The streets of Thamel were even more menacing by night.
The shoppers, for the most part, had retreated to their guesthouses and hostels, but the touts and drug dealers remained.
With the reduced foot traffic, this made me a much more attractive target. A young male, traveling alone, I must have looked like a golden goose to these shady figures. With the coming of night, the offers had gotten a little more adventurous, too.
“Black tar, brother?”
“Cocaine, my friend?”
“Women? Young girls? Good price.”
The offers followed me as I walked, whispered under breath and occasionally brandished in my face by the bolder, more motivated touts, who would come and walk alongside me while they made their offers.
“Marijuana? Mushrooms? Something more?”
I paused perceptibly at the mention of mushrooms, and the tout didn’t hesitate to press his advantage.
“Yes, very good!” he said. “Come with me, brother.”
He turned around and beckoned me to follow. Without thinking about it much, I did.
Keeping ten to fifteen feet between us, I followed the man back the way I had come. After maybe thirty seconds of this, I came to my senses. I had no idea who this man was, where he was leading me, or what would happen when I got there. And to top it all off, really, I didn’t want mushrooms. There was zero chance I’d have a pleasant trip in my current state of mind.
What was I doing?
Silently, I turned around and hastened my pace, hoping to put plenty of distance between myself and the man before he noticed he had lost me.
I ducked into the first restaurant I saw, a Nepali place called Thamel House.
I was greeted by a host and ushered into an open courtyard.
The restaurant was huge. I was the only person seated in the courtyard, which opened up onto a night sky so light polluted, there was nothing to see but a dull haze. A second terraced level ran around the perimeter of the courtyard. I could see quite a few tables, but only one set of diners, squirreled away in a corner.
The host had sat me right by the server’s station, so I was very quickly attended to by several staff. Maybe because I was alone, or maybe this was just Nepali hospitality, but they immediately offered me free rice wine. I tried to turn it down, but they insisted.
My past experiences with Chinese rice wine ranged somewhere from painful to extremely painful, so I wasn’t exactly eager to drink more. But, on the other hand, I knew the stuff was generally extremely high proof, and a little buzz wouldn’t hurt. I thanked the servers and made a show of tasting the wine, smiling while holding back a grimace as the wine scorched my gullet.
I thought of Laurent, who had introduced my to Chinese White Wine, as he called the stuff. We had met six years ago, on our first day of college. A foreign exchange student, born in the U.S., raised in Taiwan, and schooled in Beijing, he’d barely spoken a word of English. He lived across the hall from me.
Standoffish and alpha male, I never thought Laurent and I would become friends. Yet – in a story too long to tell here – he and I had ended up founding a fraternity together, along with several other friends. We lived by the motto: “We’re a family, not a fraternity.”
In January, I’d seen Laurent in Taiwan. It had felt like seeing a long-lost brother. Chinese New Year is all about spending time with your family, and it felt good to be able to give Laurent a little taste of his American family.
Surrounded by Taiwanese people chattering about with the pervasive energy of the holidays, it had been good for me to see a friend, too.
Back at Thamel House, where the white wine still burned in my belly, a fleet of servers brought me a menu and a free appetizer of naan bread. At this point my self-consciousness set in, and I decided they must be bringing me all this gifts because I looked sad and alone. This was the first meal I’d eaten alone in an actual sit-down restaurant.
I ordered a curry set and some tea, since the night had a slight chill to it.
The curry was decent, but the tea was amazing. I lingered over my pot for a while, until the chill started to be too much. I reached for my wallet to pay, and realized that in my haste to escape my thoughts, I’d left it in the room.
I had about 200 rupees in my pants pocket ($2)— not near enough to cover the cost of the dinner, let alone my American urge to tip generously for the hospitality.
I flagged down my waiter and explained that I didn’t have enough money to pay. He looked annoyed, and grabbed a fellow staff member. They had a brief conversation in their own language, then told me, “it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“No, no,” I said. “I’ve got the money in my room, just let me go get it!”
“Don’t worry,” he said, brusquely. They took my measly 200 rupees and began clearing my plates.
Uncertainly, I got up and left the restaurant. My guesthouse was right around the corner. I walked back, took the stairs two at a time, unlocked my door, and grabbed my money. I returned to the restaurant, where the fellow at the front desk looked genuinely surprised to see me.
I settled my bill, and left a little on top for the inconvenience.
“Here, take a souvenir,” the host said, gesturing to a bowl of little clay faces sitting next to the register. I grabbed one, a female face with three eyes, and took off, feeling good about myself.
Only as I was walking back to the Annapurna Guesthouse did I realize: I’d had 2,000 rupees in my jacket pocket the whole time.
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