I didn’t know anything about the earthquake, the fuel blockade, or Nepal’s corrupt government yet.
I was just a lost tourist, alone in a foreign country for the first time in my life, without a clue how to proceed. I had a little bit of money, a vague idea of what I wanted to do, and an inflated sense of the importance of my quest.
I suppose that is youth.
[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 was growing hungry though. I hadn’t exchanged any money at the airport; all I had to my name was 20 Hong Kong Dollars and 100 Indian Rupees. The streets of Thamel are riddled with money changers, but I wanted both bills for my souvenir book. So I set out in search of an ATM.
An ATM is your best friend while traveling abroad. Almost all ATMs operate on the same global networks, so you can easily withdraw money from your U.S.-based checking account for little more than a small convenience fee. Your account holds dollars, but the ATM lets you withdraw the local currency, automatically pegged at the official exchange rate. This is a lot safer than carrying around thousands of dollars in cash, and the ATM will never try to trick you into a dodgy exchange rate, the way money changers sometimes try to put one over on you. ATMs will charge a foreign transaction fee, but a savvy international traveler using a Charles Schwab card even gets her ATM fees reimbursed.
I wasn’t a savvy traveler, and had been eating ATM fees all trip.
I suppose I had been a little savvier than Holly, who had lost her only debit card in the Indian Ocean on New Year’s Eve, but that just meant I had been using ATMs twice as much, as I had needed to provide cash for two people.
The ATMs in Thamel are notorious for having high fees and low withdrawal limits.
True to the reputation, the first ATM I encountered in Thamel charged me 500 rupees for a 10,000 rupee withdrawal— a whopping 5 percent transaction fee.
Still, it felt good to have cash in my hand.
I renewed my wandering, this time allowing my eyes to linger a little longer on the treasures glittering in the windows.
I ducked into a shop with a sign out front that read “Internet and SIM Cards.” Just about every shop in Thamel seems to offer SIM Card data or recharge services, so I just picked one at random. After walking up a very narrow staircase, I found one bored young guy sitting in the shop, surfing Facebook on an ancient desktop computer.
There seemed to be nothing else in the space: just empty shelves filled with dust. I told the man I wanted to purchase a SIM Card, and told him I wanted “NCell,” because I liked the carrier name.
“Do you have pin for the card?” he asked.
I shook my head. Every SIM card kit in every other country came with a tool to open the SIM Card slot, or the shop would just do it for you. This wasn’t so much a shop though, as it was a guy slinging SIMs on the side. So we cast around his dusty, empty shop, looking for a pin or a paperclip or a needle— anything that could open the SIM slot. Eventually, he found something or other, and asked for my phone.
I gave it to him with some trepidation.
“Do you have a copy of your passport?” he asked.
“Not on me, no.”
“It is system of government in Nepal, we need passport for SIM,” he said. “It is law, my friend.”
I gave him an extra 100 rupees, he loaded the amount of data I asked for on the card, and I was on my way without giving him my passport.
I felt much more secure with phone service.
I looked up the location of an ATM with lower fees, and slowly tried to find the place people on the Internet had been describing. Thamel doesn’t really have addresses, or street names, which made this process somewhat more difficult than it needed to be.
When I finally tracked it down, the second ATM I found had a limit of 35,000 rupees, but still only charged a 500 rupee fee. I made the max withdrawal. Between the two ATMs, I had pulled out about $450, figuring it would finance most if not all of my stay in Nepal.
My heart still ached with the thought of home, and after my conversation with the trekking agent, I was seriously questioning if I had the motivation to do the trek. $450 might be way more than I needed, if I decided to turn tail and head home. Still, I figured: the streets of Thamel were filled with interesting curios and cool treasures. Worst came to worst, I could spend that money on souvenirs for my friends and family.
Holly, I knew, wanted some prayer flags, and my sister couldn’t stop reminding me to bring her home some scarves. I had no shortage of friends back home, I thought with a pang. It was here, on the road, where companionship was in slim supply.
At least I had a fat wallet to console me. The largest bank note in Nepal is the 1,000 rupee note, which is roughly equivalent to $10 (depending on the exchange rate). When I walked out of the second ATM, I had a huge wad of bills in my pocket, way too much money to even fit in my wallet. I carried it deep in my pocket, rolled up, and clenched tight in my fist.
I’d feel uncomfortable walking around the U.S. with $450 cash, and I’ve lived there my whole life. Although it was brightly mid-afternoon and the streets were bustling, I still felt wary of Kathmandu. My first impression, arriving in the middle of the night, had not been positive. Additionally, I didn’t welcome the attention from shopkeepers and touts— especially not while I held in my pocket what had to be at least a few month’s salary for the average Nepali.
My anxiety mounted, and I hurried back to the guesthouse, my eyes a paranoid searchlight all the way back. Not until I found myself in my private room, with both the locks done, did I relax.
I looked at the money. The bills were blue-silver, with the crisp feel of a top-denomination. Mount Everest stood proudly where a dead president would be. On the back, instead of some monument to mankind, there was a majestic elephant. Holly’s favorite animal, I thought dully.
Still, I found the modesty of the bills endearing. No corrupt Nepali politician had ingratiated himself onto the currency; there was no long-forgotten monarch staring up at me. Just a mountain, and an animal. Things the average Nepali could see herself; things the average Nepali still has reason to be proud of.
I carefully counted out the bills. I hid forty of them in the drawer of the nightstand, with my passport. I took five bills – about $50 – and put them in my wallet. I put my wallet in my pocket, and looked at the door. I fully intended to get up and go get something to eat, but instead, I lay back on the narrow, hard bed, and fell instantly asleep.
I woke up at 9 p.m., ravenous. After all, I hadn’t eaten anything since that pizza in the Delhi airport. I had been surviving on a strange cocktail of stress, the adrenalin that comes with arrival in a new country, and the appetite-suppressant that is depression.
I laid in bed, and considered trying to go back to sleep, but I was too hungry.
I threw on a shirt and some pants, and ventured downstairs. It was surprisingly chilly in the streets of Thamel, especially since I had been roasting during the day. I wished I had thought to wear the hat Holly had made me.
I walked to the nearest stall I could find, bought two Snickers bars, a bag of Masala Curry-flavored Lay’s Potato chips, and a tallboy of Heineken.
I took my sad dinner back to the guesthouse, watched some pixelated Netflix on my computer, and thought of home.
Tomorrow, I promised myself.
Tomorrow I’ll do better.