I awoke to the sound of jackhammering outside, and a narrow beam of dusty sunlight waving me good morning.
My shoulder and hip hurt from where they had pushed through the thin mattress.
My first morning waking up alone in a foreign country. Ever.
[This is a chapter from my travel book. There are lots more chapters posted on the blog, but if you’d prefer to read them all at once, sign up for my e-mail newsletter and I’ll be sure to let you know when they’re available in a condensed form!]
I took in my quarters. I had a private room. There were two twin beds, a minuscule TV, a smoking table with an ashtray near the window, plus a dresser and a nightstand. The carpeting had that worn-down look of something which might have been in fashion in the ‘70s, but had now seen far too many soles to ever look fresh again.
The window opened on to a brick wall. There were only about four feet of space between the buildings. Nonetheless, the sun was rising at such an angle that it cast a magnificent sunbeam through the alley, into my bathroom.
The bathroom smelled damp and moldy. The light switch didn’t seem to work. The shower was Thai-style, with a showerhead that sprayed all over the toilet seat, and no basin but a drain in the floor. Someone appeared to have knocked out a decent-sized chunk of the porcelain wall with a hammer, and I was sure mold was festering inside the dark recess.
I just hoped the hot water worked. I stripped naked and turned on the water— and, of course, the hot water wasn’t flowing. Still, shivering, I washed off the shame and the grime of my parting. It seemed like the only thing I could do.
The towels were starchy and abrasive, but I didn’t care.
I tried to turn on my TV. It didn’t seem to work, either.
“Fine,” I sighed to myself. “I’ll go outside.”
I felt lost and aimless without my travel partner.
I didn’t know if I could face the bustle of Thamel, Kathmandu’s famous “tourist ghetto,” but I could already see that laying around a dim room with no power was going to get old quickly.
I stepped out of my room. I was standing on the second floor of the Annapurna Guesthouse. It was dead quiet— from the looks of things, there were not many other guests. My room was located on the perimeter of a great square stairway: a classic design which created a chasm six stories tall, all the way to the roof of the guesthouse. Curious, I headed upstairs first. There were floors and floors of rooms, but again, no tenants.
There was supposed to be a rooftop restaurant here. When I reached the end of the stairs though, I found nothing more than an unlocked storage closet and an abandoned rooftop patio. No server, no host, no sign of a kitchen— nothing. The tables and chairs weren’t even set up; they were stacked off to the side, as if in storage. Maybe the Nepali weren’t that big on breakfast. Was it breakfast time, or lunch? I didn’t even know.
The sun was shining, and the streets were buzzing with activity. When you’re all alone in a foreign country, with no agenda at all, you don’t really need to know much more than that.
I looked around the city from the rooftop. Although the Annapurna Guesthouse was seven stories tall, this didn’t provide the commanding viewpoint you might expect. Most buildings in Kathmandu are are least that big, and they’re built close together, creating the city’s famous narrow, suffocating alleys. I walked up to the edge of the patio, and looked down. The streets were dusty and desolate: only one person could be seen in the narrow side alley I was observing.
I turned my gaze upwards, and scanned the horizon all around for the reason I had come. Where were the Himalayas?
I couldn’t see anything. A thick haze suffocated visibility throughout the Kathmandu Valley. I never once saw the mountains from this city.
Pollution and modernization has transformed Kathmandu, this famous Shangri-La, into just another over-crowded city.
I had known to expect this, but it was still disheartening to see in person. Oh well, I thought to myself. I’ll see the mountains when I’m trekking. I leave the rooftop behind. By the time I get to the bottom of the seven flights of stairs, my legs are a little sore. Five months of travel has left me woefully out of shape. Plus, this guesthouse had to be bigger than most. No doubt their online presence gives them an advantage over others in Thamel— after all, I’d only ended up here because they had a website I could use to arrange an airport pickup. If you insist on looking only online, many places in Nepal simply don’t exist.
But despite their past successes, the Annapurna Guesthouse seemed to have fallen on hard times. Only later would I realize it wasn’t just this guesthouse that was struggling: it was all of Nepal.