Passion Passport is excited to introduce our newest team member, Kat Stolpa. Kat’s background is rife with adventure, having spent 13 months on a solo backpacking journey. She’s been inspiring our team for weeks now – we expect her stories will have the same effect on you!
Seven months into a year-long trip around the world, I thought I’d slept everywhere. Sidewalks in Semporna, the bumpy backseat of a 4Runner as it bent its way across the Bolivian desert, huddled under an emergency blanket on an ill-advised (and disastrous) overnight volcano climb in Ubud. I’d already slept on the floor of an airport, and wasn’t eager to try that again. And this night’s sleep was important: My travel companion du-jour, Hillary, and I were headed to Nepal with plans to complete an epic trek in the Himalayas. The odds were stacked against us – at seven and nine months into extended solo-backpacking trips respectively, we weren’t exactly in peak physical condition. On top of that, we were each feeling the early grumblings of a cold. We needed to arrive in Kathmandu fully rested.
It was going to be tough. Our flight took us from Bangkok to Kathmandu, with a layover of colossal proportions in Delhi: 18 hours, overnight. Unwilling to pay the visa fee for the short stop, we had to spend the night in the Delhi airport. A night curled up on the floor near our gate wasn’t going to set us up for success on our trek, but the luxury lounges throughout the airport were out of our price range. We were each traveling for a year, with budgets targeted at $15,000. The least expensive lounge started at $80. After weighing the cost of a sleepless night against the entry fee, we decided to splurge and treat ourselves to 10 hours in the lap of luxury.
Ten days later, I found myself falling asleep in yet another unique place: a creaky corner bedroom in a teahouse at 16,942 feet.
Walking into the lounge, we immediately knew we’d made the right decision. Before us was a spread of unlimited food, drinks, newspapers, magazines, shower facilities, wifi, and practically everything we’d been missing out on while traveling for months on end. We ate like there was no tomorrow: plates piled high with leafy greens, pepperoni pizza, and cold cuts galore. Though we’d become pad-thai connoisseurs, we were eager to break the cycle of drowning ourselves in rice and noodles on a daily basis.
As Hillary settled in for her second course (a heap of garlic mashed potatoes, naturally) a middle-aged man sitting nearby made a comment under his breath about the lack of nutritional balance present in her plate of potatoes. Disgraced but not dejected, we earnestly explained to him that we hadn’t had access to food like this in quite some time, as our limited budget and present circumstance allowed for little more than a few dollars per meal.
As the conversation evolved, we learned more about his life and his family. Born in India, Raj had done his residency in the U.S. and had remained there, working as a cardiologist for the past 20 years. He proudly showed off pictures of his wife and family, and as he shared with us stories from his home country and his life, he began to inquire about our travels.
Not only was the concept of an extended backpacking trip completely foreign to him, but the idea of two girls taking on the challenge alone was almost more than he could comprehend. His line of questioning led to an inquiry on financing a trip of our magnitude, and when we shared our budgets, he almost choked on his food, admitting that he’d spent more than that in just the last few days. He couldn’t believe anyone could survive on so little, yet see so much.
We continued trading stories and photos, and as the early-morning hours approached, the lounge announced the departure of Raj’s flight. As he got up to leave, he reiterated again how inspired he was by our journeys and our unconventional way of seeing the world as two young women. He then took out his wallet and started counting out cash, insisting on giving it to us and explaining that he wanted us to treat ourselves to something special—something we might think twice about doing on our rigid budgets.
We politely but adamantly refused. Each time we said no, he became more disappointed, and insisted that regardless of whether we accepted the money from his hand, he was leaving it in the lounge when he left. We could take it or leave it. Grateful but reluctant, we ultimately accepted.
Watching Raj walk away, Hillary and I slowly opened the neatly folded stack of bills. We could not believe what he had given us: $1000 in cash. We looked at each other, speechless. Though there were odds and ends that we needed, and we could have used the money to restock on supplies, we remembered that Raj had been most inspired by our desire to see the world, not by our ability to fill our backpacks with travel necessities. We wanted to honor his request and apply his gift toward a more significant experience: a trek to Base Camp of Mount Everest.
Ten days later, I found myself falling asleep in yet another unique place: a creaky corner bedroom in a teahouse at 16,942 feet. I was in Gorakshep, Nepal—a half-day hike from Everest Base Camp, in the shadows of the tallest peak on earth. As I dozed off, so close to a place I had dreamt about for so long, I thought about Raj. I reflected on the gift he had given us, and I made a promise that if I found myself in a position where I could do for someone what Raj had done for me, I would.
It’s been four years since that happenstance encounter and subsequent adventure, and $1,000 means just as much to me now as it did then. Though I am financially secure, I am not (yet) in a position where I can give $1,000 to an impassioned stranger. Which is why I’m here, writing this post, attempting to fulfill the promise I made to myself in a different way: trading in the currency of travel stories. Though the stories I contribute here won’t buy your ticket to Kathmandu, my hope is that you might be able to spend the inspiration they provide on getting out, seeing the world, and sleeping in a few places you never thought you would.