From the balcony of the small guest house, I watch cars and motorbikes edge along dusty streets. It’s not yet eight in the morning but hammering, drilling, shouting, birds, and drum beats compete for space in the heavy air. And spitting. Thick, jelly loogies shoot from mouths and nostrils, a seemingly common Nepali habit that even to this day makes my stomach churn.
A knock interrupts this cacophony of sound. The voice is heavy and rough, an early morning after a night of heavy drinking.
“This is Michelle,” I answer, emphasizing the “shh” sound.
“Pravat. Volunteer director. We go?” His words are both command and question. Though the man is short and portly, he walks quickly to the place I am to exchange money. The attendant forgets to give me three rupees, and Pravat stands by quietly as I point to the calculator on the counter. The exchanger sees I am relentless and reluctantly passes coins beneath the plexiglass partition.
I follow Pravat up creaky wooden stairs into a café with splintering chairs. Curtains are propped between tables to provide privacy among diners. Most of the items on the laminated menu are mysteries to me: MoMo, Thukpa, Dal Bhat. I shrug, clueless, and Pravat barks an order to the server. In the heat even the flies seem lazy.
“Language lesson. Now.” Once again, I’m not sure if Pravat is stating or asking, so I nod agreeably. Despite a cloud of jet-lag in my mind, I imitate his sounds and write down words and phrases.
Chha = I have
Chhaina = I don’t have
Ma = I
Ke chha = what’s up?
Thik chha = I’m fine
Dhannyabaad = thank you
Hajur = yes
Kripaya = please
Shubha ratri = good night
Namaste = something along the lines of I see you and you see me
The waiter returns with heaping plates of food; tins of curry, lentil soup, vegetables and yogurt surround neat rice mountains. Pravat uses his hand as a shovel and eats as if someone might take his plate away.
“Should I know anything about the volunteer work?” I ask between bites of rice. My mouth is on fire. I have eaten something spicy, what I don’t know, but this is spice I have never before tasted. I reach casually for the water bottle in my bag and try to not let on there is an inferno blazing in my throat. I want to dunk my head into vats of milk and fill my mouth with sixteen ice cubes.
Oblivious, Pravat lays a wrinkled paper onto the table. He sucks in air and pushes his tongue against his teeth, shutting off his nasal cavity like a didgeridoo player. I look at the paper and the meaningless black swirls. After ten minutes of unsuccessful imitation, Pravat gives up on my lingual shortcomings and sets a bus ticket in front of me.
“For Pokhara,” he says, emphasizing the first syllable. PO-kha-ra, not Po-KHA-ra, which I have been pronouncing.
“Maybe six hours,” he answers, when I ask how far away.
“Am I staying with a family?” A straw hut with loose animals and half-naked screaming children comes to mind.
Family settings are not my forte. I am an only child born to parents as different as night and day: my father, a quiet Dutch immigrant who came to America on a soccer scholarship and my mother, a fiery Italian descendant who competed in Texan beauty pageants.
“Maybe they give you something in morning. Dal bhat evening,” Pravat says.
I reach for the bill instinctually when it arrives. Pravat doesn’t stop me.
“Is there anything else I should see in Kathmandu?” I prod, hoping there’s more to the advertised volunteer orientation.
“You like monkey?”
My eyes widen as Pravat walks toward the door. The street is chaos, a free-for-all of motorbikes, taxis, bicycles, cars, pedestrians, and produce sellers swerving past sleeping cows. With no signals and no traffic lights, I am unsure of the rules of the road and stay close to Pravat. He waves a taxi to stop.
“Monkey temple,” he explains to me from the passenger seat. “Swayambhu.”
The taxi inches through traffic and drops us at the base of a steep staircase. Old women turn wheels of Tibetan inscriptions. As promised, monkeys are everywhere. They pick at each other and scratch themselves and reach into bags of visitors taking selfies.
Pravat and I climb the steps to the white temple perched above Kathmandu Valley. Worn prayer flags line railings. Behind the white dome, a small throng of visitors heave coins at a golden Buddha. Loose change dings off the side of a suspended jar before plopping into the pond below.
“Try,” Pravat commands.
I search inside my bag to find the coins I reminded the money exchanger to give me. With a quick toss, my rupee sails over the metal gate and lands with a square clang into the Buddha’s jar. Astonished onlookers snap their necks and stare. One boy gives me two thumbs up.
“This. This very good luck,” Pravat gasps.
At this point in my life, I needed it.
“Nepal is awfully far. And you’ll be alone.”
I watched my friend, I’ll call him Ryan, dig through his cooler for the perfect wine. His skepticism was unsuccessfully masked while he poured the red blend through the plastic decanter.
“To help it breathe.”
Whether he was talking about the wine or me, I wasn’t sure. I, too, wanted to be poured through that funnel. I wanted to be aerated and given life. From morning until night, I was haunted by questions. What am I doing with my life? Am I even on the right path? I was obsessesed. I was not yet thirty years old and had worked as a probation officer, branding consultant, movie extra, and event planner. I tried to tell myself that “settling down” was the right thing to do. But I didn’t want to.
I had no idea what was next.
As the vintage wine bubbled into Ryan’s delicate glasses, I couldn’t help but notice the hue, the same shade of burgundy worn by monks on the other side of the world. In Nepal.
My heart beat slowly and steadily, a persistent knock in my chest.
Leery of scams capitalizing on foreigners’ desire to travel and good, I researched volunteer agencies online. For a few thousand dollars, language and cultural classes were advertised, airport transfers and hiking tours offered alongside social work placements and traditional homestays. Qualified scholars, or so I assumed from the bold credentials following their names, matched visitors with projects in hospitals and schools. Since I couldn’t find anything incriminating about one particular agency, I downloaded their application and sent it in.
“Congratulations! Your application is approved!” The auto-reply was instant. I figured this must be a mistake, a congratulatory email meant for someone else, but another email dinged my inbox: “Tell us when flight is booked. We pick you from airport. Bring cash.”
The organization requested six hundred dollars for housing, food, and administrative costs. I went with it. I attributed short emails to language problems, though in hindsight, I should have seen this as a red flag.
For eight hours the bus weaves through hillsides and farmlands of barley and rice. Another “Michele” sign waiting in another dusty parking lot.
“You Michael?” the man asks.
I am led to another taxi for twenty more minutes of side streets and bustling neighborhoods. The car finally, mercifully, breaks beside a black metal gate. Chickens announce my arrival from a coop assembled from burlap sacks, the back of a chair, bamboo sticks, and twine. The house behind the cement wall is concrete. Iron rods jut into the sky, prompting me to question whether construction is complete.
A woman steps out of the square building, her body wrapped in red fabric. No taller than five feet, the top of her head barely reaches my shoulder. She bows slightly with her palms pressed together. “Namaste.”
“Namaste,” I echo.
She holds the torn screen door open and motions for me to enter her home. The living room is dark, and as my eyes adjust to the light, I see cockroaches scurry across the floor. Crayon drawings mark the unpainted walls and a dusty doll with a missing eye watches me from an empty shelf.
“You have paper? Gumba. Walking five minute.” The man traces his index finger against his palm to indicate a map.
“Gumba?” I ask, handing him my journal.
“Monastery,” he translates. He draws lines to mark roads, trees, a bridge, and a lake. I have no idea of proximity or distance and stare at the paper until I am led to a dingy room in the hallway. A metal fixture protrudes from the wall, and clothes soak in buckets of murky water. Pea-green tiles are covered with grime.
“Shower,” the man points. The next room is not a closet, as I had guessed, but the bathroom. Though I had watched how-to-use tutorials on YouTube, I stare at the wet porcelain hole with trepidation.
“No hot water,” the man says as he moves back to the front door and slides on his shoes. Rain begins to tap on the tin roof.
“Will I see you again? What if something happens?” My voice cracks, betraying my mask of confidence and bravery.
“Tomorrow I come,” he answers. Then he leaves.
He doesn’t come tomorrow or the next day. In fact, it will be several months before I see him again.