An unexpected tour guide in Kathmandu

23 October 2017 – Morning

Even more important than knowing where you’re going is acting like you do, or so I had read in an article about solo travel. On my first day in Kathmandu, I spent a stupid amount of time looking out my hotel window, looking for other tourists to see which direction I should walk in.

From my hotel I turned left and I walked. I walked with purpose even though I had no idea where I was going. I tried to take note of various buildings as I turned this way and that down narrow streets decorated with strings and strings of prayer flags. However, I became enchanted by the displays of tourist ware – singing bowls and pashminas, felt booties and hats, beaded bracelets and all manner of cheap hiking gear.

I reached a main road, busy with heavy traffic in both directions but couldn’t turn around without it definitely looking like I didn’t know where I was going. I turned right, uphill, as if that had been my intent all along and continued on before I became acutely aware that I was no longer passing tourists. I marched onward, fretting on the inside, intending to take another right as soon as possible that would take me back into the maze of narrow tourist streets.

I’m not sure where he came from, but he definitely saw me coming. His name was AJ.

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AJ and his sister Bina in front of their one-room home.

“Namaste. Where are you from?” he asked me.

“Australia. Sydney.”

“Your first time in Kathmandu?”

“Yes, it is.”

“I am not a guide ma’am, but I’d like to show you some temples, with your OK, so that I may practice my speaking of English.”

My impulse was to ignore him and walk on, knowing this was likely a ploy to get money out of me. But I recalled a scene I had recently read about a man visiting Nepal who was similarly approached on the streets in Pokhara. It was the start of a lifelong friendship between the two men that resulted in many subsequent trekking adventures throughout the Himalayas.

Now, while I realised this was highly unlikely to be the case with AJ, this story was why I agreed to go with him. And so, we walked. And walked and after perhaps 10 minutes of walking, I thought his game was to get me lost so that I would have to pay him to take me back to Thamel. I had no idea where I was. This man could mug me or otherwise scam me and I’d be that idiot girl who followed the promise of a stranger in a foreign country.

But shortly after this thought, we veered down a street, deep into the heart of the city but clearly out of the tourist zone. A few hundred metres more and we were at a crossroads and the site of both a Hindu and Buddhist temple. There was not another westerner in sight. I realised that these temples were for the locals and used by them to pray, seek blessings and wish for good things.

I watched with undisguised pleasure as young women lit tealight candles and placed them on the ground near the temple entry, lit incense and smudged their foreheads with a vivid red paste. As I snapped away with my Nikon, my guide who wasn’t a guide, spoke to me about how the two faiths exist in Nepal in harmony. That many Hindus also practice Buddhism and that many Buddhists pray to Hindu gods.

AJ led me to the entry of the Hindu temple where we each lit a candle, bowed our heads and he guided my clasped hands through a prayer ritual. He used his finger to dab some of the red paste on my forehead and sprinkled crushed flowers in my hair. He encouraged me to throw a dirty 5-rupee note he provided into an offering bowl.

From there, AJ led me through a narrow lane into a small courtyard surrounded by buildings three and four-storeys high. One side was dominated by an ancient-looking facade AJ told me was several hundreds of years old and a temple to Buddha. In the middle of the courtyard was a shrine, with a tiny string of prayer flags and some humble offerings of rice, a soft drink with the lid off, and flowers.

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From one temple to another, AJ described the meaning and history of their architecture. A large Buddhist stupa was surrounded by prayer wheels and, as we walked its perimeter, I used my right hand to set each wheel spinning in a clockwise direction. The adjoining courtyard was full of hundreds of pigeons, spreading their droppings across any surface a pigeon could clasp its claws to. AJ purchased a small bowl of corn and seed and suggested I toss it out in handfuls to the waiting pigeons.

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The pigeon feeding frenzy.

I wanted to do nothing less than feed these fat pigeons and have them flap their lice-riddled wings around my head but I didn’t want to appear rude. Reluctantly, I shook out the handfuls of corn and watched in distaste as the pigeons hopped and dived on this largesse, terrifying me while AJ thoughtfully captured the spectacle on my phone.

AJ then suggested he show me his home, meet his sister and nephews and have lunch. It was a 20-minute taxi ride which I was expected to pay for, but it seemed a rare opportunity for me to visit the home of a local that wasn’t prearranged by an international tour company, so I agreed.

A hot, dusty ride later, we walked up a dirt track and across patches of long, thick weeds and burrs to a long, low building of one-room homes. A single doorway, a single window and inside a “bed” that resembled a wooden coffee table, a pile of neatly folded blankets on one end. The furnishings were few, a free-standing wooden wardrobe in a corner, a long bench and a narrow table which held a gas stove and some pots and pans. An assortment of cutlery and tin plates were stacked neatly in a basket by its side.

I was welcomed by his sister, Bina, and invited to remove my shoes and sit on the bed. Two small dirty boys wandered in and out during my visit, Bina’s children and AJ’s nephews. They didn’t go to school as AJ and Bina couldn’t afford it. They told me it cost 20,000 rupees per year ($250) for the children’s uniforms, books and other school needs. The children spoke no English and Bina very little.

A plate of food was set before me, a curry with potato and rice. While they assured me it wasn’t spicy, it was still too hot for my sensitive palate and I gulped my water. It was tasty despite the heat and I managed to eat half of it.

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Bina and her sons loved watching videos of my dogs on my phone.

While I ate, Bina and the children looked at photos on my phone. I doubt the boys had ever seen anything like the moving pictures that were videos of my dogs. After lunch, Bina made me a marsala tea and offered to henna my hand. The tea was delicious and I drank it with my left hand while holding my right out in front of me while Bina created patterns across my palm and over my fingers.

As Bina decorated my hand, AJ began to talk of his shoe shine box that he had lost when coming from Delhi to Kathmandu by train. He told me it had been his livelihood and allowed him to earn an income while studying at art school. This was obviously the reason why I was here, in their home, witnessing their poverty and eating their food. He didn’t want money but he wanted me to buy him a second-hand shoe shine box, so he could recommence his trade.

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Bina’s henna creation.

The acting, if that’s what it was, was exceptional and there was no hint of shame. At first, he asked for a new shoe shine box, some 40,000 rupees at which I openly balked. He quickly revised that a second-hand box would do, for only 25,000 rupees.

They had played me so skilfully. I was in their home, my hand caught between Bina’s while she applied henna. I had eaten under their roof. My fear was that if I refused, I would be turned out and I had no idea where I was. I’d have to go searching for wifi in what was clearly not a tourist area. I spoke no Nepali.

Did they really live in poverty? I had no way of knowing what was real and what wasn’t. I knew that I wanted to believe them and believe that this shoe shine box would support those two small boys. I asked to see the shoe shine box myself and negotiated directly with the salesman, who was probably in on the scam anyway. He may have simply walked away with the box later and taken his share of the cash.

I ended up giving the salesman 15,000 rupees. Some may say I was stupid. Maybe I am. But I actually don’t regret it for a second. It was an enjoyable and valuable experience that I’m not likely to have again. I could certainly afford it, so I think it was worth what I paid. AJ ensured I got back to Thamel safely by taxi, telling the driver to drop me off along the main road where he had met me that morning.

My first day in Nepal was turning out quite differently to what I had been expecting, but things were only going to get better later that afternoon.

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