In May 2001, I was in a dark place. My fiancée Sagit who had come to New York from Israel to be with me had left me. I was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers at the time, and really was not enjoying my job at all. A week after Sagit left me, I was fired. I had applied a few months earlier to the Cornell Hotel School to do my Masters degree in Hospitality, and I stupidly confided in one of the managers at PwC that I had applied. This message went straight to the Partner in charge of our group who then called me into his office. He explained that he had received instructions to downsize the group, and while he encourages people to pursue their Masters degrees, I had applied to a program that had absolutely nothing to do with my job. I was in an e-commerce and technology consulting role, and I was applying to learn about the hotel business. I smiled, shook his hand, and said he was absolutely right. “Wow, you’re making this so easy for me!” he said.
Luckily, a week later I received my acceptance letter to Cornell. But the program didn’t start until September. What was I going to do for 3 months? My friend Dan was working for Northwest Airlines, and he was kind enough to give me one of his employee tickets. This allowed me to walk into the airport, write in my desired destination, and pay 1/10 of the full price. So I packed a large backpack and headed to the airport. My plan was to disappear for 3 months. I would start my journey in Mumbai so I could visit my family and then use it as a launchpad for my journey.
The ticket cost me about $300, and… I got upgraded! I spent the first week or two visiting my family and seeing my grandmother. From there I planned my next stop… Kathmandu, Nepal. On the plane I decided it was a good idea to learn a little bit about the destination so I pulled out my Let’s Go Nepal book and chose a place to stay. Kathmandu Guesthouse sounded great.
As I left the airport, I was swarmed by aggressive local men all offering a taxi service. I had read about this in the book so I was prepared… or so I thought. I pushed my way through the mob and there were even more people offering me a place to stay. “I already have a reservation,” I replied, hoping that they would just leave me alone. “Where?” one asked. So I replied “Kathmandu Guesthouse” with confidence, to show that I indeed had a reservation already.
A man approached me and said that he was from Kathmandu Guesthouse and would give me a ride. “How do I know you are from Kathmandu Guesthouse?” I asked. He immediately whipped out his wallet and produced an ID with his photo and name from Kathmandu Guesthouse. Looked pretty official to me. Clearly I underestimated the lengths at which these people would go to in order to fool naïve tourists like me.
Before I knew it, the man’s partner took my backpack and both men were leading me to the parking lot. The mob of other men were right behind us hoping I would change my mind and give them another chance. The men opened the trunk and put my backpack inside. They opened the back door of the car and summoned me to get in. I had a sinking feeling that I was getting myself into a dangerous situation. Only a few moments in the first destination on my own, and I found myself trying to figure out how I was going to get out of this bind. I stood there for a few moments staring at the car and deciding what to do… weighing my options. Do NOT get into that car, I was thinking. But… my backpack is already in the trunk with all my stuff and this is the first day of my journey! Plus, if I decide not to go I will be handed back to the mob standing behind me. This man had an official ID… maybe I should take the risk?
I got into the car. The man with the ID got behind the wheel of the car and his partner in the other front seat. Suddenly both back doors opened, and two more men sat on either side of me. I was now trapped. But I had made my decision and now I had to see it through.
We drove for about ten minutes and then we started to go through some abandoned streets. What should I do? Ask them to stop the car? Get out here in the middle of nowhere, without my stuff? That might be worse than just sticking it out and finding out where these guys are taking me. After a good half hour, we finally stopped in front of a house. “Is this the Kathmandu Guesthouse?” I asked. “yes yes, Kathmandu Guesthouse.” They replied. One man grabbed my backpack from the trunk and started walking up some stairs to the entrance of the house. I followed with the other men behind me. I was feeling a little bit better since along the way I was waiting for them to stop the car, fob me, and leave me in the middle of nowhere. There was nobody else in this house. As they showed me a room with a bathroom in the hallway, I knew it was not the Kathmandu Guesthouse. There was no sign anywhere, and this place was not nearly as nice as what I had read about in the Let’s Go guide. “I want you to take me to Kathmandu Guesthouse,” I said. The man who had showed me the ID said “This is my uncle’s guesthouse. Let me show you another room, and if you still want to go to Kathmandu Guesthouse I will take you.” I was annoyed… feeling less in danger though because by now I realized that these guys just wanted me to stay at their dumpy guesthouse instead of the Kathmandu Guesthouse. I politely followed the man to see the other room, and quickly said, “Ok, I’m sorry, but I want you to take me to Kathmandu Guesthouse.”
Off we went. I really did not have a reservation there, and I had read that if someone else takes you to the hotel, the hotel may charge you much more so that they can pay that person a commission. When we finally arrived at Kathmandu Guesthouse, I was feeling much more confident, and less terrified. I paid the men what we had agreed, and I walked into the Kathmandu Guesthouse, but I noticed that the men were staying outside, parked in their car and not driving away. I walked up to a couch in the check-in area and sat down. I was going to wait there until the men left. But they wouldn’t leave. Finally one of the men came in and asked why I wasn’t checking in. “I am meeting a friend here and I am not sure when he is arriving. After he arrives I will check in.” The man went back outside and waited for quite a bit longer. They finally left… and I got myself a room. If this first experience was an indication of what the next 3 months would be like, it was going to be a very interesting summer.
The guesthouse was charmingly decorated with a local flavor and there were plenty of other backpackers there. I forced myself to walk up to people who seemed nice and introduced myself, a valuable skill that any backpacker must learn unless they want to spend months completely alone. I met a nice couple from Canada and a few others. We went out exploring Kathmandu. One day we were all supposed to meet somewhere, and I tried to get there a few minutes early, but when I got there they were all waiting. “Wow you guys are always so early!” I said. They replied, “and you are always late!” What?? I thought I was early! Well it turns out that Kathmandu is 15 minutes ahead of Mumbai. Yes… 15 minutes. So each time I was meeting my new friends thinking I was on time, or even a few minutes early, they had been waiting for me for at least 10 to 15 minutes! We explored the city and some temples around Kathmandu. I noticed that in every single store, restaurant hotel, there was a photo of the Royal Family. The King and Queen were very much loved by all in Nepal and one day we had the privilege of witnessing as the King and Queen drove by in their caravan. Everyone stopped and cheered.
When backpacking, you start asking people what cool things they have seen and done and you start planning everything you have to do before you leave. I had planned on spending about 3 weeks in Nepal. After 3 weeks my plan was to head to Thailand with a stop over in Calcutta where I would visit my grandmother’s sister for a day or two. But I had heard people talking about getting a visa and taking a trip to Tibet which sounded amazing, so I thought about extending my stay for a few more weeks.
There were these little local travel agencies everywhere where one could go and make arrangements for trips and tours. I walked into one and planned my first adventure. It was to go up into the mountains and stay overnight in a small hotel, just to see the Himalayas up close and of course, Everest. It was really beautiful, but… a bit boring. Nobody else came on this trip with me and the hotel was empty aside from the spiders in my room. But the views were stunning. I enjoyed them and went back to Kathmandu the next day. Next, I decided to do a multi-day trip to XXX national park in the south of Kathmandu. The bus ride was crazy. One false move and we would be off the edge of a very steep cliff. There were areas of traffic and these little buses were not shy about heading into oncoming traffic to get around other cars and trucks. I arrived at the hotel which was very disappointing. There was nobody else there except a young Deutsche couple. We went into the restaurant where we were served spaghetti with tomato sauce, which literally had ants in it. Guess I wouldn’t be eating much on this trip. We were then informed that the park was closed. Something about the Maoists threatening everyone not to work in protest of the government. I wanted to do a safari of the jungle where supposedly you could see tigers, rhinos and more. I went out exploring and found some other people. They told me about a much nicer hotel that had air conditioning and was an actual building, unlike the huts where I was staying, but I decided to stay where I was.
That night, I got into my bed which had a mosquito net around it, and woke up in the middle of the night because there was a strange noise in my room and something kept hitting the mosquito net. I turned on the lights and my hut was filled with giant flying insects. These things were 2 or 3 inches long and fat. They kept flying into the mosquito net. I got up the courage to make a run for the door and ran outside. I found some men who worked for the hotel and asked them what the hell was going on. They seemed completely unfazed. Apparently this was completely normal and these giant flying insects were harmless. I don’t know how I did it, but I got back into bed and tucked the mosquito net under the mattress so that these bastards couldn’t get in and eat me, and I went back to sleep.
I woke up first thing in the morning and there wasn’t a trace of any flying insects. I packed my stuff and left immediately to find the other hotel that I had heard about. I don’t remember anything about it except that it was definitely better than where I was staying. A little later that day I saw the Deutsche couple walking down the street in front of me so I called out to them. I wanted to tell them about this other hotel so they could move as well. But they kept walking. Thinking they just didn’t hear me I ran closer and called out to them again. The woman turned with tears in her eyes and yelled “Just leave us alone!” I guess they were having an even more miserable time than I was, and had woken up to learn that I had left to find something better. Who knows…
After 2 or 3 days of my unsuccessful safari adventure, I got on a long, overnight, mosquito-ridden bus ride back to Kathmandu and checked back into the Kathmandu Guesthouse. I met more nice people at the Guesthouse and decided that my next adventure would be with someone I knew. They told me about a rafting trip that they were going to do through the Himalayas. It was a 5 day trip, and since it was June and monsoon season, the rapids were level 5+. I was up for anything on this trip so I signed up.
We took a bus to Pokhara and stayed in a decent guesthouse there. First thing the next morning we would be off. The rafting trip was spectacular. The surroundings were beautiful and finally I had found a decent group of people to hang out with. The guides were amazing and at each stop they would cook full meals for us and they all tasted delicious! I don’t know how they did it. There were 14 people on this trip and these guys cooked 3 meals a day for us for 5 days on the side of a river! They would set up our tents, dig a hole and make a bathroom tent… they did everything. All we had to do was row. The rivers were quite high though and there was one moment where I fell out of the raft and got caught in a strong whirlpool just after a large rock. Luckily, even though I am anything but athletic, I am a strong swimmer and was able to swim out of it.
After the 5 days, exhausted and in desperate need of a shower, we reached the end of our rafting trip. A bus came to get us and we all loaded up onto the bus. A gentleman who was the organizer we had met prior to going on the river boarded the bus and addressed us. “Something has happened while you all were on the river over the last few days.” This didn’t sound good. “The entire royal family of Nepal has been killed. The media has mixed reports of what really happened and this is creating instability. A civil war is breaking out and your embassies have been contacting us. You should all try to leave the country as soon as possible.” It was a strange feeling to hear all of this. They had no way to reach us while we were rafting on the river and so we had no idea.
That night we all went out for pizza in Pokhara. I don’t know what possessed me to order a pepperoni pizza, but I would spend the entire night throwing up in my bathroom. I woke up tired and weak, but we all boarded a bus back to Kathmandu with no idea of what awaited us. I wasn’t worried for some reason. I just assumed everything would be fine. What could possibly happen?
I was miserable on the bus. Luckily I no longer needed to vomit but I still felt terrible. Suddenly the bus stopped. I looked outside and we were surrounded by fields and nowhere near Kathmandu. A policeman boarded the bus and said “City closed, you walk.” Walk? Where the hell are we? How far? We got off the bus and gathered our backpacks. Today mine felt like it was 100 pounds. “How far?” I asked the policeman. “1 hour” he said. An hour? Walking with this freaking backpack? I had no choice, and started walking. At least I had the comfort of being with 13 others that I had just spent 5 days with on the Kalikandaki River. But I was slowing them down. “You guys go ahead…” I said, “I just can’t walk that fast. You guys go I’ll be fine.” “No way,” they replied, “we are not leaving you alone.”
As we finally got closer to the city (which took at least 3 hours), the scene did not look good. It was about 3pm and we could see crowds of people throwing rocks and yelling. One of the guys in our group was Nepali and he went and spoke to some people on the street. “What’s going on?” we asked after he returned. “The government has imposed a curfew,” he explained, “anyone on the streets after 4pm will be shot.” We all looked at each other in shock and suddenly an argument broke out. Half of us wanted to speed ahead and look for the Kathmandu Guesthouse where we had a reservation, and half of us wanted to just find the closest guesthouse and check in there. My vote was to find the Kathmandu Guesthouse. “I am not going to waste half an hour trying to find a guesthouse around here and maybe finding out that they are full.” I said. Finally we all agreed and started running through the streets. We saw soldiers lining up in the streets with riot gear and tear gas. There were large groups of people running through the streets. At one point, the Nepali guy that was with us grabbed us all and pulled us into a little alley while one of the groups ran toward us and passed by. Now I started to feel really scared. If the guy from Nepal is worried for his safety, then I should be too.
Around 3:45pm, we found the Kathmandu Guesthouse. We were all exhausted. We plopped ourselves down on the couch and watched CNN International as they offered live coverage of what was happening just one or two blocks away from us. Some of the backpackers were venturing out into the streets with their cameras, only to come back within 15 minutes with minor injuries and difficulty breathing. There was one computer with internet in the Guesthouse and a long line of people waiting to communicate with their families back home. I waited and responded to my family who had written to ensure I was ok after watching the riots unfold on CNN International.
I had a ticket to Bangkok on Indian Airlines with a stopover in Calcutta leaving in the evening on the next day, but I had no idea if I would be able to get out. That night we all stayed in the guesthouse. I woke up early the next morning and peered out the window. It was eerily quiet in the streets. I decided to make a run for the airport immediately. I hoped that I would make it there while the streets were still calm, and that way if the unrest continued later that day I would already be at the airport. I checked out of the guest house and made my way out to the street. I waited for a few minutes and a car passed by which turned out to be a taxi. I made it to the airport without any problem.
Walking into the airport though, I saw a sea of people who had been stranded there from the day before. My plan was to wait until the Indian Airlines counter opened, but it never did. I found someone with an Indian Airlines nametag and asked what was going on. Apparently, since nobody wanted to come to Nepal, Indian Airlines decided to cancel all of their flights to Kathmandu. Of course that meant that they weren’t sending any planes to get people out either. Not really sure what to do, I just sat down for a while. Suddenly there was a commotion and a crowd of people started to leave the airport, while the police appeared to be trying to keep them inside. “What’s going on?” I asked someone. “The government has issued a new curfew for 12pm and all of the airport workers want to go home to be with their families, but the police are telling them they have to stay since there are so many people here at the airport.”
This is insane! People were lined up at the check in counters but they were all closed! Or were they? I thought I noticed one of the lines starting to move. I immediately got in line. I didn’t care what airline it was or where the plane was going, I was determined to get on it. As I got closer to the counter, I saw it was a Thai Airways flight direct to Bangkok. When it was my turn, I told the man that I had a ticket on Indian Airlines to Bangkok and that he should let me go. He said that he would only be able to do that if someone from the airline signed the ticket over to Thai Airways. “But nobody from Indian Airlines came to work today because they’ve cancelled all their flights!” I exclaimed. He shrugged his shoulders. I ran over the Indian Airlines counters carrying my heavy backpack. Nobody… In my desperation, I just approached an airport worker and did my best to explain the situation. He pulled out a pen and scribbled something on my ticket. I ran back to the Thai Airways counter and jumped in front of everyone. The main handed me a boarding pass!
As the plane revved up its engines and sped down the runway, I remember looking around me as people were crying with joy and relief that they were able to get out. It was the only commercial plane to leave Nepal that day. I caught up with some of my friends from the rafting trip later in Bangkok and they told me that they got stuck there for days. It was certainly an experience that I will never forget.
By the time we landed in Bangkok it was evening. There was a lot of traffic on the way to Kho San Road, a bustling street where many backpackers can find cheap places to eat and stay. My room had some spiders and the water was cold, not to mention the sign at the front desk that said “Thai men not allowed go upstairs. Thai women leave ID at front desk.”
I made some friends and went to see one or temples, as well as a Thai kick-boxing match. Then I took an overnight train and made my way up to Chiang Mai. It was nicer than Bangkok. I also made friends at the train station after arriving and they invited me to check out the youth hostel that they were going go. I had a good time in Chiang Mai exploring local restaurants with my new friends and street markets. I also signed up for a Thai cooking class (I still have the recipe book!). I remember learning how to make these great triangle samosa shaped spring rolls, sticky rice, and sweet chicken baked in banana leaves. One of these days I need to break out that book…
I had planned to spend 6 weeks in Thailand. After visiting Chiang Mai I made my way back down to Bangkok about half-way through the trip. I walked into a travel agency to book a bus down to Kho Phi Phi and other islands, but after sitting in the chair at the travel agents’ desk, I was distracted by a sign up on the wall that said “Bangkok to Australia Roundtrip $300.” “Put me on that plane,” I said. It turned out to be a Royal Brunei Airways flight to Darwin.
On the plane, instead of the map on the screen that shows you where the plane is, they had a diagram showing in which direction Mecca was located so that if anyone wanted to pray they knew where it was. We stopped briefly in Brunei, (I don’t think we even got off the plane), and headed on to Darwin. I didn’t know back then that any Australian that I would meet in the future would look at me like I was nuts after telling them that the only place I had been to in Australia was Darwin. There is really nothing to speak of about Darwin (besides being the center of an infamous scandalous trial that accused an innocent woman of killing her baby, when in fact it was a dingo that took the baby). It is, however, the gateway to the outback. So after landing and checking into a youth hostel (or ‘backpackers’ as they call them in Australia), I asked the other backpackers what there was to do in Darwin. Skydiving was one of the suggestions. I was feeling rather adventurous on this entire trip and willing to try anything, so I took note of that.
First, I spent 3 weeks exploring the outback through Kakadu National Park and others nearby. We hiked up mountains and waterfalls, swam in natural mountain lakes and saw some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen in my life. There was one waterfall where for some reason I decided to climb down the rocks to get close to the water. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get back up. Nobody could see me and there wasn’t really enough room to easily turn around and make my way back up. I wasn’t sure why I did that, other than just testing my limits I suppose. But one slip of the foot and I would have fallen into the water and over the edge of a very very tall waterfall. I felt myself starting to panic but was able to calm myself down and take everything one step at a time. I knew I would die otherwise. I decided not to mention to anyone what I had done. There was also a part of the hike where we had to climb up a narrow crevice by putting our back up against one wall, and our hands and feet against the other side, and moving our way up. I don’t know how, but I made it up. It was a great experience and really showed me that I was physically capable of much more than I had thought. On the last night, we all sat around a big campfire and cooked Kangaroo steaks. Tasted like regular steak to me. Good though!
I made my way back home stopping in Mumbai again to visit my family once more before heading back home. It was August, 2001 and little did I know that even after three months of incredible life-changing adventure, the most life-changing event was about to happen just a few weeks later on September 11th, just a few weeks into my Masters program at Cornell.