As of today, I may have crossed over a line. An imaginary line, to be sure, but a line nevertheless. Has my patience been exhausted… or am I just ready to leave?
This is a place where things that many in the world routinely depend on may not be so dependable. I cannot even tell you the number of times I have been given a story about why something is not working and felt like I was being given a story. Someone was telling me something they thought would mollify me because they, like me, had no idea why it wasn’t working. But acting like you know something that you don’t know is a way of saying yes, when the truth is really no.
The earthquake can be blamed for many things, but not everything. It’s as though the earthquake has become a tragedy that explains everything that is tragic–and fragile– about Nepal. It heightens every contradiction. And when I say tragic, I am referring to people earnestly trying to manage the complexities of life and integrate the modern conveniences that are gradually permeating the less developed world, like washing machines….and, through no lack of effort, coming up short. It is a systems issue because systems depend on the timely decisions and efficient interaction of so many disparate parts.
It is tragically true that life here has been disrupted in ever new and unfolding ways. And it is tragically true that there is widespread suffering about which the government seems to care little. In fact, there is widespread uncertainty as to what relief supplies piled up at the airport have actually made their way to remote areas (though, to be fair, it’s not just the government that is responsible for that), just as there is widespread certainty that another quake will happen in four, or six or eight more days (depending on which lama said so). Seriously. And when something doesn’t work, it’s usually someone else’s fault. Like the hot water that I never got in my hotel room. Will it be fixed? Oh, yes, very soon. Was it ever fixed? No.
Is it just me?
No. It is not just me. People who have lived here for years know how it is. One cannot depend on much until it materializes in front of you. Whether it materializes in front of you is subject to seemingly infinite possible miscues, too many moving parts, each appearing to test your inclination to believe in permanence in some new and mockingly creative way. Oh, of course, you say. How unexpectedly creative! How karmically (comicly?) appropriate! There I was imagining something else.
One gets the inescapable impression that Nepalis do not wish to say no, especially to a visitor who is making a request. They cannot bear to say no even though no may be the only true response. They will tell you yes in every possible way to avoid saying no. Especially when they have no idea what you are talking about. And when it becomes apparent that the truth was actually no, they might claim ignorance (how could I have known it was no?), surprise (this no is just as much a surprise to me as it is to you!), shock (gosh, the truth has been yes every moment until now!) or they might just say “earthquake,” which is probably also true.
Today I will be exiting this surreality by the same route that I came, to Bangkok via Mumbai. No doubt there will be culture shock, if it’s possible for that to happen without leaving asia. I will revisit the international departure lounge at the Mumbai airport just as I did on my way here, decompressing on a variety of lounge chairs and amid a polyglot of language and nationality. I will no longer be concerned about what I eat or drink. I will see glitzy shops with impossibly overpriced, ostentatious and gaudy designer items that would never be seen in Nepal.
The earthquake has set back Nepal’s agenda to become a developing country by 2020. Think of that. Nepal is now considered a “less” developed or “least” developed country, whatever the international designation is. It has to become more developed in order to qualify as “developing.” But now, resources being diverted to earthquake recovery, that will likely be impossible.
Last night, after imbibing an unspecified amount of Marfa (a premium local apple brandy produced in the village of Marpha that I visited), I asked some Nepali friends how they would spend unlimited funds if they were in charge. The answers were mostly uniform: hydropower, transportation infrastructure including another international airport, and tourism. As is plainly obvious, these are the things that would qualify Nepal as a developing country. But this is also possibly the most difficult task to tackle.
I read recently that if you could imagine the topography of Nepal as a fabric all bunched up and if you could spread it all out, flattening all the hills and mountains, its area would expand beyond the rough equal of Kansas now to an area closer to that of the entire United States. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement. If true (or even close), this fact illustrates how difficult it really is to build a transportation infrastructure that would make possible the movement of goods or people from one area to another such that more of the country becomes connected and accessible, and for prices of many products to come within reach of the average citizen and make sustainable commerce possible. So development is far from a question of money.
One thing is sure, however: the earthquake cannot account for the way things work at the airport. We are screened upon entry to the ticketing area for our ticket and passport. Baggage goes through a scanner. Then I check in and check my luggage, go upstairs to the real security scanner and pass through there, where my boarding pass is stamped after my backpack comes through with flying colors.
But am I now cleared into the secure area of the airport? No. Twenty feet from where my boarding pass was stamped, there is another guy making sure that the boarding pass is stamped. Is he checking up on me? Or is he checking up on the guy who stamped my boarding pass?
Then to the departure gate. Is this the actual departure gate? Well, yes and no. It turns out to be the outer departure gate. All boarding passes are checked again on passing from the outer departure gate to an inner departure gate. It is 85 degrees. Are we in an air-conditioned area yet? No.
A bus pulls up to the inner gate. Everyone rushes to the bus, which transports us from the inner gate to the outer aircraft area, where we pass through yet another security area where our stamped and inspected boarding pass is inspected again, along with a hand-check of carry-on luggage. I ask what the hand check is intended to detect that the x-ray did not. I am told this is another check performed at the request of the airline.
After passing through the hand-check, I present my boarding pass yet again to have the stub ripped off. My bag has been checked three times and my boarding pass four times.
I may now enter the aircraft.