Contributing author to the Bradt Guides anthology of solo travel, Roam Alone
The cleft-shaped wooden boat cut through the glassy surface of Lake Pokhara, the boatman a silhouette at the prow in the diminutive shape of the Nepalis. So far, the Nepalese had lived up to their reputation of being kind and gentle. Around the lake, the lower slopes of the mountains threw a dark reflection onto the evening waters, the upper peaks remaining elusive, shrouded in the monsoon clouds. I had yet to visualize the Himalayas; the aim of this, my first trip, both outside of Europe and travelling alone. Somehow, various things had not gone to plan. I had agreed with the boatman a trip onto the lake for an hour in the hope that the sunset would briefly illuminate the mountains, the boatman agreeing a fee of 600 rupees, half payable in advance and half on return. Now another problem was about to materialize.
Suddenly he had ceased his work of creating spools of ripples with his oar and had lit up a cigarette. Smoke plumed up from his crouched, the smell of cheap nicotine polluting the mountain air washed clean of dust by the afternoon rain. This was supposed to be one of my solo traveller moments. Here, in the middle of Lake Pokhara at sunset, I could have had all the clichés. I would be clearer about myself, think of a new career or perhaps even follow a new religion. I would be like the traveller I had passed on the lakeshore, sitting cross-legged meditating in the terraced fields. This was supposed to be it. Perhaps the boatman would share his story as a Tibetan refugee or tales of bravery and loss as a Sherpa. So far, however, he had proved to be a sullen character and now he was about to turn around and convey his own ideas about our little evening sojourn.
“You give me 600 rupees again or no go back.” He gestured towards the shore, his arm as thin as the oar handle but I suspected, extremely strong.
We floated for a few minutes, almost immobile on the vast sheet of water, the boat seeming to bob only with my breath. I shook my head to indicate my refusal but the boatman simply lit up another cigarette, flicking ash onto the water where it floated, briefly, until it slowly dispersed, swallowed into the waters which were turning black with the disappearing light. Sunset itself had been a bit of a wash-out on account of the low clouds. Dusk was now a serious entity; the green of the lower mountain slopes taking on grey hues. I eyed the boatman’s boy, hoping to appeal to his sense of justice but he had the same scavenging look as the boatman.
A little bit of colonial Britain rose up arrogantly inside of me. Surely they couldn’t do this to me?
Wouldn’t justice ultimately prevail? But as the fingers of cold from the mountains crept over the lake, chilling the wooden bench below me, I began to feel afraid.