I told the agent thanks, and I’d think on it. I folded up the piece of paper with his budget calculations on it, and stuffed it in the back pocket of my slacks. We shook hands and he must have committed my face to memory, because for the next week, every time I passed his office, he would call out to me and ask about my plans.
But today, we simply said goodbye. I left his office, and headed for the main streets of Thamel.
The sensory overload was immediate, and total.
The first thing one notices about Thamel is the dust. The streets of the district are not paved; they’re just dirt. Loose, dry dirt which is being constantly kicked up into the air by the beating of a thousand feet and the spinning of scooter wheels. Half the people in Kathmandu, locals and travelers alike, wear facial protection on a daily basis; the other half probably should too.
The dust is unavoidable: it irritates the eyes, lodges in your throat and causes chronic coughing, and quickly coats anything left outside. The settling of the dust is impossible to miss, as every shop in Thamel has piles of dusty goods stacked outside, an incentive to shoppers overwhelmed with choice. Most of the trekking shops stack duffel bags outside their doors. These big piles of multicolored haul bags all appear brown and faded as dust settles on them throughout the day. The owners pull them inside at night, shake off the dust, and the cycle begins anew the next morning.
Smog and pollution from motorbikes and taxis adds to the poor air quality. Scooters and actual bicycle-powered rickshaws regularly mingle with the pedestrian traffic in Thamel. The rickshaws take up a lot more space, but they’re definitely preferable, because you can be sure they won’t belch black smoke in your face. Scooters and taxis, free of any environmental controls, have been known to do that.
Thamel is dusty, polluted, and loud.
I picked a direction, and started walking. I had no particular goal in mind. Truthfully, my meeting with the trekking agent had overwhelmed me. We had talked for less than 30 minutes, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of walking into another dingy office, and having the same conversation four or five more times. I just got here, I thought. Let’s get a pulse on the place.
After five months traveling through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, Nepal was the most foreign place I had ever been.
As I walked, I marveled at the high buildings and the seemingly endless array of trekking and souvenir shops. The owners stood on their stoops, and called out to me as I passed. “Trekking sir?” “Good deals, friend!” Now and then, one offered something I was interested in, but, afraid to seem susceptible to touts, I’d keep walking.
Despite my best efforts, I was easy pickings for the touts. I hesitated at intersections, looked just a little too long in store windows, and clearly didn’t have any goal in mind. Many, many men walked up to me on the streets, matching my pace and offering to show me around the city.
“Welcome to Nepal, brother! First time here? What brings you to our country? Trekking? I have a trekking agency, very good, very cheap! Come, come with me, brother. Very good, I promise!”
Worse than the trekking touts were the drug dealers. When Holly and I were traveling together, we had never once been approached about such things. Although touts would occasionally harass us about her blond hair, or try and convince me to buy her a rose or a ring or some other trinket, we had certainly never been offered drugs.
The first time it happened, a man on the side of the street muttered “hashish?” under his breath as I passed. I kept walking, then did a double-take, as I processed what he had said. He caught my interest, and hurried over to me. Too nervous to buy drugs off the street on my first day in a foreign country, I immediately resumed walking. He kept walking with me. “Hashish, brother? Very good, see?” he held out a cigarette with the end twisted off, the Nepali version of a joint.
I shook my head and kept walking. Undeterred, he continued with me. “Marijuana.” He reiterated, again brandishing the joint, as if I had not understood.
“No thanks,” I said, making eye contact with him for the first time.
“Something else?” the man asked. By now we had walked half a block at least. The tout was much shorter than me, and I was trying to discourage him by walking as fast as my long legs would carry me. The Nepali are not so easily discouraged though, and he was cheerily keeping pace.
Again, I told the man no. Again, he offered me drugs. “Cocaine?” I shook my head. “No.” He changed tacks. “Trekking? You want to go to mountains?” he asked, hopefully. “Where are you going, my friend?”
I reiterated again, firmly: “Thank you, no.” I ignored him as I lengthened my stride and walked away.
Within thirty seconds of losing the first tout, another man whispered “hashish?” as I passed by. This time, I just kept walking.