February 23 – 28, 2013
The red brick terminal exuded that retro vibe. In the absence of connecting tubes, passengers deplaned onto the tarmac. Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport was decidedly quaint, a throwback to the airports of old before the age of glass and steel. I had landed, not only in a remote kingdom, but in the distant past.
Emerging from the naturally ventilated arrival terminal, Donna, Ayee, and I scoured the parking lot for our airport pick-up. In Nepal, that would be the proverbial needle in a haystack. No one in the crowd carried identifying placards! We were lost before we even left the airport.
In cinematic timing, a guy approached us smiling and asked if we had booked at his hotel. He did get the hotel right, but what sealed the deal with Ayee was the inquiring face that came with Mt. Everest in the middle – his perfectly aquiline nose. Still, we balked our response. The smile turned sour and he said, rather accusingly, “You don’t trust me?” Those puppy eyes could not hide the offense taken. We felt guilty for failing to recognize our first brush with the Nepali brand of innocence, an uncommon trait in these less than innocent times, and so introductions were made. His name was too sexy to forget, Kisin.
And there was the case of our airport shuttle: a junkyard survivor, the sight of which rendered us speechless as we gathered our jaws from the pavement. Kisin endorsed us to our driver who was too cool in shades and leather jacket that he could not be bothered from a phone call.
The most fun airport-to-hotel ride, I must admit though. Our funky daredevil revved his beat-up Corolla like a race car. We were suddenly thrust into a 70s-inspired Tarantino car chase scene as we weaved through the chaos of Kathmandu traffic and clouds of dust on the unpaved roads.
Yes, unpaved roads. Actually paved with dust. No matter how fast we careened, we were left eating the dust whipped up by vehicles before us. It smothered roadside houses, browned into drabness. One such house sprouted grass and shrubs on its roof; dust had settled on it thick enough to support an ecosystem. The rickety Corolla threatened to fall apart as it negotiated bumps and potholes; all this while our luggage was precariously strapped onto the car roof. The entire city seemed less a work in progress than a work unfinished.
Still, we made it in one piece with our luggage intact to Thamel, a crowded collection of colorful souvenir shops, backpacker hotels, and Western restaurants. Exploring its narrow streets on foot was an immersion into the genial community of street vendors and shopkeepers.
Guys outside their shops would call out “China” as I walked past. I would shake my head and smile. “Japan…Korea…Thailand…Singapore…Vietnam!” I thought I was working the runway in a Miss Asia beauty pageant. Apparently, this nationality guessing game was a Nepali icebreaker; it happened more than once. For the win, someone shouted, “Myanmar!” I walked on laughing. My answer always left them befuddled. Was the Philippines unheard of in Nepal? Or did I look like I couldn’t possibly be Filipino?
Shopkeepers in Thamel were more inclined to employ old-school rapport in their sales pitch. Days earlier, we had noticed a cute boy guarding the sidewalk display of Nepali and Persian rugs and pillows at Everest Art Palace. During our last-minute shopping, we went in and met the boy’s father, Tariq Ahmad.
I quizzed him about the difference between pashmina and cashmere. He explained, like father to child, that the former was woven from the thicker coat around a goat’s neck, hence the softer wool, the latter from the animal’s finer fur. Thus sartorially enlightened, I bought several shawls and souvenirs which merited a big, fat discount on top of a big, tight hug and a standing invite to Kashmir, Tariq’s hometown in northern Pakistan known for its cashmere, of course.
I came to Nepal techno-fied, but the gadgets I had on me – tablet, Kindle, Android phone, camera – were mostly rendered useless by the daily load shedding (rotating power outage). I could only charge my camera and phone at a specific time window. The predicament was rather familiar; my country had gone through a comparable power shortage decades ago.
The night we arrived, we were promptly initiated into this daily darkness at Namaste Cafe & Bar. The charming low tree trunk tables that had us sitting pretzel style on throw pillows and hotdog cushions on the floor were a throwback to my childhood. We had a similar table called puskul. Any retrospection the place inspired was brought back to the present drilling noise of a power generator. At another night, the flamboyant Bollywood-style dinner show we were treated to at Gorkha Palace was rudely interrupted by momentary pitch blackness. Such a real trooper, the bubbly and chubby male heartthrob quickly flicked his fingers into position when the lights came on.
Back at our digs, I would have the most restful nights in years, early lights out and gadget-free. Hotel Buddha Land, hidden in the back streets of Thamel, was right smack in the middle of this tourist belt but also a few paces away from the hustle and bustle of the main street.
Managing director Bhanu Dhakal offered us a deal we couldn’t refuse: a van and driver at our disposal, a knowledgeable tour guide, and airline tickets to see the Himalayas and Pokhara. We got package tour perks for our backpacker budget! The available rooms at the time were strictly twin sharing, and we were a party of three. I had to get my own room, yet Bhanu billeted me in one, not at extra cost, but at no cost at all! Such personalized service had made us feel at home before we settled in our rooms.
The hotel may be newly built, but the skeleton keys we were given were vintage enough for another throwback experience. I transformed into an uptight schoolmarm doing the rounds as I walked up to my room, old-school key dangling from my fingers.
HBL was a homey B&B. The guys manning the reception doubled as cook and server; they would hop over to the kitchen when we went down for brekky, which was a simple affair but enough to jump-start our day: butter and toast, sunny-side-up, coffee, and banana. Upon check-out, the staff threw over my neck a white silk scarf – a khata – that represented the pure heart of the giver. What a fitting going-away gift. Despite the inconveniences and gaps in infrastructure, an old-fashioned brand of sincerity and hospitality was still alive and well in Kathmandu, a city best beheld by the heart.
This throwback trip, if you will, fulfilled the words of travel writer Pico Iyer: “For legend had it that Kathmandu was quite a trip – at once a time machine and a magic carpet – and I had come here to be transported.” Iyer wrote the description in the 70s, and Kathmandu was still there.