I peered around the corner. The band of marauders seemed to be turning away from me, so I crept out from my hiding spot and walked flat against the wall to stay out of view of the snipers on the rooftops. In this fashion, I crept closer to my destination — an ATM deep in the heart of the Thamel district of Kathmandu.
The day was Holi, the Hindu holy day celebrated by pelting strangers with colored powders and liquids, and I had stupidly ventured out of my hotel wearing my “nice” clothes. (In full disclosure, none of my clothes were exactly “nice” after five months on the road, but my current outfit was the closest thing I had to proper-fitting attire acceptable in a restaurant setting. The last thing I wanted was to get my khaki-colored pants covered in permanent bright pink dye, but I was in desperate need of cash.)
Our flight had arrived in Kathmandu after midnight following a substantial delay at the Delhi airport, and all the ATMs in the Kathmandu airport lounge were still off for the night — semi-scheduled power outages, we would learn, are a daily occurrence in Kathmandu. Luckily, we had arranged for our hotel, the Hotel Buddha Land, to chauffeur us from the airport, so cash wasn’t necessary immediately.
The employees who picked us up navigated through the utterly dark and poorly maintained Kathmandu roads, occasionally pointing into the darkness while mentioning the names of various tourist sites. I would strain my eyes to see what they were pointing at, but the van was moving much too quickly for me to make out anything meaningful. Her didn’t even pretend to be interested as she snoozed, using her backpack as a pillow.
When we arrived at the hotel, I gave the men the only US$5 bill I had as a tip. They showed us to our room. Unfortunately, it was a far cry from the reviews we read on TripAdvisor. Our bed was as stiff as a piece of plywood, the hotel’s hot water failed to work even when the power was on and the door to the “wet bath” bathroom was so warped that it didn’t close and therefore allowed for water to spray into the sleeping area whenever we showered. In addition, the hotel’s electricity shut off regularly from the scheduled power outages, and the room didn’t possess generator-powered lighting. (This would prove doubly frustrating when we discovered we had to pare down all our belongings and pack for our hike in complete darkness.) Discouraged but exhausted, we bedded for the night and planned to use the next day to book the trip for which we came to Nepal: a trek to Mt. Everest Base Camp.
During breakfast, I asked the owner of our hotel his thoughts about planning such a trek, and he just happened to know about the “best” trekking company in town — his own, Amazing Nepal Adventure. He walked us through Thamel to his office and delivered a 30-minute spiel on how great the trek would be, how experienced his tour guides were and how much fun we would have. He quoted us a price of 168,000 rupees (almost US$2,000), more than I was hoping to pay, but within our range, and told us to consider it. We talked it over and decided we should compare his price with the prices of other trekking agencies in town before making our decision.
Her wasn’t feeling so great and went back to the hotel to nap. I made a list of the top-5 trekking companies, as ranked on TripAdvisor, and pinned their locations on my iPhone map. Then I set out on my way to gather intel. My first priority, however, was obtaining that cash so I could buy bottled water, some desperately needed shampoo and the supplies we would soon need in the Himalayas. According to Google Maps, one of the offices I was looking for just happened to be across the street from an ATM, so I set out that direction first. That’s about when I found myself in the Holi predicament.
As it turned out, my ability to stay color-free lasted all of five minutes. During Holi, in Kathmandu at least, participants are supposed to refrain from pelting anyone who is free of color. This rule is intended to keep from angering innocent passersby. Yet although I was still color-free, a roving band of rainbow-colored tourists spotted me and ended any hope I had of maintaining my relative cleanliness. Luckily, the color did come out of my clothes, but it was surprisingly more difficult to remove from my face and several day-old beard.
After comparing rates from the several companies I spoke with regarding our proposed trip — a private, 12-day jaunt through the Himalayas culminating in a hike to Mt. Everest Base Camp and a climb to the top of 5,550-meter high Kala Patthar — we decided to go with our hotel owner’s company and his guide, Lakpa Sherpa, 18.
This is the part of the blog post where I warn all future Everest Base Camp trekkers: CHOOSE YOUR GUIDE CAREFULLY. Our guide spoke heavily accented, at times unintelligible English, spent most of his time chatting with our porter and refused to carry his own bottled water, instead soliciting sips from my own canteen. Worst of all, when we had an accident requiring first aid, we learned the extent of our guide’s “first-aid kit” was an ace bandage and about five small band-aids. If you are in relatively good shape, possess your own or can rent cold-weather gear (down jacket, sleeping bag) and are willing to research the trek and precautions against altitude sickness, you may not want a guide at all. The trail is very well-marked and there is really only one direction to walk. Towns are abundant along the trail and are full of lodges ranging from heated double rooms with en suite bathrooms to plywood shacks with gaps between the windows and the window frames (and what kind of rooms, do you suppose, our package paid for?). Going on your own provides the freedom of selecting your lodging after confirming it is suitable. And the price one pays for the packages from Kathmandu is several times what one will pay if booking along the way (cash is necessary, however, as there are no ATMs on the trail after Namche Bazaar, usually the second-day stop).
One can, and probably should, use an agency to buy airplane tickets from Kathmandu to Lukla, the start of the trail, as Amazing Nepal Adventure proved helpful in switching our tickets when our first scheduled flight was postponed and later cancelled due to bad weather — The airlines won’t fly if it’s cloudy at Lukla . This seems very annoying when one is stuck in a tiny airport with no seating for an entire day, but compared to the increased risk of a plane crash and fiery death, it’s a small price to pay for extra safety. One can also very easily hire a porter upon arrival in Lukla (porters for hire surround the airport whenever planes are landing), or even in Namche Bazaar if you try to go on your own for the first couple of days. The only caveat to all of this is if one is traveling during the peak season of October to November and, increasingly, from March to May. During these months, the lodges fill up with pre-booked tour groups and finding a room along the trail can apparently be quite difficult. If trekking during these times, I would recommend pre-booking lodging through a guide agency.
And definitely remember to wear junky clothes on Holi.