Continental Pivot: Finally Asia, Just Not How We Thought It Would Be // It’s Saturday Through Tuesday, Must Be Kuala Lumpur // Can We Get A Flight For Tomorrow? // Frantic: Is This What Adventure Looks Like?
What a difference a day makes.
Friday 23 April, we were planning our several-day Mumbai layover enroute to Pokhara, via Kathmandu; we were eager to see Mumbai, and equally eager to move on to Kathmandu for a few days, then make our way to Pokhara where we would work at The Learning House. We were about to contact Michelle, to nail down the details of our stay there. We were contacting another friend to see about meeting up while she is in Nepal with a medical group — again, pre-quake, this group is a yearly venture to help treat women in Kathmandu valley; and we were finalizing hotel reservations and plans for Mumbai and Kathmandu.
Saturday 24 April, the earth shook in Nepal. Just before bed (and after a splendid day exploring the north west coast of Mauritius), the first emails from home with the news arrived which filled us with sorrow, sadness, confusions, and yes, even relief — for not being there — and regret — for not being there; we had planned to spend a substantial part of our time in Nepal helping out; and now, when help was surely needed we couldn’t be there; in no time, all the concerns arose — can we go into a disaster zone; should we go, especially with children; when they learned the news over breakfast Sunday, our kids asked if we could go and help; we’re proud of them for having that impulse, but also aware of the need to protect them; water and food shortages, power outages; possible spread of disease and unrest; all this came to our minds; and yet, we couldn’t shake the conviction that going on to Nepal would somehow be right — we could now help, and perhaps now more than ever; to make the decision foggier, there was no news about Pokhara; all the attention being focused on Kathmandu and Everest; we did hear from our contact in Pokhara that there the quake had done relatively little damage, and life was getting back to normal, although there was anxiety and concern; was it that we were not hearing about Pokhara because it wasn’t too bad there — no point reporting normalcy — or, was it just because it is more isolated, and the media is pitching the parts of Nepal everyone knows about, KTM and Everest?
Sunday 25 April, the news is of severe aftershocks and more destruction; entire villages falling down hillsides; are we insane even to be thinking of going? are we being too afraid and sheltered to be thinking of not going? While we are still many hours of air travel away, it seems we are already there, because we have booked flights; on the other hand, we are far away, and it would be easy to let life go on in ‘some other channel’, aware of the news, praying for the sufferers, and wishing godspeed to rescue and medical workers rushing to in to help; among the many odd twists, our time in Nepal was actually better planned than several of our stops, and we felt happy for having things pretty well sewn up ahead of time; well laid plans.
With all these conflicting thoughts, we hurriedly read numerous news accounts; all bad and getting worse; we sent messages to numerous aid organizations, consulates, friends to try to get information; our last few days in Mauritius were full of anxious debate and concern; and … what if we don’t go to Nepal, then what? More time in India? Go elsewhere in Asia? We set out the map and considered; consulted online travel sites — after all, not having planned to go to Myanmar, or Vietnam, or Bhutan, we don’t have guidebooks and haven’t done research, but we began to consider where and what to do, putting our ‘quick-study’ hats on — even one crazy proposal to drive from Mumbai to Beijing; I can’t recall who was the crackpot that floated that one; we’d need to change flights, make different hotel plans and more; did you know that Google maps can’t deliver drive times into or inside China? Not from a Mauritian ISP anyway; our parents asked us if we were going to cancel; my Mom started sending daily dispatches of news about every aspect of the disaster in Kathmandu. What is this outburst of planning? Absent the earthquake, in normal operating modes, there is a mild tension between planning for fun and planning for education; but now, are we doing this to shield our kids or shield ourselves from having to think about whether and how to shield our kids?
Over the next several days, we kept gathering news, thinking, talking it over, looking into options, and continuing to enjoy Mauritius, having some new-found friends to dinner, snorkeling in what seemed an endless aquarium, finding boxes to send packages to friends.
In the end, we decided to go ahead and stick with our plans; a big part of this was getting reassuring news from Pokhara, but equally, our family’s desire to be of some help to the people we had been planning to meet and work with at The Learning House; we would skip Kathmandu, and go straight to Pokhara.
Then we went to the airport on Thursday April 30, and found we’d made a rookie mistake. We didn’t get visas for entry into India; thought they were given “on arrival” — they’re not — and there appeared no way to get them in a day or less; so we were turned away by the Air Mauritius check-in agents, who said India would deport us — not an experience we wanted to add to our travels … and yet we are willing to go to a disaster zone … go figure, maybe being illegal immigrants lacks panache — and now, another crazy pivot in our emotions, having spent several days in high stress deciding to go, considering options, to be on the brink, packed, and ready, and then be turned away; it was a little hard to believe it was real; sitting in an airport at 8:00pm with hungry kids, moved out of our apartment, dropped off our rent car, carefully spent down nearly all our cash, stranded and feeling stupid; the glamor of travel.
Still in the airport, we began to search for information about visas, flights, and of course hotels; obviously not going to resolve this in minutes or hours; we settled on the Holiday Inn near the airport; an easy choice; the kids — we all — needed dinner, and we wanted to be close to the airport in case we got an opening, or needed a rent car, or to hire a taxi; airports turn out to be anti-communities, highly purpose-driven affairs, providing just what people need to go somewhere else; WiFi at the hotel got a good workout as we searched for alternate fares and itineraries to KTM; as we tried to figure out visa options; as we looked at costs for changing tickets versus buying new; by 2AM, I gave up the search and tried to sleep; I slept badly, and dreamed of horned devils gleefully running around smashing my piggy banks and throwing wads of cash into a bonfire as I stood, trapped waist deep in the sand, unable to move; we spent the entire day in Holiday Inn in touch with our travel agent exploring different options; to get a flight in a few days, leaving Mauritius May 5; to go today (May 1); or May 2; to skip Nepal altogether and give up on this leg– yes, even after deciding, we now had the opportunity to re-think our plans all over again; we contacted Indian and American consulates to inquire about expedited visas — but as May 1 is a holiday in Mauritius no one returned calls or emails; so this decided the visa issue — there would be no stopover in India, but we could transit through; or we could by-pass India by way of JNB/DOH or JNB/SIN; after umpteen emails, we finally got booked on a flight out of Mauritius to Kuala Lumpur; but for about 24 hours, we were stranded — in paradise, perhaps, but in a Holiday Inn near the airport in paradise sitting in front of the computer, the iPhone, the iPad; all of them burning with different plans, options, possibilities, all the possibilities collapsing into multi-thousand dollar bonfires; all ending at “sold out” or “route not available on Saturdays”; entertaining multiple options at once, and hence, having multi-part conversations, a flood of mumbled interruptions of over-focused distraction, in a superfastIhavetosaythisbeforethethoughtleavesmyhead sort of way, butifweflyintoDelhiorMumbaiwhat’sthedifferencewecan’tstaywithoutthevisas and a reply like IfoundahotelinSingaporeifweendupthereandrentingacarfromtheairportifwestayhereitsavailablebutthreetimeswhatwe’vebeenpaying; we even spoke to the (startled) kids this way, but louder; and I addressed the reception desk in this tripped out on cortisol rapid fire tone, then had to tell myself to slow down and speak clearly about one.thing.at.a.time.
The stress reset metabolism; lunch time came and went unnoticed; the only thing that mattered was the countdown to various flight times and whether we could get there from here, and how much of a hole it was going to blow in our finances; the big idea became how to skip through India, either via Mumbai or Delhi, to avoid the need for a visa by not staying but just transiting; this meant that instead of spending a few days getting to Nepal we’d be there sooner than we ever planned; how strange that between the earthquake and our unforced error, we end up not only going to Nepal but hustling to get there sooner.
We sent dozens of emails, made phone calls, read web sites, and were in rapid and repeated touch with our travel brokers, who pulled out a five-star performance; at the end of the day — really, like 5:30pm, we were finally confirmed on a flight out of Mauritius to Kuala Lumpur at 8:40pm; but this seemed a little unreal; we were already planning to go to KUL later, in June; we had briefly considered a re-routing through KUL, or just going there and skipping Nepal, but this idea hadn’t had much time to simmer; instead a version of it came from our travel broker; and, the incredible thing, it was at the right time and wasn’t any more expensive than changing flights in and out of Mumbai to different days, as we had been exploring; staying there a few days gives us a chance to pick up supplies that we may donate to some relief groups, and get any last minute items we might have shopped for in Mumbai, something racing to Nepal would not have allowed; staying there a few nights was cheaper than continuing on to KTM Saturday straight after we arrive in KUL; the weird thought occurs that the Saturday flight isn’t THAT MUCH more than the economy flight on Tuesday, but if we did take it, we would arrive in a disaster zone in business class; but we decide to try and pull a few bills out of the bonfire; so we plan to stay in a hostel, the Reggae Mansion –what else could it be called — prior to heading to KTM (but it turns out that after being dropped off at the wrong location, and walking to the Reggae Mansion, their only available room is too expensive, so we go to the Swiss Garden hotel, which is its own [mis-]adventure involving a taxi driver who doesn’t know the way and honorably won’t take a potentially infinite fare, a 40 minute midday walk, and zombie front desk agents).
We decided along the way, pretty early, that we won’t stay in KTM, and we have some trepidations about even getting through the airport, but we have heard that flights and airport service are resuming, and are hopeful we can get to Pokhara smoothly; there, although we won’t be doing disaster relief, we will be helping Nepalis; that feels right; and we won’t be immersing our kids in the terrible scenes in KTM, but we won’t be shielding them from the reality of natural disasters either.