Tag Archives: Travel

The Urge to Smack a Delhi Airport Employee at 5 O’Clock in the Morning

This post is long, but the title pretty much sums up what I wrote….

I’m sitting on my flight to KTM waiting for the rest of the passengers to board, but I was so steamed that I couldn’t wait to whip out my laptop and draft a blog post.

P and I landed in Delhi early. Our flight was originally due to land around 4 (Sunday morning), but we got in at 3:30am. We had already been traveling more than 24 hours straight, departing Boston at 8pm on Friday and flying to London, then London to Bahrain, and then Bahrain to Delhi (last minute tickets… what to do?), before finally making it to Tribhuvan International Airport a little after breakfast time on Sunday.

A lot of Nepalis that I know tend to be wary about flying through Delhi. They seem worried about being hassled, or having problems with their luggage, or missing flights. I had chocked that up to the general attitude that Nepalis sometimes have towards India– as a country that tends to push Nepal around. But after today, I’m happy to say that on our return flight we are flying from KTM to Bahrain direct and skipping Delhi completely.

When we checked our bag (and thank goodness we only have one between us!)  in Boston the worker at the airline counter said that our bag was checked straight through to Kathmandu with no problem, but that we could only get boarding passes until Delhi since gates for flights more than 24 hours in advance hadn’t been issued yet. Okay, I’ve heard that before, I understand that.

So as we departed our flight in Delhi, P and I follow the signs for “international transfers” knowing we had to eventually find a check-in desk for Jet Airways to get our boarding passes before continuing on to the gate. Eventually we were herded into a corner where a gathering of European tourists and Nepali workers returning from abroad had already started to congregate. In front of us was a check-in counter with 5 kiosks and about 8 or 9 airport employees who were waiting to “assist passengers” to get their boarding passes. In addition to the 8 or 9 people behind the counter, several other airport employees were circulating through the crowd of passengers trying to track down passengers from different flights.

P and I got in the Jet Airways line behind about 8 European tourists. We stood in line for a good fifteen minutes and only 2 people had been serviced.

“This guy is slower than death,” I said to P, “What the hell is he doing?”

Finally one of the employees searching for passengers came over to us and asked, “Gulf Air?”

P answered yes.

“Come with me,” he said, and pulled us out of the line that was going nowhere fast. “Do you have your luggage tags and your eticket information?” We pulled out both and innocently handed them over to him. He then asked for our passports, and an “assistant” took down all our details and carbon copied them onto two sheets of paper. Luggage man #1 explained that he had to go down to the Gulf Airways baggage area, find our bag, and then pull it so they could transfer to the Kathmandu flight.

It was a little after 4 am, so we really weren’t thinking about how this logically didn’t seem to make much sense. I mean, don’t airports transfer luggage all the time without having to go through all this? But for the first half hour I had my cross-cultural adjustment hat on, and I was giving the workers the benefit of the doubt.

The man disappeared with the print out of our eticket and our luggage tag number (along with the two carbon copies of all our information). We didn’t see him again for nearly an hour and a half.

P and I sat, and watched some of the other airport employees chat with the European tourists. For being so freaking early in the morning there were a lot of staff people around, and precious little actually happening… just a lot of “confirming of information,” “taking down passenger details,” and staff chit chatting with each other.

After about half an hour, and a quick trip to the nearby bathroom to brush my teeth, wash my face, and generally freshen up, I started realizing how utterly ridiculous this was. Where was the guy who took our baggage info? Where were our boarding passes?

I went up to the Jet airways guy (finally his “slower than death” line had disappeared, more because of the circulating employees than probably his doing.) and said, “I am taking the 6:30 flight to KTM that starts boarding at 5:30am. An airport employee talked to us more than half an hour ago about transferring our luggage, but we haven’t seen him since, and he has our eticket print out and our luggage tags. Can we get boarding passes? Are we supposed to just sit and wait?”

“Do you want to go to Nepal without your luggage?” The guy—Sumit—his real name, asked, condescendingly.

“Of course not, but can you not issue a boarding pass if our luggage isn’t here?” I asked.

“I can, if you don’t care about your luggage.” He answered.

“So we just have to wait for him to come back?” I asked, “Isn’t there some way to check? I mean, when we checked our luggage at the start of our trip the airport employees told us that it would go straight through to Kathmandu. I don’t understand what the situation is.”

This sparked some comments back and forth in Hindi between several workers milling around the front desk.

“We cannot guarantee your luggage will get to Kathmandu if we print your boarding pass now ma’am. But if you are so concerned talk to that man.” Sumit said, pointing to another idle-looking employee.

So I went to him, explained that we talked to a guy who was supposed to locate luggage for Gulf Air more than half an hour ago, and we had heard nothing since. “Can I see your luggage tag and eticket info?” luggage guy #2 asked.

“THE OTHER GUY HAS IT, that’s part of the problem!” I explained.

“Okay, okay, let me check. What is your name?” I showed him P’s passport (the bag was checked under his name). Luggage guy #2 left with a promise of, “I’ll be back soon.”

Then he disappeared, for about 20 minutes or more. P started talking to another Nepali guy waiting for his flight, which wasn’t scheduled until noon. Damned if I was going to miss this flight and wait until noon. I jumped up to talk to Sumit again. In was approaching 5am.

“Sir, I’m sorry to bother you again, but our flight starts boarding in half an hour, and now two people have gone missing tracking down our luggage. I’m afraid of missing this flight after traveling so far, and having to wait until noon to fly because of this baggage issue.”

“Fine. I’ll print your boarding passes so you will be confirmed on your flight. But I don’t know about your bags. I won’t give you the boarding passes until the man comes back.” He took the passes and stuck them behind his keyboard. This sparked more conversation in Hindi between people behind the counter.

“I don’t understand.” I said again, “Would it be easier for me to walk down to baggage claim myself and pick up the bag and recheck it?” I asked.

“You do not have an entry visa for India to go to the baggage claim, ma’am.” Sumit said.

“My husband is Nepali,” I’d only shown Sumit P’s passport half a dozen times at this point, “he doesn’t need an entry visa, should he go down and get it if finding the bag is so hard?” I was really losing my patience.

This sparked more discussing in Hindi. I’m sure this was fun entertainment for the workers.

The guy standing next to Sumit, who looked like he had a fever since he kept wiping his face and rubbing his head, offered to call his manager. He dialed up the phone and another exchange took place in Hindi. “He will call back in 5 minutes, come back in 5 minutes.” He said.

I walked back to P. I was trying really hard to be patient, but I was tired, and this truly was ridiculous.

Then I spotted luggage guy #2 again and walked up to him.

“Our luggage is all set?” I asked him.

“I relayed your message.” He said, noncommittally.

“So you have talked to the guy who is looking for our bag or you haven’t talked to him? Does he have our bag?”

“I don’t know. I passed your message to him. He will explain the problem.”

“So there is a problem now?” I asked.

“No, no… no problem.” He said.

“There isn’t anyone we can call?” I asked a bit desperately.

“No.”

I went to Sumit again, the time getting dangerously close to 5:30 when the flight was due to start boarding. “I don’t really understand the problem.” I said, “Why can’t we call someone to track down the bag? We are going to miss our flight!”

“Wait five minutes ma’am.”

What the hell!

So I walked back to P who was still talking to the other Nepali guy. A few minutes later P spotted luggage man #1, “There he is, let’s go talk to him!” he said.

P and I walked up to luggage man #1 and I asked, “You found our luggage?” (thinking in my head, “it’s only been about an hour and a half! Where the hell have you been??”)

“Yes.” He said.

“And it’s definitely on the flight?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered, “It’s a blue bag with a retractable handle, right?”

“Yes.” We both answered simultaneously.

He handed us back our eticket and original luggage tag. Sumit had conveniently walked away from the counter, so I said to the fever man, “Our boarding passes were printed out earlier, can you please give them to us now that our luggage is confirmed?”

Fever man shook his head, “I can’t. Sumit has them.”

So now we had our luggage, no boarding passes, and the flight was getting ready to board, and we were quite a walk from the gate (and P can’t walk fast… he has a torn meniscus, and his surgery isn’t scheduled until November, so even gingerly making it across the terminals had been a challenge this whole time.)

I spotted Sumit coming from the bathroom from across the room. He walked over and I asked him for our passes. He insisted he had to print everything again, asking for both our passports, our luggage tag, our eticket, and a verbal confirmation from luggage man #1.

P and I were practically stamping our feet in frustration.

“I’m sorry,” Sumit said, looking up from the computer, “I can’t put you two next to each other on the plane, since we waited so long to confirm your boarding passes there are no seats left together.”

“Whatever,” I said, “Just give us our boarding passes.”

He printed them and handed them to us saying, “It’s boarding now, I suggest you run.”

Thanks… asshole.

“Don’t forget your luggage tags*.” He said as we walked away from the counter. That was the least of my worries, so P and I ignored him and ran through the passageway towards international security check.

* for clarification—I mean the luggage tags you loop through the shoulder strap of your bag with your name on it that serves as identification, not the sticker on your boarding pass envelope that tells you where your bags are, which I had been talking about previously.

A uniformed young woman with a large noise piercing and a colorful bindi asked us for our passports, tickets, and wanted to see the luggage tags for each of our carry-ons.

“Shoot,” P said, “I forgot that they stamp the luggage tag to verify that you have gone through security at this airport.”

Of course the woman only had one spare, and we had three bags. I spotted one on the floor near the x-ray machine and picked it up, it was blank, good. I frantically looked around for another and saw one under the foot of another uniformed security officer, a man with a mustache. I asked him to hand it to me, but it wasn’t blank. “No matter,” he said, and gave it to me anyway to loop on my bag. Whatever works.

We tossed our things on the x-ray machine and I walked through the scanner, and of course set it off, and had to be taken aside and frisked. I told the lady we were running late. She looked at my boarding pass and said, “You have time.”

P and I gathered our things on the opposite side of the x-ray machine, and started walking as fast as we could through the Duty Free section of the terminal, on the other side was a sign that said “Gates 1-14 to the right”, with a notification it would be approximately a 15 minute walk.

I hefted the bag I had been rolling on to my back and picked up my speed. I called out to P to see how he was doing. He was moving along, but didn’t want to push himself too hard in case he injured his leg more. So I said I’d go ahead, at least let them know at the gate that we were on our way.

So I hurried ahead, and by the time we got to the gate the crowd waiting for the plane to KTM was still waiting, some playing cards, a few stretched out sleeping on the floor. Apparently there wasn’t such an urgency as Sumit made us think.

“Do you think we can ask someone to trade seats on the flight so we can sit together?” P asked.

“It’s only an hour and a half, I think we will be okay if no one switches.” I said.

When boarding started P and I got on the flight and waited as people found their seats. I was placed between two older Nepali men who looked like they were returning from working in the Middle East.

As the plane filled, I noticed no one sat in the seat next to P. I asked the stewardess if I could move. She said if once the pilot closed the doors no one came on the plane with a ticket for that seat I could move.

Lo and behold, the pilot closed the doors and no one came. That jerk Sumit probably just wanted to mess with us some more.

I moved back a few rows to sit with P.

So now our flight is just about to land in KTM. Our freaking bag better be on this plane, or I might just have to conjure up a voodoo curse on Mr. Sumit of Jet Airways at the Delhi International Transfers desk. Yes, Sumit, I’m talking to you.

The Ups and Downs of USCIS

Round OneRound TwoRound ThreeRound FourRound FiveRound Six, Round Seven, Round Eight

Sorry, I couldn’t help but leave with a teaser before. Lots of stuff going on in the AmericaNepali Household behind the scenes…

P and I had hoped to travel to Nepal before the end of 2011.

The debate before we got married was that we wanted to travel for Dashain, thinking it would be really nice to be with P’s grandfather for our first married Dashain and very special to take our first married tikka from him. However with the timeframes of green card applications and travel documents (called “advanced parole” which allows a green card petitioner to travel abroad while an application for permanent residence is still pending), we didn’t think there would be enough time between filing the paperwork after our July wedding, and the festival in early October. The alternative was to have a secret “court marriage” a month or two in advance so we could start the green card paperwork early, and our marriage certificate would reflect a different legal date than when we held the ceremonies with our friends and families. That seemed like too much trouble to travel for a festival, so we laid our plans to rest and figured we would try to travel around Christmas time when I had more time off from work, in the hopes that his immigration paperwork would be settled by then.

But then an unexpected research/presentation opportunity came up for P, and an organization asked him to come to Nepal (and would pay for a ticket!) near the end of September… a week before Dashain.

Immediately I called an immigration attorney colleague (the same who gave me advice about the green card application) and asked how I could expedite P’s advanced parole application. He recommended two thing: move up P’s biometrics appointment (originally scheduled by USCIS for August 29th), and contact our local congressperson to pressure USCIS to speed along the application.

The biometrics (photograph, fingerprint) was the first key, because that triggers the FBI background check on an applicant, and nothing starts on a green card/advanced parole application before that.

We sent P to the Boston USCIS office armed with an invitation letter from the organization in Kathmandu, some airline reservations, and his USCIS notice for his biometrics appointment on Aug 29th. With all these documents the Boston USCIS office allowed him to take his biometrics on Aug 16th, so we could get the ball rolling.

On Aug 19th I contacted my local congressman’s office and was connected with his staffer who works with immigration issues. She asked me to write a cover letter explaining the situation and to send a fax with all of our USCIS receipt notices, his biometrics document with processing stamp, letter of invitation from Nepali organization, and travel itinerary.

For the next three and a half weeks I either called or emailed her office every other day (and eventually every day) to check on the application status, most days with absolutely no response at all. It didn’t help that Hurricane Irene blew through and caused damaged to areas in the Congressman’s district, and a week and a half later remnants of another tropical storm caused flooding in our city (water nearly up to the bottom of my car on my way to work!). She told me at one point that Hurricane Irene was taking up most of their energies that week, which I interpreted as, “You are low priority lady. Your husband will just have to travel at another time.”

Last week I figured it was do-or-die week, and by Friday the only response I had from the congressional liaison was, “Your husband’s application is sitting on a supervisor’s desk at the [USCIS] Missouri Service Center.”

I think it was doubly (triply?) infuriating because I also work with USCIS as part of my international student advisor job, and I just couldn’t FATHAM why this woman couldn’t find out more information. Or maybe I was just frustrated because I knew my fate was in her hands and I couldn’t do anything to change it, and she seemed so “distracted.”

My boss said that USCIS doesn’t like people thinking that congressional intervention helps. I guess it is annoying when congressional representatives start bugging the USCIS processing centers with application expedition requests. I get that. “But,” my boss continued, “P’s application wouldn’t be ‘on a supervisor’s desk’ had you not contacted the congressional liaison. I  think it is a good sign.”

Monday I emailed—no updates.

Tuesday I called—no updates.

By Tuesday night I was finally loosing hope. I actually drafted a long desperate sounding letter to email directly to the congressman–and emailed it too–but my email bounced back since I had the address wrong. There were only ten days left until the proposed departure date. It just didn’t seem possible that his paperwork would come through.

Then Wednesday, mid-morning, I received an email from the congressional staffer I had been harassing for almost a month, “Case MSC______________, Form I-131 was approved on 9/14/11. The applicant should receive their card in 2-3 weeks from USCIS.”

Hallelujah!

I jumped clear out of my seat at work and practically yodeled I was so excited. I called P right away and he, of course, didn’t pick up the phone, so I sent him a google chat.

9:39 AM me: MERRRRR
9:40 AM P: ?
me: IT WAS APPROVED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
P: what?
me: your advanced parole!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
P: how do you know
???
:)
????
9:41 AM me: [congressional staffer] just emailed me!!!!
P: forward the email???
seriously??
can’t believe it
i had lost hope

So now we are buying tickets to go to Nepal next Friday.

Now, if you were following closely, you noticed that the congressional representative said, “document will be mailed in 2-3 weeks.” Yes, this could be a potential logistical hurdle.

Since P has been officially approved for advanced parole he can leave the country without incident, but he will not be able to re-enter unless he has his advanced parole document in hand. We are hoping this document will arrive before we depart, but I’m not necessarily expecting it to. We will give our mail key to our friend D who will be on the lookout for his documents and will Fedex to Nepal when they arrive. P might have to change his ticket if there is a delay in his documents, but at this point, we have to travel and hope for the best.

But the moral of the story is, USCIS can make you want to tear your hair out, but sometimes things actually work out. K-k-k-k-k-k-Kathmandu, here I come!

I Can’t Believe It’s Been Ten Years Already

I thought a lot about writing something on my blog about 9/11. I was hesitant because even though I have vivid memories from that day, I almost feel like I don’t have the “right” to publicly comment about my experience since I wasn’t in New York City that day; I couldn’t smell the smoke, I didn’t lose a friend or family member, I was pretty removed from the whole thing.

I don’t dwell on 9/11 much, or even follow coverage of it most years. It’s the bigger “anniversary” years—1, 5, now unbelievably, 10– that kind of get to me a little. How quickly time passes.

The day was pretty nondescript when it started. I was in my senior year of high school. I officially had a “study hall” in my schedule for my second period class, but I was in the process of organizing an independent study in anthropology. Each day I would walk down to the cafeteria and “sign out” of my study hall with the hip new history teacher and head to the library where I would sit with an equally nerdy friend of mine who was doing an independent study in economics.

That morning I remember it was sunny. I walked to the large cafeteria, where someone was trying to change the channel on the tv monitors (which usually looped a powerpoint of all the school events) but the screen was all snowy and making a static noise. There were some murmurings about cops or planes in New York City, but no one seemed alarmed, or even that interested. I walked over to the history teacher who monitored my study hall. She had dark, short cropped hair and wore jean jackets and dangly earrings, and I thought she was young and cool, even though I barely stayed in her study hall for more than a few minutes each day. Later in the year, after my request to do an ethnography on the culture of a regional Islamic center for my English class fell through, she let me do an ethnography on her freshmen history classroom.

She signed my hall pass, and I headed down the hall and over to the library. Our school library was constructed with a wall of windows on one side, so students from the hall could see in. As I was finishing high school right around the time computer research was slowly becoming the new social norm, most of the library’s books had been pushed to the back, and several rows of computers lined the area near the windows. Behind the rows of computers a tv monitor was mounted high on the wall, which also generally scrolled the powerpoint announcements much like the tvs in the cafeteria. As I approached the doors to the library I noticed most of the library staff and a few teachers were standing near the small square tv, watching some sort of news coverage, including my anthropology advisor. My economist friend Paul was sitting at the closest table to the tv, holding his stack of books and staring up through his large round glasses at the screen.

I approached and slid into the chair next to him, trying to absorb what was on the tv. A picture of the Twin Towers in New York City… burning.

“What happened?” I asked Paul.

“Planes flew into the World Trade Center.” He said.

I think he said planes. I’m looking at the timeline of events, and trying to remember my high school schedule, and when I must have gotten to the library. The second plane must have already hit by then, because I would have vividly remember that, like I vividly remember watching the South Tower fall. Liveon television. I saw it fall and felt it in the pit of my stomach. All those people. The teachers and librarians, Paul and myself, we let out this collective cry of disbelief. How can it fall? How can a building fall like that? Like a movie?

That summer I had volunteered for the Red Cross, and helped with several blood donation campaigns. Just a few weeks prior I remember hearing them call for “a state wide blood shortage” and the need for emergency drives in order to keep enough blood in reserve. In shock, I remember turning to Paul and saying, “There isn’t enough blood! The Red Cross won’t have enough blood to save those people!” Paul turned to me, equally shocked and said, “Imagine the insurance claims! Some company will have to pay millions, maybe billions!”

We were in New York, but “upstate” is like a whole other world to the skyscrapers, yellow taxi cabs, and heavy accents of Manhattan and its boroughs. If one could jump in the nearest car and drive from my high school straight to the Trade Center in NYC it would take about five hours, probably more. Some of the kids I went to high school with had never driven more than an hour away from their home, let alone visit New York City.

But we visited the city a lot. My parents grew up about 45 minutes north of the city in a town in Orange County. One of my uncles still lives there and commutes to work in lower Manhattan each day by bus. My grandmother still lives in the house where my mother grew up, and as a kid she and my aunts would take my sisters and I in to New York City during the holidays to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. I had never gone to the top of the World Trade Center, but I remember driving through the city many times, looking at the famous tourist sites (sometimes with Irish relatives fresh from the villages in Western Ireland in tow)—pointing out Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, visiting Ellis Island, where my Irish grandfather and great-grandmother’s names are listed on the wall of immigrants.

I didn’t feel like a “New Yauwker” (imagine with thick Brooklyn accent to stereotype someone from “the City”), and would feel annoyed when meeting new people from other places that thought that I was from “the City” because my name badge said “New York”—“What was it like to take a taxi to school?” “Which is your favorite skyscraper?”—I’d answer, “I’m from Upstate New York, and it’s totally different.” But I still felt an emotional connection to New York City from those childhood holiday trips, and knowing when I was at my Grandmother’s house it was only a short car trip away. I never ever wanted to live there, and it wasn’t idolization, but the city was there. It felt a bit familiar.

And now it was burning.

And the building fell. It fell.

I didn’t want to do anything the rest of the day. I just wanted to sit in front of the tv and stare. Those first few hours were so confusing. No one knew what was next. How could I look away?

The bell rang that signaled the changeover in classes and the library staff peeled their eyes away from the tv long enough to shoe us students in the library along to the next place we were supposed to be.

I think there were two classes between the library and my mid-day English class. I can’t clearly remember what we did, but I’m fairly certain that we didn’t do much, and probably continued to watch the tv. But then we got to our mid-day English class. It was a college theory class in a double class period team taught by two teachers. Mr. F was the lead teacher that day. When we entered class he didn’t have the tv on. He instructed us all to sit down and said we would be continuing on with class that day, that watching tv wouldn’t help anything, and we had to keep a sense of normalcy in our lives. He wouldn’t even turn the tv on and mute it so we could follow any updates.

Mr. F could be a bit curt and gruff by nature. He had three kids in the school system (his middle daughter was in my class, she was the kind of student that was assumed to be our valedictorian at least a year or two before we graduated). He was a softball/baseball coach, and ran a tight ship. It was like him to lay down “the law” and that was that.

I remember being so mad at him. I still feel mad at him when I think about it. An anger deep in my chest. How dare he tell me I couldn’t watch the horror unfold on the screen? No one knew yet what was happening, there were still all sorts of stories about planes in the air, heading to important places across the country. This was history happening. Don’t turn off the freaking tv!

I remember repeating to the other teacher in class (Mrs. D), “The Red Cross has a blood shortage, what will they do?” I remember she responded gravely, “C, I don’t think they will find a lot of people alive to give blood to.”

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. We got home from school and watched the tv some more. I was obsessed with watching. The coverage was on every channel. You couldn’t escape it. I checked my email and had several messages from people I had attended an international leadership conference with a year or two before, they had checked our participant list and saw “C C—New York” and assumed I must be involved in the craziness in Manhattan, and sent me messages of support.

I couldn’t believe the next day we were expected to go to school. But the teachers said we had to get our lives back to “normal.” I was frustrated. Why did everyone want us to be “normal”? The whole world felt crazy, and I wanted to have a day or two to absorb it.

My afterschool job was working at a local independent bookstore. That second day I went to work. In the store we were surrounded by news– newspapers on the wracks, magazine covers, NPR on the radio. I luckily had called ahead to have the owner save me a copy of the New York Times from September 12, 2011. By the time I got to work all the papers were gone.

The months after September 11th scared me. I was really uncomfortable with all the American flags flying everywhere. One in nearly every window, on every car, on every light pole. The uber-patriotism. It didn’t seem to fit right. I didn’t think people were sounding reasonable. I understood that the country was hurting and trying to recover, but then Bush started talking about war.

I remember one heated exchange in my AP American Politics class. My teacher was talking about bombing Afghanistan, and I voiced my worry about it, about killing innocent people. I didn’t see the difference between us dropping bombs and killing innocent people there, and them flying airplanes into buildings and killing innocent people here. My teacher said he would drop bombs on the Afghans “any day, if it meant saving American lives.” I asked why an Afghan life meant less than an American life. He told me to stand up and point to five of my classmates I’d rather see dead rather than five Afghans I knew nothing about. “That’s why.” He said. I was upset, and angry. Five people were five people no matter who they were.

Life in the US changed quickly. A close friend of mine from high school (ironically his birthday was 9/11) was studying in Hungary as a Rotary Exchange student that year. He called when he was feeling homesick or lonely. I remember once trying to explain to him that he would be returning to a country that had greatly changed. When he left I had gone with his family to the airport to see him off and hugged him goodbye at his departure gate before he boarded the plane and we watched as his plane taxied back towards the runway. That was August 2001. I’d probably never be able to do that again in my lifetime.

I went to college, and finally had the opportunity to travel myself second semester of my freshmen year. I had wanted to travel for years, and had begged my parents for years, and this was my first opportunity.

I went to France. I was there when Bush declared war on Iraq. My fellow American students and I crowded around a computer to watch a grainy streaming video of Bush’s speech in the cramped computer lab in our program office. It was a war I couldn’t support. I decided to wear a white arm band that said “contre la guerre.” I wore it the rest of the time I was in France. We were publicly told by our American advisor that we were prohibited from French protests about the war, but as a former activist herself, the teacher looked the other direction when it wasn’t so secret that I had joined in with various “manifastations contre la guerre” in the city.

I wrote home about my activities and my feelings, to friends and family, and started to get negative, sometimes even hostile responses in return. How could I speak out against my president in a time of war? And to the French? It was the days of “Freedom Fries” (which the French didn’t get—“Don’t the Americans know that French Fries are actually Belgian?” they would ask), and the idea that I was standing up as an American abroad declaring my disagreement with my country’s war was very upsetting to people back home. One day I went to my professor’s office and burst in to tears.

9/11 shaped most of my twenties.

And now its ten years later. Ten years in which so much has happened in the world and to me, and yet has passed so quickly. I think the passage of time hit as hard as the day itself.

All I wanted to do yesterday was sit in front of a tv and watch 9/11 anniversary coverage. We don’t have a tv, so I resorted to reading news sites, and Wikipedia events of the day. For the first time I listened to all the names read in New York and I was struck by the number of kids reading–people who were babies or in vitro when their fathers died. I searched for streaming documentaries online and watched one called “The Falling Man” about the famous picture and the “jumpers” from the Towers that day.

I couldn’t stay transfixed to the computer all day though—P’s parents were here, and there was a bit of cleaning and shopping that had to be done.

I don’t need to dwell every year, but I think it will hit me again at 20 years and perhaps 25. That passage of time, and that moment in history. It was also the beginning of my own transition to adulthood, and to finding my independent voice.

I can’t believe it’s been ten years already.

Mini Videos of Nepal

I wish I could post the mini video directly on my site, but I don’t think I can. However there is a nice 30 second timelaps video of Kathmandu Valley/Nepal that gives some nice views of what the city and mountains look like. Check it out if you have the chance: http://nepal.tv/watch/nepal-trailer.

On the same site they have a few other videos, including a mini video about the take off/landing at Lukla Airport which those of you interested in an Everest trek might want to check out: http://nepal.tv/watch/lukla-airport.

Grilled Cheese

P came back from Nepal on Saturday (hurray!), and brought lots of wedding related goodies, which I’ll blog about at another time. However instead I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about grilled cheese sandwiches.

An American friend of ours is having a dinner gathering tonight, and on the menu is grilled cheese. P said, “Do people really eat grilled cheese… for dinner?”

Cheese is not very high on the Asian list of tasty foods (South or East, unless you count all the milk-cheese related products consumed in Mongolia, but those cheeses are decidedly a whole different category). Although I think P has grown an appreciation for (Western style) cheese over time having been exposed to lots of varities of cheese through me and my family (hard cheese, soft cheese, moldy cheese, smelly cheese– give me a cheese platter as an hors d’oeuvre any day!), he is still not big into cheese sauces, mac and cheese, or cheese as a main course. Hence grilled cheese sandwiches (to him) just sound a bit unfilling and perhaps unappetizing.

I haven’t had a grilled cheese in ages, so I’m pretty excited. I guess that is one of the perks of living with someone from a different culture– since you eat a lot of different kinds of foods something a local would consider relatively mundane and boring all of a sudden becomes exciting and different.

It reminds me of the semester I spent in India. I was living with a group of American students, but since we stayed in homestay families, guest houses (when traveling), and ashrams (on one particularly colorful field trip), we generally ate a lot of Indian food. But after weeks of daal, curry, roti, and rice, many of our American palates began craving American foods. One food that really helped with nostalgia was what our Indian cooks were calling “cheese toast.”

It started while we were taking Hindi language classes in Mussorie, Uttaranchal. We would spend the morning walking up the steep (crazy steep!) hill station roads to our language class, spend the entire morning working on language acquisition  skills, and then head back down the hill to the guest house for lunch. It was the end of the rainy season, and it was often pouring and damp, and heavy rain frequently knocked out the electricity. “Cheese toast” (and  soup) day was enough of a pick-me-up to send us careening down the slippery hill after class fighting to be the first person in line for the grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches.

After a while we found that “cheese toast” was often found on various menus as we traveled across India, particularly in touristy cafes (not that we ate in those cafes all the time– but every now and then). Other Westernized dishes didn’t come out tasting as good– pasta in red sauce, mac and cheese, pizza, but “cheese toast” really hit the spot when the stomach needed a small reminder of home.

I can’t remember the last time I had a grilled cheese sandwich. I hardly ever ate them in the US before I went to India and used it as my “I need a taste from home” meal. But I’m pretty excited to have one tonight.

MMMM… my mouth is watering just thinking about it!

Yeti Adventures

In honor of P’s mountaineering trip to Langtang this week (a place whose Wikipedia page mentions it is also known for Yeti sightings), I thought I was overdue for a post of this popular mythical Nepali creature.

Mike and Yeti from Disney/Pixars Monsters Inc. Popular portrayals of the Yeti (versus Big Foot) are white to blend with snow, although a darker Big Foot-like ape would probably have an easier time hiding on the green mountain slopes of Nepal

If you strip Nepal down to its bare bones tourist advertisement stereotypes you would get a few things—Mt. Everest, yaks and yetis (and perhaps temples, prayer flags, Buddha, and Sherpas, maybe momos too). Take a quick stroll through the Kathmandu tourist district of Thamel and you could walk out with an arm load of t-shirts with thread embroidered Yeti on them, particularly yaks and Yetis– these seem to be a favorite combination. There is even a tasty Nepali restaurant near Boston called the “Yak and Yeti” (actually when I googled “Yak and Yeti” I found at least five—one in Boston, two near Denver Colorado, one in Anchorage Alaska, and one at Disney World!)

Anyway, I digress, back to Yeti. These creatures supposedly live in the high Himalayas, and are the Nepali version of what Americans call “Big Foot” (or “Sasquatch”). It is a large ape-like creature that the scientific community generally regards as a legend given the lack of conclusive evidence of its existence—although one night RH, D, P and I decided to watch a silly “documentary” on Netflix about the hunt for a Yeti called “Destination Truth” which might lead you to believe there IS scientific evidence, but the show was too overly dramatic to take seriously.

Khumjung monasterys famed "Yeti scalp"... draped in a Buddhist prayer scarf

The show mentioned a sacred “Yeti scalp” in the Solukhumbu town of Khumjung, kept under lock and key in the local monastery. P, RH and I were there during our trek in 2009—and had I known I could have checked out an alleged “Yeti scalp” I would have insisted on going into the monastery (and tried to take a picture standing next to it, because that’s how big of a nerd I am), however, we only saw the monastery from the outside. Although the existence of the scalp in town, did made the “Magic Yeti” painting on the local school’s library door a little more understandable. Skeptics claim that the “scalp” is actually part of a dried shoulder of a yak or serow (a goat-like Himalayan antelope). Perhaps this is part of the origin of the yak/yeti dichotomy in tourist shops?

Taken during our trip in 2009. The "Magic Yeti Library" is part of the Khumjung School established and funded by Edmund Hillary and his charities. Wouldnt that be a great 70s rock song title or group name? "The Magic Yeti Library" ;)

I don’t purport to be a Yeti expert, but some of the info online is a bit interesting (the following is gleamed from the Yeti Wikipedia page):

-It is also known as the “abominable snow man,” a term coined in 1921 by Alpinist Charles Howard-Bury who was working with the Royal Geographic Society’s “Everest Reconnaissance Expedition.” Howard-Bury insisted he saw tracks at 21,000ft “probably [caused] by a large grey wolf” but looked like those of a “bare-footed man.” The Sherpas on his trip volunteered that “the tracks must be that of ‘The Wild Man of the Snows.’”

– Supposedly a Yeti-like creature was part of the pre-Buddhist beliefs of several Himalayan people: the Lepcha worshipped a “Glacial Being” as a God of the Hunt, and followers of the Tibetan Bon religion also believed in a mythical “wild man” whose blood was believed to be magical.

-There are many stories of supposed “sightings” including a 1953 report by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay who claimed to have seen large footprints while scaling Mt. Everest. Tenzing said he had never seen a Yeti, but his father had seen one twice, although later in life he became more skeptical. Hillary remained skeptical throughout his life, but mounted a 1960 expedition to collect and analyze physical evidence, including the sacred Yeti scalp from Khumjung—it was his research team that concluded the scalp was not from an ape-like creature, but not all anthropologists agree with him.

-American actor Jimmy Stewart smuggled the remains of a supposed Yeti hand called the “Pangboche Hand” out of South Asia by concealing it in his luggage from India to London.

-In 1966 the legend of the Yeti was so popular that the country of Bhutan created postage stamps with the creature’s likeness. You can buy them on Ebay, I kindda want to.


Skeptics often put forward misidentification of known animals as an explanation of sightings and “evidence” – large langur monkeys, Tibetan Blue Bear, Himalayan Brown Bear, Asiatic Black Bear. Could something be misidentified up there? Sure—particularly sightings made by mountaineers climbing high altitude mountain peaks with lack of oxygen, fatigue, and other factors affecting them. Meanwhile, scientist discredited the existence of gorillas in East Africa until specimens could be brought back, and now only a fool would deny their existence.

I err towards the skeptic side, if only to make myself less worried about bumping into something scary while taking a walk in the woods (Big Foot, Yeti, little green men, or otherwise), but it’s interesting to hear stories about such sightings.

While P, RH and I were hiking in Solukhumbu we asked our guide if he had ever seen a Yeti. He said yes, at a distance. Whether it was true or not, it made for interesting post-dinner conversation along the trail.

Anyone else have a Yeti story? Or a Big Foot story while on the subject? ;)

100 Days Until Nepali Wedding

I think there are now 100 days until our Nepali wedding. It sounds like a lot, but I think it will go very quickly… and you know, I’ve done very little thus far to actually “prepare” for it. Most of my attention has been on the details of the American wedding since logistics are characteristically sorted our much farther in advance. Certainly there are details that once completed for the American wedding were also sorted out for the Nepali one—such as printing invitations, or booking a photographer who will cover both events, however I feel there is a whole lot that I need to start thinking about as I shift gears.

And just as the shifting has begun—P decided to leave for a month to go to Nepal! His phd research is on glaciers and climate change, and he made a connection at a conference with some Chinese researchers working on a similar project. About a week or two ago, everything fell into alignment, and he was asked to join a group heading into the mountains for the next month. So he will be almost entirely out of contact as I begin the next phase of organizing.

His family, of course, is very excited to have him home, if only for a few days, before they fly out to the US sometime in late June. He will be able to explain to them more about what to expect on the American side, and I am sure they will take him on a few shopping trips during the short time he will spend in KTM—including picking out saris for my mother and sisters to wear at the Nepali ceremony and a Dhaka topi for my dad (definitely breaking new ground here!)

With P leaving so soon (in a week!) and being gone so long (there will only be about 60 days before the weddings when he comes back!) it is really making the time feel short. How the heck is it April already?

10 Years in America

Ten years ago (minus a day or two), P, draped in yellow and orange marigold garlands, hugged his family at the Tribhuvan International Airport. The group who gathered to see him off posed for a photo (which still hangs on our refrigerator). In the photo P looks different—much skinnier, with longer hair and tinted glasses. His expression is a mixture of excitement, nervousness and sadness. His little cousin at the time was about six years old, she was the smallest one in the photo—now she is nearly done with high school. After the photo P again said goodbye, trudged off to the departure gate, and boarded a plane bound for Bangkok. It was almost two years before he returned for a visit.

His brother, P, his mom and dad before his departure

It took him over 48 hours—flying from KTM to Thailand, then Tokyo, then Minneapolis (where he briefly met up with a cousin who, during P’s layover, brought him to the “Mall of America.” An undoubtedly overwhelming first entry into the US, P fretted at the cost of an alarm clock when he converted dollars into Nepali rupees. His cousin gave him sage advice, “Stop doing that. You’ll never survive here if you keep converting everything.”) then from Minnesota to Boston, and finally to Bangor, Maine. Once the tired traveller departed his final airport, he was greeted by his friend and former high school roommate S, who drove him the final two hours north to their small college campus in rural “Downeast Maine.” Today is the anniversary of his initial arrival on US soil.

A decade in America.

Ten years is a long time. It’s hard for me to imagine being away from my own country for that long. P said that when he initially left, he knew he was leaving for quite a while, but he can’t believe it’s been ten years already, “Time passes fast in the US.”

Now—almost three American university degrees later, soon to be married, with lots of memories under his belt, I guess today is one of reflection.

I can’t speak for P, but I think about all the immigrants who have come to America who never had a chance to go home again, who missed weddings, births and funerals. We are lucky that we now live in an age of great technology. P is able to talk to his parents often on the phone, and video chat through Skype and Gmail. We are able to travel to Nepal every few years, and P’s family has been able to visit. We make an effort to highlight beloved and important aspects of Nepali and American culture so that both of us feel respected and appreciated in our household.

So happy ten years to P. Perhaps someday we will be celebrating a happy twenty years… or perhaps a happy ten years to me in Nepal. There is a lot of life (knock wood) in front of us, so we will have to see what will happen.

Happy 2011… Now Go Visit Nepal!

Happy New Year! What better way to celebrate than visit a beautiful, culturally rich, and adventurous country?

The Nepali government and Nepali travel trade sector decided in October of 2008 to launch the national tourism campaign “Nepal Tourism Year 2011” to help bolster tourism after the country’s long and costly civil insurgency.

With the adage “Atithi Devo Bhava” (Guests are Gods), an important concept at the heart of Nepalese culture, the campaign will hopefully rekindle tourist interest and dollars in the tiny Himalayan destination.

Not yet convinced? Check out this lengthy (9 minutes) but intriguing tourism montage:

If all works out, we hope to be there for Dashain 2011. When are you going?

Deadliest Journeys–Nepal

The administrative assistant in my office found this video on Hulu yesterday and passed it on to me since it was about Nepal. So last night after dinner, a group of us sat around the table eating dessert and watching the show.

The voice over commentary is over dramatic, but it is still interesting to watch and see the conditions of one of the remotest roads in Nepal (from Surkhet to Jumla– a 185 mile journey that takes 4 days by truck).

Apparently the editing staff played around with translating Nepali to English, and in several instances the subtitles over dramatize what an interviewee stated (example– the subtitle said, “Damn that road that killed my mother!” when she actually said, “I’m scared of that road that killed my mother,”), or outright changed a good portion of the context. However, if you are like me and need to rely on the subtitles, you’ll get a general idea of what is being said. I’d recommend watching with a Nepali speaker so you’ll get a better understanding of what the local people are actually saying.

The program is only about 20 minutes long, and if you are not able to watch Hulu in your home country, I believe the video is also available on Youtube (but you have to sign in to watch it).

While looking for a picture of the road I found another posting that tells about the journey between Surkhet and Jumla with lots of great pictures– “The Karnali Express: Bumping on for 52 Hours (Jumla to Surkhet)” on the blog “United We Blog! for a Democratic Nepal.”

An example of the road between Surkhet and Jumla