Friday, December 7, 2012


It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.  

My hotel, The Vardan Resort, is near the end of a side street off Lakeside Road, the main road stretching the length of Phewa Tal (Lake Phewa) in the tourist section of Pokhara.  This side street possibly has a name, but to me is know by its tree.  Yes, a really old, fat-trunked tree growing right up through the road, at the juncture of my street and Lakeside.  Many of these side streets are marked by old trees, to which are tacked cheerful signs pointing the way to various establishments down the road.  Because Lakeside Road itself is just one identical looking tourist joint after another - trek shop next to pashmina shop next to restaurant next to souvenir shop next to trek shop next to pashmina shop next to restaurant next to souvenir shop ad infinitum -it's easy to get lost.  The key to getting home is to identify myself as lakeside - by the World Peace Pagoda atop a hill across the lake or its lights by night - or opposite (my street is opposite), and then look for my tree.  

The Vardan Resort.  My cottage is the last one on down the lane.
Along with The Vardan, the road accommodates several hotels with names like Peace Hotel, Billibong Gardens, Hotel Serenity, Pushpa Guest House, Hotel Unique (always laughter from their patio), Hotel Gange - yes, and you can smell it when you walk by - and Hotel Avocado, a favorite of Chinese tourists, for some reason.  These all are set back from the street, some with gardens, outdoor patios set with breakfast tables between the building and the entry. None of these guest houses come close to what a typical American travelers would call luxury, but they're among the best Pokhara has to offer. The prices on this block range from about $25 to $50 a night, depending on your negotiating skill and time of year.  Add to that about 23 percent in fees and bureaucratic charges.  I did not negotiate, so I'm paying $45 in off season, bureaucratic fees and other such included, however. Silly me.  For my  money, I am being treated like a princess and I cannot complain.  There are blocks in Pokhara where you can get a room for $6 or $8 a night, and because the Nepali are the Nepali, might still be treated like a princess, but there are bars on the windows and those are not places where I would feel safe walking into town for dinner after dark.  A very few hotels in Pokhara - hotels probably not much better than the ones on my block - have figured out that tourists will pay upwards of $100 a night if you nab them in advance of their visit, prepaid by charge card.  By the time they get here and learn the truth, well, it's just too late, isn't it?  I've walked past a couple of those hotels and peered inside; they look more or less identical to the hotels on "my" block.

Lining the curbs of my street - if there were curbs, which there are not, just the slice of space where the dirt of the road hits up against patches of dry grass - are small tin or block sheds housing family-run restaurants - the epitome of the term "hole in the wall" - and tiny little dry goods stands offering short selections of cigarettes, orange soda, candy and snack food, maybe a few warm bottles of beer on a back shelf, the occasional vegetable stand.  I haven't been brave enough to venture into a neighborhood cafe, even though the prices would be far better than Lakeside Road, and the food will be fresh home cooking of the sort I enjoyed along the trek path and in the hill villages. 

The road itself is all gray dirt and rock, with little trickling rivers of whitish mud made from dirt mixed with water spilled from colorful plastic buckets used for hand washing during the day, from hoses left to drain in the dirt, and from, well, cow and "buff" pee.  Depending on the time of day, the road may also be spotted with folks delivering all manner of thing by truck or bike - or just as frequently by back - to the guest houses and hotels, old men in muslin lungi and sandals pushing buffalo along with the gentle tapping of a stick, cows slowly making their own way unattended, middle school boys shouting as they play baseball with a stick, toddlers bundled in multicolored sweaters and knitted caps running free-ishly, and the women in colorful kurta suruwal and men in western clothes who tend the stands or greet the travelers at hotel entryways, chatting with their neighbors and keeping an eye on all the babies dashing about in the road. 

This is my neighborhood for these fourteen or so days, and I'm trying to be brave enough to make friends.  My first attempt occurred the day I came down from the hills, and laundry had to be done. I brought about a week's worth of clothes for twenty one days of travel.  It lasted longer than I'd guessed, because everything here, including the people, are covered in dust, and you just stop worrying about how dirty you are. But there comes a time... 

So as I returned along my street from my adventure, toward The Vardan, I inquired in each of several locations sporting a painting of a washing machine, "How much to do laundry?" The friendly women all asked the same, 80 rupees or about 95 cents a kilo. At a ruddy orange building near my hotel, a man identifying himself as Miya also charges 80 rupees per kilo. He, however, invited me to sit down.  He asked me the question most asked here: "How long [have you been/will you be] in Pokhara?"  This is the entry point for finding out whether you need a guide.  Everyone in Pokhara is or knows a guide, and many, it turns out, will drop whatever they are doing and leave with you to any place you like!  Why not?  The money is better than taking in laundry - though a truck pulled up to Miya's shop with a bunch of hotel sheets while I was there, so I guess his laundry business isn't that bad.  Miya had excellent English, and found himself becoming a guide rather unexpectedly after befriending an older German couple from one of the street hotels.  They invited him - or more likely he imposed himself on them in a jolly sort of way - to join their Annapurna trek.   Juggling a feisty, runny-nosed two-year old who climbed on and off his lap, Miya told me about his first trek as a guide, and also about his rude awakening when some of the guest lodges along the way would not let Miya - any guides or porters - in to sleep. To Miya's additional disappointment, his German couple did not do well at altitude.  They turned back before reaching the Annapurna base camp.  Miya is really eager for a second shot at the apple.  He won't be getting that shot from me, but I did enjoy his story and his hospitality. I think he enjoyed having someone to hear his tale. Later in the day, I brought my laundry back. He hung it from a little hand scale, finding that I had a full two kilos of clothes and dirt combined, but he discounted me 10 rupees - eight cents - for my friendship. That amused me.

From the top left, honey (maher), ginger (aduwaa),
tangerines (sintala) from my neighbor down the block.
From Miya's, I crossed the street, stopping at a shed with a tin roof where a woman with ready smile sold me my first kilo purchase of sintala (tangerines). I'd paid the old woman in front of Gita's shop 100 rupees for six of them. At the bus stop near the trail head to Tang Ting and Sikles, Bikash paid an old man carrying a wicker cone-shaped basket full about 20 rupees for half a kilo - maybe a dozen, and then distributed them among all the people waiting for the bus. He bought them, he said, to help the old man end his work day. I knew the right price for these sintela was somewhere between 40 and 100 rupees, so I cheerfully turned over the 50 rupees she requested and took my treasures home. 

Three or four times each day I pick my way up and down this street, stepping around boys with bats, babies and buff poo, to get food or exercise or to buy some little thing I want - honey, a used novel, more tissues. By now, many of the people who spend their days at the edge of the road tending hotel gates, the stands and the little cafes recognize me. They smile and namaste me as I walk by, and encourage their babies to do the same.  For now, they have come to see me as part of the neighborhood too, even though I do not yet recognize all of them. Mr. Rogers' heart is surely warming, wherever he is.

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