[Note: This essay appeared in The Globe & Mail Travel section.]
“Hello, my friend!”
“Ugh,” I groaned under my breath.
“Friend!” the voice came again.
“Don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact,” I repeated to myself after realizing that the cheery enthusiasm was indeed directed specifically at me.
This may not be the type of response you’d expect to such a kind invitation. I fully acknowledge that. But it was the last thing I wanted to hear at that moment.
I was on my own, happily exploring the central plaza in Patan, the third-largest city in Nepal. This is a region where many people rely on tourism to make a living. It’s not uncommon to be hounded to buy a trinket, ride a tuktuk, take a tour. I was generally stoic about the whole song and dance. I accept that it’s all part of travelling abroad, a kind of social contract. But having to continually (and politely) decline such solicitations – as I had been for the previous few weeks throughout northern India and Nepal – can be fatiguing.
“Let me take you on a tour,” the voice said, predictably.
“No thanks,” I murmured, still having avoided making eye contact.
But the man persisted. “There is so much to see! Let me be your guide. I just want to practise my English,” he said in excellent English. “Have you been enjoying Nepal? How long have you been here? Where are you from?”
I turned to the man who was now sitting next to me on the bench. He looked to be in his mid-20s.
“I’m from Toronto, in Canada.”
“Oh. Like four seasons.”
“Yup,” I replied, rather impassively. “That’s right, we have all four seasons.”
“No, I mean the Four Seasons. The hotel. It comes from Toronto, no?”
“Yeah,” I replied with a look of puzzlement, “How do you know about the Four Seasons?”
He explained how he used to study hospitality management and that people from the Four Seasons went to his school to deliver presentations and workshops.
Sensing an opening in the conversation, he insisted again. “You won’t know what you’re looking at if you don’t have a guide with you. I ask for no money in return. I just want to show you my city.”
He seemed sincere enough.
“What the hell. Okay, I’ll go,” I said, still somewhat reluctant.
He beamed. “No problem! My name is Om. Follow me.”
This is part of the beauty of travelling. While you have to guard yourself against scams, at some point you have to put your trust in strangers – that is, if you want to experience anything worthwhile. It’s a fine line to walk and sometimes there’s a tension to this fine balance. But if you don’t embrace it, why bother travelling at all?
We zipped through the plaza and into busy narrow streets. He took me to the Golden Temple. If I had been by myself, I probably would have walked right past it. From the street, it looked like an ordinary wooden door frame, albeit artistically carved. But step past the threshold and you’re brought into a small, yet astonishingly complex 12th-century Buddhist monastery. Om explained its history and pointed out its architectural features.
Next was the Patan Palace. Then the Kumbeshwar Temple.
As we roamed, our small talk grew more serious. I spoke about my job, my family, my recent divorce. Funny how with strangers halfway across the world, you can have a deep and meaningful conversation about things that you wouldn’t necessarily share so freely back at home.
He spoke about his struggles with school and work, the pressure from his parents to start a family, his two brothers who work in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. He explained that his family ran a café nearby and invited me for tea.
We arrived at a simple hole-in-the-wall café next to a stone courtyard with a picnic table outside. This was the very place, he told me as we walked in, where he had been when the earthquake struck Kathmandu Valley in 2015, devastating much of the region.
Once inside, Om quickly grabbed a towel to wipe down one of the short glass-top tables with low stools. Meanwhile, from behind the counter, his sister-in-law used the gas cooktop to make each of us a cup of perfectly sweetened and milky tea.
He pulled out his smartphone – a brand I didn’t recognize – and connected to an old speaker system on the bookshelf beside the counter. He asked whether I like rock as the sound of Nepalese rock music took over. It was pretty good.
Afterward, I took out my iPhone and went through my music library. I listed some of my favourite bands and musicians, asking whether he had ever heard of them. He hadn’t. He scribbled their names into a notebook over another cup of tea.
As we sat enjoying some of my favourite Pearl Jam songs, it occurred to me that had the circumstances of our birth been just a bit different – had I been born and raised here instead of in Canada, I wouldn’t have merely been like him. I probably would have been him. His experiences, his skills, his perspective – how easily the situation could have been reversed.
I apologized for being so standoffish at first and explained my thought process. He understood. He harboured no hard feelings. We walked back to the central square where he helped me find a taxi that would agree to take me back to my hotel in Kathmandu for a fair price. I handed him a handful of Nepalese rupees as a thank-you, equivalent to about $15. He was genuinely appreciative. We shook hands before I hopped in the taxi.
“Goodbye, friend!” I said as we parted ways.