My First Night in Kathmandu
I hate arriving in a new city after dark and Kathmandu was a good reminder as to why. The bus dropped me off several kilometers from the touristed Thamel district, where I hoped to find a cheap room. It was dark, cold and dusty, with no road signs or street lamps and I had no idea where I was.
A friendly Nepali recommended that I get off at the next stop, rather than go to the bus station which was even further away. This seemed like a good idea until the bus pulled away and I found myself standing in the dark by a busy road without a taxi in sight. Maybe I should have thought this through…
Worst of all, I didn’t know what a Nepali taxi even looked like and spent several minutes waving at passing families on their way home — they all waved back but looked a bit confused. Eventually I spotted the small unlit “Taxi” sign on a passing wreck of a car and was soon on my way for a quoted price of 200 rupees. I didn’t even bother to haggle.
Things were looking good for about five minutes and then we hit the traffic jam. It was a narrow, two-lane road and was backed up as far as I could see, which with all of the choking dust really wasn’t that far. We would sit in one spot for five minutes and then the line would move. My driver would start the engine, pull forward about ten feet and then shut it off again. To pass time, he played music on the stereo, repeatedly swapping flash cards to find the next Hindi pop hit.
After thirty minutes –and about 100 feet– the driver went to start the engine and, of course, the battery was dead. After waiting through several failed attempts at starting it and then watching him stare blankly at his cellphone for a minute, I helped him push the taxi to the side of the road while hundreds of car horns blared behind us. Thank you, DJ Park-n-Walk.
He demanded I pay 150 rupees as the hotel was only “200 meters that way” but I knew we hadn’t covered much distance so I gave him a 100-note and grabbed my bags. Finding the next taxi was easier, as all I had to do was walk down the line of stationary cars and find the next empty one. He wanted 200 rupees too.
But he knew the hotel I was looking for and after a few more minutes we passed the invisible barrier that was stopping traffic and we were on our way. Again. The 200 meters turned out to be over a kilometer and required four right turns and a shortcut down a dark alley that I wouldn’t have walked through alone if my life depended on it. I’d have never found the hotel on my own.
The hotel itself proved to be pleasant, clean and fairly cheap: a single room on the fourth floor with shower and TV only cost 600 rupees ($7.50 US), with the seventh day free. Best of all, they had a nice balcony restaurant where I enjoyed a cold Gorkha beer and a thin steak with mushroom sauce. It was the first meat I’d eaten in months and made it all worthwhile.
Now, I hadn’t watched television in months and was pretty excited to learn that they had cable, so I’ll admit that I practically ran upstairs to my room after picking up a couple of beers and some snacks from the corner store. And I quickly discovered that the room must have been a recently-converted meat locker — I could see my breath, it was so cold and damp. The brick and cinder-block buildings in Kathmandu have little-to-no ventilation or heat and never seem to shed the cold from the night before. I climbed into my sleeping bag, slid it under the quilt and reached for the remote.
There wasn’t much on –it’s true the world over– and I found that my favorite channel was one that showed devotional videos. They featured background images of waves crashing in the moonlight and would pan the camera all around and zoom to and fro, but there’s really only so much you can do to jazz up a video of a chanting 80 year old man. Eventually I found the one English-language movie channel and suffered through half of Keanu Reeve’s remake of The Earth Stood Still and then RoboCop. No wonder everyone hates America.
While watching RoboCop, I learned why it’s a mistake to stay in the heart of the Thamel district: the world’s worst classic rock cover band fired up at a bar down the alley and I was quickly overpowered by a painful rendition of Smoke on the Water. The guitarist was actually pretty good but the drummer had the wrong set-list and was playing Sweet Home Alabama. The singer was truly awful, screaming and slurring the lyrics in a pitch that had every dog in town howling.
I really shouldn’t be so tough on the guy, in retrospect, as he seemed to be self-administering a steak knife vasectomy at the same time and that level of multi-tasking takes real talent.
Looking back, I can remember being young and wise and proclaiming “if it’s too loud, you’re too old!” to anyone who would listen. I can safely say now that I’m too old. When the power went out, as it does several times a day in Nepal, I actually cheered. This being a common occurrence, they were prepared and started up a generator as the band launched into a blurry cover of No Woman, No Cry. I cried.
So when the generator finally ran out of fuel at 10:30, and the neighborhood went blessedly silent, I raised a lit lighter as a salute. And for the warmth.