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The International Writers Magazine:Nepal

Serendipity and Rickshaws
Sam Freedman

The voyage to this ethereal terrain had been anything but normal. Departing from New Delhi, I left behind the raw, musty smell of sweat covering every surface in India for the mystique of Nepal. Although relatively short – in the plane for only three hours – the air conditioning tasted not so much recycled as especially fresh and clean; at thirty-thousand feet, crossing over the highest point of land on the planet, even minor traces of industrial development remain practically nonexistent in the Himalayans.

As if I voluntarily put myself in an oxygen bar travelling faster than the speed of sound, so I have never taken a bona fide "breath of fresh air" until that moment – a situation that justly permitted me to clear my head.

Even more astounding than the air inside the plane was what lied outside of the small cabin. Rather than appearing as a discolored chessboard of light and dark green patches, the scenery was painted brown as far as the eye could see, and rested below the large sky dotted with fluffy, marshmallow clouds. The blue of the sky and the brown of the earth were of such a sharply contrasting hue, that the thin horizon line that separated the two stood as the only focal point out of my small window. This beautiful scenery endured, unchanged for over two hours until the loudspeakers crackled to life with the captain’s droning voice, "If you look to your left in the next few minutes, we will be flying at the same height as the summit of Mount Everest, so please do not crowd that half of the plane if you plan to take pictures. Enjoy!" Luckily, with a window seat, my only duty was to share my square foot of Plexiglas and suck in the awe-inspiring scenery with the rest of the travelers.

Everest, white and crackled as if from old age, stood perched high above all else, in what looked like a sea of clouds and snow. Appearing as if an omnipotent cook had taken a sugar shaker and strategically powdered the surrounding landscape, the mountain stood thousands of feet above the clouds – a hazy fog surrounding the peak that drowned out other not-so-noteworthy summits.

The two minutes ended before I comprehended the meaning of this behemoth, and before I knew it I felt the familiar screeching of rubber on the tarmac. I finally arrived in Kathmandu, the capital of this distant land, with the rest of my friends – all of us anticipating the month long respite from classes in India.

Arriving at my destination, the early morning light hugged my body, and in its warmth I grew excited by the fortuity of the future. Despite a visible lack of any security personnel (aside from the single border guard whose only purpose was to collect the thirty dollars required for entrance into Nepal), the airport felt like a prison. Comprised solely of richly colored red bricks, the structure jutted out toward the sky with as much authority as Mount Everest had minutes beforehand, but the airport did this ostentatiously, a forced plea for recognition.

During the bus ride from the airport, the clean air in the clouds was overpowered by that on the ground. Even with a single window open in the bus, half of my friends erupted in violent coughing fits only minutes into the brief ride. The cause – this brown, thick, dirty air – found victims in every person on that bus, even the native Nepalese.
Although the air did not smell as stale as within India, even on the clearest of days, it was so thick that I swam through it; it seeped into all of my pores. As the majority of Nepalese relied on bicycles for daily transportation, this pollution proved perplexing; and as the coughing fits never stopped, this air was unfortunately not something any of us would get used to.

Prior to my month long stay in Nepal, news spread in early October that the Maoists set off a series of bombs on various public buses; this was done as part of the ongoing power game because the Maoists wanted to scare the country into accepting their rule. So for the sake of our safety, the trip leaders notified us to avoid public transportation.

Because teachers advised me to keep away from public buses and the like, I had to navigate the city using alternative means. With my hotel on the northeastern edge of Kathmandu, I resigned myself to taxis and rickshaws as the only safe type of transportation. This was not a problem in theory, yet in truth taxis were expensive and rickshaws drivers were notoriously obstinate in negotiating and for periodically kicking Westerners out of their vehicles mid-ride.

The Khumbu Hotel, a cozy building in the outskirts of the city became my home during this month. Bordering the Boudhanath Stupa – the largest religious site of its kind in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site – the rooftop of the guest house commanded the greatest views of the surrounding metropolis. I stood at dusk huddled in the single dim light of the rooftop, admiring the beauty of this edifice; the bright white globular shape of the stupa glowed in a brilliant white, and in the moonlight, a slight yellowish color shone through. Staring at this giant structure, waves of invincibility and insignificance simultaneously tickled my body. Light-years away from anything familiar, I felt at home and in peace at that moment, despite the strangeness of this place.

Sucking in this culture, I ventured into the city with my roommate Rob, and Kate, a fellow student, after the sun had retreated behind the horizon. A quick taxi ride down dirt roads, slim alleyways and passing numerous religious sites, we arrived in Thamel, the tourist district. The street vendors, Thangka painting shops (traditional Buddhist artwork) and hookah bars all blended together as we walked through the town. The three of us wandered among countless shops selling Gorkha knives, knitted sweaters and illegally-copied DVDs until we were absolutely exhausted and lost.

Kathmandu seems paltry and pocket-sized, comprised of extremely thin alleys that run every which way; yet the city resembles something unnatural – somehow always dumping you back into a main area of the city. It simultaneously felt awkwardly large – maybe because I could not read any street signs (or their alphabet, for that matter) or maybe the city felt stifling at times. Whatever the case, feeling stifled, we hurriedly headed into the first building we saw. The very hip and crowded Israeli restaurant that we arrived at was crepuscular at best – candle lighting fought with strategically placed black lights – creating an aura of starkly-lit, yet barely-visible floor tables and lounge seating.

We staked our place amid a handful of Nepalese teenagers and a group of three Israeli-speaking men, all of whom glared at us as we awkwardly got comfortable. Serenaded by the familiarity of The Doors pouring into the room through the house speakers, I rolled cigarette after cigarette at our table, emulating those strangers sitting around me. Taking in this brief respite from the chaos outside, the three of us briefly sat in silence. With unexpected abruptness, Rob asked me why I enjoyed these chaotic travel experiences so much. I thought for a moment and then responded: "You see, I thrive and I live to the fullest in those spontaneous moments that could not have happened even with the most careful of planning. And even if some of those moments turn out badly, so be it; what about all of those moments that turn out for the better? That’s the real reason I enjoy living on the edge." And as I exhaled this statement, the words were shrouded in a large cloud of smoke hovering in the restaurant; but this was smoke that smelled not of cigarettes, but of hash – and the threat of prison.

Without hesitation Rob genuinely changed the subject to the smoke before us; "so do you like actively search out weed when you’re in a foreign country? Or do you always just stumble upon it?"
"Well…not really. It kind of just happens. I think that some days the stars are aligned and everything goes as hoped; but other times, it results from being in the right place at the right time. So it’s more of a passive thing. Yeah, I’m passively searching…"

Suddenly, as I contemplated whether what I had just said was entirely true, the Israeli caught my attention. In the periphery, I noticed the three of them began to stir, and I saw them stealthily pull out a small amber ball of some sort from their pockets and look it over with great satisfaction and anticipation. I smiled like a clown; I knew what was about to happen. As I ran through the conversation Rob, Kate and I had just finished, one of the Israelis placed a small piece of the orb into my palm. Trying to keep my cool, I kept my smile to a minimum, yet inside I was jumping like crazy. Hashish. Hash. Whatever you call it, I’ll take it! I could feel my heart beat and my pulse skyrocket, so I took a sip of my neon blue gin and tonic, brightly shimmering on the table from the black light nearby, to calm my nerves.

When Rob, Kate and I locked eyes once again, the three of us erupted in laughter at the unexpectedness of our dinner. Not only had I just explained that drugs seem to fall into my lap, but even so while I was contemplating that very thought! How unexpected this city is!

After concluding our meal, we walked back into a labyrinth of alleys, joking at the absurdity of asking someone to take us all the way back to our hotel in a rickshaw. By taxi, it took us around twenty or so minutes to get to here. But a bike rickshaw, that would be incredibly foolish – yet we were somehow drawn to it; completely absent of a motor, this little tricycle transportation toy guaranteed a slow joyride and the benefit of a cooling breeze from its open cabin. The draw of this awkward children’s toy proved too much, and amidst our laughter, Ishor, a lanky middle-aged Nepalese rickshaw driver emerged from this unfamiliar city. He accepted our spartan negotiations without complaint and saddled up his vehicle – the three of us in the backseat: Kate sprawled on top of Rob and I, with our school bags carefully balanced between our feet.

Ishor, who barely spoke English, held a smile on his face the entire ride, repeatedly saying "It’s okay, no worries, no problems," to us in between his breathing. He breathed heavier as time ticked by, and we saw him strain as he leaned forward at a forty-five degree angle to brace even the smallest of inclines in the roads; he was tired. Within the first ten minutes of the ride, the three of us noticed how hard Ishor was struggling, despite the fact that he kept his complaints to himself. Rob, the eternal gentleman, was the first to jump ship. He landed in the street running and began to push the carriage helping Ishor with the weight. Our driver insisted Rob sit down, but the three of us knew we paid him a meager wage and we should help. So Kate remained seated and Rob and I helped pushed the vehicle up countless inclines. After what seemed like an indeterminate amount of time, the four of us took a well needed break from this physical exertion, as the sweat was now pouring down our faces.

Wouldn’t it be unforgettable if we drove the rickshaw through the city? The opportunity flashed before my eyes, especially now that Ishor was no longer at the helm; before I knew it, Rob was seated at the handlebars, smiling from ear to ear, putting every pound of pressure that he could on the pedals even though moving the rickshaw proved to be a Pyrrhic victory; even with Ishor, Kate and I standing beside the vehicle, Rob strained and hardly moved it. In an instant, Kate took a picture as Rob lurched the contraption across an abandoned city thoroughfare; I saw his smile, he descended and she followed suit – pushing, smiling for a picture and then jumping ship. I’m next!

Ishor, who was now holding the bicycle so that it did not roll away, gave me a smile that showed his missing teeth and his wrinkled face; and in my excitement, I heard him utter those words I longed for: "It’s okay, no problem, no worries." Okay, I’m going for it. Before I caved in to self-doubt, I jumped on the rickshaw and pushed. As it began to crawl down this abandoned street, I saw a brief flash of light and with it, I knew that Kate had snapped my picture.

Without saying much, we went back to the familiar routine – Rob, Kate and I pushing as Ishor steered us safely along. And when we reached relatively level streets, we jumped back in, and Ishor shot us to our destination as quickly as he could, looking as happy as a child who just receives a brand new toy. When Ishor dropped us off – he insisted it was as far as he could take us this late at night – we dismounted and handed him five times the promised payment. Perhaps he had a family, but for the most part, I gave him the money because he had dealt with our drunk and juvenile antics without even a sign of discontent.

As Ishor drove away into the darkened fog of the night, although lost we marched along drunkenly without caring which way we were headed. There was no hurry to arrive at our destination – we would get there sooner or later.

I still recall Ishor’s features exactly. His fragile, tanned face laden with wrinkles, hinted at the wear and tear that he has endured in his life. Although he spoke only that small amount of English – barely a few key phrases for negotiations – his countenance displayed pure happiness despite his hardships. He practically suggested and egged the three of us to take over his ride for him. And over the course of the day, every chance happening remained necessary; the night stood perfectly.

However, I knew the night could have ended up otherwise. Because of my random meeting with the Israeli men at the restaurant and then our happenstance meeting with Ishor, because I smoked hash and because we paid money to push a rickshaw, that night was fraught with the possibility of failure. We could have run into those Maoist soldiers, or lost ourselves in these mazelike alleyways, or even been run off the road by incoming motorists; anything could have happened. But, that would have only added to the adventure and connection I was having with the city and its people. Sure, from an outside perspective, I was unsafe; sure I do fly by the seat of my pants; and perhaps I would have had as much fun without this sense of danger. But what the hell, at least I drove a rickshaw through Kathmandu and that’s good enough for me.

© Samuel Freedman May 2008

Author’s biography:  Samuel Freedman is a senior philosophy major at Villanova University.  He studied with the School for International Training, Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Program in the fall of 2007.

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