Escape from Kathmandu

On the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short…
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

“Turkish Airlines plane NOSEDIVES into Kathmandu Airport”, shrieked the Daily Mail with their usual random hysteria, conjuring up images of a jumbo jet crashing into the airport terminal building in flames. The reality was rather less dramatic. Three days of heavy rain had meant a thick, noxious fog enveloped Kathmandu, nestled in a bowl surrounded by mountains. A Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul, attempting to land in zero visibility, had touched down heavily enough to burst the nosewheel, tilting the aircraft forward, and then skidding off the rain-slick runway onto the grass. But one wing of the wide-bodied Airbus A330 stuck out across the runway, preventing other planes from landing. Nepal lacked the necessary heavy crane to shift the aeroplane. They had the idea of using a bulldozer, but found the entrance gate to the airport wasn’t wide enough, so would have to knock a hole in the surrounding wall. The airports authority wasn’t keen; nor, for that matter, were the Turks, who didn’t want a Nepalese bulldozer anywhere near their aeroplane. The sole runway of the only international airport in the country was out of action. Nepal was shut until further notice.

I had been due to fly to Mumbai on the 5th of March. On the 4th of March, at approximately 11.45pm, I received an email from Jet Airways: “There has been the following change to your booking. The flight is cancelled.” No other explanation. I spent a fraught hour on the phone to a call centre in Mumbai, exhausted my credit on the mobile phone, and got nowhere. Nobody knew when the airport would reopen.

Kathmandu the next morning was eerily silent. No rumble of jets taking off. The cafes were full of tourists anxiously checking their phones. Two French women I met whose visas were due to expire the next day were seriously contemplating taking the bus to Varanasi in India – a journey of over 30 hours on mountain roads – to make a connecting flight to Paris. By day three one began to see the same disconsolate faces in the same cafes.
“You still here?”
“Yup. Rumour has it that the airport will open tonight / tomorrow / by Saturday.”
The town took on the atmosphere of a city under seige. Ke garne? What can you do?

I called Jet Airways every day, undergoing automated messages in Hindi, then repeated in English, none of which were relevant to my predicament. There was a jaunty, whistling theme tune on hold which got stuck in my head. Eventually, usually just before my credit expired, the phone would be picked up and I’d get some indecipherable mumbling in English so accented it might as well have been Hindi. Schooled in Mumbai call centres by years of trying to call helplines for British utility companies, I persisted. Why had they not reissued my ticket? Nobody knew. Five days after my initial flight, I still hadn’t heard anything. Thamel, the main backpacker region of Kathmandu, had begun to pall: I was sick of the incessant motorbikes zooming past inches away; sick of the constant offers of hashish, or taxis, or rickshaws, or anything; sick of the whole place. Despondency set in. To fend it off, I decided to go to the Jet Airways office. This was on a major road out of Kathmandu called Lazimpat. I trudged along Lazimpat, deafened by car horns, gritty dust thrown up by the wheels of the trucks, more dust produced by a jackhammer operated by a skinny boy in flip flops. Soon I saw a long line of people stretching down the road. The Jet office. I nearly turned round at that point, but decided to join the queue and see if they suddenly opened the doors.

They didn’t. The queue crept forwards. They were letting in five people at a time, into a tiny office the size of a portakabin. Nepali police stood around in camouflage with SLR rifles almost as tall as they were. The Israeli embassy was nearby. The man in front of me in the queue was wearing a yellow tanktop and clutching a sheaf of papers in his hand. I read: “Department of Migrant Workers, Qatar”. Blasted by grit from the passing traffic we stood, immobile as livestock. Two white women approached me:
“You have tyicket?” The accent was comic-book Russian.
“Yes. But I need them to reissue it.”
“We have tyicket for Delhi. But no visa. You want to buy it?”
I imagined myself turning up at the airport: Hi. My name’s Svetlana. And Irina. Svetlana Irina. No, I’m British, actually.
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” I told Svetlana, or Irina. They shrugged pragmatically. I noticed that the hair of the man in the yellow tanktop, which was a few inches from my nose, was crawling with lice. Imperceptibly I leant backwards as far as I could.

Three-and-a-half hours, I stood in that queue. Eventually our turn came. The guard slid aside the metal gate, yellow tanktop and I squeezed through, together with three other local lads, and we entered the portakabin. Two Jet Airways staff tapped away at computers, studiously ignoring our flurried arrival. The three local lads tried to push to the front, and were repulsed by yellow tanktop, who beckoned me over. In the ensuing Nepalese conversation I made out the words “next in queue”. Mentally I hugged him at arms’ length. I stood before a Jet Airways member of staff who was wearing a hoodie which said London UK and was emblazoned with a Union Jack in Maroon and Lime Green.

“I need you to reissue my ticket from 5th March to 11th,” I blurted out. He tapped away at his computer, sightlessly extended a hand for my existing ticket, tapped away some more. Then he looked up.
“Sir, you are already booked on 11th March flight.”
I was dumbfounded. “How on earth?… But why haven’t I received a ticket? How has nobody bothered to tell me?” He shrugged, and showed me a print out. There it was. Confirmed 11 March.
Heading back down Lazimpat I found a cafe with wifi, and idly checked my email. It binged with a new message. Jet Airways. “Dear Mr, Apologies for delay in reissuance. Please find attached ticket for 11th March.” It had been sent at 12.50pm, ten minutes before I had finally got into the office.

Jet Airways had informed passengers to arrive at least three hours before their flight departed, but had failed to pass the message on to their own staff; there was no check-in open. Three Nepali men with ID badges stood on the staff side of the check-in counter clustered around a mobile phone; it turned out they were watching a video of a car crash. On the other side of the counter was a queue of perhaps 200 people. I had been one of the first in the queue, and a cadaverous man with his documents in a folder marked “Employment Record” inched his way forwards, on the pretext of trying to see some invisible object in the distance, until he was parallel to me. Smiling thinly I leaned on the counter; he did the same. He extended his folder across the counter towards the staff. I did the same with my ticket. We avoided each other’s eyes. He moved his folder slightly further forward, just ahead of mine. Not to be outdone I did the same.The cover of his folder had his name, place of birth, age, and nickname. It was “The Rock”. A girl wandered over and sat down at the check-in desk with an air of studious boredom, ignoring “The Rock’s” proffered folder as well as mine. For around ten minutes we stood, until the girl looked at me. “The Rock” happened to be conversing with someone over his shoulder at that point, and I seized my chance and handed over my ticket. Victory was mine! She sighed, hammered her computer keys for a while, and then handed me my documents back. With my precious boarding pass clutched in my hand I made for departures, showing it to the policeman guarding the entrance. He belched softly in acknowledgement and I was through. Escape from Kathmandu.

The Indians, in their wisdom, have decided that you have to go through immigration in the first port of entry, so I had two hours (90 minutes in reality) to reclaim my bag, go through immigration in Mumbai, check it in again for the flight to Goa, then get to the domestic terminal, which turns out to be in a completely different place. The flight was due to leave in 30 minutes. The airport bus to domestic terminal was due in 20. A policeman sent me to the back of a queue of Nepalese transferring to Doha, and I pushed my way to the front (they do it to me all the time), shouted “Goa Transfer” and was pointed towards Immigration.

I had met a Belgian couple in Kathmandu who were going to Goa, and I spotted them in Immigration. We decided to share a taxi, and found the stand. As we were piling in another girl rushed up who turned out to be Maltese, together with her English friend. Five of us piled into this cab and set off into Mumbai traffic. None of us had Indian money, but we flung ten US at the driver. “Can we make it?” I asked him. He waggled his head ambiguously, drove for about 30 seconds then pulled up at a small shack and disappeared inside. We smoked furiously with our sole lighter which had escaped security. The driver returned carrying a small pink chit, climbed in, started the engine, stalled, started it again. Time was ticking by. We left the international airport, drove down the hard shoulder of a flyover, turned off it to hit gridlock at a junction, fought our way through a melee of rickshaws, and then I saw the sign for Domestic Terminal 1A. “I think we need 1B,” I told the driver, who sighed heavily. We turned into the exit for Domestic Terminal 1B, got whistled at by a policeman, and were dropped at Gate 1. We needed Gate 14. We all ran through the soupy heat, halted for a man to stamp our tickets, queued for security, pushed our way past queues of people for other flights, got called back for yet another stamp, and headed for Gate 14. The airport bus was just outside and the Maltese girl made it inside first. The doors closed. The Belgian hammered on the door and was told off by a policeman. The Maltese girl shouted at the driver and he opened them again. We got on. The bus set off across the airport, on and on, and the Belgian said: “Um, I think I recognise this. Look at the terminal.” He was right. We pulled up at a plane which was parked next to the one we had arrived in from Kathmandu.Two hours of chaos, rushing through multiple layers of bureaucracy, mad traffic, intransigent officials, and all to go 20 yards from one plane to another. It was the perfect metaphor for this entire country.

Sultry heat and the pink sky of a tropical dusk. The palm trees are clicking softly in the breeze like the sound of falling rain. Along an electricity cable overhead streams a line of ants, their bodies glowing translucent brown, backlit by the setting sun – small beads of consciousness, like the lights on a suburban commuter train heading home into the gathering dusk. The thin, eerie whine of a mosquito in the ear like a malevolent violin, the note rising and falling with its spasmodic, marionette dance. A gecko streaks across the wall, then halts, throat pulsing. Here is life, fecundity, abundance. The days slow, crawl along in the treacly heat, the atmosphere one of softness and languid abandon. The south, at last!