Finding Nemo

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Travel Wars

Day 1

Anyone who has done a bit of traveling has plenty of war stories.  Usually the best involve airports or airplanes.  Here is a bit about my battle to get from the Philippines to Kathmandu.

"Sir!  Drop your bag.  Step away from the airport, slowly"
First, let me make a bold claim: Philippines Ninoy Airport is officially the worst international airport I have ever had the pleasure of being trapped in.  After a 30-minute queue to enter the airport (yes, they check you for bombs I guess), you have the joy of queueing another 1.5 hours to get your boarding pass.  The air-conditioning in Ninoy is apparently set to 100 degrees, and it occurred to me that the tropical weather outside might be cooler.  Judging from the amount of sweat which accumulated in my shirt, it was certainly more humid.

After you get your boarding pass, at most airports you are in the home stretch, just gotta get through a little security line.  At Ninoy, the fun has barely begun.  You then queue for another half-hour to get a 200 peso (5 dollar) airport tax stamp.  Why this takes 30 minutes when it could be handled by a pair of monkeys is a question I wouldn't mind posing to Buddha.  Only then, after nearly 2.5 hours of lines, did I get the privilege of entering the final gauntlet, the 2nd security line.  There were two lines, one was obviously shorter.  I couldn't believe it, they were actually trying to be efficient!  I asked an official, she pointed me in the short line and nodded her head.  Gratefully, I wandered under the rope and slide in place.  The sudden yelling in my ear indicated that perhaps this was a bad move.  I turned and a different official was frantically indicating that no, this line was closed, I would have to turn around and get in the other line, which in the time I had walked over had grown by 30 people.  I smiled at the first official as I walked back and she smiled back.  She apparently was immune to the death-rays I was sending her way from inside my skull.

But the line didn't really move, and soon I found out why.  So many people were now in danger of missing their flights, they were pleading with the officials to let them cut in line.  Now, after nearly 3 hours, I too had taken up all of my margin.  When I finally put my belt back on, I raced to a screen to check my flight.  Unfortunately, the screens at Ninoy seem to be hidden behind a secret wall alongside some unicorns and Leprechauns.  There were 5 coffee places, 4 burger shops, 3 noodle huts, and 0 flight screens.

Now, if you have an inflamed achilles and plantar fasciitis, I don't recommend you stand in 3 hours of lines.  Nevertheless, I somehow managed to hop/run to my gate without rupturing anything.  When I got there, I found out the flight was, of course, delayed.

It was high time for the bar.  With visions of a nice air-conditioned pub and a cold beer, I walked all the way back to the shops area and entered the "bar."  A cloud of smoke smacked me in the face.  There were no TV's, and there was clearly no air-conditioning either.  I coughed and asked for a cold draft.  The bartender reached down and pulled out a warm can of San Miguel, which I can barely drink cold without putting in a lime.  He had no limes.  I escaped outside to sit in a row of hard plastic seats, Britney Spears thumped out of a tinny speaker somewhere.  There was no Wi-Fi of course, which at that point would have disturbed the imaginary force fields I had erected around myself for protection anyway.

A Westerner next to me apparently had the same idea.  We nursed our nasty beers, and I mentioned my distaste for this place.  He was Welsh, and apparently that was the cue he was looking for.  In a form of English that I could barely understand, he launched into his assessment of the worst airports of the world, finishing with "Manila is the Shit Hole of Asia."

I nodded.  He was older, balding, short and pudgy and looked like the type of guy who might have a preference for young Asian women.  "Oh yes, I have a nice Thai wife waiting for me in Bangkok."

Thank you Thai lady
When I finally boarded the Thai Airways flight, the first thing that hit me was the cool air-conditioning.  The seats were colorful and clean, there were plenty of pretty stewardess dressed in nice silk Thai dress.  They all smiled, hands together in prayer and bowed "Swa dee kaaa" as I walked by.  I felt relief pouring over me, this was a safe place.  The bathroom had real flowers, cologne, thick paper napkins.  The stewardess came over right before the flight took off and pointed me to an empty row of seats and smiled.  It was a night flight and I would have my own bed.  Luxury!  After a yummy Thai dinner with French wine, she brought me two clean fluffy pillows and two blankets and practically tucked me in.

After the battlefields of Ninoy, it was almost as if Thai Air knew I needed my happy place.

Giant Anvils
Day 2

I always envy pilots, the views they have!  On the flight to Kathmandu from Bangkok we passed over beautiful huge rain clouds, shaped like giant anvils, stretching from the ground to high above our plane.

The first time I flew into Kathmandu, you could see the big mountains at eye-level sprouting above the monsoon cover.  But this time, there was nothing but haze.  It was disappointing.

Surfing the peaks
Flying into Kathmandu is an experience.  The plane banks hard back and forth, you see the foothills racing by, the wingtips seemingly skimming the peaks.  At one point the plane dropped and people flew up out of their seats.  I luckily had my seatbelt on, I had a feeling it might be rough.  The runway comes out of nowhere and the plane slammed into it with a giant shudder.  The eyeglasses flew off the man next to me as our heads snapped down and back.  I grinned at him in sympathy, we were alive.  And it didn't matter, I was in Nepal!

I strolled to customs, and only when I saw a long line forming did I remember I had to buy a Nepalese visa.  I only had Thai money, so I left my place in line and exchanged for Nepalese rupees.  It was a good move, but when I turned around I was dismayed to see a huge mob of 30 Taiwanese buddhist nuns clump onto the line.  My wait had just doubled.  After an hour, I got to the front and presented my papers.

"40 dollars for visa."

"Yeah, no problem.  Here ya go."  I handed over what I was sure was about $40 of Nepalese rupees.

"No, 40 dollars please."  He pointed to a sign that showed the price in various currencies.

Nepalese rupees were not on the sign.  It must be a sick joke.

"Um, sorry, what country are we in?"

He waggled his head, that Indian waggle that means either Yes, Maybe, or Go Screw Yourself Very Annoying Person.

"You are in Nepal sir."

"And what is the currency of this country?"

More waggling.  "Nepalese Rupee."

"And you are saying that I can't use Nepalese rupees in Nepal?"

The waggling stopped.  He frowned.  "40 dollar!  Exchange at window."  He pointed to the window where I had an hour ago exchanged my Thai bhat.

I looked at the line behind me, slapped my forehead for the 6th time in 2 days, and walked away in defeat.

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