After landing in Kathmandu, I follow the other passengers into the customs area which, along with the rest of the airport, is straight out of the 1970s. I half expect to see Ben Affleck and the cast of Argo sweating in an interrogation room.
I’m surrounded by wood paneling, green paint, papers scattered everywhere, and ancient looking-security scanning machines. Did I just see a chicken pecking at the torn cover of someone’s passport? (Later, I actually will see a cat that very much lived inside the airport and survived on chocolate crumbs fed to it by Chinese tourists.)
It’s easy to miss the immigration documents that need to be filled out – they’re sort of scattered all along a ledge, and you have to scour to find the form that’s in your language.
I’m well-prepared with my passport photo, my travel itinerary, and the address of my hostel in Kathmandu. The good folks at the Holy Lodge have sent a driver to pick me up – I am to look for the man holding a sign with my name (the second time in my life I’ve had to ‘find my driver,’ and no less thrilling.)
The only thing left to do is to hit the ATM, exchange rupees for U.S. dollars, and pay for my 30-day visa.
A Most Incorrigible ATM
Except the ATM is broken.
It never would’ve occurred to me that the ONLY ATM in an international airport would be or could be out of order. Then again, I’d never been to Nepal.
I start to panic. I have a little bit of American money, and some Chinese Yen. Together, they might add up to the $40 USD I need to get my visa. I approach the man at the exchange counter, offering him my Yen. He frowns, handing it back to me.
“No,” he says, simply.
“No?” I panic, eyes widening in terror.
“Too small,” he insists.
He means I don’t have enough Yen to make the exchange worth his while, or at least that’s what I assume he means. I suppose he could be talking about the tiny ball of courage that’s slowly dwindling down to nothing in my chest. Either that, or my boobs.
What am I going to do? I don’t have enough money to enter the country! I’ll have to live in the airport forever! Maybe they’ll send me back on the plane to Kunming and I’ll have to live in China in a muddy village and never have any heat or hot water or WiFi or….
I approach the least scary-looking man at one of the two immigration desks (there are only 4 guys serving the entire airport).
“Is there another ATM?” I squeak.
He glances at me sideways, immediately suspicious.
“It’s downstairs,” he frowns. I’m 2 for 2 in the frowning department.
‘Downstairs’ turns out to be outside the airport, meaning I would have to exit the premises and enter the country without having been approved to do so.
“Soooooo…..can I go? I promise I’ll come right back!”
“Passport” he demands, holding out his hand.
“I leave with you, then I come back?” This fractured sentence marks the beginning of what will become my “Nepalese English” – a slow, stunted, grammatically incorrect way of articulating what you want that may or may not make it easier for non-English speakers to understand you.
Either way it makes you sound like a moron and in a matter of a few weeks, I won’t be able to turn it off.
“Passport” he repeats. Not knowing what else to do, I leave what amounts to my life in the palm of a Nepalese immigration official, and hightail it downstairs in search of the ATM. I don’t realize at the time how potentially stupid of a move this is.
A giant mass of men
Downstairs, I feel every cell in my body ignite, my survival instincts gearing up for a fight. A giant mass of mostly men faces me, yelling and shouting and vigorously waving signs. I don’t know whether to look for my driver – if he’s even there – or ask directions to the ATM, or –
Crap! Someone is talking to me. This is not good. I need the ATM, I need….
“Where are you from?”
I keep walking, but give in and make eye contact with…one of the most beautiful humans I’ve ever laid eyes on.
The owner of the voice is some kind of gorgeous dark angel; thin and wiry with caramel-colored skin and shining chocolate eyes. He knows I’m fresh off the plane and delights in my obvious uncertainty.
“I….I need the ATM.”
“This way,” he smiles, guiding me past the dog pack of other drivers. I’m grateful for his help and instantly suspicious. Do I have to pay him now? Is he going to rob me? What’s a good tip for someone who may or may be about to mug you, anyway?
One of my favorite things about Nepal is the fact that ATM machines are housed in what amounts to glass phone booths, complete with doors that close. The doors don’t lock or anything, but there’s something comforting about creating a barrier between your money and the scary world outside.
I withdraw around 10,000 rupees ($100 USD), fumbling with my card and the cash and the currency convertor app on my phone. My beautiful friend is patiently waiting for me, a fact that makes me extremely nervous.
“I must go back inside,” I explain in Nepalese-English. He follows me like a puppy, and I feel I may never shake him, not for the entire month I’m in Nepal.
“If my driver not here, I come find you” I promise before ducking back inside the airport. I approach the frowning exchange counter clerk again, and am this time met with success. Armed with 50 Real American Dollars (why must you pay for a Nepalese visa in American dollars, anyway?), I march back upstairs –
HOLY SHIT, MY BAG!
No luggage, no cry
Out of the corner of my eye, I see my gorgeous blue beauty lying prostrate on the airport floor, having been dragged by an unknown party off of the revolving carousel and placed ON THE GROUND ALL BY ITSELF – not stacked next to other bags, not piled upon fellow luggage friends, just lying there, alone, begging to be taken.
I practically sprint to my bag and tackle it like an overzealous football player. It doesn’t occur to me that nobody is interested in stealing my bag (which is most certainly the case). I saddle up, breathing heavily from what seems like a near theft and an even bigger fail than my lack of cash.
Getting my visa
With all of my ducks in a row, I am gifted with a 30-day visa in Nepal and am allowed to officially enter the Federal Democratic Republic.
I’m slightly alarmed to see that my visa is only good for 30 days, including today. For some reason I thought the day I entered would be a freebie, but nope – my visa is only good through the day before I fly to my next destination. I guess I’ll have to worry about that later.
A virgin negotiator
I brace myself to exit the airport once more, preparing for some harsh negotiations. I’ve read that everyone here – from the taxi drivers to the guest house owners – will try to rape you on prices if they can. I know this, I’m prepared for this, but I’m also a huge chicken and a big pushover.
Our flight was delayed by an hour, and it took me at least 30 minutes to deal with the visa fiasco, but my driver is still somehow waiting for me, holding a handwritten sign with “REBECAH BOS” in magic marker (close enough on the spelling – if there is an actual “Rebecah Bos” out there, sorry for stealing your taxi.)
The baggage brigade
Amidst the chaos we somehow find each other. He is flanked by a posse of assistants who grab my bags and take off towards a waiting car in the parking lot. I’m flabbergasted and nervous, making sure to keep pace behind the them. The sun is setting over the city but I don’t have a second to take in the soft pinks and blues as they morph into pale yellows, framing the brightly-painted buildings in glorious twilight…
A hand is shoved in my face, its fingers gesturing wildly in the universal symbol for “Give me money.”
I’m pissed. I could’ve carried my own friggin’ bag. The posse wants money, and I have no idea how much to give them. I glare at the request, but acquiesce and fish around in my purse for a small bill.
Taking a wild stab, I hand the guy a 5-rupee note, hoping he’ll go away.
“This is very small” he complains. He’s right and everything, but he’s not my driver and I know he’s taking advantage of my shell shocked-ness.
I trade him for a 20-rupee note. He’s still not happy, but gives up.
And we’re off. I ride sans seatbelt, any working knowledge of the Nepali language, or any idea of where I’m going.
This is fucking awesome.
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This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!
1. The arrival documents you need to fill out might be on the floor - look for the one written in English. Oh, and bring your own pen!
2. Have at least $50 USD IN CASH to pay for your visa
3. Assume the ATM will be broken. Better yet, assume there IS no ATM and do your exchanging before you arrive in Nepal.
4. People will try to carry your bag. You don’t have to let them, but if you don’t, you should still toss them 20-30 rupees to leave you alone. (Unless you are very strong and very brave.)
Want to dig deeper? Go for it!