After my shower the next morning, I felt like a new woman. Sylvie and I headed downstairs and went to the small breakfast buffet, where they served Western foods like scrambled eggs, pancakes, and small boxes of cereal. We sat alone, chatting and people watching. The room held 50 people or so, and it was about half full with foreigners dressed in various cold weather gear.
Before we left she walked me to different tables and introduced me to some of the others in our group: David and Andrew, two Australians who were probably in their forties, were quietly sitting at one table. Four more Australians sat near them – Wendy, Joel, Julez, and Erin were a group of friends just a bit younger than I am. Sylvie and I were anxious to get in a bit of exploring before I met with Pippin, so we bid farewell to the others and set off.
I walked with a bounce in my step. The sun was shining and the blue sky was a welcome sight, and the temperature was cool, but comfortable. I could feel it – a familiar, slight smile that stayed on my face throughout the morning. My face reacted to the energy I felt – adventures and a new country to explore were laid in front of me, and I felt alive. Awake. All the anxiety from the previous evening had completely dissipated.
We walked to a small, open-air bookstore and spent some time checking out maps of the Kathmandu Valley. I couldn’t buy one until I bested an ATM, but we found a good map that Sylvie bought and I planned to get later.
Continuing on, we retried the ATM from the night before. It refused both Sylvie’s and my cards. We decided to find an actual bank and continued our slow, exploratory walk down the road.
The area of Kathmandu we were in felt completely different in the light. The roads we walked on were rough and lined with multi-storied, low-key buildings that seemed to lean into the narrow streets.
On our way back to the Kathmandu Guest House, we found a bank of four ATM machines in a narrow room up a few stairs from the road. Other foreigners were happily pulling cash, and we all chatted as we accessed our accounts and filled our wallets. I withdrew 35,000 Nepalese rupees, which came out to $335 US.
We made it to the hotel lobby with time to spare. I was looking around, trying to spot our tall blond guide, when Sylvie called out to me.
“Mandy, this is Bipin.”
I turned to see a black-haired man who was roughly my age. For a moment I was confused, and then I realized I was an idiot: our guide wasn’t some eternally backpacking Westerner with a curiously cute name from a Broadway musical. He was a local.
(I learned later that Intrepid Travel hires trained travel guides from host countries. Smart.)
He motioned to a couch by the window, and we introduced ourselves. In clear English, like the majority of the Nepalese I’d encountered by that point, he explained what I could expect on the trip. I trusted him immediately and felt a sense of kinship with someone I’d known for five minutes.
Once we’d gone over the details, he smiled and excused himself so he could get ready for the day’s excursion. Others in our group were starting to congregate in the lobby, and Sylvie helped me meet each of them. There were 13 of us in total, including Bipin.
Andrew and David, the two Australians I’d met at breakfast, largely stayed to themselves during the trip. They often wandered off and did their own thing, sometimes skipping meals with the group and eating separately. Bipin was careful to make sure they were included as often as they wanted to be, but for the most part, the remaining 10 of us spent the most time together.
Sylvie, my roommate, was a Canadian who lived and worked in Morocco as a teacher. She’s a voracious reader – I think she read six books during our ten-day trip – and casually dignified, with an adventurous spirit and quick wit. I had a lot of fun rooming with her.
The four other Australians I’d met at breakfast consisted of Julez and Joel, siblings of Filipino descent; Erin, Julez’s girlfriend; and Wendy, Julez’s friend. Julez was the most Australian Australian I’ve ever met, and was chill and very comfortable in her own skin. Joel was her younger brother, a naturally bright college (“uni”) student who, despite making duckfaces in his pictures, was always ready to laugh. Erin was a happy blonde who joined the group on her first-ever visit outside of Australia, which she handled with grace. Wendy was a spunky woman with a contagious laugh whose husband, regrettably, stayed home.
As the group assembled, I also met two New Zealanders, a married couple named Nick and Sian.
“How do you pronounce it? Shawn?”
“No, like ‘Shan’.”
“Wait… how do you spell that?”
Nick and Sian are Intrepid Travel regulars, a very thoughtful, fun couple. He had a camera around his neck like me, and his pictures from the trip are captivating.
Soon two Brits, Chloe and Natasha, came into the lobby. They’re friends who act like sisters, and even in their twenties they give off a air of grace and poise. Their proper manners made it all the funnier when Tasha talked smack during games.
Once we’d all arrived, Bipin corralled us into a waiting 13-passenger van. He sat shotgun, with a wide console between him and our quiet, reliable driver, Megh.
During our drives Bipin often turned around and told us stories and jokes. He’d also share the history of Nepal and our destination, sprinkling in personal anecdotes that made the country feel more like a place where people lived, and not just a place where people climbed mountains. On longer drives, when most of the foreigners were sleeping, he’d turn and check on everyone, smiling at those of us who were still awake. A surefooted guide, Bipin quickly became a good friend. He was our teacher and leader, whip-smart like Joel, a skilled photographer like Nick, and witty like Sylvie.
All eleven of us loved to laugh. With Bipin as our guide, over the course of nine days we became a family. And our family was currently loaded into a plain white van and on its way to our first destination: Pashupati.