I shook hands with my opponent across the chess board. Beams of early-afternoon sunlight broke through the roof of the Pokhara cafe where we were sitting.
My opponent grinned a toothy grin. He was dark-skinned, freckled, missing one of his front teeth, and had a big, bushy white beard. He wore a light scarf wrapped around his head. This was the Malaysian.
Fifty-one years old, professional itinerant, and damned good chess player.
He’d just taken four out of five games from me, smoking hash almost the entire time.
I was sitting alone on terrace in Pokhara, Nepal, sipping coffee. My eyes stared out across a serene lake, looking but not seeing. My mind was far away, across the ocean.
Instinctively, I looked to the hills above the lake. The mountains behind the hills still remained shrouded in haze. I’d been in Pokhara for a few days now, and still not caught a glimpse of the famous Annapurna Range; the towering Himalayan massif I’d come to Pokhara to see.
The Lonely Planet guidebook I had plundered from the Hotel Snow Leopard suggested catching a sunrise from the high hill of Sarankot was the best way to see the mountains. So as I sat on the terrace, I looked to Sarankot.
Above the promontory, a swarm of paragliders circled.
As we were queuing up for another game of chess, a young Spaniard came up the steps and into the cafe. He saw the Malaysian and broke out into a big smile.
“Ah good, you’re still here!” he said.
“Of course,” the Malaysian answered with a single nod. “I am here every afternoon. I have nothing else to do.”
He turned to me, and said: “You know how I describe traveling? I say: traveling… is like Sunday afternoon.” We both laughed.
I sipped my tea and thought: Sunday afternoon…
I woke up the next morning with the intention of spending my day lounging by the lake.
There was a nice little park right down the street from Hotel Snow Leopard; I had a nice little Instagram photo in my mind of me sitting on a bench, reading a book or writing in my journal next to this impressive mountain lake.
I had American breakfast at a cafe by the lake, and then went to go sit down.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to get the peaceful morning I had imagined.
By the afternoon, my feet were sore from a long day of walking around Lakeside Pokhara. That’s all I was thinking about as I slowly beat a path back to my room at the Hotel Snow Leopard. Walking along the shores of Fewa Lake, staring at my feet and wondering if these cheap boots would be at all comfortable for trekking, I was flagged down by an old man.
He stood astride a bicycle, and was chatting with a fruit vendor. Perhaps it was because I’d walked around all day and hadn’t spoken to a soul, or perhaps it was something about this old man’s demeanor, but I felt drawn to him. I knew he was going to try and sell me something I didn’t want, but the prospect of bartering – of conversation – was appealing.
So much of my time in Nepal had been spent in bleak loneliness.