I’ve really been missing international travel lately. Of course I miss international travel anytime I’m not actually traveling internationally, but I seem to be in a real funk about it lately. Whatever the reason, I’ve been spending more and more time thinking about all the trials, tribulations, adventures and downright comical things that have happened during my prior travels. Thinking about that of course just makes the withdrawals worse. Such a viscous cycle. Fortunately I’ll be traveling again in the not too distant future and can break that annoying cycle!
Something I always love about recounting previous travel experiences is the fact that the things I remember most are never the “big” things I expected to remember before I left. Instead, I always treasure those little moments along the way that made me laugh or something that touched me in a way that changed the way I saw the world.
One thing Jason and I learned in very short order was that nothing will happen the way you think it will in Nepal, nothing. Even while traveling around Mexico, Europe, South America and other Asian countries, things don’t tend to happen exactly the way you think they will. Well, Nepal and India can take it to an entirely new and unattainable level of lunacy. If you don’t have a good sense of humour and some legitimate patience, it can be downright maddening and your trip will be nothing more than an exercise in frustration. If you do have those things, which fortunately we do, it will definitely make for some of the best experiences and most entertaining stories you’ll ever have. I don’t think I’ve ever been more frustrated or laughed so hard as during my times spent in Nepal and India.
The first thing we learned when we landed in Kathmandu was that regardless of what you want or need, there will be a problem, that’s a guarantee.
For example, once we collected our backpacks from the carousel inside the terminal, we exited and immediately had to sort through a rabble of aggressive taxi drivers to secure one that seemed reasonably safe. When I say safe, that’s relative because there is no such thing as a safe driver in Nepal. Then comes the price negotiation portion of the transaction whereupon you suggest a price, he suggests a price, you counter, he confers with the other forty drivers intently listening in to the negotiations and then comes back with another counter offer. You counter again, he counters again while his team of syndicators await, and finally you somewhat agree.
Once the price is set, there is joyous discussion amongst the other drivers (spoken in Hindi or Nepali), and then you begin to think you just got screwed. You think that until you realize you just spent ten or fifteen minutes negotiating this guy down a total of USD $0.10 for a half hour taxi ride. Regardless, within seconds you and your backpack are unceremoniously packed into a taxi about the size of a medium sized ottoman. Oh, and lest we forget that some other dude will invariably get in the taxi, someone who was never part of the negotiations.
One driver, one mystery guest, two passengers, one mechanically challenged taxi the size of a nightstand, two oversized backpacks stuffed with climbing gear, no command of the language whatsoever, all in a chaotic city you have absolutely no clue how to navigate…yeah, awesome situation.
So, once we were stuffed into the taxi like sausages, we repeated our request to be taken to an intersection in some neighbourhood we could barely pronounce where we think we can find a hostel. That was our first introduction to the phrase we affectionately came to simultaneously love and loathe for the next couple of months…”I am sorry sir, there is a problem”.
The “problem” was naturally multifaceted. First, we were told that there were no hostels in the area we requested. This was bogus and we knew it, or sort of knew it. Okay, we hoped there was. There, I said it.
We firmly restated our request to be dropped off at that intersection. It took some time but we finally made it clear where we wanted to go, and that he would take us there, or we would get out. Getting out was certainly a crappy plan B, but it’s what we had.
Then, we had the problem of having to drop off this mystery passenger before we got dropped off. Not surprisingly, our mystery passenger was a would-be “trekking guide” and we needed to stop by his shop so we could be convinced that we could not travel anywhere in Nepal without his services. Bogus. Once again we insisted that we be taken to our intersection or else we’d get out.
We finally got to where we thought we needed to be and got out — only to be accosted by another regimen of aggressive taxi drivers ready to repeat the process.
Hostels, always a problem. Bus travel, always a problem. Everything is a problem. The Nepali people are always rather nice, but there are always those words, regardless of what we did…“I am sorry sir, there is a problem”. After two months of travel in Nepal we became very accustomed to things always being a problem. In fact, problems were so frequent it got to a point where they weren’t really a problem anymore.
As we neared the end of our stay in Nepal, we were back in the Kathmandu Valley (though not staying in Kathmandu proper) and decided that we wanted to go back to a little café in the city we’d found in our first few days in the country. We liked it because they brewed real coffee and NOT Nescafe, though we’d disturbingly grown to love Nescafe over time. There was also a little Tibetan bookstore right next door to the café and we wanted to hit that up one more time to exchange some of our books before we left for India.
The way meals are sometimes served in Nepal are in “sets”. You can get a Nepali “set” which usually consists of dahl, rice, saag, naan, curry and various other things. Basically a “set” is like ordering one of those value meal things from a Wendy’s or Burger King or something similar. Essentially you get certain foods all bundled up for a reduced price instead of having to order everything separately. The most interesting set we encountered was in up northwest Nepal when we saw a sandwich board proudly advertising the offering of a “Vagitarian Set”. We obviously knew it meant vegetarian, but that one had us both in stitches, and we knew we had to go in and have it.
Well, our little café there in Kathmandu offered something called an American Set. The meal consisted of two eggs served any style, bacon (I hoped was some kind of pork), toast, sausage (again, I hoped it was pork), the always misspelled hasbrowns (hashbrowns) and a large pot of black coffee. A large pot as defined in Nepal was about as big as a Vente sized cup from Starbucks. The food there had been consistently good, the service was always friendly and they had a little outside area where we could sit, write and watch the madness in the streets of Kathmandu unfold. Oh, the entire meal for both of us was around USD $5.
When we went inside this time we immediately noticed the waiter had changed. This wasn’t a huge surprise given that we’d been gone a while, but we were a little disappointed since we’d sort of gotten to know the person who worked there before and he would always recognize us when we came in and knew what we wanted before we even asked. It was kind of a nice to have a “family” of sorts there since we were so far from home.
Anyhow, the new guy was also very, very nice and just as welcoming. We ask if we could sit outside, which of course we could, and just like always, there were only about two or three other local people eating there. Keep in mind the entire place probably seated around ten at most.
We got situated and the super nice new guy comes over, greets us with the customary “Namaste” and asked us in very broken English if we’d like tea. We returned the pleasantry and instead ordered our large pot of coffee, the very reason we’d come back. He smiled, said “very good sir” and off he went.
When he returned with our coffee he asked if we were ready to order our food, again, in very broken English. We told him we’d each take the American Set. Here’s where things went off track, just like we knew it was destined to do.
Keep in mind that the American set featured two eggs, any style. Jason ordered the American Set and requested wheat toast, his only special request. I also ordered the American Set, but I requested scrambled eggs and wheat toast. Our waiter was genuinely delighted, scribbled something down on a small sheet of paper, smiled his enormous smile which showed all his pearly white teeth, bowed slightly, said “Very good sir!”, and off he went to put in our order.
About five minutes later, I could see our waiter making his way from the kitchen area back to our table. His mannerism told me straight away there was going to be a problem. His shoulders were slouched, his head hung low and his pace was slow and shuffling. He honestly looked as if he was coming to tell me my favourite pet had been run over by one of those sketchy taxis. Clearly there was grim news and he was none too amped about delivering it.
Waiter: “I am sorry sir, there is a problem”, he said with a sincerely apologetic tone.
Me: “Oh, really, what is it?”, I replied, trying to act surprised.
Waiter: “The egg sir. We no have skamble egg”.
He was honestly upset and I seriously tried to look concerned and sympathetic and not laugh.
Me: “Oh, well, huh, let me see”.
I looked over the menu for several seconds before coming with an alternate plan to help everyone save face.
Me: “Do you have eggs?”, I asked as if I didn’t already know the answer.
Waiter: “Yes sir!” he said very excitedly.
Me: “Then I’ll have eggs!”, I replied just as excitedly.
Waiter: “Very good sir! Yes, very good sir!”
And with that he literally ran back to the kitchen to inform the cook of the revised order.
Jason and I both immediately knew the problem was that he didn’t know the word “scramble” and we felt bad that he was put in such an uncomfortable situation. For us, it was just another normal transaction in Nepal, but he was clearly embarrassed and sad that things were amiss. Like 99.9% of the people we’d met, he’d been so incredibly nice to us and there was no way we were going to further his dilemma or embarrassment by trying to explain what scramble meant.
Admittedly, we were both curious to know exactly what he wrote down for “scramble” on that piece of paper when I’d originally ordered! And we could only imagine the discussion that ensued back in the kitchen!
When I got my American Set I indeed had two eggs (I assumed from a chicken), both of which had essentially been cremated. This was exactly as I’d had them countless times in the cafes, monasteries and teahouses all over Nepal. I was happily stoked with my fried eggs, Jason was stoked with his fried eggs, our slices of mystery meat looked as amazing as always, the waiter was proud to have served such a wonderful meal, we were stoked that he was stoked, Jason and I got another good laugh, everyone was smiling…no problem!
While we waited another two hours for the bookstore to open, we drank great coffee, wrote in our journals, talked about all those little experiences in Nepal, and as frustrating as it had been to travel there, we became a little melancholy at the thought we’d be leaving in a few days. Most notably, while were sitting there we were genuinely treated as if we were family. We got to practice our Nepali/Hindi with our waiter and he asked to practice his English. It was actually kind of sad to leave our little café knowing we wouldn’t be back there during our travels.
I think those are the things I’m missing most right now. Those little things we can only experience when traveling internationally that really mean nothing, but mean everything at the same time. I love adapting to other cultural methods, systems and ways. I love all the trials and tribulations of learning a new language and trying to apply it in different situations. I also love playing charades when the language skills fall short! And I love building families all over the world through those little offbeat interactions.
It’s amazing what a little patience, acceptance and a simple “thank you”, “gracias”, “merci”, “kop khun kha” or “dhanybhad” can do for making new friends and bringing a collective smile to our planet. I have no problem with that.
Travel light, ski hard, pedal far, live big.