Instant mob

Since there was no way I was going to even try to climb up Mount Everest, or even Base Camp, I decided to take the easy way out. Several airlines offer mountain flights that take you over Everest and other mountains in the Himalayas. In one and a half hours, you get up close to the highest peaks in the world and the cost is only $100.

The one problem is flights in Nepal are extremely dangerous. Every year, there has been at least one major plane crash in which all passengers died. With unpredictable weather, fog and mountainous terrain, airline pilots have to be very well trained when flying in Nepal. Now, the authorities take more precautions and cancel flights if there is any chance of a mishap.

My Mountain Flight was scheduled for 6:45am. I got up very early and reached Kathmandu domestic airport, checked in, cleared security and reached my gate. Actually, the entire terminal is one large room with a few doors serving as gates. The airport seemed quite dead but a number of flights were scheduled as stated on the monitor. The announcement said “Due to bad weather, Kathmandu airport is closed. There are no flight flying in or out at this time. Mountain flight is now scheduled to depart at 7am.” This wasn’t bad, only a few minutes delay.

At 7am, the same announcement repeated stating a new time of 7:30, then 8:00, then 8:30, and so on. Meanwhile, more and more passengers started gathering inside the waiting hall. There were flights scheduled to Lukla (starting point for trekkers to Base Camp), Pokhra (a beautiful lakeside city), mountain and several other places. In a few hours, the entire place was packed with people with very little standing room left. Needless to say, all the seats were taken and the bathrooms were filthy. There is one book/ gift kiosk, a tea stall and an internet café at the airport. All of those were doing good business.

Suddenly a mob gathered and broke out into music and songs. Someone played the guitar while people from various nationalities sang Jingle Bells, It’s a wonderful world and other lyrics that were known to all. I could make out some of the singers were from China, Europe and Middle East. It was quite amazing to see how they had a common denominator of music and American pop culture.

Here is a video of the instant mob at Kathmandu airport looking to kill time by singing anything and everything!

As I would find out after a few mornings at the airport, Kathmandu airport typically does not operate before 10am. So even if you have a booking early in the morning, you will be spending at least a few hours waiting at the airport. My recommendation take a good book, learn a few songs, carry your laptop (they have WiFi for a fee) or best, don’t book a flight before 10am.

Turning the Wheels

Kids grow up quick in Nepal. They have to support their parents, raise younger siblings, and help out in the fields before and after school. When in school there’s often a lack of teachers and many of the children sit in the class unsupervised. Poverty and hardship breed creativity and resourcefulness, whether it’s a kite made from rubbish for play or packets of noodles as shoes, or using an old bicycle wheel for playing.

In November 2011, I visited Kathmandu, a few villages around it and Okhaldhunga which is a remote and rural area in the Eastern part of Nepal, staying with and observing the daily life of local people. I was taking pictures for an upcoming exhibition that will showcase life in Nepal and raise funds for the non profit, Volunteer Initiative Nepal (VIN).

Nepal is a poor country which is reflected in it’s infrastructure. Water and electricity are hard to get. Traveling the short distance of 230 km between two cities can take locals one and a half days by bus. My interest was looking at how people live day to day life in difficult conditions. How they work, eat, play and laugh together. My intention is not to paper over the cracks of the hardships of their lives but to show how they maintain self-respect and a level of normality in constantly challenging circumstances.

During my visit, communication wasn’t easy. The younger generation helped a lot thanks to some education in English, but where that failed, smiles and gestures and the natural openness of the people was the language of the day. At the end of the trip I was left reflecting on the contrast between, the modernized world with the imminent stress of the credit crisis, the over-consumerism and the self-centeredness; and on the other hand the reality of living with hardly any material goods but with a sense of love and belonging.

This project was done with the cooperation of VIN and Friends of VIN and I thank them for their support.

 ~ By guest blogger and professional photographer, Elisabete Maisao Dos Santos. Elizabete lives in Holland & recently visited Nepal to photograph for a fundraiser and exhibition benefiting VIN which will be held in Spring 2012

Kathmandu – not what I expected

Urban sprawl in Kathmandu

My perception of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal was quite different than the reality. I had envisioned a metropolitan city, neatly maintaining the balance between the old and new, cobblestone pathways leading to the Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas where peace and fresh air fills into your lungs, streets of restaurants and bars where hippies, adventurers and spiritual seekers gather in the evenings sharing their stories….it was none of this!

First impression of Kathmandu reminded me of a hill station in north India. Narrow streets, traffic, pollution, old buildings, slums, dirt, tiny shops selling everything from plastic toys to gold jewelry, restaurants advertising Indian and tandoori food, constant honking of horns, animals and people sharing the same roads, temple bells and chants ringing in your ears, dogs barking. If I have to describe it in one word, that would be “chaos.”

One of the main roads in the city

The infrastructure in Nepal is perhaps one of the worst in the world. The best road in the country is broken, bumpy and less than optimal to say the least. There are no traffic lights, lanes or even driving rules. You will often come within inches of another car or bus while driving, or even walking down the streets. Drivers do not look out for pedestrians so it’s only in your own interest to be extra vigilant and get out of their way.

The noise and air pollution in the city compares only to that of Mexico City and Beijing. A face mask is highly recommended. Locals and visitors are found covering their nose and mouth in all public areas Bring ear plugs of you want to get some sleep in the nigh, especially if your hotel overlooks a main road. Ipods also come in handy to drown the noise.

Thamel (the tourist area) in Kathmandu

The most surprising element during my visit was the people of Nepal. They are the friendliest, most sincere and helpful I have ever come across anywhere in the world. Everyone from my waiter, shopkeeper to taxi driver would start making a conversation with me and go out of his/her way to ensure my comfort. I never felt unsafe or had a fear of being cheated the entire time I was in Nepal.