is spent in pursuit of the noble goals of catching up on blogging, and watching the entire first season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Spotty rain showers keep me focused, at least on the latter goal, and by the evening I am ready to hit the town. My dad, who has mentally recovered from his college years, wants to bar-hop, sample cheap beers and just generally treat the Kathmandu Valley as if it the Napa Valley. Since I have hardly recovered from my college years as an English-business major, I want to get drunk quickly, get drunk cheaply and--once drunk--I want to start considering life’s biggest questions like “who cleans up all the shit in the monkey temple?” and “how is my dad somehow less clumsy when he’s drinking?” After a warm-up beer in a reggae bar, I buy a dollar-pint of apple schnapps and a Mountain Dew, due to the unavailability of virtually every other mixer, and consume both bottles with my dad in our hostel lobby before heading to a nearby music venue and bar called “Purple Haze.”
We witness an impressive set performed by a local band, and are joined midway through by two men we had met at the reggae bar before. My dad begins chatting with them. They reveal they are Nepalese, but worked for the English military and now reside in Britain. My dad asks, half joking, if they were gurkhas, the elite Nepalese military unit recruited perhaps most notably by the English for operations in the Falklands and Afghanistan. One of our drinking buddies nods , and my dad is instantly starstruck at the idea of bar-hopping with who he believes to be some of the world’s deadliest men. I had only just heard of the gurkhas for the first time the day before, when I tried a Nepalese beer named after them. It was a little too harsh for my tastes. Kind of like an IPA.
The first band dismounts the stage, and the two international assassins and my dad decide to go to another bar. A few beers and most of a bottle of apple-flavored liquor convinces me that this night will surely end in some kind of adventure, so the ex-gurkhas take us to their friend’s place a few blocks away. I assume the joint will be some vets-only spot where only the toughest are allowed to enter, but we breeze past the bouncer who hardly seems to notice we are there. The bartender is chatting with her friend, and as we enter the main room we realize there is nobody there except for the band, strumming mostly American rock and folk songs to absolutely no one. Despite the empty room, they’re killing it. I take tiny, constant sips of my beer while I listen to the music, only taking a break to sing the entirety of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” I am the only one to sing along, while my dad goes into his thing about retiring, teaching coding, and travelling to fill the gaps. The gurkhas apologize for the empty bar and ask to pay for our drinks. My dad, instead, pays for their drinks for their service, though since they are paid mercenaries from Nepal, enlisted into Britain’s ranks, it is debatable as to whether we have any obligation to give our thanks. Or if our thanks is even wanted, for that matter. Evidently it is, though, because they accept the beers and bit us good night as the band plays their last song. Before the neighborhood of Thamel shuts down for the night, my dad and I split a large cone of french fries at a nearby fast food stand. I sleep and sleep well.
Birthdays, Deathdays, and All the Days Between
At approximately too early in the morning, the lone major site we have yet to visit still looms on the sunward horizon. Shree Pashupatinath is a temple and cremation site in the far part of Kathmandu, near the airport. Signs line the entrance, advertising this is a “no begging zone” as it seems that acts of charity really kill the religious vibe for some people. Admittedly, my nerves are calmed by this posting. Some days, beggars, scammers, and pushy peddlers are the only people I meet on this subcontinent and—though I am certainly a complete asshole for saying it—this really puts a damper on the trip and negatively affects the way I view these countries.
Of course, I am of the view that those in need should be helped, and we should be the ones to help them. There is nothing wrong with charity, or helping someone when they are down on their luck. And the arguments that “it’s the government’s job to take care of its people,” or that “these people should work to make money, not beg or badger good people” are particularly lame ones. Some of these countries have so much less opportunity, so much less support, than countries in the west that the only morally right answer is to give to those in need. In a country where most people have to scrap to stay alive, I shouldn’t be outraged when someone tries to con me, but the systemic song-and-dance of “where are you going?” and “where are you from?” is like getting your headphones knocked out of your ear or stubbing your toe. Once is annoying, but five times in a row can be frustrating, bordering on infuriating.
Beyond the “no beggars” sign, we buy our tickets and are approached by a man with a tour guide license around his neck. This scam is common in the region. People start showing you around, taking pictures for you, or sharing facts about the site and then demand payment. They all have a lanyard displaying their ID inside, and it seems unclear as to whether they work there or not. They never do, however, and their dubious IDs quite likely come from some print shop, or else can be purchased by anyone for a few rupees from the tourism board. Regardless, we take our walk with the man, who gives entertaining, and somewhat graphic, explanations of Hindu beliefs and values. Much more upsetting, however, are the human remains placed on platforms by the river below, either waiting to be cremated or placed on pyres, wafting skyward in real time. As the air fills with smoke, family members mill about. Few are grieving the loss, and most just look bored, annoyed they have to spend the entire day inhaling their dead relatives. Our guide explains that, sometimes, people in comas will be placed on the pyre, and will come alive when roasted over a medium-high heat.
“They cannot be saved,” he relates. “If they suddenly come back to life, they are witches, and must be burned anyhow.”
Next, we are introduced to a few men doused in orange, red and white paint, sitting on a ledge, cross-legged. Castrated at early ages to live unhindered by base sexual desires, they sit all day meditating and asking the higher powers for things that regular people cannot, in exchange for food money as they not allowed to do normal work. They give us bindis and perform rituals wishing us happiness and peace, then ask for a thousand rupees when we stand up to leave. Neither of us have a thousand, so we each give around fifty. As we walk away, our “guide” explains people “usually do as they say for fear of having a curse put on them.”
If they had told me about the curse before, I surely would have complied, but there are no ATMs wedged between the funeral pyres. When our guide requests an additional thousand rupees from each of us at the tour’s end, my father explains with a touch of bitterness and sarcasm, that he can’t pay the full amount, and that the guide should have told us about the pricing before rather than show up and just start guiding us.
The longer I think about it, the more I realize everyone in this story deserves to be cursed.
At night, which is the same day’s morning back in Connecticut, my mom is waking up to her sixtieth birthday. My dad and I call her from a restaurant in the heart of Kathmandu where we have to point to what we want on the menu, as the waiter speaks no English. For those thinking I’ve gone off the deep end, gushing at the romantic nature of my twisted, destinationless pilgrimage note this: no matter how far I wander, no matter where I go, I cannot outrun Ed Sheeran. Throughout our phone call, the greatest hits of the Irish crooner serenade us with songs we both got sick of years ago and I wonder if I will ever find a place beyond his influence. I am glad to hear my mother is well. She is eager to join the two of us in Japan the following week, and happy to relay some details about the wedding of one of my cousins, which I unfortunately had to miss while traveling through India. We fall asleep early as we have an early flight the following day.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.