Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Traveling in Nepal never ceases to be interesting...

I’d never flown domestic in Nepal.

The workshop coordinator decided to fly me out to Dhangadhi (he and his team had come a few days before), because it would mean “less wear and tear” as he put it. There’s a definite difference in taking a one-hour plane trip verses a fifteen-hour bus ride. And with the uncertain political situation, that seemed that safest way to get there too.

But the domestic plane trip was still something new.

First of all, the domestic side of Tribhuvan International Airport was filled with very wealthy Nepalis—the kind whose daughters wear chic Western designer outfits and high heeled shoes, and who slip between Nepali and English unawares in the middle of their conversations—most of whom were going to Pokhara on holiday. In contrast were the tourists, with their trekking boots and oversized backpacks; most had unshaven faces or unwashed hair. I was directed by an airport aid to the counter to pay the airport tax of 170 rupees—the posted price is 169.50, but since no one works in paisa anymore, everyone just pays a flat170--and then sat down to wait for my flight to be called.

There were a handful of people going to Dhangadhi, among them some UMN people working at the Doti cluster. They recognized me from the exposure trip to HS-Nepal in Dang at the beginning of my time there. We were put on a transit bus with the other passengers to be taken from the terminal to our airplane at a runway a little further off. Our baggage followed in a cart behind us. “Oh, I wonder how many bags are on top my mine,” the foreign UMN worker commented to me. “I hope my strawberries don’t get squished! Maybe they’ll be jam by the time we arrive!”

The plane seated perhaps 20 people max. I was one of the last people to get on, so took the one seat remaining—the very front one. I could see into the cockpit. Our primary pilot was a woman, donning a nose piercing, manicured nails, and aviator sunglasses. I watched the altitude meter rise to the cruising height of 16,500 feet. The flight was long enough for peanuts and Coke to be passed around.

As we landed on the runway, the dingy “Dhangadhi Airport” terminal was the only building in sight. We walked out on the tarmac and were directed by a policeman to a chain gate where we waited in the shade of a pipal tree for our luggage was brought to us. The foreign UMNer hoped their vehicle won’t be long in coming, or her butter would melt in the Terai heat. The UMN people kindly took me to the main road (there are no taxis or transport available at the airport proper) where I got a bus into Dhangadhi. From the stares I got from the people already on the bus, I must have looked like rifraf with my big black trekking backpack and slightly sunburnt face. From the Dhangadhi bus park, I called Shyam for instructions on what to do next. He advised I get a rickshaw to the hotel at which the workshop was to take place; most rickshaw drivers would know where the Hotel Bidya was located.

Traveling back to Kathmandu was even more interesting. I traveled with Kumar and Shyam this time, and we thought we would be late—adding up the expenses of two workshops took a little longer than expected. We just took a vehicle from the hotel this time. I got the privilege of sitting in front, and watching the driver swerve and maneuver around bicycles, rickshaws, buses, oxcarts, and the occasional goat that decided to try and cross the road. At the airport, members of Nepal’s armed police force searched our bags, then let us into the dingy building. After checking in at the counter, we found a place to conveniently stand while we waited for our flight to be called.

I noticed then that there were two doors in front of me, one marked “men” and one marked “women” with “exit” written between the doors, all in Nepali. I thought this to be a little odd. I soon saw, as passengers to the flight before ours lined up, that these were frisking rooms. Everyone went in, one at a time, to the policeman or policewoman waiting inside, then seemed to disappear, as the policeman or woman would reappear at the door for the next person. When my turn came, it actually wasn’t bad—the policewoman checked my hand luggage, and then lightly ran her hands under my arms, down my legs, and patted my sides and back. I felt more respected as a person than at some Stateside airports I’d been through.

Claiming luggage at the Kathmandu airport felt like being at an auction house. Everyone crowded around the carts that held the luggage, waving their baggage claim tickets and yelling at the luggage handlers as to which bag was theirs. Kumar ended up being closer to the front than I, so I gave him my ticket to claim my bag. We were assailed by five different taxi drivers as we came out into the parking lot. Kumar finally found one who would drop all three of us off at our respective locations for 700 rupees. After the two Nepali men left the vehicle, the driver began freely talking to me in Nepali (he must have heard the three words I spoke to Shyam where we sat in the backseat). He was full of questions—how long had I been in Nepal? Where was I from? I spoke good Nepali; how long had it taken me to learn it? So why did I travel with the two guys that he dropped off before me? And what kind of work were we doing? I answered discreetly that I was involved in language development, and that my office worked closely with the one the others were affiliated with, so we had traveled together.

Traveling in Nepal never ceases to be interesting.