Exhausted does not even come close to describing how I felt this morning. Yesterday’s break-of-dawn start rolled into something of an all-nighter as I waited for my 6:30 am flight from Delhi to Kathmandu. Admittedly, the experience did go by more quickly than I had anticipated, but by 5 am, right before boarding, I was thoroughly defeated. I couldn’t keep my eyes open to read and had to stand up by the boarding doors at my gate just to keep from falling asleep and getting left behind. My seat was in front of the exit row and thus did not recline. So one long plane ride and 26 hours after leaving Darjeeling, I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal as sleepy as anyone has ever been.
Interestingly, scientists have not pinpointed the purpose of sleep. They know that it has many physical, emotional, and mental benefits, but they do not know exactly why we sleep or why we need the quantity that we do. What they do know is that without sleep you will die and there is a pattern to the behaviors of a person in need of sleep. Mild symptoms set on at first, like soreness, anger, depression, and lethargy (obviously), but similar to hypothermia, the most worrying symptom in the early stages of sleep depravation is poor decision making.
And there I was in Nepal’s biggest city, tired and loaded with a very compromising irrationality. My goal was to get to Pokhara (the second largest city) by nightfall and fortunately I had all day to do so. I argued with the pre-paid taxi drivers and still got hustled by a tout at the airport who when I said “Take me to Thamel” heard “Take me to your travel agency in Thamel”. In getting to Pokhara, a travel agency was certainly what I needed, but this agency only served tourists and the only tourist busses in the area had left an hour earlier. They advised a private plane ride through the Himalayas, so I bid them adieu.
30 hours after leaving Darjeeling, I managed to negotiate my way onto one of the local (and oft ill-advised) public busses from Kathmandu to Pokhara. The service is run by a series of enterprising individuals, each armed with a van, crafty salesmanship, and nothing but time. Their objective is to fill their van as completely as possible at all times and to charge people as much as they think they can pay for their journey. There are no set prices or routes or policies.
For an hour or so we drove around Kathmandu looking for more passengers. It was a good opportunity for me to see some of the city and get a brief but extensive tour for free. Culture shock is always measured in deltas not absolutes. Kathmandu is and was very different from the US but only slightly so from any major Indian city. Take India, replace some of the motorbikes and sedans with jeeps and vans and tea with coffee, speed up the people but slow down the traffic, replace desert with mountains, add more diversity (specifically from central Asia), and put a smile on everyone’s face – that’s Nepal. It is still a far cry from anything in the west, but is no more different from Delhi than Mumbai is. First impressions, but I think they are pretty accurate.
With a full car we departed on the six-hour drive to Pokhara. I was warned that the public van drivers were more erratic with their driving and more apt to stop for food and unannounced breaks, and that criticism, in this case, was absolutely valid.
We made a total of three stops where we all disembarked so that the driver could get some snacks or eat at a restaurant or go to the bathroom after eating at a restaurant, and we curbed our vehicle for just about every local cucumber or berry seller along the 200 km stretch. Like so many others in our van, I had nothing but time, so these breaks were fine.
What was not okay was our drivers aggressive pace and manner on the mountain roads leading to Pokhara. As frequently as we stopped, the trip should have taken 7-8 hours but instead it took 6. Our 10-seater/16-passenger van (remember this is still Nepal) broke 120 km on the downhill straightaways and passed by every vehicle on the road. The most nerve-racking moments were when our driver would pass trucks on blind turns. If another vehicle were to come around the bend at any of these moments we would be trapped with the option of crashing into the neighboring truck, crashing into the on-coming car, or careening off of the cliff. (Edited Aside: I found out today, May 9th, that on this very day another van went off the edge of one of these cliffs and all 15 passengers died; these dangers are real). We slowed at one point to rubber neck at two trucks that hit each other head-on and had become fused together in a compressed blend of metal, plastic, and glass, but then resumed our manic pace. Somehow in that moment our driver both acknowledged and ignored the perils of our situation – blissful, informed ignorance. It should go without saying, that my insomnia was extended.
I kissed the ground upon departing in Pokhara and was tempted to take a hand drawn rickshaw to my hotel in order to bring my average speed for the day down from “willfully reckless” to “foolish”.
Pokhara is beautiful and I have fallen in love with my hostess who very well may be the most kind-hearted and sweet human being on the planet. Big eyes, big smile, big heart, from what I hear it is common of Nepalis. I am currently in the Lakeside district of the city nestled between mountains hidden in fog and green hills. One of the hilltops has another Japanese Peace Pagoda (#2 out of 70 that I have seen) and gives the view a very personal sense of familiarity. I can already tell that I am going to like it here.
I spent the night at a local restaurant with my fellow hostel mates discussing our travels. For the first time in my life, I was the most well traveled in the group. I gave advice on what to do in Thailand and where to stay in London. The new identity is most likely going to be very short lived as we get more guests tomorrow night, but it was good to fit into the role for a few hours.
Tomorrow, I am going to explore the town and find some good hikes, but for now I am going to get some much needed sleep.