Day 21 was not a great day for my travel confidence. In fact it was a very very bad one.
I'd just said goodbye to the remaining people from our Everest Base Camp trek. It was a sad moment and as we parted ways, a small pulse of adrenaline rushed through me. For the first time on my whole trip I was in Nepal completely on my own. This was it. Nobody else to adventure with. Nobody to catch up with at the hotel. Ooph. I felt like I was in free fall. Not that I know what free fall feels like. Probably a lot windier.
A quick change of gear in my room, a pep talk to get myself to get back out of said room and I decided to revisit Durbar Square. A repeat location offering a bit of a safety blanket for my first truly solo explore of Kathmandu.
Little did I know the Universe had other plans...
Not far outside of the Kathmandu Guesthouse, I walked past a local and we did the terribly British thing of trying to let each other past. "Oops, after you.... no after you!" *oh how silly, look at us trying to out-polite each other* We ended up walking the same speed alongside each other so we got to chatting and he introduced himself as Karan. He was a meditation and yoga teacher in a local school and was heading for prayers. Apparently it was a "really special time to be in Kathmandu as there was a festival on that evening and 2000 people would be visiting a local temple." This explained why all the traffic was so busy. He tried to explain how to find the temple. "Oh this is stupid, I'm going there anyway so you can come with me if you like". At this point in my trip I was craving an experience with a local that didn't ultimately end up with them trying to own your money. I love taking the plunge and following a random adventure just to see where it leads. I felt safe enough in this mans company. Lets do it!
I ended up being led down some pretty obscure passages, through various archways and eventually to a small concealed temple. "Weird" I thought. "For something that's a location for a festival, this is pretty quiet! You wouldn't even know it was here!". I asked if this was the place the 2000 people were heading to and he confirmed. Maybe they were just turning up later I thought. He told me the name of the temple and explained what it represented but his English was broken so I politely nodded along. He seemed to be enjoying sharing his local knowledge.
We then had a slightly awkward moment where he drew a bindi on himself, chucked some flower petals on his head and then did the same to me. My spidey senses were tingling the last time a monk did this he immediately expected a donation. Once Karan got me to light a candle I clocked the donation basket. In hind sight I probably shouldn't have declared "I only have larger notes notes on me, I feel really awkward!" but he offered to pay for me. Very kind of him I thought. Then he got me to bow and say Namaste to a candle. This felt weird and suspiciously touristy. I wouldn't say I didn't completely distrust the situation but I certainly started to question where this was going..
I then followed him through another maze of alleys and archways to admittedly a fairly impressive gold temple. Again quite hidden. At this point I was completely disoriented. I had no bloody clue where I was. Here we exchanged family stories. He was apparently 28 and had a 25 year old wife and two kids. As for me, he was shocked at my age (along with most of Nepal) and surprised I was single because I was "so fun and kind and good to talk to". All very flattering stuff! He continually apologised for himself not explaining things properly but kept expressing that he was honoured to show me a slice of his local life. He asked for my phone number because I was "like a brother to him" to which I politely declined. This seemed to upset him a little but I stood my ground. We stopped at what felt like the natural end of our interaction and he "blessed" me, wishing me good fortune in everything I do. More compliments followed.
Then he hoped that I'd enjoyed his tour...
Argh! I bloody knew he'd be after my money! I snapped and got frustrated because it was such a sneaky long winded way of getting to a tour guide reveal. I offered him money, because to be fair, he'd completely lured me in and went out of his way to show me around for quite a long time. Fiiiiiine. Well played sir.
Except he got offended when I tried to pay him. "No no no! Never give people money in Kathmandu! Always give them food!". "Oh, sorry, thank you, I'm so tired of people trying to be my guides. I really appreciate you showing me around"
"I don't need your money, but if you really want to help me you could buy my family some food... just basics, some milk, rice, that kind of thing?". "Of course" I thought! What kind of monster wouldn't donate some food to a family after spending weeks witnessing poverty all around .
I enthusiastically accepted and then things got weird.
He took me past another mini stupa to a small shop down a random side street and started selecting all his shopping! As generous as I wanted to be, it felt a little bit cheeky because I didn't stop to run anything by me. How long was this shopping list going to get! He spoke to the shop owner and I almost fell over when a bag of rice, milk powder, two chocolate bars and some Ovaltine came to 4700 Nepalese rupee. £35! Complete LUNACY in a country where everything is super cheap. I commented on the rice being crazy expensive, to which he answered it was "special because it was Nepalese rice". In hindsight, this was blatantly nonsense as we were in Nepal. If anything it should have been CHEAPER! But by this point I was out of my depth. I was in an unknown back street, feeling outnumbered and pressured to buy everything so I gave in and checked my wallet. I didn't even have enough on me! He didn't think it was a problem, put some of the items back (without checking their individual prices so some kind of magic math was at play) and reassured me and gave me lots of hugs.
Having completely emptied my wallet, he then asked if I could perhaps help him carry his shopping. More doubts raised. It was one bag. And maybe I'd like to meet his family and his wife could cook me dinner... This was actually a SUPER kind offer and still the kind of random experience I was craving. I thought about it and at one point I think I even agreed but then revealed it was two hours outside of town by taxi. Noooooope! I'm out. By this point I'd felt too many alarm bells so there was no way in hell was I letting this go any further. I was supposed to be getting to Durbar Square before the sun got too low to paint and that plan had long fallen apart.
Disappointed with my rejection, he offered to walk me back to the main road for directions back to the square. In doing so I noticed he left his shopping at the shop to collect on the way back. It struck me as unusual that he told the shop owner this in English so that I could hear. Then as we walked away it struck me. He probably had no intention of going back to collect said shopping. I'd just given a random man I'd just met all the money in my wallet, for pretending to buy food and putting it back in the shop!! GAH!!! He was probably doing this to every tourist he met! Oh god, I felt terrible.
As Karan (if that's even his name) said his extremely grateful goodbyes, I was left alone and immediately became furious. I'd been completely duped out of the contents of my wallet and I suspected it was doing absolutely s**t all for "Karan's" family. Did his family even exist!? Was he even called Karan!? Was he even a teacher!? The final straw was suggesting we took a selfie to remember our experience together and he refused because he was a "buddhist and fasting for his family". I'm open to be corrected, but that didn't make a lot of sense and wreaked of "don't take a photo of me, I'm a criminal".
Durbar Square sketches. Personally I wish I stopped at sepia!
I continued to walk to Durbar completely dejected. The worst part... I'd just got that money out so that I could visit Durbar Square. When I arrived, I realised I no longer had the money to buy a ticket and get in the gate! Aaarrghhh! A nearby cash machine turned me down and I threw in the towel. Within ten minutes of me being left to my own devices in a foreign country, I'd being completely and utterly duped. The last hour of my life was a complete s**t show. I felt cheated. Mugged. Like a total moron. But he'd also left me brilliantly conflicted. He'd fed me so much believable information that I honestly couldn't decipher whether or not I'd been tricked. Maybe he did have a family and the rice was just expensive!? Maybe he was all the things he said he was!? It drove me bananas and as best as I tried to convince myself that I'd actually done a really nice thing and perhaps I was just being cynical... my gut knew I'd been taken advantage of.
To try and get to the bottom of it I messaged Rajan, our local tour agent, who jumped on a call and explained that I'd met a bad man, it happens to everyone and that I'd learnt a valuable lesson. He was really sorry that I'd had a negative experience in his country, so promised to look after me with private taxis for the rest of my trip. This felt like a bit of a defeat because I would have loved to have been brave enough to get local buses for my final adventures, but honestly, under the circumstances I had to make some concessions. I'd been helicoptered off a mountain with altitude sickness, been stuck in a hotel with COVID for a week and just been scammed. Thanks Nepal but I'm out. Self care comes first and the safety of a taxi would at least get me a couple more adventures vs staying in my hotel and refusing to come back out!
Looking back as I write this, there were so many red flags. The hardest part of the whole experience was suddenly being made to feel very vulnerable. Don't get me wrong. It could have been a lot worse and ultimately all I did was lose a bit of money on some expensive rice. But the experience really knocked me sideways. I generally consider myself to be a fairly smart chap with my head screwed on. I'd naively thought I was somehow better than all the other tourists and could spot a scam a mile off... and yet here I was. Perfectly falling for every word that came out of this man's mouth. My world view of people being ultimately good and kind had been turned on it's head. Who the hell could I trust any more if I'm that easy to trick!? What a humbling, scary and ultimately disappointing experience.
I hope similar never happens to you. But if it does, know that you're not the only one!
Durbar Square, when I finally got there three days later! Prints Available
p.s. A huge thank you to everyone who shared their travel scam experiences with me when this happened. It turns out this kind of thing is a heck of a lot more common than I realised and I hadn't even slightly considered these risks when I decided to explore solo travelling. Thanks for being there when I needed you.
Thanks for reading!