Volunteering in Nepal: arrival

Finally I got around to writing a post for my weblog. I hoped to get a post out earlier, but I’ve had so much to do such as sightseeing and chatting with the other volunteers that I haven’t gotten around to it yet. In this post I’ll describe my arrival and what I did during the first days in Kathmandu. Later posts will follow, each with a specific subject: the food, the climate, the traffic, my host family along with the other volunteers, what I’ve been doing during the first week and the neighboorhood (Pepsi Cola) I’m in.

I arrived at Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu on last Wednesday, the 23rd. I departed during the evening of Tuesday the 22nd from Schiphol airport near Amsterdam in the Nederlands, then flew to Frankfurt where I transferred to New Delhi. There I transferred on more time to a flight going to Kathmandu. Probably one meal was served for every one of the three flights, and the aircraft taking me to New Delhi had an entertainmaint system which allowed you to choose which film you wanted to see. It had an interesting selection of recent and classic films, and I chose Avatar. But I’m writing about Nepal now so films have to wait.

In summary, the air travel was a pleasant experience. Maybe Franfurt’s airport looked unattractive and old fashioned compared to Schiphol and New Delhi’s airport and it wasn’t very clear how I had to get to my flight there. I was surprised that I had to wait for an hour or so at Frankfurt before it was known from which gate my flight would depart. Of course Kathmandu’s airport is much more primitive, but that’s to be expected from a developing country.

All flights, including the return flight, set me back a little bit more than € 800. This is more than the fee the volunteer organization charged me for a ten week stay, which was approximately € 600. A low cost airline airline called Arkefly offers a direct flight to Kathmandu from Schiphol, at a cost which varies between € 500 and € 600, but unfortunately they would stop flying in April because of the monsoon season. I did not want to reduce the length of my stay, so I had to choose other airlines.

I did encounter a problem though, at Delhi I was informed that the flight to Kathmandu was delayed by more than an hour. I tried to contact Sugandha Shresta, my host in Kathmandu who was going to pick me up from the airport, to inform him that I was delayed, but the phone number didn’t work, nor did any other of the numbers of the Volunteer Society Nepal (VSN). Later I figured out that was because I got international calling code wrong, it wasn’t +977 as I noted it down in my agenda, but +977. I have a SIM-only calling plan for € 5 a month with Vodafone in the Netherlands, but I fear that the bill for Februari might be a lot higher since I was calling from India to Nepal, as foreign calls are not included in my plan. Or would they not charge anything if the call didn’t connect?

The flight arrived late at Kathmandu’s airport, and we were taken to the airport building with a bus after leaving the aircraft. There some forms had to be filled in for the visa application. Somehow everyone did that very fast and I was one of the last to apply for the visa while the airport was very quiet. A visa for 90 days costs approximately € 90. Affordable, but if I were the Nepalese government I’d waiver the fee for a visa if the applicant is a volunteer coming to help. Certainly if people from for example India and a few other nationalities don’t need to pay the fee. My volunteer card does give me free acces to several points of interest such as Pathan’s and Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. I don’t get why grating a visa, a procedure done by a single person doing administrative work in a few minutes, should be so expensive anyway,

After exchanging some money at the airport (shouldn’t have done it there because the exchange rates are unfavorable) I arrived at the baggage claim. Three people there, I don’t know if they were employees, asked if the bag next to them was mine. It was, no problems with delayed luggage for me. I asked if there was a phone somewhere in the vicinity so I could try calling Sugandha again. Instead one of them offered to call his number with his mobile phone. Somehow, even without the international calling code (I assume he didn’t enter it), he couldn’t reach Sugandha, nor did calls to the other numbers connect. I appreciated they were so helpful, I thanked them and told them I would proceed to the exit to see if I could find anyone there.

As I left through alone, at least three people approached me at once. Taxi drivers started asking me if I needed a taxi and some person behind an information desk told me he had a map for me, both asking me if I would come over to them. I was totally confused and I walked over to the information desk to look at the map, but another taxi driver pointed at a guy holding a paper which read ‘VSN’. It turned out that this guy wasn’t Sugandha, and probably just another taxi driver. With Sugandha nowhere in sight, I was getting nervous and asked them if anyone could take me to Pepsi Cola. Pepsi Cola is the neighboorhood in Kathmandu where VSN is active, and is named after the Pepsi Cola factory located there. Sure they could do so, and before I knew some guy took my bag and rolled it to a taxi. He didn’t ask me if I wanted it, he just said he was going to do it for me and I was too distracted and confused to realize that I should refuse that. I knew this was bad because I had read in advance on VSN’s website that they would ask ridiculous tips for their services.

Before I stepped in the taxi I did want to know how much the two guys were going to charge me for the ride, to prevent myself from getting ripped off later. They asked for a tip, and I asked how much they wanted. Of course that’s like asking a wolf how many sheep it wants for dinner. They said € 20 would be fine, and because I was getting desperate because I had no way to contact anyone from VSN and desired to get to VSN’s office at all cost I gave it to them. Later I figured out a reasonable price for a taxi to Pepsi Cola is more like € 3, maybe € 4 (€ 1 is 100 NPR, or Nepalese rupees) Then another guy took my attention and pointed at an entrance of the airport’s building where Sugandha emerged.

I finally met Sugandha, who had been waiting at the airport for hours and had apparently not been aware of the delay of my flight, and my immediate worries were over. I knew the taxi driver and the luggage carrier were not going to refund their tips to me, so I let it slide. I’m still ashamed I allowed them to take advantage of me so easily, but at least I made a good start with stimulating the local economy. Sugandha put my bag in his car and introduced me to his wife Sobha. Then we left the airfield and drove to Sugandha’s house in Pepsi Cola.

Along the way I didn’t have enough eyes to see what was going on along the road we were driving on. It was around five ’o clock and it was busy, lots of people of all kind walking past the road and a lot of traffic. It came as a great surprise to me, because this was not the Kathmandu I expected based on the photos I had seen on the Internet on websites like Flickr and Wikipedia. Most photos seem to portray the areas which are popular with tourists and focus on Nepal’s natural environment. What I was seeing in front of me was without question a developing country. There was waste lying around everywhere, the traffic was very busy, most buildings looked degraded, it was dusty and I could smell a lot of pollution in the air.

On the other hand, Sugandha is relatively well of and while the interior of his house might not look as good as I’m used to in the Netherlands, he does have a TV and DVD player. If I’m to believe a English language Nepali newspaper, there are youth here for whom it would be difficult to live without Facebook. Yet, make yourself no illusions. Pepsi Cola might not be a slum, but the people living here are poor. And I have actually seen slums near the riverside during a bus ride over a bridge between Kathmandu and Pathan.

I hope to post some amazing photos soon, but the Internet connection is not very fast, so no promises.

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