Baggage claim in Tribhuvan International Airport’s international terminal is a pandemonic assault on a weary traveler. Jostling, crowded, chaotic. Three unmarked carousels, if you can find them in the packed hall, lurch by anemically. Nepalis jump up on the raised platforms behind each conveyor belt to get a better look and bleary eyed visitors stand on their tiptoes hoping for a glimpse of a familiar bag. With no way of knowing on which carousel my bag might appear, I pushed through to the nearest one and tried to hold my ground.
Two hours after my plane touched down I finally had my bag in hand and was ready to find my guide. As I exited the airport, a wave of taxi drivers closed in on me, each one asking where I was going and reaching out to grab my duffle. “No thank you,” I said sternly and repeatedly, avoiding eye contact while holding my bag close to my chest and hoping to see a signboard with my name on it somewhere in the throng. Before long I had reached the end of the crowded sidewalk and was alone at the edge of a dark, mostly deserted parking lot. No guide.
With an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach I turned around and pushed my way back into the melee. Suddenly the touts who had been aggressively hawking their services and who I had tersely dismissed just a few moments before were helping me. No longer trying to win me as a fare their expressions softened and, trading concerned glances, they sent the name of my tour company rippling back through the crowd. Within minutes they had found my driver.
Lesson 2: Honk if you’re driving.
The most important rule when driving in the Kathmandu Valley is to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the horn. Honking is the primary means by which Nepali drivers communicate. Turn signals, not so much. While the constant bleating may sound like meaningless noise to the untrained ear, those fluent in aggressive honking can tell a “move out of my way!” from a “go around me” or an “I’m flying around this blind corner using both lanes – anyone coming the other way?” and respond appropriately.
I had plenty of time to observe Nepalese driving mores on the twelve hour round trip bus ride between Kathmandu and Pokhara. Where we met the bus, women in bright red saris crowded into a teeming produce market, the smell of diesel fumes mixing with the sweetness of fresh fruit and chillies. Vendors hawking their wares were drowned out by motorcycle engines and, of course, the ubiquitous honking. As we broke away from the gravitational pull of Kathmandu, drainage ditches full of plastic bottles and other garbage gave way to dark green terraced rice paddies. We rolled through river valleys punctuated by flowering bushes and clotheslines full of brightly colored linens. Women squatting at their local taps washing dishes and filling jugs to lug home for cooking and cleaning glanced up as we whizzed past. Beep beep!
Lesson 3: Buddha was a Hindu.
Hindu religious mythology is a fascinating panoply of gods and their consorts whose stories are more scandalous and fabulous than any soap opera. Many of the characters can be traced back to the holy trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer) who each appear in myriad human and divine reincarnations. Among the many avatars of Vishnu are the hunky Krishna (who had 16,000 wives), the dutiful and faithful warrior Rama and even the Buddha. The Tibetan-style prayer flags flapping outside a Hindu temple in the Kathmandu Valley hint at the blending of Buddhist and Hindu traditions in Nepali worship.
We saw pagoda-shaped temples and stupas of every size and shape in Old Bhaktapur which is a beautifully preserved, but still lively, ancient city. In addition to the temples, a pottery market, a romantic palace and red brick shop houses revealed themselves as we followed twisted streets into grand open squares.
Lesson 4: That is not a green bean.
On our last night in Nepal we were deposited at the five star Hyatt Regency in Kathmandu. After six days of trekking, the fancy sterility of a five star hotel was jarring. To escape, my friends and I made a beeline for the backpacker hotspot Thamel in the pulsing heart of the city. The flashing neon signs, blaring music, sirens, beggars, hemp jewelry shops and touristy restaurants were jarring in their own way but also somehow more comforting and real than happy hour at the Hyatt.
Food was a top priority. After a few too many bland potato-based curries in remote mountain towns we were craving something with flavor and bite. At a Thai restaurant called Yin and Yang we made ourselves comfortable on floor cushions around a low table and boldly ordered green and red curries, extra spicy. The chef took us seriously. Green chilies were by far the most prevalent ingredient in my dish and I bit into one or two of them, mistaking them for green beans – a painful lip-burning mistake. The pain was worth it, the curry was scrumptious.