As I entered the lobby of the Annapurna Guesthouse, the owner greeted me warmly. He asked about my travel and how I liked my room.
“Load shedding right now,” he said, pointing at the lights. “No power.”
I nodded, dumbly. That explained the cold shower and nonfunctional TV.
“We have generator though,” he said. “No interruption.”
I could have asked him why the power was down if his generator ensured no interruption, but I really didn’t care. A few months ago, when I was working midnight shifts for my company back in the U.S., reliable power and wifi would have been my paramount priority. Now, I had a different job, one I could work on any schedule I chose. But to be honest, I didn’t much feel like working at all in Nepal.
Why should I care if the power went out, now and then?
Isn’t that why I was here, halfway across the world: to disconnect, to see something new?
[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’d lugged a Macbook Air and a brand-new iPhone 6S through seven countries, chasing wi-fi and familiarity the whole way.
It had been a good trip, but after five months, I had still felt the need to leave my partner and book a ticket onwards. Obviously, I hadn’t found what I was looking for by being in places where I could post to Facebook throughout the day.
(Ironically, the Nepali I know are totally addicted to Facebook.)
I shrugged at the owner. “No worries,” I said. I thought he would ask for payment now, a deposit at least. Instead, he soldiered on: “On your reservation, you indicated trekking EBC?” He asked. That was my plan: a 21-day trek, from Jiri to Everest Base Camp and back.
The trek to Everest Base Camp is usually done in 12 days, starting and ending with a domestic flight from Kathmandu to Lukla airport. Lukla – basically an tiny airstrip sitting on the side of a cliff – is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. I’d just spent a whole night in Hong Kong watching the BBC talk about how dangerous domestic air is in Nepal — I had no interest in flying to Lukla.
Additionally, it’s expensive. The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla adds about $300 in expenses to the Everest Base Camp trek. While $300 might not sound like that much from a U.S. perspective, I was going broke— not exactly quickly, but still faster than I’d like. Jiri to Everest Base Camp was a more unique route, would allow me to see more of the mountains, and would cost less for more experience. There was no reason not to go for it.
Except the fact I was heartbroken, beyond burnt-out on travel, and absolutely unequipped for high mountain trekking.
Sometimes, in the face of an unacceptable truth, or a major trauma, we can get fixated on certain, illogical things. I was in Nepal. I needed to go trekking, I needed to see the highest mountain in the world, and I needed to do it in the most authentic way.
[if you’re confused, maybe start at the beginning of this story?]
I thought of Holly, the day after I had told her I would continue traveling after she went home.
“You’re breaking up with me, you know that?” she’d accused me, tears in her eyes.
“I thought I was done, I thought you were the one.”
“I’ll never forgive you for this, you know that right?”
“I’ll always be the one that got away.”
Her invectives still echoed in my head, months later, in Nepal. You can be sure they were on my mind, the day after the fight.
I had told her today was her day, we would do only what she wanted. Some small attempt to make up for the deep gouge I’d put in her heart the night before. We were in Chiang Mai, Thailand, sitting in a dirty Burmese restaurant. She wanted to go to the theatre to see the new Guillermo Del Toro movie, Crimson Peak.
We ate in loud silence.
About 50 minutes before the movie was due to start, the skies opened up and dropped heavy monsoon rains on the city. The power cut, first at the restaurant, then across the block. Then, the entire Nimmanhaemin neighborhood fell dark. Our server brought a candle in a Sprite bottle to our table. We watched by candlelight as the streets began flooding, and the roof of the Burmese restaurant began failing. Huge torrents of water were coming down into the restaurant; the staff was desperately trying to redirect the leak to the kitchen sink. When the kitchen sink began overflowing, they aimed for a drain in the floor, laughing all the while.
Any sensible person would have waited out the storm, put off the movie for another night.
But under Holly’s urging, we sprinted ten blocks through the flooded streets, struggling through foot-deep standing water bubbling up from the sewers. Painfully heavy rain drops pounded down on us, soaking straight through our Gore-Tex jackets. We caught the movie. Drenched and shivering in the air-conditioned theatre, we’d cuddled up against the fear.
She needed to see that movie, and I needed to go trekking.
“I have trekking guy,” the owner of the Annapurna Guesthouse said. “Come, I show you.” With a firm friendliness, he patted my back, and steered me towards the door.
We popped out into a dusty alley, the same one I had looked down on from the roof. It was maybe ten feet across, lined with small business. We walked about two storefronts up, crossed the alley, and the guesthouse owner handed me off to a man lounging on the stoop. “Trekking to EBC,” the owner said. The pair exchanged a few words in their own language, then parted ways. The trekking agent ushered me inside, and I saw why he had been spending his time on the stoop: the office was tiny, cramped, and dark.
Every inch of the wall was covered in posters of extraordinary places within and around Nepal, and advertisements for the exotic activities the agency could arrange for you.
Paragliding? Whitewater rafting? Ultra-light flight? Mountaineering? Trekking? Elephant-riding safari to see rhinos in the wild? Tibet tour? Bhutan tour? Perhaps you’d like to go to India?
Tourism is Nepal’s number-two economic sector, behind only agriculture. They will offer you anything, and bend over backwards to make sure you have a good time (and leave them a positive review on TripAdvisor).
This guy, the first person I really talked to in Nepal, said he could have me trekking by tomorrow. “We provide backpack, sleeping bag, and permits,” he said. “You just show up tomorrow and catch the bus to Jiri.” He sketched out the pricing for me: if I carried my own pack but traveled with a guide, the whole thing — equipment, food, lodging transport, and guide — would come to a little over $1,000.
It didn’t seem like a bad deal, but I was hardly about to take his offer without doing at least a little research. Besides, I wanted to trek independently. What use did I have for a trekking guide? I’d hiked and backpacked plenty in my life. I wasn’t like those other people, the luxury tourists who needed a fleet of porters and guides to help them lay siege to even the easiest peaks and trails.
I’d grown up in the mountains. I wanted to prove my worth.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Nepal was going to teach me a lesson about selfishness.
[let’s drop out of our story here for a moment, and see what REI charges for a guided trek to Everest Base Camp. Why yes, it’s FOUR THOUSAND DOLLARS. Flight to and from Lukla, NOT INCLUDED. Flight to Nepal, NOT INCLUDED. Most of your equipment, NOT INCLUDED. For the LOVE OF GOD, if you want to trek in Nepal, show up in Kathmandu and arrange it there. Do not pay double just to book it through some exploitative U.S. company. You can get that exact same package, with more flexibility, for less than half the price. Probably for a quarter of the price, if you’re a savvy bargainer. AND your money will go directly into the local economy, not through a foreign middleman. And trust me, the Nepali could use that money a lot more than REI.]