Arriving in Kathmandu is always entertaining. The airport’s arrivals hall is dimly lit; the décor is dark wood paneling and deep red bricks over slate flooring. Charcoal-coloured counters worn from long use line one side of the room. On these counters, arriving travelers must fill out their Immigration declaration. The most interesting question on the form, your gender: male, female or other.
The area has a currency exchange counter and visa services for those arriving without one. Business concluded, you get to meet an immigration agent. He sits behind a tall counter ensuring he’s looking down on any arriving supplicant. In my experience, these guys are quite charming and offer a warm welcome.
Next, more somber brick hallways leading to a security check. Why some countries have a security check on arrival is a mystery to me. All international airports do one on departure, what can have changed?
Then on to the luggage carousel. The luggage comes out slowly in small batches and everyone, including me, is a bit on edge to see if their own item will appear. We all watch the parade of suitcases of every size, colourful trekking duffels, bulging boxes and bundles wrapped in sturdy rope with addresses in large bold script, and, today, lots and lots of flat screen TVs. You see, many Nepali work outside the country and when they come home to visit their families, they bring gifts. Right now, flat screen TVs seem to be the thing.
One more control point left before leaving the airport, guards check that your luggage tag matches the sticky that was placed on the back of your boarding pass at departure. Many passengers have to scramble to figure out where theirs is.
All these steps completed, we finally get a taste of what Kathmandu will be like. We exit the airport into chaos; a wall of people watching us expectantly. Most of them waiting for their particular person or group, but some just hanging around watching the action and maybe hoping for a chance to offer help in exchange for a tip. The street is a constant flow of cabs and small and large tourist buses; security people with whistles direct traffic, making sure no one stops in a restricted area; dispatchers manage taxis and passengers; drivers quickly pack luggage into trunks and on top of roofs. It all felt so familiar to me.
I had arranged for a car to pick me up. Hired drivers wait in a fenced-off area across the four lanes of traffic with signs bearing your name. I scanned all the signs but my name was not there. Well, the plane was early and I had breezed through the arrival formalities, so maybe he hadn’t arrived yet.
I waited, watching the action around me: bewildered trekkers wondering what to do next, young backpackers trying to look in control, elderly couples wheeling overloaded luggage carts, a mangy street dog weaving through the crowd, taxi drivers arguing good-naturedly with large arm gestures, guides gathering their wards and leading them off to their bus. The entertainment never stops.
A Nepali man approached me to ask who I was waiting for. I know your driver, he hasn’t arrived yet, he told me. He asked me to cross the street, that it would be easier to flag my driver from there. I went with him and we chatted while we watched the cars and buses go by. He introduced himself as Ujwal and gave me his business card. He’s in the same business as the company that was supplying my driver, yet here he was helping me and asking for nothing in return. Three guys joined us with questions of their own: who are you waiting for, where are you from, have you been to Kathmandu before, don’t worry, Ujwal will find your driver, he is a good man. Ujwal hurried off still looking for my driver. Not long afterwards, thanks to his efforts, I was comfortably settled into my cab on my way to meet Lillian.
Ujwal and his buddies, with their friendly curiosity and generous nature, reminded me of why I like Kathmandu.