My journey to the top of the world (Nepal), as opposed to the roof of the world (Tibet), began innocently enough in March, with my submission of an electronic application to the U.S. Department of State’s English Fellow program. It took me over a week to prepare. They were much more demanding of the details of my outer and inner life with regards to language teaching than Peace Corps ever was. Despite the fact that I applied 3 months past the official application due date, and that the DOS website assured me that it would take at least 3 weeks to process my application and add my name to the pool of available candidates and that, even then, I might never hear from them again since I was applying late because many positions would have already been filled, they scheduled an interview with me in less than a week, even before all my references were in, and offered me a position in Nepal shortly thereafter. I accepted their offer in a heartbeat.
The DOS Fellow program operates a bit differently than the Peace Corps Response program. With the Peace Corps program, you apply for a specific job in a specific country although, as I learned, you don’t always get what you think you applied for. The DOS turns the process upside down and you complete a general application and then wait to see if your background matches the needs of any requests from U.S. Embassies around the world. The world truly is your oyster with this program, and I could have been invited to go almost anywhere. I also had the option of turning down an offer if I didn’t like it, in which case my name would go back into the applicant pool to await being plucked out by someone else.
Fast forward to a week before my proposed arrival date, I received my itinerary from the DOS. I was already packed and ready to go and, based on my experience going to Rwanda, I had decided to pay for extra bags rather than run around and buy household items such as bedding when I arrived. I also had a healthy supply of nutritional supplements because my year in Rwanda had apparently done a “number” on my cholesterol levels. My age had finally caught up with me.
The U.S. government has a policy with regards to international air travel, called the “Fly America Act” which requires that U.S. carriers be used whenever possible for any U.S. government funded transportation. This means that the most direct route from point A to point B would not necessarily be used if a less direct route allowed you to travel further on an American carrier. By waiting until the last minute, travel options were fewer and more expensive. The DOS proposed to send me to Kathmandu via Frankfurt and Dubai. An itinerary of about 30 hours. But the “fine print” of the ticket revealed something else: From the U.S. to Dubai, baggage limits were calculated by piece. You were allowed two pieces up to 50 pounds each for free. Additional pieces could be sent for a fee. But from Dubai to Kathmandu, however, luggage was calculated by kilo, with a drop from 100 lbs to 60, and no option to send extra pieces. Any overweight baggage was charged by the kilo and you had to get all your luggage and then recheck it during the layover in Dubai.
After giving the situation considerable thought, and comparing the cost of overweight baggage to the cost of a ticket on an non-American airlines with a more direct routing, I opted to buy my own ticket. My trip was only be 22 hours, with one stop over in Dubai. My luggage would be checked all the way through. I’d arrive at 10 p.m. in the evening and be able to go to bed and wake in the AM which would, I hoped, reduced my jet lag.
My departure went off without a hitch, bags were checked, I even ended up with a bulkhead seat where I could stretch out for the 14 hour flight for Orlando to Dubai, because a family had been split across two rows and wanted to trade their one bulkhead seat for my seat in the row where the rest of the family were seated. The connection at Dubai was smooth. It took more than an hour to get from one side of the airport to the other, 45″ walking and 20″ by bus, where the airline which would take me to Kathmandu was located. I congratulated myself for having found a way to check my baggage all the way through.
The flight to Kathmandu was filled with young Nepali men, most wearing jeans and plaid shirts, often with a baseball cap. True to their reported nature by outsiders, they were chatty and cheerful and, presumably, very happy to be going home. I presumed that they worked in Dubai, since many men in Mombasa also find their way to Dubai because jobs are more plentiful there. They also appeared to be unfamiliar with flight bathroom etiquette, something which I discovered after opening the door not once but three times on someone who did not know how to lock it. Often, after someone left the toilet, a flight attendant would don a plastic glove to wipe the floors and walls, and flush the toilet. I did this myself when I entered after someone and a flight attendant was not around.
There was an interesting pictorial representation of how to use the toilet on the inner door of its cubicle. The first picture in the sequence was of the toilet seat being lifted. The second showed someone sitting on the seat, with a green check mark next to it. The next one showed someone squatting on top of the toilet, with a red cross mark then to it. The last was a picture of the flush button, but even I would not know what this meant, and their flush button actually didn’t work very well. Under each picture was a list of words explaining each picture in five different languages, none of them English, and all with their own unique scripts.
It was fascinating to sit on the toilet and look at the diversity of scripts for writing language that exist in central Asia. How does every culture, every linguistic community decide upon a system to write their language? This question does not exist in sub-Saharan Africa, where all languages were unwritten until colonists arrived. I also wondered why that was the case. Why was one continent historically literate and another not? I could pronounce the sounds represented by the Devanagari script, because it is the same script used to write Sanskrit but, of course, I didn’t know what it meant, apart from what was depicted in the drawings. I could also pronounce the Arabic script because I had studied Arabic in graduate school, but I didn’t know what it meant either.
Two other scripts looked like variations on Devanagari; one was presumably Hindi, the other I could not imagine and the flight attendant whom I asked did now know either. There was no Chinese. The last script was the most fascinating in its beauty and unfamiliarity to me. I was enchanted by it. It was comprised of circles encircling one another, like a beautiful piece of lace. I couldn’t even figure out where one letter began and another ended although I knew that they did since it was clearly an alphabetic system as opposed to a pictographic system like Chinese. The flight attendant said it was Sri Lankan. I was glad I wasn’t going to need to learn it because it looked impossible to read, or to write.
I’ve never spent so much studying the door of an airplane in my entire life. I felt like I was touching all of Asia as I studied the different words in contrast to one another, and to my own alphabet which, by comparison, was incredibly unimaginative. Functional perhaps, but not beautiful.
Since there was a charge for exit row seats, they all were empty. I realized that I could pay for one and actually get three, an entire row of seats, to myself. It was a “no-brainer”. I settled down to sleep as the plane set off on its way to reach the top of the world. Everything was going better than I expected.
At exactly the 22 hour mark we found ourselves circling Kathmandu, circling being the operative word. A small aircraft had crashed on the airport’s only runway 45″ before our arrival and the entire airport was closed. It would be two hours to clear the runway we were told. The airline, FlyDubai, wisely decided to send us to Lucknow in northern India to await the airport’s reopening on the ground instead of in the sky. One of the flight attendants confided in me that the last time a plane had crashed at the airport, it was closed for three days. I continued to doze on and off glad that, at least, I was able to achieve my goal of being able to go to bed when everyone in Nepal would also be laying their heads down upon their pillows Initially, the young man had a party, they got up, moved about the plane, laughed and joked, some even started singing. I smiled at their good humor as I slept.
After four hours, the news came that the airport was still closed and the flight crew only had enough time to get us back to Dubai before they reached the international limit for working in the sky. There were no other airports nearby in any other country where we could go. The Lucknow airport itself was already closed. They had had to beg to get extra water. We did not have enough food to spend 16 hours in the plane on the ground, which would be what we would have to do if we did not get back to Dubai in time. The young men rebelled, arguing with the staff, many becoming more and more belligerent and angry each time they were told that they could not get off the plane nor could we go anywhere else. They finally were given permission to get off, but told that the airline would bear no responsibility for them if they did. It was still an 18 hour bus ride to Kathmandu. If they returned to Dubai, they would be given accommodation and food and the same plane would return to Kathmandu with a new crew after the airport opened. A few got so far as to pick up their hand luggage but, in the end, no one left. From the moment the door closed on last time, there was utter silence throughout the plane. No one spoke for the entire flight back to Dubai. When we arrived, good humor had been restored; it was as if the angry night had never happened.
Eight hours later we re-boarded our plane in Dubai. I noticed that, unlike the first time I boarded the plane, I had no expectation that I would ever arrive anywhere. For the first time in my life, I was boarding a plane simply to board it and see where it would eventually land.
I had the same row of seats. I laid down to sleep. That exit row — 15 — had become a safe haven for me. A place where I could leave all cares and concerns behind. A place where I could, and did, fly back and forth across countries and continents where I would never go and that I was unlikely to ever see. Beneath me different countries of people speaking all the languages (and more) which I studied each time I used the toilet, were living their lives, unaware of my presence above them. As the darkness of night descended upon us, I wondered whether I really had the courage to drop to my knees and lay down the who-that-I-thought-I-was in order to dive into yet another unfamiliar ocean of meaning about what the world and life is all about, and allow its waves to toss me back and forth while I struggled to find new footing and a new sense of purpose and self. Was I really ready to do it all over again? My private row of seats seemed so much safer; from there I could traverse the planet without ever having to give up my current self in order to rebuild another, newer and more inclusive version of who-I-am.
When I finally emerged from my metal chrysalis to unfold new wings into the night sky over Kathmandu after 46 hours of travel, 16 of which has been spent in the same row of airplane seats, my eyes fell upon the giant golden statue of Buddha that sits at the entrance of airport to welcome all visitors to the top of the world. As I walked toward him, I passed another golden statue of a Hindu god dancing. I smiled and touched the mala beads that I was wearing. I was, after all, ready to learn how to fly again, this time at the top of the world.