We were in 1989 and I don’t know if credit cards existed then, but I had surely never seen one. Mobile phones and internet were not yet invented and I felt free in a way I certainly don’t feel today.
In the midst of my hippy life, I used to make quick money selling jewelry on the streets in the south of France, and then, after a month or so, I would make my way back to India where I would spend a year, sometimes two. Those days the cheapest way was to travel overland to Greece, often spending time on paradisiac beaches in the south of Crete, and fly east from Athens. I remember arriving in the Greek capital after an overnight ferry trip, and checking out the cheapest travel agents near Monastiraki; I always had 2 basic requirements: the ticket needed to be a real deal, and the flight had to be soon, preferably tonight or tomorrow. And considering that planning in advance was against my philosophy, I didn’t have a visa to anywhere, so the flight needed to land in a country not requiring one. That’s how for a few years, Nepal, which delivered 30 days’ visas on arrival, became my base. That was plenty of time to apply for a 6 months’ Indian visa, go trekking for 3 weeks, collect my passport and travel overland to Varanasi.
Now, although I am a survivor in many ways, I never ventured too far in the forbidden side of life. I certainly played with my limits and stretched many rules, but I always had a clear sense of where the red line laid. On the hippy trail you hear many crazy stories, but one was recurrent and sounded easy. Buy travelers checks, declare them stolen, get new ones, and sell the old ones on the black market in Katmandu for half its value. Easy. I had heard that story so many times, although I can’t recall someone who actually did it himself.
So, when on a Friday afternoon I walked out of “Alex travels” in Athens with a one-way ticket to Katmandu for the next day, I decided to give it a try.
I had 2900 dollars, all changed in Travelers checks already; those were all my saving which were supposed to last me for at least one year in Asia.
I headed to the American Express office, went straight to the counter and explained that someone had just grabbed my bag and stolen all my money. “I see” said the lady behind the desk “do you have the receipts with the serial numbers?” “Yes I do” I replied, happy that everything seemed to be going as planned.
I handed over the numbers and she went behind a door, came back, and declared “Ok, the declaration of lost is done. Please go to the police station, get a certificate of theft, and come back on Monday for an interview.”
“An interview? For what? Can’t you just issue me new traveler checks now? I have a flight to Nepal tomorrow.”
“Sorry Sir, it is not possible, come back tomorrow morning and we will do the necessary.”
As I walked out of the office I didn’t like what was happening. I had not really understood why I had to come back and why she had not issued new checks here and then as I had expected. Something wasn’t smooth and I certainly didn’t feel like going to the Police. I already regretted my move and started to chicken out.
I decided that I would go back the next morning to the AmEx office with my traveler’s checks and tell them that they suddenly reappeared. It may sound strange and I may feel stupid, but who cared? I had a flight to Nepal in the evening and I was not about to get into trouble now.
The next morning at ten, I entered the AmEx office, went to the counter and explained my situation to a different lady. “I lost my travelers checks yesterday and came to get new ones issued, but I was asked to come back today. Meanwhile I found them, so all is fine, I just wanted to inform you.” I handed my new found checks to the rather unfriendly woman across the counter, “here they are. 2900 Dollars.”
I expected her to say “thank you for informing us, have a nice trip”, but instead she grabbed the bundle of checks, looked at them, and without even counting them, she teared them all into small pieces and threw them in the bin.
Now, I still see myself standing there, completely shocked and stupefied. Those checks were perfectly fine, they were mine and all I had.
I must have looked rather astonished, and she explained “those checks were cancelled yesterday and they can’t be used anymore. We need to issue new ones”.
Ah sure, indeed that made sense. I took a deep breath of relief and just stood there, somehow waiting for her to issue the new ones.
“How long is it going to take?” I asked impatiently. I wanted to get out of there and I hoped it wouldn’t take half an hour to issue my new traveler checks. I felt pissed off getting myself into such trouble.
“It will take about 10 days.”
I Jumped. “You mean 10 minutes?”
“About 10 days, maybe more” she replied nonchalantly, “you first need to talk to a representative in the main London office and only she can allow the re issue. Today the office is closed, tomorrow is Sunday, Monday is a bank holiday. On Tuesday you can call. Her name is MS Trubung and here is her number. Oh, and you can call collect. “
That’s how I walked out of the AmEx Office in Athens, a name and a phone number written on a piece of paper. I counted my money. 12 dollars and just enough Drachmas in coins to get me through the day and into the airport.
Yes, that’s how I landed in Kathmandu a couple of days later after a long journey via Moscow and Bangladesh. I remember exchanging my 2 dollars with a sweet Nepali man on the plane and taking a local bus from the airport to a cheap little den on Freak Street that I knew well and where I wouldn’t need to pay any advance on the room. I changed my 10-dollar bill at the very best rate on the black market, contemplated the 286 Nepali rupees I got for it and figured out that I could walk everywhere, pay my rent when leaving and have 3 rupees a day at the most to eat. That wasn’t much but I was survivor after all and I knew Kathmandu well enough to find my way. I quickly read the couple of books I had brought with me and sold them to the “exchange, buy and sell bookshop” in Thamel, a fancier part of town where straight tourists stayed, and got some extra cash. I found a little Thali place where I could eat lunch everyday with the locals and pay later. On Durbar Square I befriended a beautiful sadhu with dreadlocks far longer than mine who not only gave me free chai but also shared his dope.
I went to the AmEx Office every day. The way to call the mysterious all powerful woman in London who had the fate of my life in her hands, was through the little STS/ISD booth next to the office- but for that the phone needed to be in working order, the timing with London needed to fit, there had to be electricity in that part of Katmandu at that moment and of course MS Trubung had to be available and willing to talk with me. The whole procedure took 17 days, until one morning she finally gave the green light and M. Deepesh issued me 2900 dollars.
Amazingly, that day I still had over 100 rupees in my pocket. I had learned a lot in those two and half weeks, not only new skills in surviving but also and foremost, this experience had taught me to be in the moment and appreciate every small thing as a divine gift. I had learned to look deeper into people’s eyes.
Nepalese are among the poorest people in the world, yet they are outstandingly cheerful and smiley; they radiate an inner peace and contentment rather rare in our modern world, and it is always striking and remarkable to arrive from the west and see so many individuals deeply connected with their heart and the nature and the gods.
Those days in Katmandu taught me a lot about the simplicity of living, and what it actually means and takes to be truly happy. Many essential questions grew roots inside myself and would ignite an inquiry process still alive today.
That story showed me once again that no matter the ordeal, there is a gift in every situation, and that the most precious and life changing opportunities can be very well disguised.