“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts. It even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you. It should change you.” – Anthony Bourdain
The pollution is so thick; I instinctively take shallow sips of air as I search the crowd of men pressed against the barricade, forming an amalgam of gray and black winter jackets. Each calls to the tourists coming out of the airport, offering rides into the city.
The mix of darkness and smog creates a dense curtain. Kathmandu appears as an opaque orb of light in the distance. I cannot collect enough sensory information to ground myself.
My stomach tightens. I have always been a plan B thinker, vigilantly so when I travel. I tell myself that this time, plan A will work.
Our friends arrived the day prior and texted that they arranged for a driver to pick us up. I scan the crowd while watching other bewildered tourists with bulky backpacks load into cars.
Finally, in the collage of faces, I see a man holding up a rumpled spiral notebook, the kind at the bottom of my feral daughter’s backpack, with my first name scribbled in blue ink across the ruled page.
I make eye contact with the notebook holder, grab Sarah’s arm, and we follow two men to a tiny car. After a few grateful glances and awkward attempts at conversation, Sarah and I squish into the backseat.
We do not exchange another word with the men for the thirty-minute ride, while they speak quietly to each other in Nepali.
Our headlights stop short in the dust and pollution, creating a hazy sepia filter to our introduction to Kathmandu.
I peer out the front window and see that we are one tiny bee in a honking swarm of cars, buses, and motorbikes with masked riders.
The dirt road, riddled with potholes, make the decorations hanging from the rearview mirror swing left and right. The driver expertly dodges oncoming trucks and motorcycles with practiced agility.
We pass walls of small storefronts and low buildings, many with scaffolding, evidence of the 2015 devasting earthquake.
Streams of people of all ages, most wearing breathing masks or holding scarfs over their mouths, flow on each side of the street.
There are sporadic risk-takers who defiantly attempt to cross the road, banging on the sides of cars and jumping from one momentary opening in the traffic to another.
I think of Doha, where we left five hours earlier, and its science-fiction-like cleanliness, as I adjust to Kathmandu’s dystopic pollution and poverty.
I bury my face into the top of my jacket to breathe, trying to filter out the toxic air. I look over at Sarah and give a reassuring smile that says we will settle into our new reality and calibrate to the chaos.
We are in a different universe. That is what we both wanted.
Note: I traveled to Nepal in November of 2018. This is the third essay in a series that describes my experience.