For the Love of the Mountains
The air turned cooler. The richness and variety of vegetation increased. As the bus turned around another bend, I caught sight of primary colored Tibetan flags fluttering in the air. My spirits rose. After 16 hours of strenuous travel, I was finally in the beautiful Himalayan kingdom of Nepal.
It felt as if I had been trapped in Delhi for an eternity; while in reality, it was just for a week. It all began when I had won a photo-captioning contest while studying psychology in a university in Tokyo. The prize of the contest was a free two week holiday in Delhi, the capital of India. I had been super-excited. For a young man of 18, I had already seen so much of the world! I was born and brought up in the alpine mountains of Colorado, but opted to study in Japan. I saw my affinity towards Japan as a consequence of being 1/8th Japanese (my maternal grandmother hailed from Japan).
Initially, I was exuberant about being in Delhi. I enjoyed the rich plethora of sights, sounds and colors that India had to offer. As 3 or 4 days passed, I started feeling overwhelmed by what I perceived as the congestion, lack of cleanliness and good manners in India. I missed Japan: a country where everything was neat and structured and everyone had impeccably good manners. In Tokyo city, I was pleasantly surprised to find cashiers apologize before taking money! I also found myself yearning for the high mountains and fresh air of Colorado. Delhi was vibrant and culturally rich, but I felt that if I stayed there for a moment longer, I would be sick. Maybe this was an overreaction on my part—something to do with my cleanliness fetish—but I suddenly was desperate to get away.
Luck was by my side. On my sixth day in Delhi, as I desultorily wandered around Old Delhi, I found a travel company offering a 7 day tour to Nepal for only 10, 000 INR! Of course, the company only covered charges for transportation to Kathmandu, hotel and food, but I thought it was a good enough offer. I could arrange for transport and make my own travel package once I reached Kathmandu. I knew a little about Nepal: it was a region of beautiful mountains and breathtaking scenic beauty. The population belonged partly to the Mongoloid race and resembled people of the Far East. Therefore, I felt that Nepal might be a suitable place for me as it seemed to have features of both Colorado and Tokyo (i.e. beautiful mountains and lovely people with high-cheek bones).
I purchased a visa for $25 for 15 days at border immigration and took a bus to Kathmandu. While seated in its air-conditioned interiors, I realized that I hadn’t let my friends know of my impulsive move of traveling to Nepal. They had known that I had won a trip to Delhi and had been really excited on my behalf. I meant to keep the trip to Nepal a secret until I returned to Tokyo as I was keen on springing it as a surprise on my friends. Some of my classmates had been to Nepal and spoke at length about their treks and adventure sports at Pokhara. I wanted to see vicarious joy register on their faces as I told them about my solo, unplanned adventures. My parents didn’t even know about my trip to India. I had hidden it from them as they had the tendency to unnecessarily worry about me. My parents were the least adventurous people on earth. As an only child, I had been fussed over, sheltered and over-protected by them until I had managed to get away to Tokyo a few months back. I loved my parents, but also cherished my independence.
As the bus penetrated into the interiors and reached the capital city of Kathmandu, I was a bit disheartened. As opposed to the fresh, pristine outskirts of Nepal, Kathmandu city was dusty, dingy and polluted. The streets were narrow: pedestrians and vehicles vied with one another to reach their destination. I hailed a cab and asked the driver to take me to Hotel Shiva located in the tourist hotspot of Thamel. The driver, a plump middle-aged man, obliged. During our half an hour drive to the hotel, he reassured me that I’d find untainted beauty again if I were to move a few kilometers away from the heart of Kathmandu city. I was overtly relieved. Yet a vague kind of uneasiness brimmed beneath the surface of my consciousness. I realized that the driver had positioned the front mirror in such a manner that he could sneak covert glances at me. That was downright creepy! I had never known a man to glance at another in this manner unless he was gay. Nobody in the US or Japan had ever stared at me in this manner. I dubbed the driver to be a homosexual.
I was ashamed of my own conclusions. I was perhaps judging this simple man from an underdeveloped country too harshly. He probably didn’t have too many foreigners riding in his cab, and was perhaps simply curious. My friends, both in the US and Japan, said I was blessed with “exotic” looks. Most of my descendents were French; hence my skin was white and hair a rare copper color. Yet the Japanese blood in me made itself conspicuous: I had a delicate, slightly feminine face, a lean and slender body and very little facial and bodily hair. My cheekbones were high and my tip-tilted eyes, a brownish black.
As I was lost in reverie, the driver turned into one of the dingy side lanes and stopped in front of a huge orange building. With creepers growing by its side and Tibetan dragons at the entrance, the building was quite a pretty one. However, in spite of its respectable façade, I got the feeling that this hotel was notorious and shady. Maybe the cheap bright lights at the exterior or the large number of local men standing and smoking near the gate gave me that impression.
I had a good mind to ask the cab driver to take me to another hotel. Then I remembered that this hotel had been paid for by the travel company. There was little I could do, without wasting my money.
I reluctantly walked into the hotel. An expressionless young man at the reception confirmed my booking. As I went over the details of my booking with him, I was acutely conscious of a trillion eyes gawking at me. A number of men—touts, drivers, cooks and restaurant staff perhaps—stood in the hotel lobby and stared at me. I felt a flush creep up my face and disappear into the roots of my hair. Ignoring the ogling eyes, I continued to interact with the receptionist.
My room was on the first floor. I carried my knapsack upstairs, congratulating myself on my decision to leave most of my belongings in Delhi and travel light to Nepal. As I was sprinting upstairs, I heard one of the hotel staff say something. It took me a second to realize that the words, spoken in broken English, were addressed to me.
I reluctantly dragged myself downstairs. The speaker, a nondescript man in a striped shirt and black trousers, said:
By the questioning lilt in his voice, I gathered that he was asking me if I had eaten dinner.
“Yes” I lied and continued to move upstairs. Though I was hungry, the prospect of sitting down to dine amidst those gawking eyes unnerved me. I went straight into my room, locked it from the inside, took a quick shower and jumped straight into bed. As sleep started overtaking me, I realized that I hadn’t even enquired if the hotel had Wi-fi facility.