Lasagna. Sinatra. Kathmandu.
And Tiger Balm. That annoying Tiger Balm. It was everywhere here in Kathmandu. Just when I’d sit down in a cafe where I hadn’t really expected to see lasagna on the menu or to hear Frank Sinatra crooning, a Tiger Balm salesman would suddenly be in my face, furtively whispering as if he were selling illegal drugs.
"Pssst, Tiger Balm?"
I was beginning to think it was a metaphor. Maybe he WAS trying to sell hashish. But then, what were the other whispering salesmen selling, the guys who opened their palms to reveal small packets?
"Transport? No? Hash then?"
Ah, Kathmandu. As restricted and policed as foreign tourism had been during my recent time in Tibet, Nepal was equal amounts free enterprise. Tourism was a competitive sport here in a land that could produce hundreds of tiny cheap guesthouses, where if a trekking teahouse was full, a backpacker could just sleep on the kitchen floor.
I preferred the Nepalese version of tourism to the rigid Chinese-controlled Tibetan one, for sure, but wondered if I might get a third option in a few weeks when I was due to go to Bhutan. A tale of three mountain kingdoms, I mused, all offering completely different approaches to tourism.
Meanwhile, I was tired. Tibet – like the time I may or may not have quietly zipped down to Mexico from New York to visit Cuba a few years ago – was both fascinating and exhausting. But my conflicted brain had struggled to deal with so many questions at one time as in these two countries.
I turned in, exhausted, and the next morning, as I ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, a familiar song came on in the background. I identified it in a second – I'd heard it many times. This was from the Tibetan Incantations CD, which I'd bought in 1998 during my previous trip to Kathmandu.
"Nice to know that Kathmandu's Hotel California isn't, in fact, Hotel California," I thought. Though I did get sick of this CD over the next week. I wonder how tired of it the Nepalese waiters and hotel clerks are.
Today I had to switch hotels, as there was no more room at my current inn. I headed deep into the backpacker neighborhood of Thamel, which is noisy, crowded, and full of touts and tourists. I am a city gal, addicted to convenience, plus I was on a tight budget, so Thamel was a good spot for me.
But as I walked around visiting hotels, I learned that many of the cheap hotels were worn-out, and the release date of Tibetan Incantations was probably representative of the last time the management had invested in anything new.
And many places were full and wouldn’t even show me a room.
"This is low season," said one receptionist. "I don't know why there are so many tourists in August this year."
I did know why, and doubted there would be anymore slow Augusts in Kathmandu. July and August is when China goes on holiday, and the new breed of Chinese traveller – which was quite similar to backpackers worldwide, including me – wasn’t turning back. The young budget travellers were pushing beyond their borders, visiting neighbouring countries using the same public transit that I used.
I looked at a dozen budget hotels over the course of the day, and finally concluded I was going to have to up my budget or lower my standards. I went back to Ganesh Himal Hotel to pick up my rucksack. A bored man hanging out waiting for a friend to get off work took an interest in my predicament.
“I think you'd like Kathmandu Resort Hotel,” he said. “It's brand-new, across from Kathmandu Guesthouse."
"Sounds expensive," I said doubtfully.
"It's a little more," he acknowledged.
I headed up to Kathmandu Resort Hotel, and asked for a room.
"We have only one left... but... well, come with me."
I followed the clerk to a room where there had been a leak in the bathroom ceiling. The leak had been fixed but the cosmetic damage to the ceiling had not been repaired yet.
"I'll give you a good price since you're staying a week. $30 a night, including breakfast."
That's twice what an older budget guesthouse would have cost me, but the room was new and in the centre, near all kinds of shops and restaurants.
I moved in, rested, caught up on work, did a lot of laundry, bought souvenirs for people participating in the MariesWorldTour.com souvenir programme, found a hair salon that could match my color, enjoyed a pedicure at a place called Foot Fetish, went to see an old friend on the outskirts of town, and wandered the alleys of Kathmandu, looking at stupas and shrines and men selling Tiger Balm.
Eventually – while I was ordering a shawarma at a little carryout in central Thamel – I ran into my Chinese backpacker friends I’d ridden in with from the border. The kid in the hipster glasses spoke first, since his English was fluent.
"What is a shawarma?"
"It's a Middle Eastern thing,” I said, pointing to a rotisserie of chicken pieces. “Chicken and stuff wrapped in flatbread.”
"It's delicious," announced a Nepalese man sitting at the counter, chowing down on a chicken shawarma.
The backpackers all studied his shawarma.
"Did you find a room?" I asked.
Their faces fell.
"We saw many rooms. But they were all..."
"...awful?"I finished for them.
"Yes. So cheap but so dirty! Finally, we just went to the one the man had taken us to when we got out of the taxi. All the rooms were the same."
"I also had this problem. I just paid more in the end."
They nodded. "We can't do that with our budget."
I understood and was sympathetic. They were definitely on a shawarma budget.
Then one of them who had been quiet all throughout the journey from the border to Kathmandu timidly addressed me for the first time.
"Have you seen the movie... Rings..." She conferred with her boyfriend. "Lord of the Rings?"
"Yes, the elf queen?" I smiled. "I look like her." I get this a lot.
"Yes! You do!" My friends were pleased now that they'd called it.
In the wide world of pop culture, I had the same cultural references as these 18-year-old Chinese backpackers in Kathmandu, as we bonded over fast food.
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