When I finally reached the coffee shop where I had played chess with the Malaysian, I ran up the stairs with a spring in my step.
I had my interview. I had time to arrange a trek. I would trek, I would leave Nepal, return home, and show up on Holly’s doorstep with a dream in hand, ready for our next great adventure.
That was one option, anyways.
Regardless, as the Malaysian I was coming to see had said; it was time to rearrange my life.
Nepal hadn’t imparted me with any revelations about my life, yet. So far, all I’d learned was that the people here had it a lot worse than I did, and that I should carry toilet paper with me at all times. The chaos of Asia was starting to drain on me—no, it had been starting to drain on me in Taiwan; here, it was killing me. My soul cried out for the mountains. The high peaks had always been a place I could find peace, happiness, and contentment. I was sure these mountains—the highest in the world—would hold something for me.
In times of trauma, we need to hold on to something. Even if we know it’s not true.
The Malaysian sat in the same spot as yesterday. He was staring intently at the chess board; his opponent was a man I had not seen before. The Spaniard sat off to the side, sketching in his workbook. A tall, pale and gangly man sat in a smoking chair watching the match, drinking a tall can of Everest beer. The owner stood behind the reception counter, tabulating sums. Recognizing me, he greeted me with a big smile and a “namaste.” I did the same.
“Back for more chess, my friend?” he asked.
“Definitely!” I said, enthusiastically. “I’ve got to redeem myself!”
The Malaysian heard my voice, and raised his eyes from the board. “Ah!” he clapped. “You are back! Good, good,” he said. “You can join us next.”
“Perfect,” I said.
I ordered a pot of tea and some pastries from the owner, who handed me the food and told me he’d bring the tea to the chess table. I thanked him with a smile, and went to go watch the game.
I didn’t like the look of the man drinking the beer—it was 10 or 11 in the morning, after all—so I sat next to the Malaysian, directly across from the Spaniard. The Malaysian’s opponent was a fresh face to me, but the pair clearly had a history, judging from the way they bantered back and forth. I could immediately see the Malaysian was the stronger player, from the aggressive way his pieces were arrayed on the board. The other man’s pieces were arranged in a loose, haphazard defensive wedge, which the Malaysian quickly picked apart until only a few isolated pawns remained.
“Checkmate!” he exclaimed, good-naturedly.
The man took his defeat well, smiling and saying “One day! One day I’ll beat you.”
The Malaysian smiled gracefully. “I need to roll another joint,” he said. “Why don’t you two play?” he asked, gesturing to me.
“Sure,” I said, moving the board over a little bit so I could play without having to switch seats. We reset the pieces. The Malaysian pulled out a little handmade pouch, from which he produced rolling papers, tobacco, and a container of hash.
“So, what have you been doing?” the Malaysian asked me, as we set to our game. My opponent was not very skilled, and I was easily able to maintain a separate conversation while playing.
“I need to arrange a trek today,” I said.
“Oh, so you will go trekking? Good,” he said absentmindedly.
“Have you been?” I asked him.
“Me? Oh no no,” he answered. “Too much stress on my old bones! I do not need that. I like to spend my days like this: relaxed, playing chess and smoking hash. It is enough,” he said. “I hear it is very beautiful though. Which trek will you do?”
“I have no idea,” I said with a shake of my head. “Annapurna Base Camp or Poon Hill, I guess. I have to be back in Pokhara on the 14th for a job interview.”
He cocked his head. “A job interview here? In Pokhara?”
“No,” I responded. “It’s an interview online; for a job in Austria.”
“Austria?” the Spaniard asked, looking up from his sketching. “Why do you want to work in Austria?”
“It’s not so much that I really want to work in Austria specifically,” I said. “I’ve just always dreamed of living and working in Europe. And this Austrian company wants to hire me. So that seems as good a place to start as any,” I said with a shrug. “It’s not so easy for a US citizen to work in a European country as it is for you,” I said to the Spaniard.
“Ah yes,” he said, “you are not an EU member.”
“Yeah, I have to get work visas and shit,” I said, capturing my opponent’s queen. “It’s not an easy process. Austria, I guess, is trying to encourage migration of skilled workers, so getting a work permit isn’t as hard as in some other places.”
“But do you know Austrian?” he asked. He paused for a moment, then second-guessed himself. “German?”
“No,” I said. “But I’d learn if I moved there. And this company would pay for me to take German classes. I figure I could pick it up within a couple years of living there.”
“Through immersion, yeah yeah,” the Spaniard said, nodding. “Well good luck!” he said, turning his attention back to his drawing.
I carelessly lost a knight, which reminded me I needed to pay a little more attention to the present, and spend less time on flights of fancy. In my head, I had been thinking about Holly and I in a little flat in Linz, talking in German about which European country we’d like to raise our children in.
Spending too much time in the future was ruining my chess game, at the very least.
Still though, I won the match. That’s the dangerous thing about the way my mind works—even at half capacity, it’s usually enough. This leads to the sort of thinking that you can do anything. Where a normal person might spend the week leading up to a big interview preparing, I chose to go trekking. Where a normal person might choose to spend the time apart to talk and try to repair their relationship, I chose to leave things be until I could present Holly with another lifelong dream—living in Europe.
I was playing with high stakes; and as my next set of matches against the Malaysian would show me: I wasn’t as good a chess player as I thought I was.