Within the first few steps on the tarmac in Pokhara, I feel the downshift from the pollution, density, and relentless sensory onslaught of Kathmandu. After an intense morning at the cremation pyres at Pashupatinath, the twenty-five minute flight transported us to another Nepal.
Pokhara, the country’s second largest city, is the gateway for trekking the Annapurna Circuit and the hub for high-adrenaline sports like paragliding, base diving, kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing.
Lakeside is the touristy part of Pokhara that hovers along the north shore of Phewa Lake. It lives up to the views I studied online, with its verdant banks and dozens of brightly painted row boats anchored in the reflection of the Himalayas.
There are trendy western-type restaurants, bars, and stores that make it a magnet for travelers as a rest-stop on their way to and from adventurous itineraries.
On the afternoon we arrive, Pokhara is buzzing with the celebration activities for the third day of Tihar, the Hindu five-day festival of lights to cast off darkness and misfortune and usher in auspicious blessings for health and prosperity.
There are strings of lights and garlands of marigolds everywhere. Along the sidewalks, at the entrances of homes and businesses, are spectacular Rangolis, colorful designs to invite the goddess Lakshmi to enter and bring good fortune for the coming year.
In the evening, troupes of children go from store to store, dancing and singing songs performed only during Tihar. Shop owners reward the dancers with small gifts of money, candy, and fruit. As darkness falls, people set tea candles on their stoops, windowsills, and sidewalks as Lakshmi favors the brightest lights.
There is an outdoorsy expat community living in Pokhara who have opened yoga studios and businesses catering to tourists. The main drag of Lakeside retains an echo of the bohemian feel of the mid-’60s when the hikers from the West began pitching their tents near the lake.
As the light fades, Sarah and I walk along the water and then explore the shops looking for scarves and singing bowls. We merge into the spontaneous audiences that form circles around the children dancing on the sidewalks.
Sarah is an old soul in a young energy body. She meanders like a child, taking in the world at her own pace. In contrast, my default stride is a purposeful near-sprint. She rolls her eyes when I admonish her to catch up. We are a good pair, balancing out our extremes.
I first met Sarah at Erika’s house, months before leaving for Nepal. My impression of her was neutral and subdued. There was no immediate spark of friendship like sometimes happens. So I was caught off guard when I read the text that she had booked the same flight as me. I recalled her sweetness and accepted the unplanned togetherness.
Over the next months, we built a friendship, as one might in an arranged marriage, as we trained for trekking on the stairs at Mount Bonnell. By the time we were riding the dunes in the Qatari Peninsula during our layover in Doha, we had formed a bond that felt as if we had known each other forever.
Like most tourists, our group does not venture out to experience the rest of the sprawling city of Pokhara. Life in Lakeside is a soft refuge from the challenging conditions on the trekking trails. This is our last night with a flushing toilet and a comfortable bed.
On the morning of our departure, I slip out to watch the sunrise over Phewa Lake and the Himalayas. There are only a few locals organizing the boats before the crowds arrive. An American jogger runs by with an intensity that is out of place in Pokhara, as an older, arguing Japanese couple walks up next to me.
I give the bickering couple a side glance with my much-practiced parental big eyes along with a gentle smile. We then stand in silence, the three of us, while the snow-capped peaks that fill the horizon change from an ethereal blue to watermelon, then mango, with a finale of golden turmeric before the clouds roll over the view.
Pokhara is dreamy, but the traveler in me is ready to go.
Footnote: A brief description of Tihar, if curious.
Tihar is the five day festival of lights that take place in the fall. It is a time to cast off darkness, death, and misfortune and usher in auspicious blessings for health and prosperity.
Tihar tells the story of Yama, the god of death, and his twin sister Yamuna, the goddess of the sacred river of the same name. After being separated for a long period, Yumana sends a crow, dog, and a cow to summon her brother before finding him herself. After they reunite, Yamuna honors Yama by circling him with mustard oil, flowers, and grass, and marks his forehead with five different tikas, colorful powders made with water and rice.
The first day of Tihar honors the crow. In the morning people go to their roofs or gardens to feed the crows sweets, bread or grains.
On the second day, families place tika on the forehead of their dog, hang a garland of marigolds around its neck, and offer their pet extra food. People who do not own a dog, adorn and feed one of the ubiquitous strays that roam Nepal.
The third day, devoted to cows, is considered to be the most important of the five-day festival. The animals are scared in the Hindu tradition and symbolize wealth.
On the fourth day, offerings are made to other bovine animals, like oxen and buffalo. Preparations begin on the fourth day for the Brother-Sister Ceremony that occurs on last day of Tihar. Families gather together to celebrate siblings and apply tika to the brothers in the family as Yumana honored Yama.