As I stepped out of the barber’s hole in the wall, I enjoyed the feeling of a light breeze on my clean-shaven face. Unfortunately, that selfsame breeze blew a giant cloud of dust down my throat, and I spent the next thirty seconds coughing it up.
Once I had expelled everything that was going to be expelled, I put the buff back over my nose and mouth. Fucking Kathmandu.
The hits kept coming, as yet another young Nepali came up alongside me and started matching pace.
“Where are you from, brother?” the young man asked me.
This is the first question almost everyone asks you in a foreign country, but the Nepali, especially, are big fans of starting conversations this way.
I tried to just ignore him and keep walking, but he was determined. “Hello? Where are you from?” He made sure I had to acknowledge him.
“Canada,” I answered, untruthfully.
“Canada, Canada… capital, Ottawa?” he asked.
“No, the capital’s Toronto,” I told him. (It’s not.)
“Toronto, really?” he asked me, looking puzzled. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Ottawa is a provincial capital.”
“Hmmmm,” he mused, rubbing his chin. “I didn’t know that, thank you.”
“Why do you cover your face?” he asked me.
“The dust,” I answered. “Why don’t you cover yours?”
“You are friendlier with a full face!” he said, without missing a beat.
That was true. He did seem friendlier than the dealers standing around. The masks drew your focus to their eyes: searching, keen, and predatory.
“What’s your name, friend?” The young man asked, still matching my stride.
“Dylan,” I said. (Another lie).
“Dylan from Canada,” the kid said. “First time in Nepal?”
“Yes,” I answered, truthfully this time, only because I was sure he would catch me in a lie if I tried to pretend I knew anything about this country.
I was lying because I was afraid. I didn’t know anything about this man, or his intentions. And to be honest, the Nepali custom of immediately gathering a bunch of personal information about you put me on guard.
“Ah welcome! Alas, we have seen better days, but what is there to do? Where are you staying?” he asked.
I gestured, noncommittally, back in the direction of the Annapurna Guesthouse. Well, towards what I thought was the right direction. In the windy streets of Thamel, it can be tough to know.
“Yes, but which guesthouse?” the man asked, insistent.
“It doesn’t really matter,” I answered, cooly.
“Ah, but perhaps I know a better one! A cheaper one!”
“I’m fine where I’m at, thank you.”
“Ahhh, you don’t trust me, brother? Perhaps if I introduce myself. I’m Sujan.”
We shook hands, still walking.
I was putting up a fast pace, hoping to tire him out. We must have walked half a kilometer since the start of our conversation, weaving in and out of tight crowds where I hoped to squeeze him off. You had to admire the kid’s persistence.
“So, you are Dylan, from Canada, and I am Sujan, from Nepal.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, grudgingly. This kid was making me feel really rude for trying to brush him off.
“Nice to meet you too, Dylan,” he said. “What brings you to Nepal? Trekking?”
“Ah, which route?”
“Ah yes, nice trek. Very nice trek. You have your permits?”
“No,” I admitted. “Not yet.”
“Ah, I can help with that,” he said. “When will you trek?”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted, honestly. “I just got here.”
“Ah yes, I understand!” he exclaimed. “How many days in Kathmandu?”
“Four,” I said.
“Ah, so you have seen the city?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Just Thamel.”
“Thamel is not Kathmandu,” he said, with a note of apology in his voice. “Maybe I could show you some place?” He asked.
My first instinct was to brush him off, say no, and be rid of him. But his approach had broken down my barriers, and truthfully, I had been enjoying our conversation. It was the most significant interaction I’d had with another human since leaving Hong Kong.
So I said yes. Satisfaction bloomed on Sujan’s face. Taking on a client probably ensured he would eat tonight.
“Have you been to monastery?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No.”
“Is nice place,” Sujan said. “This way.”
We talked of life in Nepal and Canada as he expertly navigated us away form the central streets, weaving in and out of crowds, around rickshaws, and down the occasional alley. I kept my hands in my pockets, glued to my wallet and my phone.
“So you just walk around all day, approaching tourists?” I asked Sujan.
“Doesn’t that get exhausting?” I asked, thinking of how many touts I was turning down on a daily basis.
“Of course. Most people do not want help. Nepal is poor country though. No job.” He shrugged. “What is there to do, brother?”