Day 1 - One Way Ticket
Updated: Apr 4
This should be the best day of my life, but I'm crying hysterically and cannot stop. I gather myself for one second and then think about my friends, my dog, my family, and the waterfall continues. I'm sure everyone assumes I'm on my way to a funeral by now, maybe I am. Maybe I need to go to the other side of the world, just to make new memories, to live a new life and leave the old one behind.
It's 6 hours from Denver to NY, then 14 to Qatar and 5 hours to Kathmandu. The truth is, I am scared AF! "You have to make it back home, you're my only daughter" that's what she said, when she came into my room crying a couple weeks ago. Now those words echo in my head.
What are the chances I never make it back? On the other hand, what are the chances that I die in some mundane way, working my life away, not having had the adventure of my life? I have no idea when I will go back home, and I don't even know where home is. I packed up all my things from Denver and moved them into storage at my family's place in the mountains. My family is moving to New Orleans and I'm guessing the house will sell soon. I may never see this place again. We've lived here 9 years, it's the longest I've ever called a place home.
On the flights, I try to watch funny movies to take my mind off things, but even funny movies have sad parts and I'm officially crying out loud, uncontrollably, for 25 hours. Then I look out the window, I see the Himalayas on the horizon, we sink down beneath the smog, and a wild place is revealed to me, the tears stop instantly.
I get in line for my visa on arrival, I only brought an envelope with $100 cash and planned to get local currency from ATMs. I knew from being in Asia before, that I would need crisp new bills if I was going to exchange them. Well, I thought I had done my due diligence but I didn't check the bills well enough and after spending $40 for my visa, I only had $20 left to work with. Apparently the remaining $20 bills had very minor damages.
That's ok, I will get a tuktuk to my hostel and find an ATM.
Fast forward to 5 ATMs later... I cannot get my card to work anywhere! Luckily I booked my hostel in advance and I don't have to pay until I check out in 5 days (then I go trekking in the Himalayas for 2 weeks.) I am on a treasure hunt, for any working ATM in this entire neighborhood of Kathmandu, but after so many failed attempts, I am convinced that there is a problem with my card. Maybe my travel notice didn't go through? On my frantic journey between ATM's I see so many people missing limbs, begging, I see packs of dogs that are "urban-wild", and I avoid the streets that seem too overtaken. I remember how to navigate the streets again. backpacking, it's like riding a bicycle. I know to always look on the ground, because parts of the street and sidewalk may be missing. I walk confidently, like I always know where I'm going, even if I'm lost. I feel so stupid for crying the whole way here. What was I afraid of? Being stranded without money in Kathmandu on the first day of my trip? I didn't see this coming, I was too busy worrying about stupid shit.
I find a dusty communication office, with a couple of ancient computers and a phone that can reach the emergency number on my debit card.
My bank is a small credit union in Colorado and apparently, on this particular national holiday, I will not be able to reach them until next week!! This is a disaster! I spent the rest of my money trying to reach this bank for nothing.
I walk out of the computer lab, which really hadn't been cleaned since those computers were invented. But, as I look around, that seems to be the new standard for clean. I'm feeling at a total loss but I also realize, I've got nothing to lose. Within seconds of walking into the chaotic street, I am approached by a woman holding a baby. "Can you buy milk for me and my baby" she asks in perfect english. "I can't, I actually don't have any money" I shrug, "Then come over to my house for tea".
I learn that her name is Vimla, and I follow her through the chaos of motor bikes that never stop honking. We go down a hill, down a long dirt alley, through a field of grass, trash and cows to a small 1 room shack made of corrugated metal sheets. "I built it with my own two hands" Vimla explains, I am genuinely impressed. The inside is lined with colorful fabrics. There is one single bed, that's where the 5 children sleep. 2 boys belong to Vimla, and 3 others to her sister. The women sleep on the floor, and it's unclear where anyone uses the bathroom. It's October, and although the days are warm, winter is coming, and when it does the whole family gets sick. The hut floods in the rainy season, and the metal sheets are no match for Himalayan winds.
I feel so lucky to be invited into this home for tea, to have such a raw experience on my first day, and to be welcomed in by someone who hardly has anything. The shelves in the kitchen are empty. There is a jar of sugar and black tea, there is milk that comes in a plastic bag, and it has not been refrigerated. I know it's a bad idea, my stomach never had the chance to acclimate. I don't have enough money for food anymore, I am literally at the mercy of Vimla. I sit on the floor, and watch Vimla make chapatis and some sort of dish with chicken, or rather chicken bone.There wasn't really any chicken to eat but I ate everything desperately. I hadn't had food since my Qatar flight, and I didn't know when I would eat again. I drank the chai, with the plastic bag milk. I learned about Vimla and her community. How their husbands were no good, how they came from Rajasthan, India, in hopes of a better life. Vimla is 28, 2 years older than me, she has 2 kids, she had 3 but her daughter died. She lives in a slum in Boudhha, Kathmandu. News spread that Vimla had a foreign guest and many people started showing up at the door. Her brother started a fire outside with a handful of friends, her uncle, and other women from the community, all staring at me.
Suddenly I feel hyper aware that I am in a slum in Kathmandu, and it is getting dark. I tell Vimla I have to go back to my hostel. Vimla invites me back the next day for lunch and dinner. I step through the small crowd and walk as quickly as possible back through the field of trash and cows, down the long dark dirt alley way. I just need to make it to a street with lights and people and I will be fine.
Thankfully, the city was still alive but the transition was clear. At night, the streets belong to the dogs, and they are not afraid of anyone.
I make it back to my hostel and rest until around 2 am, I sit up and instantly know what's coming, vomit, lots and lots of vomit. I should not have eaten that food or drank that tea. But what choice did I have? I am alone, and if I was traveling with someone I could just borrow money, but then I never would have met Vimla. I would have never known that slum existed, or met the people who live under those sheets of metal.
Sure enough, I found myself back there the next day, and the next, each night waking up to a violent exodus. Thank goodness I don't go backpacking without anti diarrhea pills, these quickly became my best friend and the only reason I could go anywhere by day 3. I spent all my days with Vimla, I played with her kids and we made "kites" with found string and plastic bags. She brought me to the rest of the community, where I met plenty of other women and children who were living much rougher than Vimla. They showed me the quilts they make and shared with me the many challenges they face. Vimla did all the translating when needed, she speaks such good english from her life as a beggar. In fact, she speaks several languages but can't read or write in any of them. When she learned I had plans to go to Kyrgyzstan next, she taught me my first words in Russian.
By day 4, I am finally able to call my bank and get money out. The first thing I do, is go to the corner store and buy papayas, a bag of rice, a bag of potatoes, milk, eggs and crackers and bring them to Vimla. I thought, it's the least I can do, she saved my ass for 4 days! Shortly after my delivery, I'm having another round of tea, even though I know I'll pay for it later. Her brother comes in and grabs nearly half the food I bought and brings it to the rest of the community, then her sister comes and takes half of what's left after that!
It quickly becomes apparent that filling her pantry is a temporary bandaid at best. I have to do better, and I have two weeks of walking to figure it out.
When I returned from the Himalayas, 2 weeks and ~15lbs lighter (altitude sickness), I made a fundraiser through FB to help Vimla. It was a great success and I was able to buy her a bed, as well as a shoe shinning kit for her brother so that he could make his own money and not mooch off her. It also meant she could spend more time making quilts and less time begging which is more sustainable in the long run. I did what I could to make her days a little easier and it truly didn't take much. We have kept in touch ever since through WhatsApp, I send her recordings of my voice since she can't read, and she sends me cheesy GIFs for all the holidays.
What a crazy first day, everything went so wrong and then turned out so magical. I made a life long connection with a woman from a completely different reality. When I first set eyes on Kathmandu, it was crystal clear that I had nothing to cry about, but it's one thing to see it in passing, and another to dive in and hear the stories. What a damn privilege it is to pack everything I need into one bag, and travel as far away as possible, only to meet people who make me feel 100% at home. What a beautiful life it is, to leave behind family and friends I love, to meet people from a completely different culture and background, only to learn that we have so much in common.
Day 1 - I am the luckiest girl alive.
Many more stories to come,
Much love, OliviaJane