Barely seconds in the country, while the plane was creeping through the runway in search of its usual disembarkation spot, I peered outside the windows at the airport personnel with their caps and sunglasses, wondering if I should have brought a cap for the sun. It was noontime and the heat looked fierce.
Off the plane, a few turns took me into a wide and carpeted low-ceiling room where queues were multiplying in length with each passing moment. I had done some research and had a vague sense of what to do for the immigration and visa-on-arrival process. After paying the USD$100 fee for a 3 month tourist visa, I fell in line to get my stamp from an immigration officer.
Eager to explore and begin — begin what, I don’t know — I took a flight of stairs down to where dozens of local porters were approaching new arrivals to offer trolleys or help with luggage, in exchange for tips, of course. I was glad to not have to wait for any checked bags.
Ignoring the porters’ calls, I took a beeline for the exit, exchanged USD$10 into Nepali Rupees on the way out, and noticed all the waiting taxi drivers announcing “Taxi!” trying to drown out the competition. Offers of “Rs700 to Thamel!” (“Rs” being shorthand for Rupees) were nonchalantly given as I passed them. Some sources online told me they would go even below Rs500 for Thamel if you bargained for it. Roughly, USD$1 is RS100, or Php50 (Philippine Pesos).
Thamel was usually the first and last destination for majority of tourists in Nepal because of its proximity to the airport, but more importantly because of the number of tour agencies, guest houses, hostels and hotels in the area. Not arriving with much plans, I settled on spending a few days in Thamel to get settled in and work out the “What, where, when and how” of my first 3 months.
Instead of taking a cab, I left the airport and looked for the highway, which was a 10 minute walk due West. I had information to take a bus to Ratnapark from where I’d have to walk another 15 minutes to get to Thamel. Most people I asked didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Nepali, so I only said “Ratnapark” repeatedly to different people until they pointed me to their own two feet and showed me an open palm with fingers skyward — a universal sign for wait, perhaps?
My earlier worry about the noontime heat had been misplaced. It was cold in the shade and pleasantly warm under the sun. Winter was just passing.
I didn’t have to wait 2 minutes for a mini-bus to zoom to a stop in front of where I stood with a Nepali youth hanging with half his upper and lower body outside the vehicle, waving and shouting the names of places the bus was passing through. It took a second longer for me to realize he had said “Ratnapark,” with a thick accent I wasn’t very used to. It sounded more like “Rut-nuh-puk” to my Filipino ears, but my synapses had made the connection.
I clarified with him, and then with the driver once inside, and took my seat behind him beside a kind old lady who shared with me a pleasant, albeit short exchange of the 10 English words she knew and translated for me how much I owed the “conductor/bus boy” for the trip. “Rs20,” she said. I gladly took a small bill from my pocket and gave it to the bus boy, who held a thick wad of cash and counted it frequently.
The bus creaked into gear and we took a terribly dilapidated highway full of potholes and mismatched sections, not unlike Manila’s EDSA and perhaps even worse. The roads and buildings were covered with thick layers of dust. Never have I been to a dustier city. 3 out of 5 people wore cotton facemasks in different styles and colors, some, those light blue and white hospital masks. I told myself I would get one. Already my teeth were feeling gritty just sitting in a bus for 30 minutes.
Despite having lived through some chaotic experiences in bus terminals in years past, nothing had prepared me for Ratnapark. I got down with all the passengers: it was the last stop. It was a long expanse of people shuffling and zigzaging around 6-8 buses abreast as they loaded and unloaded passengers: some with only a small backpack, others with tall baskets and sacks of rice, potatoes or onions.
Hawkers on bicycles with wide steel baskets an arm’s length in diameter sold bananas, oranges, pomegranates, among other fruits. Others sold these curious looking light brown spheres with an assortment of other fillings like what seemed to be popped rice, diced onions, cilantro, tomatoes and a dark broth.
The whole terminal was open sky and had no infrastructure except for the tiny bus stalls and a toilet on the north side. It was dry and uneven dirt beneath our feet with not a blade of grass in sight. It wasn’t surprising, considering how hard the buses and feet worked the soil. No lanes or markings meant the buses and people passed over every inch from wall to wall.
I was the only foreigner for miles, it seemed, not quite blending in with my backpacks among 300 locals at the terminal scurrying to and fro. I stepped to one side and brought out my phone to try and get my bearings right with the map I had saved of the area and the path to Thamel. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out which way was north.
There were two opposite lots as big, if not bigger, than the terminal. I was looking for a green field of trees and grass to mark as south of where I was. But all I saw was another dusty brown field. I had begun doubting I was in the right place. After clarifying I was in Ratnapark with several locals, I started saying “Thamel?” to others and after realizing I was saying it wrong, quickly adjusted my pronunciation and set off to the general direction they told me to go.
I had about 11kg on my back with another 3kg in front — a little more than I wanted, but I also had about 1kg of snacks, which I ate gradually over the days. Walking a few kilometers with all my things was a piece of cake: up and down a few footbridges, across crowded streets and hawkers selling everything from Chinese-made clothes and hiking gear to street food, souvenirs and incense. I asked “Thamel?” at every crossing and knew I was going in the right direction — a few kilometers north, and a few more due west.
The streets were narrow once I got off the main highway — about 2 meters wide — and riddled with locals on foot, on bicycles, pedicabs and motorcycles with the occasional taxi or truck. Buildings were about 4 to 8 floors high and packed close together like cigarettes in a fresh pack.
Some alleyways between buildings were wide enough for only 1 person to walk through. The streets were all dirt road and rubble, as if the catastrophic earthquake had only happened yesterday, so they demanded attention else pedestrians and motorists twist an ankle or hit a pothole.
I had a feeling I had hit Thamel when locals started asking me if I needed a place to stay: “Hotel, sir?” or “You need a guesthouse, sir? Come this way, I’ll give you a good price.” After politely declining because I already knew where I was heading, some of the same people whispered, “Marijuana? Hashish?” as I shook my head and walked on.
I asked some of the men standing outside their shops if they knew my guest house and was pointed to the right direction, through several sharp turns and narrow passageways. I was to pay Rs300 (Php150/USD$3) per night. It made sense that it wasn’t located on a main street.
I found my guesthouse, checked in, and took the rest of the day at a leisurely pace — walking lazily around Thamel in flipflops, pants and a jacket. It was getting colder as the day creeped on. I took in the sights and sounds as best as I could without tumbling over the uneven ground and got some supplies like water, instant coffee, food, and a beer. I took everything back and enjoyed a good read, the beer and the sunset on the common-area-rooftop of my place on a table with some chairs.
The start of a trip always feels amazing. The infinite possibilities; not knowing where I’ll end up or who I’ll meet, what I’ll do or what I’ll learn — about Nepal, about the world, about myself.
(Photos to follow)