I always had wanderlust. Perhaps it was all the books I read, or the movies I saw, or the stories I wrote in my head, but I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to see things. New things. Scary things. Different things. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I found myself able to truly test out my wings and land myself in all sorts of situations. Even as I write this, so many things are running through my brain, and I want to share them all – these corners of my soul that I found these last years searching. But even with a language with billions of ways to express one’s self, none are enough for what I want to say; and some of the things I’ve seen and learned and loved are just to delicate to even articulate. But let me try.
When I was 20, after a few particularly difficult years, I came to this realization that life is just a brief, terrible, wonderful moment of beauty in which you move in the world, and the world moves in you. The day that came to me, I wrote it down and I said: And oh how I’ve moved, and how I hope to move – move like wild fire. Move through the world; and I feel I have been burning ever since.
Travel, discovery and adventure are just one side of this flame. And one trip in particular served as a fantastic example of letting that side of the flame light the whole room.
Last year, from late September to early October, I went on a solo trip to Nepal. Earlier in the year, I had done other outdoorsy trips and got into a lot of strength-building habits (camping on the beach and trekking through valleys to see indigenous people in Palawan; exploring the temples in Siem Reap; swimming with whale sharks in Donsol; hitting the weights a little harder at the gym; and rock climbing in the city). I had officially fallen madly, madly in love with the outdoors. I remember at one point, standing on the sidewalk in Singapore, looking directly above me into a canopy of trees, closing my eyes and imagining rushing waves, the sound of cicadas, the backdrop of Palawan with no one else but my friend and myself, a tent, and our backpacks. I opened my eyes and brought them back to street level and felt my heart sink. There were no rushing waves – just rushing cars, no cicadas – just cross walk lights bleeping, no backdrop of Palawan with its beaches and tropical rain forests – just the urban jungle in all its concrete boxed glory. I knew then that I had to plan something “epic.” Nepal had been on my bucket list for years, and so I thought – well…there’s no better time than the present. So I booked my flights, made a few itinerary plans, and thought, well you know…let’s leave the rest to the moment. With that, I packed my bags and headed for my yogi homestay in Kathmandu. I had no expectations, and no clue what I was about to get myself into. All I knew was Nepal was this exotic place of physical challenge and spiritual Nirvana, and I needed to have a piece of it. I just kept thinking, maybe my final answers will be there.
Upon arrival in Nepal, I was greeted with an hour and a half long immigration line. At the end of it were three men sharing a booth…stamping and reading documents and passing them back and forth to each other. Certainly the height of efficiency. …I kid. They were kind, though. And insistent that I was local. “You not Nepalese?!” they kept asking me incredulously – like the answer would change, and like my passport would lie.
I was picked up at the airport by Visnu – one-part veteran Tour/Trekking Guide, and one-part my homestay mama’s life partner. I sat bitch on his motorbike with my hiking pack strapped to me, and got my first taste of the city.
Dusty. Vibrant. Wild. Crowded. Alive.
When I got to the home-stay, I was shown my sleeping pad, and my corner, and my home-stay mama, Sofi, and Visnu, both sat me down with a map of Kathmandu City as we mapped out what the rest of my day would be like, and what my coming trek would turn out to be. I had 4 hours to explore before having to be back in time for dinner (and before full on nightfall).
The bus system in Kathmandu is…interesting, to say the least. Mostly made up of makeshift white Pregio vans with their doors falling off, signs written exclusively in Nepalese tell you where buses are going, and bus stops are not always properly marked so you kind of just have to…flail your arms or whistle as one drives by with the money collector hanging half out, bills wrapped round his fingers like a fan as he waves and calls out names of destinations like an auctioneer. As a tourist, I had no clue what I was doing really, but I remembered the name of our stop, and I knew the name of where I was headed. So I knew I’d at least be able to get back and forth. Somehow.
Remnants of a real bus stop in Nepal.
My first Nepalese landmark was Big Buddha – a small temple/area of worship with three big buddha statues.
A little walk aways from that is the Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath Stupa). When I first entered, I came through the back where there was barely anyone. I bumped into a few worshipping monks, and a couple of the monkeys tried to get their hands on my hand sanitizer (which was hanging from my camera bag), but it was generally a very peaceful experience.
I got a full view of Kathmandu Valley from there – or at least, one area of it. And it was beautiful.
Once you walk down to the front, though, the temple gets crowded with tourists, vendors, monks, and worshippers. Prayer wheels spin constantly and monkeys power trip around the smaller stupas.
I must have spent two hours there in total. I realized a little late that that might be an issue in terms of daylight and made haste to go back home where we celebrated another girl’s birthday (and departure for India) over homemade paneer, and chicken. The paneer was wonderful and gave me just enough strength for what was coming next.
Initially Visnu, who besides guiding treks owns a company that organizes full-on tours and has a staff of ready guides, had told me he would assign a guide to me. However, on the day, he came to pick me up and let me know he would do it himself. This was good news to me, because I’d like to think these days I’m a pretty good judge of character, and if I was going to be on a trek all alone with a guide, Visnu would be a good choice. He at least was clearly experienced, with legitimate testimonials to back him.
We started the day early, got on a bus that took us to our starting point, and began our journey. We were going to do a 3 day trek. The first day would involve walking through the valley and mountains from Kathmandu City to Chisapani, at which point we would stop to rest overnight at a tea house*, and catch the sunrise over the Himalayas before continuing our journey to Nagarkot.
That first day was amazing. Admittedly, I was undergoing culture shock, and sensory overload, and I was drinking it all in like I had been thirsty all my life, but now in hindsight I see it all through such clear lenses, and I know that while I was experiencing it, it felt wild and dangerous and utterly beautiful.
Day 1 involved a lot of moving through tiny towns.
It was a 30km day or so, all uphill, and by the end of it I didn’t even realize but we had ascended 1.5km in a day. When we stopped to rest before the final stretch (after photos on the summit), Visnu asked if I was feeling strange at all, and I wasn’t. He said this was a good sign that I should do a lot more climbing in the future. Haha.
As we emerged from the trail on the final stretch, entering Chisapani, the sun had just hit golden hour and everything was bathed in this ethereal twilight. In the distance you could see the Himal. The daunting ridges of those gorgeous mountains. I think my heart skipped a beat when I looked.
We stayed in a pretty tea house owned by an old friend of Visnu’s who has been housing his clients for years. At only $4/night, I got my own room with a balcony and an unobstructed view of the sunrise over the Himalayas. What. A. Steal.
That’s not to say it didn’t have its downsides, though. The door was only lockable via a padlock, and could be locked both from the outside and the inside. Also, there was a massive spider that had colonized the shower side of my bathroom, which was made up of cold tiles, and had no warm water. I also just kept going back to Sofi’s reminder not to open my mouth under the shower or brush with the tap water (even locals got upset stomachs from the taps), though I did feel that up in the mountains with the fresh spring water, it should have been less of a problem.
These things together, though, did remind me to double check for an exit plan when they toured me around the tea house and showed me my room. (I figured the balcony wasn’t too high and imagined that I could easily scale down to the ground if I had to escape. After I felt sufficiently confident in my emergency escape plan, I knew I could enjoy the time more.)
That night we feasted on chapati and momos – Nepalese dumplings made with your choice of meat (mutton or chicken was my favorite), served with a Nepalese version of patatas bravas, and a pinkish light sauce and a spicier chili sauce. Delicious. All this with the standard tea, of course: Milk Masala Tea.
I went back to my room after and tried to sleep, but by then temperatures had dropped significantly and my cold bed was moist from the cold humidity of Kathmandu. There was never electricity to run a drier, and never a day rain-free enough to sap all the wetness from any fabric. Thus, I lay for hours in my (insufficient) coat, in and out of sleep and fitful dreaming.
When I woke I had a spider bite on my arm, and felt heavy-headed and sleep-deprived, but outside the first rays of light beckoned. I stepped out onto the balcony with my camera and witnessed that long-awaited, highly hyped up sunrise. And it was worth it.
After breakfast, Visnu and I headed out to start the day early. He warned me that Day 2 would hold more precarious treks. Much would be downhill, but more than half the time we would be walking through jungle on barely-visible paths. There are tigers out there, and if you’re quiet we might actually see one! was his constant mantra. Along the course of the trek, I also came to know that there are also jaguars, some sort of leopard, deadly snakes, wild boar, and bears. As we walked I constantly reminded myself of the odds. The odds were in our favor, really. These animals were mainly nocturnal, and would be smart enough to steer clear of anywhere humans spent much time. Still, when we bumped into three village people who were freaking out, it didn’t take long for me to realize that one can really never be too careful. Or…prepared. And that there was just no room to be cavalier out there.
When the villagers left us after much worried arm flailing, Visnu broke a thin branch off a tree (perhaps the circumference of my forearm) and handed it (all 3 feet of it) to me wordlessly. At our next pitstop he explained there had been tiger sightings, and a rogue leopard. That day.*
We made it out of the jungle into the small town some kilometers away from Nagarkot in one piece, though. A relief. And we were immediately met by a breathtaking view of rice fields and paddies as we walked. Along the way we met an old woman from America named Mickey, who was in what she called her Third Quarter Life Crisis, and was on a “sabbatical from adulthood.” She had just spent three months in Pakistan and China and was spending another month in Nepal before moving on to India for a week and Africa for four months. What a crazy Grandma Indy Jones she was. Upon arrival in Nagarkot, Visnu left Mickey and I to trade stories over Masala Chai, while he fixed arrangements for accommodations. Sofi and a few other girls would be joining us there and doing the last leg of the trek with us. It was going to be fun.
That night we stayed at a real lodge. For only $8/night this time, we got a suite that had room for Visnu, Sofi, Sonja and Adele from France, and Jem from Australia. We touched base at the lodge bar, shared stories over local homemade millet wine, and chowed down on dal, paneer, and curries.
After dinner, we were randomly invited into the lodge garden to celebrate over a bonfire with some young Nepalese men sending their friend off to university in Melbourne. Flowing beers, millet wine, and music. I was briefly reminded of home. Tired from the trek though, I was happy to head to our room early with Jem and Adele, where we indulged in some girl talk before going to bed.
Day 3 began early again, but this time I was well rested. Sonja woke us and we all groggily found ourselves on the common veranda of the lodge, watching a cloud-shrouded sunrise over the Himalayas. Though the day before had been much more spectacular for me, standing there on the deck with these three other women and my sweater, just being in the moment, was nice too.
We took our time that day, enjoying Nagarkot before we made our way back down to Kathmandu first via trek, then via the top of a bus* (sitting on its roof, holding on for dear life as we careened along steep and winding tree and cliff-lined roads), and then via trek again.
When it was all over, we went straight to dinner in the City, just in time to see the Princess at Durbar Square. Once a year, they reveal her there – at Durbar Square, in Patan. It’s a massive festival where locals gather and celebrate, and call out and dance. It was truly an experience.
The next morning was my last day on this short trip – oh too brief a treat, it was. That day I prioritized the Hindu temple Pashupatinath, where I bore witness to an amazing religious ceremony (a cremation), and was able to see first hand just how Nepalese Hindus worship.
The holy men even shared their chapati with me for lunch.
It was beautiful.
And then it was over.
On the plane ride back to Singapore (via Bangkok), I remember feeling overwhelmed, and numb. I had been waiting for an epiphany, but hadn’t gotten one. I had gone in not really knowing what I wanted, expecting the answers to questions I wasn’t even asking to surface. I was expecting enlightenment, instead I got bruises, and spider bites, and memories of power outages, and mildew. I had loved it – the strain, the new relationships, the alone time, the meditative feeling of walking…and walking…and walking, of pushing your body because if you didn’t…you wouldn’t make it.
But Nepal stayed with me. The place of many firsts – first solo trek, first completely solo backpacking trip, first visit to Nepal, first glimpse of the Himal, first sunrise over a mountain ridge, first taste of those flavors*, first bus-top ride, the list goes on.
Funnily enough, it wasn’t ’til I was sitting on the plane again in December headed home for Christmas that it hit me like a wall, and a wave of nostalgia for this gorgeous place, and these one-of-a-kind experiences surfaced and has been difficult to quell since. I am dying to go back, or to try a longer trek one day soon.
*which is what they call inns in Nepal
*later on, upon returning to the City, there was news of Tiger-related deaths. Though this is not something I take to heart, it is something I try to bear in mind for future reference and as a reminder that life is precious and any moment could be your last so you have to live it well.
*well, Sofi and Visnu rode in the bus…but the rest of us rode on top of it and clung for dear life.
*Nepalese food is a lot like Indian, just a little more muted, with random, interesting traces of almost-but-not-quite Chinese (Tibetan?) influence. And. Nepalese TEA…well that stuff is special. I brought home at least a kg of different kinds (both for keeping and as gifts).