Friday, December 02, 2011

Kathmandu

The race is still three days away, but the challenge begins the second we step out of the airport. The psychological gap between the chilled, empty terminal after midnight and the crowd of shouting faces outside feels vast. Once I cross it, I can't step back. Literally.

Two charismatic young hustlers grab our luggage and rush us to a taxi, then demand tips in twenties, U.S. Still smarting from the scam, we pile into the dusty cab. I grip the seats as the vehicle lurches into the darkened city. Motorcycles and tiny cars stream past in a chaotic blur. There are no street signs, no traffic lights, no lights at all. Every day for as many as 16 hours, Kathmandu shuts off the electric supply to prevent grid overload. The chaos of life, however, keeps churning.

I admit the notion of world travel makes me feel uneasy. I'm enthralled with the Earth, but the world of people often intimidates and sometimes frightens me. People with all of their cultural and individual differences create a bewildering geography that seems impossible to bridge. My personal barrier is not so much a social anxiety as it is an overwhelming desire to understand every single one of them in a way I never will. The hunched man pushing his cart of vegetables up the rough street after dark. The skinny 7-year-old boy riding an adult bicycle along the road much too late, and by himself. The beggar in tattered robes with a piercing gaze. The motorcyclist dressed in Western fashion and weaving fearlessly through smog-belching taxis. The unseen thousands inside of all those darkened buildings. I gaze wide-eyed out the window and imagine what their lives might be like, what they return home to at the end of the long day, what they set out to do in the morning. The barrage of images and unknown stories overwhelms my senses, until I find myself retreating into daydreams about frozen tundra.

But I am still in Kathmandu, where broken cement litters the street and shanty towns line the trash-clogged river. A city of a million-plus in a developing country is as far from my people comfort zone as I've ever ventured, and I'm not sure how to process all the unknowns. The truth is I don't really know anything about these people. I know from books that they are largely Hindu, a conglomeration of dozens of different regional ethnic groups, with many cultural similarities to India. I know from newspapers that they are still recovering from a decade-long political uprising and struggling to establish an effective government, although a rapid increase in tourism is driving improvements in the economy and infrastructure. I know from maps that Nepal is a mountainous region full of tortured geography. I know from the things I see that the residents of Kathmandu are largely poor, but I've never been one to equate poverty with unhappiness. In fact, I believe the cycle of hardship and overcoming hardship is the key to happiness; but of course it's a complicated puzzle, and of course I am a first-world person with first-world perspectives. So I know nothing of the Nepali people, but I guess that's one of the main agendas of world travel – broaden the horizons.

I am relieved when the driver actually drops us off at our hotel rather than dumping us in an abandoned alley after robbing us for everything we have. I feel guilty for fretting about this, and experience more first-world guilt as we step into the hotel, which drips with false opulence and independently generated electricity. The room is stocked with fresh fruit, which Beat instructs me not to eat, and two liters of filtered water, which Beat informs me will have to cover all of our water needs from brushing teeth to drinking to shaving for the next 12 hours. The race is just three days away and we can't afford to get sick now.

The next morning we return to the airport for our flight to Pokhara. The regional terminal is  packed wall-to-wall with throngs of people, including tall, blond-haired tourists wearing brand new hiking boots and a Nepali woman with a caged chicken on her lap. We pass through a single metal detector that probably doesn't work, and line up under rafters occupied by live birds. The weather in Pokhara is bad that day, and we're informed that all flights have been canceled. A group of a couple dozen other stranded Racing the Planet participants have gathered in a corner to organize alternative transportation. Matt, a former Marine from Florida, assumes the leadership position and manages to round up six rented jeeps with drivers. The four of us from the Bay area – Beat and I, and our friends Steve and Martina – wedge ourselves and our stuff into one Reagan-era four-by-four. Back on the road.

I wish I could describe the six-hour drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara, but I really can't. I can only say that it was one of the more terrifying experiences of my life, and I was mentally preparing for my life to end in a white explosion until I became too car-sick to care. Imagine a minefield of broken pavement, potholes and chunky gravel, barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic, except there are no lanes, and no signs, and no laws. Traffic generally flows on the left, or opposite side of the road, except for when it doesn't because drivers usually just travel the “best” side, regardless of who's approaching. Huge Indian Tata diesel trucks barrel down as motorcycles buzz past on both sides. Our own driver doesn't seem concerned about anything except getting rid of us as quickly as possible. He overtakes vehicles on blind corners, bounces the wheels over road craters, buzzes pedestrians and swerves away from oncoming trucks at the last possible second. After four hours of this, smoke begins to pour into the cab. The driver pulls over, pops the hood, mills about for several minutes discussing the mechanical with the locals in Nepali, starts the engine several times, waits until smoke stops streaming into the cab, and declares the problem fixed. We are still fifty kilometers from Pokhara. “We can probably run that if we have to,” Steve suggests.

We make it to Pokhara still alive, but it feels like a lifetime away from San Francisco after the insane road trip, night in Kathmandu and 35 hours of international airport travel that now separate us from home. “I'm not sure anything about this race could be as hard as just getting here,” I think. I almost say it out loud to Beat, but stop myself, because it sounds too much like - as they say - famous last words.