Getting to Nepal was no easy task, thanks to United Airlines. It wasn’t destined to be an easy task because Nepal is quite a long distance from Nebraska, but we were hopeful that once we left home, things would proceed according to plan. We were all dreading the 20 hours that we were going to have to spend on airplanes when we set out on the trip, but flight delays added many hours to our ordeal (we spent at least 3 hours just parked on the runway, waiting for take-off).
When we boarded the last plane to go from New Delhi to Kathmandu, I was relieved to be on the final stretch. As long as the plane didn’t crash, we’d be settling into our vacation rental by sunset.
Or so I thought.
The flight from India to Nepal was quite pleasant. We were offered juice and some cucumbers
with lemon juice sprinkled on top. The landing was rough, but acceptable (we survived). We disembarked from the plane and entered Tribhuvan International Airport. I stopped for a moment in the corridor leading to customs to contemplate our arrival and get a photo of the airport sign.
I wasn’t particularly concerned about getting a Nepali visa since we had the passport photos that are required with the application. The application process was supposed to be straightforward. We emerged from the corridor into an open area where some young Nepali people greeted us and helped us enter our data into some very progressive-looking kiosks. The kiosks then printed out forms that we had to take over to a line-up of dour old men in white shirts seated inside some very official-looking wooden boxes.
A young couple from Argentina was ahead of us in line. We waited behind them. I gawked around the airport, still dreamy and lethargic from jetlag and having not really slept in three days. So far, Nepal wasn’t what I’d expected. The airport was very wooden and stodgy and yet the tables where we filled in our applications were falling apart. It was like a failed effort. A set, rather than the real place. Some emaciated soldiers in blue camouflage uniforms stood in various places, here and there. I wondered why and how the color blue was chosen for these soldiers.
The man behind the counter told the Argentinan couple that they needed Nepali currency to get their visa. The young man (I found out later that his named was Santiago) went over to the money exchange counter while his companion, Gisela, leaned against the counter off to the side. We took our turn at the visa counter. I yawned.
We handed the old man our documents. Then we handed him our passports one-by-one. I looked to my right and one-after-another, locals were happily filing through the “Nepali Citizen” line in swift succession. The man behind the counter looked over our passports with his nose turned up slightly and a deep frown on his face.
“30,000 Rupiyas.” He said matter-of-factly, sliding our passports back to us across the counter.
“Okay…” I said, “Do you take US dollars?”
“No, only Rupiyas.” He said without hesitating.
“I’ll have to go get Rupiyas then.” I said, with the faint recollection of a Lonely Planet paragraph about Nepali currency problems nudging me from the depths of my subconscious mind. The Argentinan man had been flitting around the airport behind me for some time now going from currency exchange counter to currency exchange counter and then, apparently, to an ATM in an unknown location nearby trying to obtain Nepali Rupiyas as well.
Santiago returned to the counter around the same time that I departed from it for the ATM, which was some distance away, outside the airport. A guard escorted to me to it. I put my card in, but the machine didn’t work. I went back to the counter. Gisela and Santiago were still there. John and Lydi had already tried doing a currency exchange at the moneychangers with no luck.
When I arrived back at the counter, Santiago and Gisela were trying to figure out a course of action. It was eventually decided by the old man that Santiago and I could go with a guard to another ATM beyond the customs area to try to get our money. It was as though they had never run into this problem before in the history of the airport. Santiago and I walked down through the luggage claim area where I saw our three Osprey bags sitting together on the floor with other vulnerable unclaimed items. We walked outside to another ATM that didn’t work.
The guard stood by impotently as we stuck our cards into the machine. I told Santiago that I was glad John, Lydi, and I weren’t the only ones who were having this problem.
“It’s like this has never happened before.” I said. “If I was the only one here who couldn’t get in because I didn’t have the funds, I’d be really worried.”
We re-entered the airport whereupon the guard took Santiago to yet another ATM around the corner inside the airport that didn’t work. I had to stay behind and Santiago had to leave his backpack with me for reasons that neither of us understood. He left, walked around the corner, and then ran back to me, promising that he would hold and watch over my bag as well, should this particular ATM actually work (it didn’t).
We arrived back upstairs to the counter to find a hodgepodge of Europeans huddling together with John and Lydian, all with the same problem. One very serious young man was from Belgium and he told me that he planned to do a Vipanasana meditation retreat in Nepal (one of those silent meditation ordeals in which people wake at 4:30 AM, meditate, and then avoid eye-contact with others and remain silent all day). Standing next to him was a Londoner who said she was doing volunteer work teaching English to Nepali children for five weeks. She’d been asked to leave her passport behind at the airport with the old man at the counter and go downtown for money, returning the next day to pay for her visa and retrieve her passport. My mouth dropped open.
“No way!” I said. “Don’t leave your passport!” I said, recalling tales of traumatized travelers from episodes of Locked Up Abroad. Santiago and Gisela nodded in agreement that leaving one’s passport behind was risky business.
“Oh, I’m not worried.” The girl said cheerfully. She was faithful that her volunteer organization would take care of her. I’d read about volunteering during the off-season in Nepal and I wasn’t so sure.
John had been working feverishly to figure out our currency problem while he and Lydian were stationed upstairs. At one point, as I stood with him at the moneychanging counter, the lights at the airport went out. John turned to me, a look of profound irritation on his face and said, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
The outage lasted only moments and later we learned that after this “switchover” from a generator to the grid, it was probable that the ATM’s would’ve started working again. Power outages are a regular occurrence in Kathmandu. Luckily, our vacation rental had a generator to keep the lights running for half the day. Many residents cook their food by flashlight when evening arrives.
In a flash of inspiration, John called the owner of our Kathmandu vacation rental, Amir, and asked him if he could loan us the money we needed to get into the country and then take us to an ATM right away to pay him back. John then had to convince a guard to take him downstairs to Amir, who was waiting for us outside. This took some time, but John can be very convincing when he’s upset.
This was the solution that finally worked for us.
Each of the people in our group of white people finally figured out how to get the Nepali currency they needed to enter the country around the same time as we did. We waved goodbye to them as they each found taxis and headed off into the chaos of Kathmandu at sunset.
Nepal Travel: Lydian vs. Bus (video)