Mon 7/18, 2016, day 33
Somewhere over China just north of Thailand
This is just amazing. I’m watching the map change on the screen in front of me on our Korean Air flight from Seoul to Kathmandu. I am physically over a part of the planet I’ve never even been close to. We are flying a bumpy, circuitous route, due in part I imagine to all of the mountains I see on the map. Unfortunately, I can’t look out the window – they’re all closed – but I’ve taken to sitting in the aisle seat on long flights so I can get up and stretch more easily. So I look at the map. (I just asked the woman at the window if she could see anything – turns out it’s just clouds). Mt. Everest is what, 30,000 feet tall? If we flew close to it, it would look like we were about to run into it. So we skirt south of the Himalayas and approach Nepal from the southeast.
China is a big mystery to me. All those exotic sounding city names. The borders between countries seem so arbitrary from the sky. We make so much of our nationality, where we’re from, what nation we are a citizen of. We fill out forms that reflect arrangements between men about who may go where, when and under what conditions.
I need to put an address where I’m staying on the arrival card. But I don’t have it written down anywhere. I think it’s Satailpa or Saitalpa or something like that. It’s in my email. And it’s in the history of one of my documents on Dropbox. But that all breaks down once internet connectivity goes away. The promise of never losing your data because it’s in the cloud… it’s too obvious and ironic but I have to say it – I am in the clouds right now and the data I need is nowhere to be seen. There is no wifi on this flight. And when we land, my phone won’t be able to roam for cellular data. I hope there’s wifi at the airport. My only other backup plan is to search my browser history to see if I can find it – I know I looked at it on Google Maps recently.
I am getting less and less good at surviving off the grid, even part of it. The Lord will provide. We had exactly enough money to buy our last train tickets to the airport this morning, after redeeming the 4 single use subway tickets we had and scrounging up the rest of our change. The machine got my coins stuck and I had to press the help button and worried we would lose the only money we had on hand. Of course when the attendant came to help, it spat out my money and as she watched I put it in and it accepted everything.
Why is it so nerve wracking to not know what you’re doing, to not speak or read the language or know all the directions? How do I become more ok with the unknown and more trusting of the Lord and the kindness of strangers and my own resilience and ingenuity? I would like that.
We’re getting closer to Bangladesh now. The map flips to the day/night view and I see another set of arbitrary lines – time zones. I notice that the sun has risen in Maine, but not in Florida, though they are in the same time zone. Maine is significantly further east. Nepal is 5:45+GMT. Yes that’s right, 5 hours and 45 minutes – not an even hour. Our guidebook suggests they are just trying to stick it to India and differentiate themselves.
The thing about Nepal is that flying in you don’t really know what you are seeing. As the plane descends, you crane your neck in vain to see the mountains. Eight out of the ten highest peaks in the world are in this country. We saw none of them. During monsoon, the mountains are shrouded in clouds. It is only very rarely that you can see them. I have faith that we will see them in the next two weeks.
You start looking away from the mountain clouds and toward the ground. Normally when you fly into a city with a million plus people, you see all sorts of infrastructure and roads and tall buildings. A city.
But Kathmandu isn’t that kind of city. A ten-story building is a skycraper here. An incredible contrast to Korea.
It was my first time deplaning by stairs (it wouldn’t be my last). The airport was incredibly small. I’ve been to tiny midwest airports larger than this.
But we were in Nepal. A dream come true for someone who’s read National Geographic all of my life.
We had our customs forms filled out and our visa application ready to go. There’s only one way to walk in, but that doesn’t mean the signage was straightforward. We got in a line, not sure if it was correct. But we each paid $25 US dollars for a 15-day tourist visa and headed through customs.
We were looking for a place to put our forms because the agent didn’t take them. In the end we just hung onto them and realized no one was going to care. They actually scanned our bags on the way out of the airport (looking for…?).
We were staying with friends of friends. Some ex-pats living in Nepal, PJ, Lizzy, and their kids Naomi and Ezra. PJ picked us up at the airport and we headed off for an adventure… getting to their house on the other side of Kathmandu. We didn’t take a taxi because they don’t really have an address they could give us. That’s right, they don’t really have an address. That was a new one to us.
I’ve never been to Mexico or really anywhere with different driving “procedures.” For starters, they drive on the left. Secondly, there are not lane lines or even a center line. Third, there are no traffic lights or signs. Chaos, chaos, and look right if you’re going left. Go slow, 25 MPH is getting ahead of yourself in this deathtrap. Oh lastly, there are cows. Don’t hit the cows. We don’t know how they got to the middle of the road, but well they’re there.
Rules of the road: just keep going. Someone will slow down and you can go past, but don’t stop. The same is true if you’re a pedestrian. Just start walking and hopefully you don’t get hit. If you’re a cow, just go where you want. Everyone will avoid you and you’ll be okay. If you hit a cow and injure it, it’s a huge fine. If you hit a cow and kill it, you’ll be in jail for a really long time.
Sometimes there are cops directing traffic, but it seems like they do more harm than good. Whenever there’s a traffic jam, you can be sure it’s because there’s a police officer blowing his whistle and people trying to ignore him. Of course 99 percent of the officers don’t have a vehicle to chase people down to give them tickets. I’m not sure how it works, but all over the city there are signs: Police My Friend.
The condition of the roads is not great. Giant mud tracks and holes. Most of the pavement has disappeared (or never was). And there are just people everywhere. People walking, in cars, on motorbikes (1-3 people), on bicycles, tuk-tuks, public transport with 3-wheels, brightly painted buses, brightly painted semis, giant vehicles, tiny vehicles and everything in between, oh and cows.
Sensory overload. It was amazing, incredible, and very intimidating. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to get around in this city. What is this going to look like over the next 14 days?
I haven’t mentioned how green everything is. We were not in the mountains, but in the Kathmandu valley. Now as a Floridian, I would call what we were looking at mountains. But in Nepal, it’s a mountain if it has snow on it year round. So, we were looking at very tall hills. They stretched up and up. Covered with trees and green upon green. Prayer flags strung along like electrical wires. And electrical wires seemed to be having a competition with the electrical poles of who could hold more up. But these hills had power, well, 8-12 hours a day. There’s an app that tells you when you’ll have power. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The air is cleanest during monsoon because the moisture tamps down the dust. But clean air in Kathmandu is merely something of scale. We had masks and wondered if we should wear them. PJ said that most of the air pollution was particulate matter and a simple mask would work, for the few weeks we were there. (But the masks their family wears have actual air filters inside.)
Kathmandu is a people-watcher’s dream. It is thriving and bustling. Everyone seems to own a shop: convenience store, stationary, meat, fruit, sandals, trainers, all repeated again and again.
And it’s noisy. Because there aren’t traffic lights or stop signs, if you’re going around a corner and can’t see, you honk. If someone is going too slow and you want to go around them, you honk. If someone lets you go around them, you honk your thanks. If someone is stopped and they want you to go around them, you h… wait, no, they put on their blinker. Sometimes when someone is turning they put on their blinker. It gets pretty confusing, but the number one rule is don’t hit a cow.