Friday, December 02, 2011

Kathmandu

The race is still three days away, but the challenge begins the second we step out of the airport. The psychological gap between the chilled, empty terminal after midnight and the crowd of shouting faces outside feels vast. Once I cross it, I can't step back. Literally.

Two charismatic young hustlers grab our luggage and rush us to a taxi, then demand tips in twenties, U.S. Still smarting from the scam, we pile into the dusty cab. I grip the seats as the vehicle lurches into the darkened city. Motorcycles and tiny cars stream past in a chaotic blur. There are no street signs, no traffic lights, no lights at all. Every day for as many as 16 hours, Kathmandu shuts off the electric supply to prevent grid overload. The chaos of life, however, keeps churning.

I admit the notion of world travel makes me feel uneasy. I'm enthralled with the Earth, but the world of people often intimidates and sometimes frightens me. People with all of their cultural and individual differences create a bewildering geography that seems impossible to bridge. My personal barrier is not so much a social anxiety as it is an overwhelming desire to understand every single one of them in a way I never will. The hunched man pushing his cart of vegetables up the rough street after dark. The skinny 7-year-old boy riding an adult bicycle along the road much too late, and by himself. The beggar in tattered robes with a piercing gaze. The motorcyclist dressed in Western fashion and weaving fearlessly through smog-belching taxis. The unseen thousands inside of all those darkened buildings. I gaze wide-eyed out the window and imagine what their lives might be like, what they return home to at the end of the long day, what they set out to do in the morning. The barrage of images and unknown stories overwhelms my senses, until I find myself retreating into daydreams about frozen tundra.

But I am still in Kathmandu, where broken cement litters the street and shanty towns line the trash-clogged river. A city of a million-plus in a developing country is as far from my people comfort zone as I've ever ventured, and I'm not sure how to process all the unknowns. The truth is I don't really know anything about these people. I know from books that they are largely Hindu, a conglomeration of dozens of different regional ethnic groups, with many cultural similarities to India. I know from newspapers that they are still recovering from a decade-long political uprising and struggling to establish an effective government, although a rapid increase in tourism is driving improvements in the economy and infrastructure. I know from maps that Nepal is a mountainous region full of tortured geography. I know from the things I see that the residents of Kathmandu are largely poor, but I've never been one to equate poverty with unhappiness. In fact, I believe the cycle of hardship and overcoming hardship is the key to happiness; but of course it's a complicated puzzle, and of course I am a first-world person with first-world perspectives. So I know nothing of the Nepali people, but I guess that's one of the main agendas of world travel – broaden the horizons.

I am relieved when the driver actually drops us off at our hotel rather than dumping us in an abandoned alley after robbing us for everything we have. I feel guilty for fretting about this, and experience more first-world guilt as we step into the hotel, which drips with false opulence and independently generated electricity. The room is stocked with fresh fruit, which Beat instructs me not to eat, and two liters of filtered water, which Beat informs me will have to cover all of our water needs from brushing teeth to drinking to shaving for the next 12 hours. The race is just three days away and we can't afford to get sick now.

The next morning we return to the airport for our flight to Pokhara. The regional terminal is  packed wall-to-wall with throngs of people, including tall, blond-haired tourists wearing brand new hiking boots and a Nepali woman with a caged chicken on her lap. We pass through a single metal detector that probably doesn't work, and line up under rafters occupied by live birds. The weather in Pokhara is bad that day, and we're informed that all flights have been canceled. A group of a couple dozen other stranded Racing the Planet participants have gathered in a corner to organize alternative transportation. Matt, a former Marine from Florida, assumes the leadership position and manages to round up six rented jeeps with drivers. The four of us from the Bay area – Beat and I, and our friends Steve and Martina – wedge ourselves and our stuff into one Reagan-era four-by-four. Back on the road.

I wish I could describe the six-hour drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara, but I really can't. I can only say that it was one of the more terrifying experiences of my life, and I was mentally preparing for my life to end in a white explosion until I became too car-sick to care. Imagine a minefield of broken pavement, potholes and chunky gravel, barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic, except there are no lanes, and no signs, and no laws. Traffic generally flows on the left, or opposite side of the road, except for when it doesn't because drivers usually just travel the “best” side, regardless of who's approaching. Huge Indian Tata diesel trucks barrel down as motorcycles buzz past on both sides. Our own driver doesn't seem concerned about anything except getting rid of us as quickly as possible. He overtakes vehicles on blind corners, bounces the wheels over road craters, buzzes pedestrians and swerves away from oncoming trucks at the last possible second. After four hours of this, smoke begins to pour into the cab. The driver pulls over, pops the hood, mills about for several minutes discussing the mechanical with the locals in Nepali, starts the engine several times, waits until smoke stops streaming into the cab, and declares the problem fixed. We are still fifty kilometers from Pokhara. “We can probably run that if we have to,” Steve suggests.

We make it to Pokhara still alive, but it feels like a lifetime away from San Francisco after the insane road trip, night in Kathmandu and 35 hours of international airport travel that now separate us from home. “I'm not sure anything about this race could be as hard as just getting here,” I think. I almost say it out loud to Beat, but stop myself, because it sounds too much like - as they say - famous last words.

14 comments:

  1. Excellent post! Perhaps you should journal more international travel.

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  2. Ah Jill, you put it into words SO well. I have experienced Three of the situations you mentioned - the airport terminal and the difference outside - the taxi driver careening through the dark streets, and me wondering if I would end up dead and robbed in an alley, but no.....I arrived safely at our 5 star hotel, and the terrifying ride, where I resigned myself that I was going to die ! To hear you describe it, took me back to Peru 2009 when I traveled there with my son. He had served his LDS mission there. You have a great way with words, and I look forward to reading more. Do you think you'll do another book about this race? I think you should !

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  3. Your terror takes me back to when I lived in Sarajevo and felt very much the same way about road travel. But it makes you feel alive, doesn't it?! International travel is also such an eye-opener; we have it really good here.

    By far my favorite post you've ever written.

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  4. You probably won't see this but have you thought about apply for a couple of those free tickets Japan Tourism board is offering to influential blogger types? You and Beat could run around Japan and document your journey. Just a thought.

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  5. If in the end, you have gained from your stay - apart from taxi fares and hotel costs what are you giving back to Nepal?

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  6. I got taken for 500 rupees by those Kdu airport touts!! ($7.50 USD, I think). This is so well written! I can relate to everything, after my recent trip. Congrats on your trip and race, and safe journey home!

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  7. I hope you were singing the Cat Stevens song.

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  8. Interesting...I'm glad you're detailing the whole experience, not just the race.

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  9. This kind of thing is why everyone should travel internationally if possible. Love the knowledge that comes with it, even at its price of fear.

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  10. This is great stuff. I'm on the edge of my sofa!! I can't wait to read the rest. I've done a fair amount of travel internationally, even some 2nd and 3rd world countries; this tops 'em all. Thanks for the details.

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  11. I love your posts that make me think. I agree with whoever recommended applying for travel grants. You have such an honest and interesting perspective I would love to read more travel journals from you! I'm definitely looking forward to hearing about the rest of your Racing the Planet trip!

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  12. Great post! Takes me back to my 2002 trip to Nepal to mountain bike. It was my first time out of the U.S. or Canada, so I can relate completely to what you were feeling. Nepal is a fantastic country and I long to go back there. Looking forward to your next posts.

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  13. Hey Jill, the infrastructure takes time to get use to, America is completely different and one reason why many Americans are spoiled.

    Once a person is use to the change it really is not that bad. I did Egypt for 5 months and India for 6 months during my 4 years of international travel.

    Just be careful with the food and water.

    Yeah some of those rides from city to city can be a head rush.

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  14. Yeah the infrastructure here is not so bad really and one can definitely adapt though I dislike crowded cities anyways. Sadly there's a ton of trash probably due to no waste removal infrastructure and modern(?) packaging ... ugh. But I suspect well be back to explore the more remote and/or mountainous areas.
    As for giving back the race sponsors a local charity (cwa) aimed at supporting street kids, rehabilitating human trafficking victims and children with aids. One of the founders ran the race (brit lived here 16 years) and it seems very legit - his love for nepal and its people definitely is. The race also employs lots of locals. But we'll pick a good local charity (maybe cwa) and make a sizable donation as well.

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