Sometimes you sip coffee to ingest the caffeine, to wake up and begin another day. Other times you put that cup to your lips and, while gazing beyond the rim (perhaps at a landscape, a person, or simply into miles of Himalayan air), you lick a wound and try to mend. The latter was once the case for me in Nepal.
Without a doubt, the worst day of my 14-month overland journey across Asia happened on August 5, 2004, in Kathmandu. At two o’clock that morning, while in a club and showing several Chinese tourists pictures from Israel and the West Bank, the lights went out for about five seconds. When they came back on my small backpack, which had been on the floor beside me, was gone.
Immediately I flew to the exit to block anyone from leaving (and to scan the street outside, which was empty). I hated to do this, but I told the manager I needed to search each of his employees and around the club. Since the cut lights were no accident, and other than my table nobody else but staff was in the club, it seemed obvious that this had been an inside job. The manager said he understood and so, with apologies, I searched the pockets and bags of the ten men and women in the club. But I found nothing.
As a budget traveler trying to live on $500/month — and trying to write a book — the night couldn’t have taken a worse turn. In my bag were weeks worth of notes from Nepal and Tibet, a small camera, and, most crushing, about $1300 in cash. I had just gotten the money earlier in the week in preparation for the next four months of travel, which would take me to regions where an ATM card and travelers checks were useless. The theft of these things was like being hit in the solar plexus.
The details beyond this point are laborious. Suffice it to say that I extended my stay in Kathmandu by one week, unwilling to leave until I felt I had done all I could to get my belongings back. I spent hours at police stations, had a couple stare-downs with the manager (I suspect he slipped my bag to an accomplice out his office window), and even faced an ethical challenge (a Nepali friend said that if I was certain the manager was responsible, she could use her connections in the police department to possibly have physical pressure — i.e., torture — exerted on the guy).
When finally I did leave Kathmandu, it was with a heavy heart. The cash and notes were a tremendous loss, but emotionally the most difficult thing was going on without my faithful backpack. It had been with me for years, in Yellowstone’s backcountry and in Egyptian taxis, on Thai beaches and in Tennessee libraries. We had shared many a bed and for so many years I had looked after it like a hawk, even physically fending off a stranger or two who wished to take it as his own.
As the bus pulled out of the city amid early morning fog, I felt incomplete and sad. With each grinding gear and forward lurch, I felt the distance between me and what I had lost grow. Never before had I felt so much like I was abandoning part of myself in a foreign land. Perhaps this is something only one accustomed to long-term travel would understand; I don’t know.
When two hours later the bus pulled into a roadside cafe for a 15-minute break, I ordered a cup of coffee and took it to a pretty blue table set near a river. I put the cup to my lips and looked out over the view. And what I saw was this: the consequences of theft, the pain of letting go, the oddly potent bond one can form even with a backpack bought at Sports Authority. I saw hurt that would leave a small scar, the necessity of moving on. I saw how there is simply no way to travel — through Asia, through life, or through any kind of bond — without the risk and reality of pain.
But we travel nonetheless.