If you have travelled at all, you have had something like the following airport experience and the following experience while walking.
Upon arrival, our jet seems unusually far from the terminal gate. In fact, as I look out the window, I don’t see the sleek, glass and steel, airport terminals found in Shanghai or Atlanta. I realize that the plane has taxied to an area away from the low redbrick terminal. With no ramp meeting us at the jet doorway, we walk down the portable ramp. After deplaning, we disorderly move to the terminal entrance. Rather than a mystery of where to go, we arrive at a terminal the size of Athens or Savannah airports. In other words, not very large. While we all know that we must fill out documents and proceed through customs, we seem to have arrived when all the officials are on tea break. However, I and a few others, find the visa application area. There are the usual printed forms. Great, this is going smoothly!
I’m ready to provide as much information as the document requires. Because I was refused entry to another country once, an expensive lesson for sure, I have a packet full of the “necessities.” I have the extra passport photos; I have the address of my first hotel in Kathmandu; I can prove that I have a reserved flight for when I leave Nepal. I have even printed out the Nepalese visa form back in Atlanta just in case. I also checked and learned that I didn’t have to complete my visa application before arrival. The Nepal government website states thatI should be able to procure a visa here at the airport. As a result, I’m confident about filling out this visa application. Heck I have submitted more than my share of administrative academic reports as well as begun the paperwork for my retirement. This application should be a breeze.
Looking around, I’m surprised to see fellow passengers ignoring where I am and moving toward four machines over against a wall. As I look more closely, I can see “Visa Application.” I say to myself: “Great, a sign or airport official pointing to these machines would have been nice, but, nevertheless, they’ve automated this part of the process.” I find an available machine. I provide the usual information: name, gender, age, nationality, passport number, length of stay in Nepal, and Kathmandu hotel. After finishing, I look for anything acknowledging that I had finished the application. Nothing. I say to a young girl standing behind me: “We’ll, maybe everything is done electronically. I guess I don’t need any proof.” Wondering what to do next, I notice some of the same passengers have moved to another counter in another corner of the room. Rather than “follow the money,” I follow those who are needing to “pay the money.” I’m right. As I join the line, I think: “Okay, step two almost completed.” An official takes my money; I pay $25 US dollars as my visa fee. After paying the fee, the official motions me to the immigration lines and says “Line 15.” I’m thinking: “This process is faster than I expected. Nepal has joined the modern world.” I’m feeling confident.
I move to where he pointed. Where is line 15? There is no line 15. Instead, I join a line which slowly makes its way to the official. When I hand him my papers, he pushes them back to me and points to another line. A little confused, I join the line to which he pointed. It doesn’t move. Five minutes later, I decide the waiting in line like I approach driving on I-75 back in Atlanta. I pick a faster moving line. This line is moving! I quickly realize that this line is moving because upon reaching the official the individuals aren’t getting visa approval. The official shuffles through their documents, and then quickly returns their papers to them. All I can tell is that he is pointing to some other part of the room. Apparently, the fellow applicants are missing a document. I wonder what? I begin to get worried. Just as I am about to reach the counter, the young European girl that I had spoken to at the visa application machine taps me on the shoulder. “Here, I think that you’ll need this.” I look down and it is a receipt acknowledging that I had completed the visa application electronically. More important, it had a visa application number! Somehow a piece of paper had been printed, both of us initially missed seeing the machine’s receipt slot. With that receipt and my other documents, I handed the stack to the official. After giving me the look, he stamped my passport, affixed a visa, and waved me on.
Entering Nepal can be disorienting. I had the help of a young woman taking the time to find me before she passed through the customs line. I also know that the experience isn’t as traumatic as when a Mexican tries to acquire a US green card. Still it was disorienting. Few signs. Few officials. Barely a word of English spoken
Another situation. If you’ve arrived at a new city, at some point you probably want to enjoy a walk. Even those intimidated by a new city will walk to the hotel’s gate. As I love walking, I assume that Kathmandu’s streets and neighborhoods will be fascinating. I’ve got one problem though. A month ago my orthopedic surgeon told me that if I did something dumb I would need surgery for my newly torn meniscus. My mantra for the trip which I recite everyday is “don’t do something dumb, don’t do something dumb, don’t do something dumb.”
I walk twenty minutes to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square from my Thamel hotel. Durbar Square is the heart of medieval Kathmandu with old red brick buildings, multi-story wood pagodas, small shrines for gods and goddesses. I pay my $10 entrance fee and stroll around the remaining buildings. I say “remaining” because at noon on a Saturday in April 2015 a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake struck 50 miles to the northeast of Kathmandu. Within minutes, 7,000 people died. UNESCO declared that 60% of Kathmandu’s Heritage Sites were damaged or destroyed. Durbar Square was no exception.
After a sad visit, I leave the square on a different street. Minutes later, I am lost in the maze of small streets and alleyways, some of broken tarmac, some of rough packed dirt. Feeling cocky, I think to myself “A bit of a challenge.I wonder where I’ll end up?” Since I know that small streets generally intersect with bigger streets, I eventually intersect with a slightly wider street. Because of scooters and motorcycles flying within inches of my arms, I am confident that this street isn’t some backstreet. I’m confident that this street will take me to a major thoroughfare.
While congratulating myself on my plan, I quickly have another sensation. Not looking at where I am stepping, I find myself stumbling. My stumbling turns into a one of those long-drawn out falls which mentally occurs in slow-motion. Within seconds, I’m sprawled on the pavement next to the building. Fortunately, I’m at least a foot from where the scooters and motorcycles still continue to speed by me. Nervously, I shift my attention to my right knee. No pain! Whew! Embarrassingly, I pick myself up, dust off my pants, and check my $1000 Nikon camera. The old saying “Nothing hurt but my pride” is appropriate. Nothing like getting lost and then falling to disorient one.
Being disoriented is unavoidable. Degrees of cultural shock are inevitable for this older caucasian American male traveling in Asia. But I know to put my feeling into perspective. My disorienting is trifling compared to a traveler disoriented by a visit to a local hospital. My disorienting is insignificant compared to a young Syrian refugee family disoriented in moving to their new Atlanta residence.
I also don’t want to over dramatize the desire for disorientation. I don’t travel with the desire of past and present romantic travelers who need to put themselves into extreme situations in order to experience intense and uncomfortable emotions. I’m not interested in hiking without a guide to one of Everest’s surrounding peaks. I’m not interested in seeing how long I can survive Kathmandu street food. I have no desire for intense experiences and I don’t want to glamorize dumb and painful choices. No thank you.
Yet, disorientation is inevitable and necessary. It is inevitable. It may come from a most common action, providing documents while navigating customs at Kathmandu’s airport or stumbling on some small, unknown Kathmandu street. It is necessary. Disorienting grips one emotionally. In the emotional reaction, one becomes acutely aware of the present moment. In that moment, I became grateful, appreciative of a young European girl; I became more patient, slowing-down and pay attention as I walked strange streets.