What time will the flight to Kathmandu leave? I asked knowing full well that regardless of what the ticket agent might say, he had no idea. Could be on time. More likely it would be late. The question before me whenever I travel by air in Nepal is not will the flight will be on time? Rather it is, how late will it be?
Compared to air travel in the U.S., domestic air travel in Nepal in an unforgettable cross-cultural experience in-and-of itself. Having now taking eight domestic flights, I consider myself an expert. First of all, all domestic flights in Nepal are no more than 35-40 minutes long. A walk in the park, I thought when I planned to return from first training site and hop a plane to the next one on the same day. To my credit, I had assumed that there would be some delays, so I left the biggest gap I could between the two flights. I mean four hours ought to be enough, I thought. There was, however, one minor glitch with this approach — flight schedules are not schedules for actual departures times and your departure could, as happened to me on my last flight, be delayed by four or more hours. Out of 8 flights, only one left on time. That means that you have a 12% of leaving when your ticket stipulates or, turned around, an 88% chance of being delayed.
There is a reason for this, of course. The same planes fly back and forth between Kathmandu and destination cities. This means that if the first flight in the morning is just 30″ late, the next one will be at least that late. The delays accumulate over the day, resulting sometimes in a delay of several hours. On the bright side, of the 27 plane crashes in Nepal, only one was the airlines which I usually take, and that flight was a sightseeing flight to Sargamantha.
In the same way that menus in restaurants in Tanzania forty years ago were symbolic rather than factual, the departure time on an airline ticket is illustrative. In Tanzania in those days, the waiter would bring you a very nice menu which you would read with great concentration. Then…you would ask what they were actually serving. Likewise, in Nepal, you read your ticket and make sure you are at the airport an hour ahead of schedule (because there is always a chance that the flight will leave on time), and then you stroll into the airport with an open mind about how long you will actually be there.
I have learned (the hard way — the airport book store appears on only have books about Everest expeditions) to bring a good book (and with a second spare) and food, although there is usually a snack stand selling a wide variety of Indian and Nepalese chip-like snacks. The one in Kathmandu even has hot items, momo (stuffed dumplings) and samosa (triangular pastries filled with vegetables or ground meat) but I am always a bit wary of cooked items sold under these circumstances. Nothing worse than getting diarrhea on a trip when you are supposed to do training five days in a row. Tickets do guarantee that you will be able to get on a plane on your date of travel but when you will do this has absolutely nothing to do with the time on your ticket.
My flight adventures always begin with check-in. It is, of course, impossible to check in online. With the airline I use, there are different lines marked for flights to different cities. Separated by line dividing posts, the line of people leads straight up to the counter but, since there is no where to exit when you finish, so you have to push your back way through all the people who were in line after you and climb over a vast area of luggage and various types of satchels and backpacks. I am pleased to say that the Nepalese don’t appear to travel any lighter than I do, and I have never been one to travel “light”.
The concept of “waiting line” seems to be loosely defined. If you leave more than a foot between you and the person in front of you, someone else can easily jump in, and they do. Nepalese men seem to be more afflicted by this characteristic than women. And, of course, the women don’t say a word when it happens. When you finally reach the counter, it is not uncommon for people to come in from the side waving their tickets at the ticket agent as if you were not even there. Sometimes, he (yes, always men), stops doing your ticket to do theirs. If you are early for your flight, the ticket agent may put you on an earlier flight, because it has been delayed. I had a 2:00 PM flight for one trip and was put on the 11:30 AM flight which did not leave until 1:45 PM. So yes, I did indeed get in 15″ earlier than scheduled. I wondered when my 2:00 PM flight had actually arrived.
Security is virtually non-existent. In some of the smaller airports there is no scanner and so not only do they check your hand luggage by hand, but they also take you into a different area to open your checked baggage so they can check it by hand as well. Another symbolic gesture includes have men and women go through security in separate areas where women check women (ladies) men check men (gents). The checks are cursory. On my last flight, the woman checking my hand luggage was so proud of herself for confiscating my large water bottles (apparently you can only take small ones), she barely looked in my second bag. I could have had an entire arsenal in it. Everyone seems comfortable in the knowledge that nothing bad could really happen. That is, there would be little to gain from hijacking a domestic flight in Nepal.
There is also no screening for people either. A simply pat-down by a woman gains me entry into the waiting room, a single room filled with chairs and people and a sometimes overwhelming din of chattering voices.
Certainly, hand-luggage and personal security checks are nothing like the ones I had to go through in Europe when I had the misfortune of being “marked” for a random spot check when I checked in. There, I had to practically undress and the woman took everything out of my hand luggage to peer at it. I had no idea what she expected to find in the bag of a 67-year old woman on her way home from Rwanda. Personally, I like living in a country that is so safe that they don’t really have to worry about doing close screenings at the airport. In fact, as far as I can Nepal is incredibly safe even though most people, if they can afford it, live in homes enclosed behind big brick or cement walls.
Unlike US airports, no one seems to care how much hand luggage you have and, if you get on the plane and it won’t fit under a seat or in one of their minuscule overhead bins, they will relieve you of it and the door and return to you upon arrival. Bottles of water are not considered to be a problem unless they are large ones, something which I also learned the hard way as mentioned above.
Upon successful passage through security, you arrive in a large departure area filled with people chatting. I guess they too plan to be there awhile. Finding out when your flight is actually leaving is a tricky business. For my airline, there are two boards and I made the mistake of assuming that they said the same thing one afternoon. The board I could see from where I sat said delayed which, of course, was true. But the other board, which I could not see, said boarding. If I hadn’t gotten up to stretch, I would have missed my flight. Now, I always just stand by the departure gate and wait until either a seat opens up in front of it, or the plane starts boarding.
The airlines follow a very meticulous protocol for checking luggage. First it is weighed and tagged by one person, who then passes the claim card to the agent who preparing the boarding card, to which it is then stapled. They don’t want you to lose your claim tag because, without it, you won’t be able to get your luggage when you arrive at your destination. Upon arrival, luggage is brought to the (usually tiny) terminal at your destination point in big carts pushed by 2-3 men. In Kathmandu, a tractor brings them. There you wait behind a long metal rack as baggage handlers unload the bags from the carts, and shove them through the door on the floor to the area behind the barrier. As soon as you see your bag, you start waving your ticket in the air to get a baggage handler’s attention so he can retrieve your bag and give it to you. People crowd around each other trying to get their bags. I have learned to go right to the front, and hold my ground, even if people behind me are trying to get through to claim their bags, until my bag shows up. There is no way I can get through the throng if I am at the back of it when my suitcase appears. I also learned this the hard way. I also learned that my cab driver, sweet man that he is, doesn’t have the hutspa to skillfully navigate the crowd. I usually give him my hand luggage and then enter the battle to get to my luggage as soon as I can alone. After our first attempt to have him get the bag while I wait, and the second time where I patiently waited at the back of the crowd until I saw my bag, I am always victorious in getting my bag as soon as it appears.
A nice feature of the baggage handling system is that, if you forget and accidently leave a knife or a pair of scissors (which I did) in your hand luggage, they do not confiscate. Instead they escort you to to your checked baggage so you can put it in inside. This would never in a million years happen in the U.S.
Well, that’s about it. If you’re ever traveling by air in Nepal, you’ll know what to expect. Be prepared for a nice long read…