We were awakened at 5:00am to catch our once-a-day flight from Bhutan’s only airport to Kathmandu. In the end, we took off almost three hours late. Probably not all that unusual, as Druk Air, the state owned airline, has only two aircraft. One makes the round trip to Bangkok each day, and the other makes the round trip to Calcutta, via Kathmandu, Nepal, each day. That’s it! Both flights out and both flights in are scheduled to depart/arrive at the same time. I guess that allows the airport staff to go home for a four hour lunch break…who knows? In any case, all of our morning logistics and delays were absolutely forgotten after we took off and did a Mt. Everest fly-by.
Oh my God!
We were so spell bound I almost forgot to take a photograph, or as it turned out, almost fifty photographs.
It was eerie being the only passengers in this huge, darkened, echoing, international terminal. Each of the dozen or so of us who deplaned in Kathmandu filled out forms for the visa-on-arrival and waited in line to present them with the required photos to one of the two, slow-motion, immigration officials. On our way out of the terminal the first x-ray/customs checkpoint was abandoned and the second one was in operation but the official was absorbed in checking a Nepali’s ocean of luggage and cardboard boxes. No one said anything, as we waved and walked by, unexamined. A moment later we were on the street in the mid-day summer heat being greeted by a man with a big smile holding a “David Bardwick” sign. No one else on our flight was so lucky.
On the drive to town we were enveloped by dust, pollution and traffic. At one gridlocked intersection it took half an hour to move ten car lengths and break free of the tangle. We couldn’t tell if the red flag or the blue flag carrying demonstrators marching through that intersection were pro-Maoist or anti-Maoist. The elections were held the previous week and the Maoist won by a hotly contested, some say not believable, “landslide.” The winners have promised to set up a democratic government. Who knows? The highly unpopular monarch has been asked to leave the palace willingly before he’s thrown out by force. Thus far, he has demurred.
My trip to Kathmandu was canceled last year because of rioting and twenty four hour curfews. For months the Maoists had blocked every highway in the country and it had come to a head. It was quieter now, but still volatile. On the surface, life goes on, almost uninterrupted.
First impressions of Nepal are that it is a softer culture than India. It has a mushrooming population, daunting infrastructure challenges, rampant poverty, unstable government, and no electricity at least eight hours a day (hence the dark airport when we arrived). They wisely, don’t rely on computers for anything important.
It’s easy to forget, from trip to trip, that it takes a couple days to get one’s feet on the ground in a new city or new country. With no itinerary or guide, things take their own course, in their own time. We arrived with four wonderful (we hoped), rather high profile introductions. Our friends expected that the people we were meant to meet would transform our time in Kathmandu into a magical experience. It took me hours to prepare myself mentally, to call the names on the list. It’s not something I’m comfortable with, and if it were left to my wife, it simply wouldn’t happen. The first man we called was out of the country until the day we were to leave. The second didn’t have the time to meet us. The third didn’t answer the phone, day after day, and the fourth missed both of our first two appointments. It was a discouraging start in this city of heat, pollution, noise, and dense population.
Bhutan was every dream come true. Kathmandu started out as a nightmare. I now remember I felt the same way in Yunan, China for a of couple days. It started the same way on another trip to China: alone and lost in the crowded, noisy, over-run town of Yangsho. I tend to forget the pain from the previous trips so I’m newly surprised by the discomfort of settling into a new place. All the irritations seem personal, like motorcycles and cars honking at us to get out of the way, or the fifteen minute wait for a menu at our hotel, dogs barking outside our room at night, or a taxi driver trying to rip us off. Nothing is ever personal, it just feels that way.
I think of myself as a good traveler, a well seasoned non-tourist, but no amount of travel stops the anxiety on the way to the airport, the sleepless night before an early international flight or the realization that the romantic notion of faraway, exotic travel is sweet, but it never happens without paying a certain price in comfort and control.