Friday, March 20, 2015

"It's a funny little place, this place where we live."

A couple that I met in Delhi liked to say that phrase about the country of India whenever things were happening around them that would simply be baffling to any westerner. Get it? It's ironic because India is not little... and it's more infuriating than funny. But if you don't laugh you will cry some days.

I loved the phrase so much, I have started saying it anywhere I am. Most of them are not little or even all that funny. Kathmandu, however, turned out to be both. This story should explain why I've been silent lately - right after promising to write more frequently... oops!

My flight to Thailand was supposed to leave Kathmandu's only international airport on Saturday, March 7 so that I would have plenty of time in two different Thai cities to meet with some heroes in the work of justice. Turkish Airlines flight 726 had other plans for my travels. Three days before my scheduled departure, this commercial jet attempted to land in low cloud cover, jumped the end of the runway, and stuck firmly in the mud after the front landing gear broke.

I like the way NPR put it in their coverage of this event: "In many countries, this would have been the end of the story." Nope. Remember, this is a funny little place! As it turns out, the entire country of Nepal does not possess the equipment large or strong enough to move a grounded commercial jet off of the runway - the only runway at the only international airport in the country. The Turkish airlines jet covered the majority of this single runway, so not a single plane could get in or out. See, funny and little!

As a result, an estimated 80,000 people found themselves stranded in Kathmandu or other countries waiting to fly in for over five days. The last time I was included in a group of that many people with the same desire was... never. I would say a Vanderbilt football game, but we've never filled up a stadium with that many fans without offering bribes in the form of free shirts. (Man, the sass is flowing tonight - sorry guys - I did say I would be genuine).

The situation was eventually remedied when Nepal's big brother India stepped in to help. Don't ever tell an Indian or Nepali that I said this, but the relationship between these two countries is just adorable to me. They compete like crazy, claim to hate each other's guts, but when its little brother runs into trouble, India feigns reluctance but always rushes to help. Like I said, a Nepali or Indian would explain it differently. No matter what your explanation, India certainly came to Nepal's rescue in this crisis. The equipment needed to move the plane was choppered in by the Indian Air Force. Here's how they did it (image courtesy of NPR, read the article here):

Here are my favorite parts of the article, for if you don't have time to read:
  • In Nepal, they say "We start digging the well when we see fire."
  • While the airport was still closed, 2,000 Chinese tourists started a protest, demanding to be brought home.
  • A satirical Nepali newspaper said that the country made a brilliant move in promoting tourism by playing "hard to get." If this is true, I recommend that Nepal start building another airport pronto. But I guess there's no fire yet.
  • The author of the above article called the whole incident a "Himilayan Horriday" - too perfect. I think we would be friends.
  • The day after I flew out, a Turkish woman tried to bring weed onto a flight - I guess thinking it would be missed in the frenzy. I could have told her that security was anything but lax. I witnessed a woman have a meltdown because she didn't want to wait in the security line. The airport staff didn't budge.
  • A panel has been formed to investigate the issue. Said panel has realized that there is no procedure manual for said investigation, so they are working to write one.

What NPR fails to mention, however, is that the international terminal of Kathmandu has a whopping sum of five gates through which passengers can board planes. This is why planes had to circle above, waiting to land. Even with the airport being open 24 hours a day, chaos was unavoidable. The picture at the beginning of this post doesn't come close to portraying how packed we were into the brick building or how frustrated everyone was.

My flight finally left Kathmandu three hours late because of a slight parking issue at the airport. The plane set to get me out of that sardine can circled overhead for over an hour waiting to land. This delay meant that I barely missed my connection in Bangkok. By this point, I was just grateful to be in a country with a functioning airport. I also couldn't complain about the free fancy hotel stay and gourmet breakfast!

However, all of this combined meant that I had lost 4 days from my already short trip in Thailand. Incredibly, I was able to reschedule all but one of my appointments for that time! However, that has also meant that I had no time to do much of anything else - particularly blog about the experience.

So there you have it. Now that my time in Thailand is wrapping up, I was finally able to explain myself - hopefully with some kind of entertainment factor. I still want to post about my reflections from both Nepal and Thailand. These should be coming over the next week! Thanks for your patience, all.


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