Four flights down, one to go. It’s nighttime in Mumbai, and I can’t help but wonder how this mosquito got through the scrupulous security. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been x-rayed, sent through metal detectors, fondled in all the wrong places, and generally hassled. The time difference between Mumbai and Kathmandu is, curiously, fifteen minutes. Looking back, it has been quite a week.
Our driver picked up all the Fulbright ETAs in Colombo and we were whisked off the airport. When you enter Colombo airport the first thing you do is to go through a preliminary security checkpoint before going through customs – all flights out of Colombo are international. Another point of interest, all of the prices in the airport are listed in USD and SLR. I found this surprising because not many Americans come to Sri Lanka; most of the tourists are European. I think these two facts say a lot about the respective countries.
When we landed in Mumbai, we had about eight hours to kill. I went around to every lounge I could find to see if my AmEx would get me free access, but to no avail. I was fortunate however, to stumble across the employee lounge – which was completely empty. The lounge was quite nice, save for the vigorous use of air conditioning. I was dressed for Sri Lanka’s tropical climate, and had checked all of my warm clothes, as had my fellow Fulbrighters. We ended up huddling together for warmth while trying to catch a few hours of sleep.
The Mumbai airport offers free WiFi, if you have a local number. After a few hours of trying to get this number I was told that you could get around it by asking for a code from the airport helpdesk – which was located before customs. I made sure to note that for my return flight.
When we got to Kathmandu the visa process began. Since we were traveling for a quasi government conference, we were granted free visas. Though claiming the free visa was not as easy as I had hoped. We needed photos, which I didn’t bring. So I went to get one, and realized that I only had Sri Lankan Rupees on me; and in Nepal they will not exchange SLR. So after a bit of finagling, I was able to secure some Nepalese Rupees to pay for my photos and claim my visa.
After a bumpy forty-five minute drive, through alleys and streets that did not appear to be roads, we arrived at the hotel. After checking in I was given a key to room 316, I went up to the room and was surprised to find it full of suitcases. I went back down to the hotel manager; he informed me the room was booked, and handed me another key. Funny enough, that room was also occupied. The third time seemed to be the charm, when I entered my room I could not detect the presence of other people. This experience – at a five star hotel – says a lot about Nepal. It was a great, and telling, start to my time in Nepal.
I got settled into my hotel room and turned on the shower. The frigid water that came out of the pipes soon ran warm, my first hot shower in months. The bathroom windows soon fogged over, and the smell of iron permeated the air. The water in Kathmandu is quite poor, and not drinkable. Even after a few months of dealing with Sri Lankan water, even brushing my teeth with their water was cause for digestive problems.
After a much needed shower, it was time to explore the city. I walked up to the main road, and started heading towards the Standard Chartered to secure some currency. I was struck by the particle pollution in the valley; between the fumes being emitted by vehicles and the abundant amount of dust, I really wasn’t surprised. After getting some currency, it was time to get some tea and relax before dinner. We stopped in a local teashop, and it was a real treat. I had a glass of boiling lemon water served with honey while a few of my friends opted for traditional Nepalese milk tea (served with yak milk).
Nepalese food is an interesting fusion of Indian and Chinese, but its limited by its elevation. The high elevations, coupled with cold climate, severely limit the amount of vegetables that can be cultivated in Nepal. This leads to the importation of food products. In Nepal you can find delicious momos, which are quite like Chinese dumplings (baozi). There are good curries, which resemble some of what is found in India and Sri Lanka (though not as spicy). From what my friends told me, the standard Nepalese fair is rice with lentils, potatoes, and maybe some mutton.
Nepal is much poorer than Sri Lanka; their economy is not very developed. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and is still struggling to overcome the Maoist revolts. To This day there is no constitution. The largest contributor to GDP is tourism, and the second largest are remittances from Nepalis working abroad. This is a point of contention for many families, quite like Sri Lanka. The father, as primary wage earner, can work abroad and provide the family with a better life. But doing so means that his wife and children will see him only once a year, for a few weeks at most.
It is easy to see why tourism is such a large component of Nepal’s economy. Kathmandu, in spite of the pollution, poor roads, and shaky infrastructure, is a wonderful city to visit. There are a number of beautiful temples and stupas, lots of great restaurants catering to westerners, and some amazing hiking trails. Mount Everest is a prime draw, with a few brave souls risking their lives to summit it every year (and spending a pretty penny at that).
After a few months of battling the tropical heat of Sri Lanka, I welcomed the cool air. Sleeping under a fluffy down comforter, and feeling my bones chill really made me get in the holiday spirits. Being able to sit in the sun, and not break out in perspiration, was a remarkable feat. I was surrounded by a number of other Americans, and I could have been fooled into thinking I was back in the States.
The conference started, and I was surprised to learn that in 2001 there were only 4 countries with ETAs in them, in 2012 there were 69 countries. Our conference was for ETAs from South and Central Asia, for which there are about 40 of us across seven countries – Bangladesh, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Tajikistan. I was surprised to learn that there were about 250 applications for the 40 teaching spots. The conference was an opportunity for the ETAs to share their experiences with one another, from general facts about host countries to challenges and opportunities in the classroom. After the ETAs presented, we had the opportunity to learn from experienced English teachers about what tactics have worked for them over the years.
Hearing what some other ETAs are going through really put my situation into perspective. I had been debating asking for a transfer out of Trinco, due to my inability to find housing. But after hearing that my colleagues in Central Asia were dealing with students being ‘bride napped’ and nuclear fallout from Soviet testing grounds, while the Indian ETAs were dealing with students in excess of fifty students, things didn’t seem quite so bad out in Trinco. I’d go as far to say that Sri Lanka is among the best placements for South and Central Asia. And I might have rubbed in the fact that Sri Lanka was named the top tourist destination in the world for 2013…
After the first day of conferences we had an opening ceremony that was a great deal of fun. It took place outdoors, with the aid of several gas fired heaters. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Nepalis have a taste for whiskey; when I went to the bar and ordered a Johnny Walker on the rocks the waiter handed me my glass, and then proceeded to pour another glass full of scotch into mine. Quite nice of him. Later in the week I was able to sample some local spirits at a banquet. One was a rice wine, which is quite like Korea’s makgeolli. My personal favorite was apple brandy served with boiling water, honey, ghee, and toasted rice kernels. Cheers. It warms you up after being chilled by the Himalayan air, just watch out for the gaseous fumes until it cools.
One of the ETAs in Sri Lanka had to leave the conference early, after just two short days in Nepal. While I wish she could have stayed, we were really excited because her wedding was to be held that week. For the past few years she has been dating a Sri Lankan, and when their horoscopes were read two weeks ago Thursday, at 6:22am was the most auspicious time for them to be wed.
As much of our time was spent in conference halls, I opted to wake up each morning around sunrise to explore the city for a few hours, save for one day when the fluffy comforter and warm bed were too enticing.
There is something quite remarkable about seeing a city wake up, especially in Nepal. The early morning light is beautiful, and it is amazing to witness throngs of devotees practice their morning worship. It seems like every street in Kathmandu has a place of worship. I have not seen a country as thankful as Nepal, especially considering their poverty. It was remarkable and inspiring.
We had two free afternoons, where the Fulbright Commission planned out some excursions. The first free afternoon was spent hiking from Telkot to Cahngu Narayan. The second day was a choice between touring the Boudanath Stupa tour or Kathmandu Durbar Square. As I’d already seen the Boudanath Stupa, I opted to tour Kathmandu Durbar Square (note that there are four Durbar Squares in Kathamndu) and Swayambhunath – also known as Monkey Temple.
I do not like monkeys. They’re mischievous little creatures that seem to only cause problems. While walking up the stairs of Swayambhunath there were several fights were monkeys let out blood curdling screams. They play with their own feces, and are generally disruptive. One of the ETAs in India came down with salmonella after petting a monkey at a zoo. Definitely creatures to avoid.
On our last day in Nepal, our flight was scheduled to depart from Kathmandu to Mumbai at 2:30pm. The logical thing to do before departing was to catch the 7am mountain flight operated by Buddha Air, and get some up close views of Mount Everest. The flight was delayed, unsurprisingly, but we managed to take off by eight. We flew on a tiny prop plane, about twenty minutes until we started seeing the mountain ranges. Each passenger was allowed up in the cockpit, to enjoy some stunning views of the mountain range. The flight was fantastic, and well worth the money spent.
I could have spent another week or two in Nepal, I would have loved to explore outside of the Kathmandu valley. Hopefully I have the chance to visit Nepal again in the future. While going through customs in Kathmandu, the inspector was quite perplexed as to why I wore glasses in my passport photo, but wasn’t wearing them now. He was also curious to learn why I had received a free entry visa. After explaining to him that I had contacts (lasik surgery was a bit too much to explain) and that I was here on a conference through the embassy, I was cleared for departure.
Landing in Mumbai, finding a stable internet connection was a priority. I checked with two different airport personnel who informed me that I could get an access code after I went through customs; they advised me to visit the duty free shops. Once through security, I started asking around. To my dismay, no one seemed to know about the access code I was referring to, and I was advised by one gentleman to purchase a new sim card or ask a local for help. Mumbai is an international airport; theoretically their customers are travelers from across the globe, many of which may not have a local number. It was frustrating to say the least, so I ended up trying to catch a few hours shut eye before our 2:30am departure to Colombo.
We landed in Colombo around 5am local time. Our driver whisked us back to our friends house, about 45 minutes from the airport. After brushing my teeth, I passed out on a couch until nine. I spent the day in a groggy haze, and ran some errands. At nine I caught the overnight train back to Trinco, and arrived at 5 in the morning. I hopped a tuk-tuk to Sarvodaya’s hostel, and spent most of day catching up on sleep.
It feels good to be back in Sri Lanka, to breath fresh air after a week of dust in Nepal and recycled air on planes.