I cannot have hoped for a better landing. Like a silky dress gently sliding down the curves of a woman’s body on to the floor, the plane touches down in Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport. That smooth.
Nepal’s flag flutters on the roof of the main building. The airport is a simple brick-finished set of buildings. Inside the airport, we fill the immigration form and hand it over to a lean and bespectacled man sitting behind an iron grating. He keeps the form aside without bothering to read, picks up the passport, shuffles through the pages and lands one heavy punch with the rubber stamp. We have arrived in Nepal.
Our very first task in the city is to push a crippled van through the busy lanes surrounding the airport. This van assigned to pick us is sitting in the airport parking lot with a dead battery. We ask the driver, an old man, if he can arrange another van, but he is adamant that the vehicle can be started if we lend our hands.
Parked next to our van is a plush new car with an interesting name written on a white paper and taped on to the windshield. The car is waiting for one ‘Dr. Pornchai’.
A name like Porn Star would have made a lot more sense, but Porn Chai! – defeats me.
I poke SV in the ribs and show him the paper. SV giggles mirthfully.
“Where’s he from!” he exclaims, “His parents must be cruel”
“He must be from Thailand. It’s a common name there”, AP says.
“No wonder!” I say. Thailand is obsessed with weird names. In a country which has people named Kunt, Pee and Poo, Pornchai sounds like an honorable name. I’m sure these names mean pleasant things in local parlance. Poo could mean delicious pudding, who knows!
It’s a sunny afternoon in Kathmandu, but the wind is cold and crisp. We are tired and hungry which makes the wind feel colder. Reluctantly, we push the van. First, around the dusty parking lot, then on the roads outside the gate, but the van won’t start. The driver cajoles some of the roadside vendors and onlookers to join the pushing party, including a traffic police. We then push the old battered van down a sloping road towards the famous Pashupatinath temple. It won’t start still. The van comes to rest at a busy junction because the road ahead is upwards. We give up.
I turn to SV and ask, “Do you think had we had ‘porn’ in our name we would have got a better van?”
“No doubt. Porn is in demand where ever you go” SV responds.
The driver sends an SOS call to a mechanic.
A short distance away from where we stand in the kerb admiring the traffic jam we have created and waiting for the mechanic, plumes of smoke are rising from the cremation ghats of the Pashupatinath temple and dissipating into Kathmandu’s already hazy atmosphere.
Pashupatinath is the Nepali equivalent of Varanasi in India. I remember reading somewhere that in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, fires burned here day and night as hundreds of families dealt with the human cost of the disaster.
The mechanic arrives in the scene shortly with a single piece of cable and a bright yellow battery. He is pencil-thin. He hurriedly opens the bonnet and bends over to inspect. The metal stick holding the bonnet up is not properly in its place and I wonder if the bonnet’s going to crash on his back, but the man isn’t going to give enough time for that to happen. He’s lighting fast. He jump-starts the vehicle within seconds. He slams the bonnet down, thrusts the wire into his pocket, picks up the battery and off goes like a hero.
We clamber into the van and launch ourselves straight into the vortex of Kathmandu’s mayhem.
To be continued…