Thursday, September 22, 2011

24 Calamatous Hours in Kathmandu

...So as of the end of my last entry in this new-to-me blog thing, I claimed that I was “...ready for my next adventure.”

Never before has anyone been so incorrect about anything.  Ever.

My last night in Korea was amazing. I stayed at a great motel, and enjoyed the best Korean food I'd ever had. Never before has kimchi jjigae – one of my favorite Korean dishes – tasted so fantastic. And having just finished a ~13 month stint in the country, claiming a specific meal to be 'the best' is no small feat. There were lots of mixed emotions as Katie (my travel mate for the next few months), her father, and I wished my girlfriend a happy birthday, even though her real birthday was the next day, September 11, the exact day I was leaving for Nepal, and the 10-year anniversary of the biggest news story of my lifetime. Oops. It wasn't supposed to work out that way.

My travel mate for the next few months, Katie, was at the airport by the time I woke up the next morning; she had left early to see her father to the airport, since his flight home was earlier than our flight to Nepal.

I'd met Katie when I first arrived in Korea, about 13 months ago, and we became quick friends because of our common interests in general adventuring and our propensity for making fart and dick jokes. Additionally, we had both spent a great deal of time in Colorado, where I grew up and she spent 3 winters working at Copper Mountain, one of my favorite ski resorts. And if that isn't enough 'small world' stuff, we both had participated in a semester abroad program called 'Semester at Sea,' albeit 2 years apart.

Leaving the motel at 10 in the morning with one huge (80L) backpack, a daypack (35L), and my bomb-proof super-briefcase sized camera case I felt reasonably ready to get on the 11 hour flight (including a 3-hour layover in Guangzhou, China) that would take me the 2500 miles West from Seoul to Kathmandu. What could possibly go wrong in the next 24 hours?

At baggage check, things started wonderfully. The weight of my combined bags was significantly higher than allowed for our flight, but since Katie and I had booked together, they used the average weight of all three of our checked bags (Katie's big backpack, my big backpack, and my camera case), and said that I wouldn't be charged an overweight baggage fee. Nice. I'd arrived expecting to fork over an extra $100 in baggage fees. The woman at the China Southern counter also told us that we'd need $25 each in U.S. DOLLARS for a 90-day visa upon our arrival in Nepal. Fortunately, I had been given a $50 bill from a student's mother on my last day at Beyond Advanced (the Korean school where I taught English to elementary school students). I had planned on holding onto it in case I needed it for a bribe or something at some point in the next few months, but it now appeared I'd have to part with it at Nepalese customs. Oh well.

With baggage check done, Katie, Melody and I had hoped to have one last lunch together, but upon consulting a nearly-magical touch-screen Incheon Airport guide and finding that it would take approximately 45 minutes to reach our departure gate, and noting that boarding was set to begin in approximately 45 minutes, we were forced into a hasty goodbye. It was terribly sad saying goodbye to Melody, but we both knew this day was coming, and I suppose we both handled it as well as could be expected.

The rest of Katie's and my time at Incheon Airport was uneventful, as was the hotter-than-hell, air-conditioning-free flight to Guangzhou. Then, things started getting weird. At Chinese customs, the officer who inspected my passport didn't believe I was the person on my passport. Granted, my passport photo was taken in 2003 when I had longer hair and weighed maybe 15 pounds more than I do now, but c'mon … it's me. Lacking any other form of photo ID (I lost my wallet with my driver's license a few months before, at a rapey jimjilbong in Seoul), I presented them several credit cards and whatnot with my name on them, and eventually, they let me through. But the foreshadowing of this unfortunate event would turn out to be remarkably in-tune with everything the next 12 hours would hold for me.

With about 2 hours to kill in Guangzhou airport, I took out my brand new laptop with the intention of updating the metadata for some ebooks I'd downloaded the previous week. When I turned on my computer, the right three-quarters of the screen was dead. I tried a few things to resurrect my screen, but to no avail. Shit. My brand-new (one month old, turned on maybe 5 times prior to this event) computer was toast.

Then, when it was time to board the plane, I took out my camera to take a picture of the boarding gate, and got an error message saying something about the communication between the lens and the camera being faulty. One sentence of background information: My camera, a $2500 Canon 5D Mk II, is only about a year and a half old, and I've already had to have it repaired twice – including once after owning it for only three days. Marvelous.

Depressed by the events of the last hour but looking forward to our arrival in Nepal, Katie and I boarded the plane for our 5-hour flight. Our time on board flew by (Get it?! Flew by. Like being on a plane. I'm funny.), and before we knew it, we were on the tarmac at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. We got off the plane and walked about 200 meters to an airport unlike any I'd stepped foot in before. Instead of clinically clean, white walls and architecturally modern curved surfaces, we walked through a dimly-lit brick hallway, seeing only one airport employee for the duration of our walk from the airport to customs and immigration … where I discovered my wallet was missing.

I immediately knew my wallet must have fallen out of my pocket on the plane, and turned around, Katie in tow, and ran back through the dimly-lit brick hallway towards the plane. If I had tried anything like this in America, I'd probably have been shot. But instead of being shot, a security guard calmly approached me and asked me what the problem was. I explained that my wallet must have fallen out on the plane, and he walked us in that direction. A moment later, Katie and I were met by the head of security. He asked me to describe the wallet, to which I replied, “It's brown. And it says 'Bad Mother Fucker' on it.” He told me they'd found it, and returned it, sans the $50 I needed for immigration. Happy to have the wallet, I didn't make a fuss about the missing $50, even though the security guy brought the whole crew responsible for the cleaning of the plane over, and told me exactly who had found the wallet, and who he had given it to prior to it being given to the head of security himself. I didn't want the guy who found the wallet to lose his job, so I didn't press the issue and ask for him to be searched or anything – 82% of Nepalese people live on less than $2 a day, and $50 for me is, in my newly retired condition, pocket change.

Back at immigration, things continued to go downhill. In order to get a 90-day Nepalese tourist visa, you must pay $100 U.S. (in U.S. Dollars, British Pounds, E.U. Euros, or one of several other NON-NEPALESE forms of currency). Credit cards are not accepted. So it turns out that even if my $50 hadn't been stolen, we'd still have been in trouble. This sounds, from an American perspective, like an incredibly easy obstacle to overcome, but in Nepal, things can sometimes be more difficult. Neither Katie nor I had any currency of any kind, so simply converting money wasn't an option. We went to the ATM located near customs and immigration, but it was turned off. After explaining our predicament to the officer at the customs and immigration desk, he volunteered to hold on to our passports while we went downstairs to get money from one of the two ATMs elsewhere in the airport. Reluctant to leave our passports in the possession of anyone but ourselves, but lacking any other options, we agreed, and headed downstairs, through baggage claim. Because of the time we spent getting my wallet back and trying to deal with the visa fiasco, the baggage claim carousel had already been turned off, and our bags were sitting there for anyone to grab. Luckily, no one had done so.

We continued out past baggage claim, to where we'd been told we'd find another ATM. This one was closed off behind a metal gate. At this point, we met a guy who'd been sent by Khangsar Guest House (the hotel we'd booked for our first few nights in Kathmandu) to pick us up, and explained the ridiculous situation that was presently unfolding. With the good humor and attitude I've since come to appreciate, and perhaps ignorantly expect from Nepalese people, he walked us to our last-option ATM through a monsoon that started, ironically, the moment we stepped out of the covered section of the airport and onto the sidewalk. 5 rain-soaked minutes later, we arrived at ATM #3, our last chance to get money for our Nepalese visas. It cannot be denied that this ATM was one of the most overly protected pieces of technology in the world – it's protectors included a fully camouflaged Nepalese army soldier with a rifle … and a stray dog. Unfortunately, it's protection was fully unwarranted. The screen read “Temporarily Out Of Service.” This being Nepal, I'm not sure if “temporarily” means “until tomorrow” or “until the rapture.”

Unsure what would happen now, we returned upstairs to customs, grabbing our baggage from baggage claim on the way – I was really uncomfortable leaving all my camera stuff there one moment longer. In our sleep-deprived and somewhat delirious OMG-I'm-finally-in-Nepal mindset, we spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to get back upstairs to the customs desk. We'd initially come down a down-only escalator, and were too idiotic to find the stairs that were located a mere 20 meters away. We came disturbingly close to trying to run up a downward-moving escalator with heaps and heaps of baggage while wearing wet flip-flops. Broken jaws, feet, and other injuries may have been averted only because of a kind Nepalese man pointing us in the direction of the stairs.

Back, yet again, at the customs and immigration desk, we told the officer there that we couldn't get the money for our visas and were unsure how to handle the situation. He consulted with his boss, and they gave us little slips of paper that were to work legally as our passports, until we came back to get our passports, the following day any time after 2pm.

Bleh. What a disastrous few hours. We got into the cab that had now been waiting for us for over an hour in the pouring rain, and were on our way to the Khangsar Guest House. We arrived a bit hungry, but much more THIRSTY … for beer. After such a stressful day, a few beers on the rooftop of our new hotel was exactly what we needed. So we got 4 big beers and relaxed on the rooftop, discussing the problems we'd had that day, and the starkly contrasted, beautiful future that the next few months would certainly hold for us.

Writing this entry over a week after the events described in this entry, the 4-beer dinner on our first night in Nepal remains, by far, our most expensive meal in the country. By the time our first 'dinner' was complete, a full moon had materialized from the previously cloudy sky, and I went to our room to get my camera and tripod to get a full-moon photo. When I grabbed my tripod out of my bag – surprise! - the head snapped off.

Even with all these unforeseen and costly problems, I remained (and still do) positive that my time in Nepal will be exceptional. And as will be seen in my next entry – hopefully posted tomorrow – my expectations have been, for the most part, justified.

Next post: Week one in Nepal. Awesome experiences at Kathmandu's famous “Monkey Temple.” Ridiculously cheap living expenses. Delicious tea. Street food. Local drinks served from gasoline cans. Amazing locals. Katie's and my first teahouse trek through the Kathmandu Valley. And much, much more!

1 comment:

  1. After reading that you left on September 11th, I started wondering if that meant anything. And I thought, well yeah, here's Glen, and he's totally eschewed the typical American way of life (ie doing the 9-5 at a job you hate forever).

    Then I thought about the day that I got to Korea and the day that I left: I got there on the April 20th, Hitler's Birthday; and left May ninth, Victory Day, which commemorates Nazi Germany's capitulation to Soviet forces.

    I wonder what that means...

    Anyway, awesome blog. Keep posting and I'll keep reading!