Tsering, our Nepalese guide for our trek into the Helambu region of Nepal, invites us over to his house for dinner two nights before we are to leave on the trek. We have already met him earlier in the day and arranged things. Now at exactly 6:30 Tsering arrives in the lobby of our small hotel. He is carrying a motorcycle helmet. He asks us if we mind riding on the backs of motorcycles. We say no.
We go outside. There are two motorcycles. There is already a young girl riding on the back behind the driver of the first motorcycle and a small boy on the back of Tsering’s bike. So there are going to be three of us on each motorcycle.
I ask him if we need helmets. He says helmets are only necessary for the drivers, and that we don’t need them.
I climb on behind Tsering and the small boy. Rebecca climbs on the other motorcycle behind a helmeted man—we don’t know who he is—and the young girl. We take off into the Kathmandu traffic.
First, it’s useful to know something about Kathmandu traffic and the warren-like maze of streets that make up the Thamel region. Most of the streets are dirt and are full of potholes. They wind and twist their way through the area with multiple alleyways, entrances, and exits. There are no real traffic rules. People generally drive on the left but anything goes. There are no stoplights, stop signs, yield signs, markings on the road, or any traffic signs, directions, or controls of any kind. Pedestrians fill the sides of the narrow avenues, which are also lined with small shops. Taxis, cars, and trucks screech down the narrow streets honking constantly. I had read that most of the traffic fatalities in Nepal are pedestrians. Mixed with this are a constant stream of motorcycles and scooters which swarm and wind their way—also honking constantly—darting and dashing and cutting in front of the pedestrians and the cars. Mixed with this are rickshaws, bicyclists, bicycles with huge racks behind them carrying loads of bananas, and sometimes men carrying huge loads on their backs with straps across their foreheads.
We join this mass of mobile humanity. You might think that Tsering and the other driver would drive somewhat slowly or particularly carefully since we are his guests and there are three of us on each motorcycle. But no, we weave and wind through the cars and pedestrians just like everyone else. At first I cling to the small boy, but with all the jolting around I feel I’m going to fall off backwards and pull him off with me cracking my skull open on Nepalese ground. So I reach around him and hook my fingers into Tsering’s belt loops on his pants and keep my balance in that manner. I vaguely remember from our travel insurance policy that we aren’t covered for these type things.
I quickly lose sight of Rebecca on her motorcycle in the crowd of traffic. How am I going to explain to Rebecca’s mother that the last I saw of her was when she took off into Kathmandu traffic wedged behind a small girl on a motorcycle driven by a guy I don’t know, and now I don’t know where she is?
At one point we shoot down a back road almost free of traffic only to find that the entire road itself has been torn up and we can go no further We make a U-turn and backtrack going down a steep dirt hill. I slide forward with the step descent feeling I’m going to crush the small boy.
Finally, we merge onto a larger paved road with even more traffic. The mayhem continues at a faster pace. We join a mass of small motorcycles racing down the center of the street. A car signals a turn and begins turning in front of us. Tsering weaves around the front of the car, my ankle barely missing the car’s front fender and we continue. It is like being in a video game. Eventually we pull up in front of some buildings and get off. We wait for Rebecca and a few minutes later she arrives on the back of her motorcycle. All six of us walk down a rutted pathway, turn and enter a dark building. The hallway inside is completely black and Rebecca’s driver, who we now find out is Tsering’s friend, lights the way with his cellphone. We climb a flight of stairs, take off our shoes and push our way through a cloth doorway.
The room is lit with a single battery-powered light bulb. There is no pubic electricity right now. Electricity is on for only eleven hours each day. For the other thirteen hours there is no electricity. Kathmandu is broken up into a number of districts and depending on your district, your electricity is on or off at different hours. The eleven hours of electricity is broken up into two segments each day so that you have some power in the morning and some in the evening. Tsering has an app on his phone that shows an actual running countdown of how many minutes until the electricity comes on in his district.
Inside the small room (10 X 20 feet), we meet Tsering’s wife, a young gracious woman who smiles a lot but doesn’t speak much English, and two of Tsering’s nieces, 13-year-olds, who are staying with him. They also smile a lot, giggle and talk amongst themselves. Rebecca’s motorcycle driver is Tsering’s friend for the past ten years, and the two children who rode on the motorcycles with us are his kids. Everyone gives their names but they say them so quickly that even after repeating them it is difficult for me to pronounce them correctly and remember them.
They are all very gracious and we thank them effusively for inviting us to their house. It is a real honor. It is also interesting to see how they live in comparison to our lives in the United States.
The room in which we are standing is the kitchen, but there is one small bed against one of the walls. I think it is one of the niece’s beds. Above the bed are photos of singers and drawings with inspirational sayings such as “You can do whatever you decide to” and “Always keep your smile, no one can take that away from you.” On the other side of the room is a narrow counter on which Tsering’s wife prepares the meals and cooks, and next to that is double-burner powered by propane for cooking. A bare fluorescent bulb lays across the upper wall, but it is off since the electricity isn’t on now. On the far wall are boxes and containers of food and large blue containers for water storage. There is city water—Tsering calls it underground water—for washing, but they can’t drink it. They buy water for drinking, carry it up here and store it in large blue plastic containers. There is no bathroom—there is a shared bathroom downstairs somewhere.
One of the blue water containers is at floor level and there is a large tub beneath it. One of the girls uses it to wash dishes.
We cross the hallway and go into the other room, which is about the same size. There are two small beds pressed against the walls. All the other space is filled with bookshelves stuffed with a variety of items. Another single battery-powered bulb burns from the ceiling.
We sit and talk. Everybody is very friendly. One of the young girls, Nitika, speaks very good English and seems very bright. She likes science, physics, and her dream is to go to the United States and study there. Tsering’s friend says he would do anything—he mimes scrubbing floors—to go to the United States. Continual problems with India and a corrupt Nepalese government all compounded by last year’s earthquake in Nepal make it difficult to survive in Nepal our new friend tells us.
Tsering proceeds to erect a small table, almost like an old Army canvas cot, in the center of the room and some fold up chairs. He fumbles doing it; it doesn’t seem like they use this every day. His wife and the girls fill the table with various foods on separate plates: small roasted pieces of chicken, fried cauliflower, thin bread wafers, sliced cucumber and carrot, two dozen French Fries. A final plate is covered evenly with a single layer of peanuts.
Tsering pulls out a bottle of Nepalese wine that I am sure he bought for us and we have a small glass and toast. It is a cheery meal. He shows us photos of one of the other treks he has led—enormous white mountains with a blanched-looking French couple in some of the photos.
His friend leaves with his children. They are very nice. The young girl who Rebecca rode behind on the motorcycle smiles broadly pleading, “Come to our house for dinner tomorrow.”
We think the meal is over, but Tsering informs us his wife is making momos, an iconic Nepalese dish and a special treat for everyone. Momos are a steamed dumpling made with various fillings. A short while later, we join his wife and nieces in the kitchen. Tsering’s wife has made the dough. She rolls a wad of it flat and uses a glass to cut circular momo wraps. The nieces place a large spoonful of minced buffalo meat, onion and spices in the center of dough and deftly pinch them closed in a prescribed manner. It is part cooking and part art. Some of the momos look like flowers, others like traditional dumplings. We try our hand at making momos—it’s harder than is looks.
While we are laughing and making momos, the electricity comes on! We go back to the other room, and wait for the momos to cook. Once they are done, everyone devours them dipping them in a spicy hot sauce. It is getting late. We ask them what time they go to bed. Tsering says they go to bed at about midnight usually watching TV until then. His favorite shows are Animal Planet and National Geographic.
After thanking his wife and family, we head outside. On the way out to the street we pass a small shop on the ground level. A number of people are huddled on the floor over sewing machines. Tsering says they will work there now that the electricity is on.
He negotiates the taxi fare back to Thamel for us. We will see him in two days on the trek.