As we bumped along in the car on the first night in Sri Lanka, the driver weaving in and out of oncoming traffic, my friend smiled to me from the front seat and said, “I missed this chaos.”
Walking along the street several months later in the Thamel area of Kathmandu, Nepal, I thought of the way he had said that, leaning to speak to me as the car waded through the dark on the bumpy and rocky road. I remembered how much I agreed with him then and how much I agreed again now, as rickshaw drivers rode by on their bicycles, taxis narrowly avoided clipping people walking on the street, motorbikes weaved and zoomed through, and shopkeepers leaned from doorways and stoops to say, “namaste”(hello).
I had missed the chaos, and Kathmandu brought it right back, front and center, to my present.
A few days later I found myself in the lakeside town of Pokhara in Nepal, about ready to start my two-week trek in the Annapurna mountain range.
The daily scheduled power outage had blackened the side streets where all of the guesthouses, schools, and residential buildings sat. I thought it strange that instead of scheduling the power outage for daylight hours, it was going to run from 7pm until 1am, the exact hours when people need light the most.
I was used to the scheduled power outages in Kathmandu, but there was so much hustle and bustle on those streets, it wasn’t all that noticable. In Pokhara, however, the small side streets were pitch black by 7pm.
Nevertheless, I was thirsty and needed to buy some water. My only option was to walk to the market down the street, which I didn’t suspect would cause any issues.
I was wrong about that. Incredibly wrong.
I walked along enjoying the warm night, when I suddenly felt a hard, aggressive squeeze on my breast. I screamed in a mixture of pain and surprise as my brain processed what was happening. I turned just in time to see the coward running away back into the darkness.
I always figured I’d be quicker in a situation like that. Even with self-defense knowledge, a pretty good right hook, and a very confrontational attitude when the time calls for it, I was left completely victimized, helpless to do anything. It was all over before I had a chance to react.
I kept asking myself, “Why didn’t I run after him? Why don’t I have a light, or a weapon, or something?”
But in reality, one little light bulb in my hand wouldn’t have done anything and running after him might have led to even more danger. The encounter left me too stunned. I wasn’t prepared for it because who walks around expecting to be groped?
I marched straight to the tourist police after regaining composure. They asked if I had any friends in Nepal who could walk me back to the guesthouse. I said I was alone.
Their response? You shouldn’t be traveling alone.
It took me demanding an escort back to my guesthouse, via a passerby who had to serve as translator (at the tourist police, yes, the tourist police), in order for the officer to lazily stand up out of his chair and lumber after me.
I scanned the perimeters of the dark street for the groper on the way back, but, of course, he had hidden himself from view. I didn’t know what his face looked like anyways – just the back of his striped green and blue polo shirt.
That night, I was pretty upset. I posted about the situation on my Facebook fan page and got some messages advising I leave Nepal, but that wasn’t in the cards. I had gone there to tackle the Annapurna Circuit and I wasn’t going to leave until I had successfully completed the trek.
In the days that followed, a combination of little kids handing me berries and flowers along the trail, local men and women from the mountain minority tribes kindly having conversations with me and cooking me amazing food, petting baby goats and cows, and falling in love with the impossibly beautiful Himalayas slowly but surely brought peace back to me.
I returned to Pokhara two weeks later and went paragliding, sat in a shop full of prayer beads with the owner who gave me chai and told me all about how he made the bracelets, went to a local momo (Nepali-style dumplings) joint where in between freshly making food, the owner gave me a plate of off-the-menu buffalo meat and pounded rice, and I even joined a local celebration where I was welcomed warmly.
Eventually the groper faded to a distant memory, but I’ll never forget the lesson it taught me.
This world is still the kind of place to think twice about, unfortunately, for women. Safety isn’t a given.
Also, I broke my own rule. I walked alone at night in the dark. I won’t make that mistake again.
However, I’ve said before that you can’t judge a country from one bad egg or an isolated negative experience. There are good and bad people everywhere in this world, including where I’m from! That said, I always tell the whole truth about the places I visit, and I couldn’t write about my entire experience in Nepal without mentioning it.
As I walked in Kathmandu during my last days in Nepal, having just visited the local-loved, street side, 30-cent lassi maker I dubbed, “lassi man”, dodging traffic as I walked, saying “namaste” to the shop owners in their doorways, and sporting a necklace given to me by the chai man in Pokhara, I said to myself:
“I’m going to miss this chaos”
Have you ever had a change of heart about a place you initially didn’t love or were unsure about? Have you ever felt in danger while traveling?