Yak Cheese Balls with a Side of Loneliness

My first day in Pokhara, Nepal

Lake Phewa/Fewa/Fua in Pokhara, Nepal

If I’m not careful, I might end up staying in this room forever.

Why leave this cozy haven, with its beautiful view of Fishtail Mountain, just to seek the outdoors? I am already bombarded by nature in all her glory from the welcome confines of my humbly-upholstered chair.

Bright fuchsia flowers wave playfully just outside my window, infusing my soul with the wonders of natural Nepal. Exquisite visions of mountain peaks hold fast to my right, while a lush rooftop garden rustles to my left.

“I’m not moving a muscle” I think, as I finish a steaming pot of sweet milk tea. But it’s my first day in town, and whether I like it or not, the city of Pokhara begins to beckon.

I stubbornly extract myself from “the writer’s room,” somewhat reluctant to perform what’s become a regular ritual in each new city I visit.

The first thing I do when I get to a new town – any new town – is walk around and get lost. I never take a map on the first day, and only ask for directions in the most general sense.

Today I ask Hari, my guest house owner, how to get to the lake – the sparkling blue lake I’d seen in so many pictures, the lake that is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, the lake that looks like someone plopped a chunk of Switzerland down right in the middle of Nepal.

“Very easy” says Hari, giving me directions to Lake Fewa (AKA Lake Phewa, Phewa Lake, Lake Fua, or however else one feels like spelling it given one’s mood that day). “Just follow the road.”

That certainly does sound easy. I’ve booked this hotel because of it’s proximity to the lake, which Hari promises to be just a five minute walk away.

I follow the winding road west, walking past narrow, colorful hotels and one-story cement homes.

Women work in their muddy front yards, taking pick-axes to the soil in bare feet and bright skirts. Shop owners and children stare at me as I walk past, or perhaps it just feels that way. I don’t see any other foreigners on the road – I barely see any other people.

The gravel veers sharply to the right and I’m suddenly thrust toward a main thoroughfare. Restaurants and bars begin to replace the hotels, and shop owners call to me to come look at their souvenirs.

Every other storefront seems to be home to a trekking company that offers bus tickets, organized tours, hiking, biking, boating, motorcycle rentals…absolute heaven for adventure travelers and outdoorsy types.

I arrive at the main road that runs along the lake – the aptly-named Lakeside Drive – and grin in appreciation of how the Nepalese people like to keep things simple.

The street is choked with rooftop restaurants, souvenir shops, merchants selling precious linens and silks, and signs boasting everything from lakeside seating to live music.

Backpackers, Westerners, and large groups of Chinese tourists dodge racing motorbikes and taxi cat calls. It is warm and sunny, and while I’m tempted to sample one of the many yak-themed dishes offered on every restaurant sign (yak cheese balls! yak cheese pasta! yak!), I have a single goal in mind: find the lake.

Lakeside Drive in Pokhara

Lakeside Drive in Pokhara

I must be close, since every other sign I pass seems to point toward the lake, but each alleyway leads me astray. I continue walking north along Lakeside Drive, hoping there will be an obvious opening and I’ll be lead to the placid promised land.

Fishtail Mountain is my guiding star, standing steadfast above the intricate nets of tangled electrical wiring that somehow powers the city (well, kind of).

A glance toward the sky fills my vision with a decidedly Nepalese triumvirate  – impossibly high mountain peaks, rat’s nests of wires, and the remnants of brightly colored, tattered flags.

The flags and the wires are strewn across the horizon and serve to remind the viewer that no matter how pristine those peaks, no matter how much English is written and spoken everywhere, no matter how many dread-locked Dutch guys you see, you are still very much in Nepal.

I’ve been walking for way too long with no lake in sight, so I decide to take the next left no matter what. The lake looked pretty big in those pictures – it’s not like I’ve somehow missed it, right?

I spy a shock of bubbling blue peaking through a hole in a distant fence, and I move toward it.

It’s the lake! Well, it’s the lake, kind of.

pokhara-3

I wind along a concrete path that wraps around private homes. The front yard of each home is made of water instead of earth, and hundreds of fish wriggle inside homemade nets, creating a row of miniature fish farms.

The metal fence that stretches along this path finally offers a checkered view of Lake Fewa.

The mountains are not snow-capped, but green, and it’s a bit hazy out, and I can’t get as close to the shore as I’d like, but there it is – the reason to build a town. The reason to journey 7,685 miles around the world. The reason to believe in a benevolent creator.

Lake Fewa is set against the mountains like a drawing, like a child’s idea of Eden. It is positively idyllic, with rolling hills and rocky peaks serving as the perfectly-shaped backdrop to an enormous, shiny blue pond.

The undulating earth hugs the lake in a crescent embrace, shielding it from the impossible peaks beyond.

The entire town of Pokhara seems to fall under the protection of this half-moon, which  towers over the hustle and bustle with a calming, fatherly presence.

Pokhara-4

I press my face against the fence like a five-year old at a baseball game, wondering how the hell I can get closer to the majesty. I want to sink into the view, to tumble into the painting and lose myself until I become one with the vision.

“Where are you from?”

Godammit. I’m starting to hate that question more than I hate people who chew gum with their mouths open (YOU LOOK LIKE A COW. STOP IT.).

The poser of the question is a bespectacled Nepalese student with the eager air of a salesclerk who works on commission.

I never know how to answer the question “Where are you from?” since I’ve been a nomad within my own country for so many years. Do I say the U.S.? Wisconsin? California? Los Angeles? Miami by way of Syracuse by way of North Carolina?

I mutter what I usually mutter when traveling abroad, because it’s just easier than going into the whole story, and because it seems to be a name most non-native English speakers recognize:

“California,” I say, and attempt to get back to the spectacular view.

But four-eyes is one eager beaver, and sidles up to continue a conversation I don’t want to begin.

“Is your first time Nepal? I show you around. I am a student. I study English here in Pokhara. You don’t know where to go, I help you.”

The look on my face must be screaming “Leave me alone you big scammer!” because four-eyes flails his hands in front of his body in protest.

“No no no, I not guide! I not want money! I want help you, you don’t know.”

I’m unsure of how to get out of this awkward situation, since his offer to help me find things is completely appropriate – I mean, I couldn’t even find the lake when it’s right there.

Pokhara-4

“I friend to you, you no pay money. I take you to the stupa. I show you around Pokhara. You meet my mother, you eat with my family.”

And then I do a thing that is so completely stupid, so ridiculous, so the opposite of what I want to do, that it’s almost as if an invasive, invisible entity is pulling out my iPhone and beginning to type…

I’m taking down Four Eyes’ phone number, and worse, I’m giving him mine.

Why would I do that, you ask? Because I am physically unable to do anything that even faintly reeks of rudeness. I would rather shoot myself in the foot – literally – than be rude. And somehow, in my mind, I equate not giving someone what they want with being impolite. It’s a terrible quality and I struggle with it daily.

What’s more, I’m suddenly very, very lonely.

There is nothing more isolating than longing for connection while traveling only to have the first person you speak with try to pull one over on you.

Maybe if I give him my phone number he’ll leave me alone. Maybe if I give him my phone number he’ll end up being really cool, and I’ll realize I was wrong about him, and we’ll turn out to be best friends. I mean, I don’t have a particularly bad feeling about him, but I also have no intention of hiring him to be my guide or going to eat dahl bat with his mother.

And because I’m a passive-aggressive-moron-idiot who can’t just say no when she means no, I give him my real phone number to boot. (I’ve never understood giving someone you might bump into again a fake phone number. How awkward.)

“What is your name?” I ask, so I’ll know who I’m hanging up on when he calls.

“Deepak” he smiles, shaking my hand vigorously. “I call you soon, we go tomorrow to stupa.”

“I can’t go tomorrow, I’m working” I protest.

“Ok. We go tomorrow. I call you soon.”

And he does. Over and over and over again beginning exactly one hour after I’ve left the lake, until I’m forced to edit his name in my phone to read “Deepak Don’t Answer.”

The best cure for lonliness in Nepal - Yak cheese balls

The best cure for loneliness in Nepal – Yak cheese balls

With each harassing ring I feel more and more alone. Is everyone in this country just out to take advantage of me?

I drown my sorrows in a plate of yak cheese balls at a lone table in the Monsoon restaurant while the staff watches cricket on a rickety television set. The meal is steaming and delicious, but it’s not enough to temper the utter isolation that suddenly permeates my heart.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

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