[ Pokhara, Nepal ]
For many years and reasons, I have cherished a dream to emigrate from the United States of America1. Yet somehow, with every passing year, recurring season, and yawn-worthy quotidium of unfolding existence, the dream faded, slowly becoming less and less tangible, harder and harder to imagine, less attainable though never less desirable.
The idea persisted as a single, closely guarded ember of wanderlust, secreted away, biding its time, defying hope’s entropic fading—until precisely one year ago today, Tuesday, April 2, 2013. On that day, I boarded a winged behemoth at Houston’s Intercontinental Airport and embarked upon a new life away from Empire’s gloomy shores. Or so I imagined.
The destination? Nepal. Mountain kingdom. Paragliding Mecca. A country to be found on most anyone’s shortlist of the planet’s most beautiful places.
Without prompting, following the circadian rhythm of the current season’s days, I roll out of bed each morning bright and early, climbing a flight of cool, concrete steps to my rooftop balcony and gazing out at the sleepy tranquility of idyllic Phewa Lake. Still rubbing sleep from groggy eyes I turn to look upwards upon Machhapuchhre’s austere, triangular summit peeking out in its familiar way from behind Sarangkot’s distant ridge. On clear days, her peak gleams blindingly down from its 7000 meter perch, crisply white in the morning’s first light. I’m awestruck. The bird-speckled skies churn with feather-clad predators, snacking on unwary rodents and insects who tarry too long after their long night’s grazing. From high above, the vultures and Black Kites look down at me as I lean out over the railing, looking down in turn upon the street below—a road stirring, waking, rousing itself in a crescendo of buzzing, teeming vitality.
Back in my room, preparing to start the day, I look into the bathroom mirror to discover a stranger’s face returning my gaze, regarding me curiously. To my eye, he seems fit, healthy. He’s forty pounds lighter and thinner than I am, and older, of course, with heavily salted sideburns and too many wrinkles. But this stranger looks happy, excited—and more content than I have felt in a decade. Maybe two2. I brush my teeth, gargle, and watch the mirror-man spit in my direction.
On his shelf I see Colgate: Spiderman-enhanced, bubblegum-flavored.
On an average day, the Stranger will meander downstairs and cross the road for breakfast at the New Beautiful Cafe, mouth freshly bubblegummed. Like Lakeside’s many friendly street dogs, he lazily warms himself in the sun, its first rays crawling over verdant hills to the city’s east and pouring into the restaurant. He will dine surrounded by an eccentric, transglobal conglomerate of friends: paraglider pilots, shopkeepers, Tibetan refugees, school children, cabbies, expats and barbers, neighborhood families, tourists of all stripes and interests. He will greet (or be greeted by) each of them warmly, switching comfortably and often between English, German, and Nepali. Later, to accomplish the majority of his day’s requisite interactions, he will read, write, and speak in this latter, new-to-him language, with the patient encouragement of the locals, and much to their delight.
To a degree wildly beyond his fondest hopes and expectations, the Stranger will find himself warmly accepted into the tapestry of the city. An outsider, assimilated. Wherever he goes, he will be recognized. Each evening, as he rides his bicycle up and down the main drag—hands-free, clapping to music only he can hear, dancing in the saddle for the sheer joy of being outdoors and amongst the city’s bustle and flow—local children will follow him on their bikes, mimicking his silliness, laughing. Others (adults, too) will cheer him on from the sidewalk, making the Stranger smile and clap and dance all the more. A spontaneous feedback loop of good karma.
Nowadays it is rare for anyone to target him with the hard sell: reflexively pitching obligatory trinkets or knit caps or t-shirts or Ilam teas or hashish or poorly crafted Nepali instruments or some flier announcing one of Pokhara’s faux-seedy dance club’s evening specials. The hard sell is for tourists, and the Stranger has moved beyond that category. Basket-bearing women selling fruits and vegetables, chatpati wallas, shoe repair wallas, wandering Tibetan sisters with backpacks full of handmade wares—most have ceased to pay him any mind whatsoever; a handful are on a first name basis and take every opportunity to exchange personal tidings or remark upon recent developments in the weather.
The sadhus, or Babas—mendicant Hindu holymen who live their lives solely from the generosity of others—pass him by, smiling or waving or holding their right hands to the center of their chests in recognition. The worst and most hardened of the town’s street creatures, despite their young age, are the scruffy, drug-huffing street urchins–carefully and theatrically unwashed children deployed by local thugs to prey upon naïve visitors’ misguided guilt and misplaced sympathies3. Even these natives have learned to avoid the Stranger, except for two boys who occasionally ask him for a ride from one end of town to the other (on his bike, with the fancy new racks). He will typically oblige.
With taxi drivers, pilots, paragliding bureaucrats, bus drivers, immigration officials, and construction workers the story is largely the same. Pokhara has transformed and accepted the Stranger; its carnival-colored characters have called him friend, and Uncle, and brother; they have invited him into their homes, cooked him dinner, exchanged with him their life stories, offered their advice, and expressed their romantic interest (yes, even that).
Back in the mirror, I see a man I scarcely recognize, and wonder: could it be me? Am I really this Stranger? Can I be the same man who left the United States four seasons, twelve months, 365 days, countless adventures, and one new language ago? Has it been that long? Can it really be me every morning, on that balcony, in those streets, in that mirror? Am I the guy wandering, enchanted, in a dream of his own construction?
I dunno. But I can taste bubblegum.
1) At least since my grad student days, when I spent two years as a Fulbright Scholar in Cologne, (then West) Germany