Sunday, November 6, 2011

Transition into Nepal (Carolann's Story)

(This and other stories by Carolann can be found at Maturetraveler)

My years in government have taught me to be prepared. Have contingency plans. Carry a barf bag.

The first indication that it would be a trying day was at the business class check-in counter when I fell to the floor and started vomiting into a plastic bag. I hurled and hurled in front of the line-up in the Bhutan International departure lounge. Certainly this was a new low in humiliation for me.

The attendants were very helpful. I was escorted to the lounge where I regained my strength. Our passports and boarding pass were delivered to us there.

I had felt nauseous even the night before, perhaps out of a combination of stress and bad food. Dan and I had just climbed to 10,000 feet to visit Bhutan's famous Tiger's Nest monastery. The climb was harder than we supposed, but I took it very slowly, a pace that suited my back and congested lungs. The goal was to finish the climb. By that time, one monastery had started to look like another. This one just happened to dangle three thousand feet above a shaved cliff face.

On the way down, Dan and our guide went ahead. It was past 1:30 and Dan's internal lunch alarm puts him in overdrive. I continued to inch along slowly, watching my feet to keep steady and gripping the rock face as best I could. I got into the moment by mumbling a song to myself, better than counting steps.

I was so focused in my descent that when I looked around me, no one was behind me. A German couple appeared around the next bend and told me I had already passed the cafeteria cut-off at least 15 minutes ago.

Angry and depressed, I decided there was no way I was going to struggle upwards again. I did it once, at pain (I took three hours rather than the normal two hours), and I was not going to do it again. Our guide should have been watching for me at the turnoff.

My plan therefore was to descend quickly and tell the driver who waited with our car to call our guide's cell phone. Of course Dan would be sick with worry since I had been so wobbly for much of the way up.

But contingency plans sometimes fail. Along the way I met a Buddhist nun walking with two sticks and favouring her knees. I spent the rest of the descent, slower than planned, inching along with her, keeping her steady, admiring her gumption in even attempting the climb. She had only made it as far as the cafeteria but that's a significant accomplishment. She had descended alone while her companions ate lunch so she would not hold up the group. I suddenly felt ashamed of my lack of consideration for my own companions.

I met our driver on the path. The guide had called him in a panic and asked that he start climbing to look for me. Our guide himself had returned up to the monastery to look for me. When I was found, Dan and our guide both came rushing down the mountain as fast as possible.

So that's the context. I made everyone sick with worry, and in a stroke of divine justice, I fell ill myself overnight.

I know from experience that travelling when you're unwell is best avoided, but our visas were expiring the morning after our climb. Our tickets were complicated in that we would be connecting in Kathmandu, Nepal to a domestic flight for Pokhara. Hotels were booked. The machine was in motion.

Dan took the window seat so one of us could enjoy the view. It was a glorious day high above the cloud cover and the Himalayas appeared on cue, and Everest, poor snow-barren Everest, burst above the clouds. Climate change is impacting the earth's tallest mountain. It's shockingly grey now as it won't hold its snow cap all year.

Normally, a safe landing gives me cause for quiet celebration. But this is Kathmandu. Does one give thanks when you arrive at the lowest level of Dante's hell? Yes, I've not been to India yet, but we've travelled through the urban carnage of Jakarta, been lost in Lima Peru. That should make for some experience. But it takes these kind of experiences in a new place to remind us that we really know nothing at all about the world. We've skimmed its pages, like pulp fiction.

Nepal is the 12th poorest country in the world with a literacy rate of about 50%. Thirty million people squeeze into a landmass the size of the state of Oregon (or a quarter of the size of Alberta) and you might as well reduce that area by three quarters since people mostly settle in the valleys. Like Bhutan, the country comprises the foothills of the Himalaya, foothills being huge tree covered mountains in themselves.

Unlike Bhutan which holds a trifling 700,000 people and is understandably infused with a sense of calm and peace, Nepal is a bubbling cauldron of small economic enterprise. Filthy stores showcase filthy wares, filthy used truck tires, corrugated metal sheets piled on filthy, brittle pavement, unhealthy cows wandering amidst motorcycles, and smoke-belching transport trucks fill the streets churning up clouds as dense as a scourge of locust, a blight to the urban landscape, if landscape is the proper word.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We're still at the Kathmandu international airport.

We enter the passport control building and two wickets are open for travellers without visas.


I feel that queasy feeling returning but I say to myself, "Keep Calm. Carry On."  After all, though I may be under the weather, the buzz of Bhutan's peace of mind remains.

We take our place in the line behind 200 people. It goes nowhere. Each transaction seems to take ten or more minutes. People are complaining that they have been waiting three hours. There's a visa form we fill out while standing and thankfully we each have extra passport photos. It's common enough that you can get a visa at the airport, but the processing system in other countries we've known (like Indonesia) is light years ahead of this mess.

An attendant is assisting people in the line by stapling their photo to the form. Dan has an idea.

He shows the attendant the tickets for our connecting flight and asks for us to be expedited. We need to reach the domestic terminal within thirty minutes in order to be there an hour ahead of the flight.

At first she is hesitant. Then she sees the Canadian flag on my carry-on and smiles wide. "You Canadian? You have visa money? I see passport." We give her the documents.

"Come here" and we are taken to the line up for diplomats and "special visas".

We remain hopeful although nothing happens. An agent is processing people ahead. He pulls out a drawer looking for something. He pushes it back. He stands up and cranes his neck to look around. He walks over to another station borrows something and returns to his desk. He leans over to a companion and waves a document and then straightens himself. Papers are handed over and the people are shuffled off to another agent for stage two.

I observe this lengthy, hesitant process and chuckle at how similar we all are in the natural world. My mind goes back to the Galapagos Islands. I close my eyes and watch once more as an albatross preparing to take off. We were standing at the cliff edge looking at Blue-Footed Boobies whipping around overhead when someone spots one of the great albatross birds walking towards our party. We part to make room for the bird that stands waist high. After tentative steps forward, then stopping, then forward, he reaches the cliff edge. Cameras raised. The bird sits down. Cameras lowered. The bird stands up. Cameras raised. The bird stretches out his wings in that magnificent seven-foot span. We hold our breath. Some cameras snap. The bird sits down. "Shit". The bird stands up once more, cranks its neck over the edge of the cliff. Cameras raised. The bird sits down. After fifteen minutes of playing with us, the bird stands erect, arches its wings and silently drops over the cliff.

Bang. Stamp. We are handed our visas. The albatross arches his wings.

But, not so fast.

We retrieve our luggage and pass on a taxi. It's a ten-minute walk across a field to the domestic terminal. We think we can do it. My stomach has settled. Besides, when you have to find the strength to do something, you do.

We cut our way through hundreds of people, taxi touts, beggars, dragging our luggage over chipped cement and then into the garbage-littered brown dirt and eventually push our way into the check-in counter. The checked luggage is just thrown into a pile behind the desk. There are no automated luggage belts. We are motioned towards a third scanner for our respective carry-on computer and camera cases and we separate into male and female lines where a woman will tickle my breasts and legs. My newly purchased water bottle goes through undetected. The detection activity is all show. Someone takes apart Dan's earphones and i-pod, demonstrating competence to his boss.

We funnel into the crowded departure lounge and sink into the last two plastic, black-stained barrel chairs that are not broken. I'm feeling drained and a bit nauseous. I take my last pill.

The albatross backs away from the cliff once more.

After two hours, we strain to hear a garbled announcement telling everyone that our flight is cancelled. All flights to Pokhara are cancelled. Visibility is poor. Come back tomorrow.

Time for some problem-solving.

But first, we need to return to the check-in desk to retrieve our luggage. Already 50 people are lining up and I take my place among them.

Dan is a wonderful travel companion. Very resourceful and scrappy when necessary. He simply walks behind the check-in agent, enters the back room behind a curtain and grabs our suitcases. They had remained there in a pile the whole time we had awaited the flight. I seriously doubt they would have ever joined our flight had it not been cancelled.

"We should go to the sister hotel in Kathmandu of the one we've booked in Pokhara. They can straighten things out and change our booking to here for tonight. Even if they are full, they can find us a place."

The idea is good, but finding the Sacred Valley Inn, Kathmandu is not easy. The address is in an e-mail in my computer and there's no internet service at the airport.

Keep calm. Carry on.

Dan remembers there's a tourist desk at the international terminal so we need to go back. This time however we find a flat-rate taxi desk and negotiate a fare that includes a stop at the international terminal.

Dan remains in the cab with our luggage and I dash into the airport. I'm prevented by security to re-enter the terminal where the full service tourist desk is located. I seek help instead from the kiosk outside. But first I scan the drivers holding signs to see, if by luck, someone is there from our hotel. The albatross has sat down.

I should have been suspicious of tourist kiosk personel who look like taxi touts. This man knows the hotel well so I get him to write down the name and directions in Nepalese so our driver can read it. I'm energized by this good luck.

Two hours later, in the warren of narrow streets, honking cars, choking exhaust, one cursing cyclist, our driver is seeking further directions. We had been led astray. I'm having difficulty breathing because of the stench. My stomach is churning once more. We see westerners on the street and call out from our stalled cab. "Please can you look up our hotel in your guide book. We are lost".

The two Germans came to our aid through the window of the car but our hotel is not listed. Dan then sees an internet cafe, dashes in there and within a few minutes has found proper directions to our hotel in an entirely different neighbourhood.

The day has indeed been trying.

At the desk of the Sacred Valley Inn, I start to explain our situation to the attendant and collapse backwards onto the couch. My strength has finally given out. They take me to another room, give me water. Dan takes over. We're a good tag team.

The hotel is entirely booked up.

Keep calm. Carry on.

It would still take another day before the albatross drops over the cliff. The hotel staff found us a room across the street, we had a good night sleep. The next day, our flight was rescheduled, then cancelled again. We elected to drive to Pokhara. It ended up being the only option since Nepal's domestic airlines have been shut down for five days now. We have found ourselves at the front end of a system of haze and rain showers unheard of in the month of November. Such is climate change. At this moment, 2,000 trekkers are being put up in tents by the army since they are unable to fly out. Hotels are full and food in the region is being trucked in.

Dan and I are resting in Pokhara. We can't trek. There's no mountain view, only white haze. But we need the rest. And in the end, our hosts at this small inn and those in Kathmandu have been outstanding in their service and support. A cheery red bougainvillea vine spills onto our terrace. There's a good vibe here.

But we need to decide by Tuesday where we'll go from here. In this case, it will indeed depend on which way the wind blows.

1 comment:

bigginsfish said...

Another great story.

Hope all is going better today.