Sunday, November 22, 2009

To Kathmandu and back

The adventure begins

It has been a while since I last wrote.

So I think it only fair that I begin at the end and move backward through time. I am currently sitting in Business Class on Gulf Air en route from Kathmandu to London, via Bahrain.

Yes, I’ve been to Kathmandu and back!!!

The journey begin in January when I attended my first Appreciative Inquiry Workshop with Jim Lord and Gordon Johnson at the Fairmont Southampton. The experience was so life altering, I knew I wanted and needed to learn more.

Fast forward a few months, lo and behold, an AI conference was going to take place in Kathmandu, Nepal. It sounded so far away and so exotic, I thought, I should go but no – could I really see myself going to Kathmandu, a place, I wasn’t quite sure how to find on the world map much less tell you much about it?

Then I made up my mind I really wanted to go, one thing stood in my path – a passport. That is a long, nerve wracking saga best told after many glasses of wine because I know I would start crying, otherwise.

I finally sorted out my passport nightmare which required the cooperation of countless civil servants, three countries and a judge.

I discovered that my mom was taking a course in Farnham, just outside of London, the same dates as the conference in Kathmandu. Wouldn’t it be great to travel as far as London together, that way I could go on to Kathmandu. So said, so done.

I booked our flights to London but still hesitated over whether or not I could really go to Kathmandu. I mean, who goes that great distance for a conference? Finally, after talking it over again with Mark, he said, “Go!” Ten days before the start of the conference I booked my tickets from London, made sure there was room at the hotel and a seat for me at the conference. All the stars aligned and I was ready to think about what I needed to pack for one of the greatest adventures of my life.

Traveling east

Mommy and I got to London – we had a wonderful time together, caught up with Amanda and her mom that will be the subject of another blog! Still in disbelief I readied myself for my sojourn east.

The entire journey to Kathmandu was very smooth. I spent four hours in Bahrain. I took the time to really look at the people and observe their national dress and customs. The thing that struck me was that there were so many men at the airport. I mean the ratio was like nine men to every woman. I had never seen anything like it. I tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible which was a tad difficult as I was the only woman of African descent at the airport.

I boarded the flight on the final stage of the journey. WOW! Kathmandu. I still didn’t know as much about the country as I should but I figured what I didn’t know I could learn while there.

I arrived at the airport after sunset so I couldn’t see the mountains or much of anything, really. That was fine, I later learned that Kathmandu Airport is one of the hardest airports in the world in which to land. The highly skilled pilot has to navigate three mountain heights and almost nose dive at the last minute onto the runway. Glad I didn’t know that as we approached the runway.

The airport wasn’t what I expected, the lighting was less than optimal and I got the sense that there were some stresses on Napal’s precious resources.

I made it through Immigration without a hitch. I went in search of my luggage. Success! It was there waiting for me. I then walked out to find my prearranged transportation. Nothing. No Soaltee Hotel sign. No Yeti Travels sign. No AI Conference sign. So like the seasoned traveler I am, I returned to the arrivals hall to look for approved transportation to the hotel. One guy holding a sign tried to convince me that I should be taken to some institute or the other. I suggested to him that no, he really wasn’t there to collect me.

The transportation official gave me my slip, I paid and was taken to a waiting cab. All I will say is the taxi was 20 years past its prime and the seats were 30 years past their prime. I chose not to dwell on that but instead tried to get a sense of my environment.

Pure and utter chaos is the phase that springs immediately to mind. I remember sitting there in shock at the madness of the drivers on the roads. Motorcycles were speeding in and out of cars as though they owned the road. There was incessant horn blowing, cars aiming for buses and then at the last minute veering off to narrowly miss another vehicle.

I wanted to ask so many questions of my driver but he seemed to give his total attention to the road and being the conscience passenger that I am did not want to distract him with silly questions, especially since there were no street lights and we were navigating partly by stars, or so it seemed.

We arrived at the gates of the hotel, there was a cursory bomb check of the car and we were allowed to enter the premises. I got out and stretched my legs and wobbled my way to the front desk. Everything was ready for me and I even had a note waiting from a lady from Canada who I had agreed to meet while at the conference.

I went to my room, unpacked and then headed to dinner. Was not sure what time it was or what day, given that it was dark, I figured it was a safe bet to eat dinner. The meal was to die for – Chinese, no less.

Making new friends

As I was sitting there eating and reading my book an American gentleman walked up to me and asks me if my last name is Wilson. I look up from my book very curious – am I famous in Kathmandu, after all? Is this one of my fans? Who knows I’m here besides my family, anyway?

He said he had just arrived and came on the hotel bus and they were looking for me at the airport! I explained that I hadn’t seen the sign for the bus so jumped in a cab and made my way to the hotel. He was sitting at a table with about six others so after I ate, I went over and was introduced to everyone and warmly greeted. We all shared our enthusiasm for being at the conference and I bade them a warm good night.

I have to tell you Kathmandu is off by 15 minutes or 45 minutes, depending on how you look at it, from the rest of the world. Not that that helped with my jetlag. I knew I was exhausted because I did not sleep on the flight from London to Bahrain. I slept from Bahrain to Kathmandu but that wasn’t nearly enough shut-eye time.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself wide awake at 3am (Kathmandu time). As much as I tried, I could not go back to sleep so I figured I would watch some Bollywood and check on emails. I talked with my brother and nieces who were at home for the evening and the girls were doing their homework.

The international language of women

I got dressed eventually and made my way downstairs. I met up with a lady, Mariam from Bahrain, who had been sitting at the table I was introduced to the night before. We sat, talked and drank coffee. She invited me to go shopping with her and Barbara. I didn’t know who in the world Barbara was but the magic of shopping grabbed my attention and it really doesn’t matter what nationality you are or what language you speak shopping is an international language in and of itself.

Barbara (an American living in Bahrain) soon joined us and off we went. Mariam and I relied on Barbara’s experience, after all she had been to Kathmandu previously and therefore the expert of the group. Barbara’s sole mission was to find a jacket similar to the one she had purchase 12 years before and desperately needed to replace it.

I have to say, the traffic hadn’t changed from the night before. The atmosphere in Kathmandu is very thick; heavy pollution and dust permeate the air. It is not uncommon to see people with masks on in and around the city.

After a few minutes I got a low-grade headache and my eyes started burning. I was not going to be taken down like that, though. I had to represent my countrymen and show that Bermudians could hang at high altitudes and defeat dust with the best of them – blink, blink, blink, cough, cough, cough!

We spent a few lucrative hours shopping and bonding. Three women from different backgrounds and cultures getting to know each other in Kathmandu. What an experience!!

Mariam and I went on to become almost inseparable during the conference. She and I ventured out together without Barbara and were able to navigate the traffic, bovine and dogs with the best of them.

The Conference

I suppose I should mention the conference at some point, after all this was the point of my journey across ten and a quarter time zones. The registration process was very smooth and I took my seat with the rest of the delegates. I started talking with the people in my immediate vicinity and quickly made friends. Sahadev and I found each other – he had been to Bermuda and had been alerted by Gordon that I would be at the conference.

The President of Nepal opened the proceedings followed by David Cooperider. WOW! What an experience. During the morning break Sahadev and I chatted. I casually asked him if he knew the President who was strolling around shaking hands. He said no but come on. I followed him and we walked up to the President and Sahadev, speaking in Nepolese, told the President I was from Bermuda. He briefly shook my hand and moved on. I wish I knew a few Nepolese words so I could at least said, hello, how are you? Next time!

The first day of the conference went very well. I am truly appreciative of the fact I attended and met the many practitioners and novices who made their way to Nepal.

Climbing Mount Everest

One of the things I wanted to do was to experience the flight past Mount Everest. Mariam did the home work and told me where I had to go and what I had to do to sign up. Off I went, we were booked to take the flight the next morning. We had to be in the hotel lobby by 6am and we would be transferred to the airport, the flight lasted 45 minutes and we were assured we would be back in time for breakfast and the first session … easier said than done. All I would say is that we got back in time for lunch.

Now, the flight. There were about 28 seats on the flight and only about 14 people on the plane. We each had a window seat, which made absolute sense to me. We took off and after a few minutes the flight attendants turned tour guides came and pointing out the various mountain peaks. I didn’t even know there were other mountains near Mount Everest. Talk about a rapid geography lesson. I wish I could tell you I remembered all the names, no such luck. I do remember Everest, though. The tallest in the Himalayan chain.

So the plane goes in one direction and then turns around so the people on the other side of the plane can see the mountains. How cool is that?

The return journey gave me an opportunity to examine closely the area we were flying over. There are some seriously remote villages in the foothills of the Himalayas and I wondered how people got to their homes, how long it took to get to the nearest city and if you had to walk all the way in. I heard the story of a man who lives outside of Nepal, when he returns home it takes a week for him to get to his house!

My thoughts then turned to the more serious, suppose we crashed into the mountains? What a concept. Okay – let’s go to the dark side for a minute, I mean planes crash all the time.

I tried to recall everything I had every heard about surviving a plane crash in the mountains. I think you are encouraged to stay with the plane and don’t go wandering off in search of civilization. I also remember the story of the guy who crashed into the Andes and had to eat his fellow passengers.

I looked around the plane, I was at the back and thought to myself, I’m willing to eat these people, if it comes to that. Satisfied that I had made the right decision I allowed myself to relax and think about possibly climbing Mount Everest one day. I let that thought linger for a while – can I really climb the mountain? Should I have it as a life time goal? Can I convince Mark to do it with me?

As I started laughing hysterically I allowed the crazy idea to evaporate and replaced it with more realistic thoughts – should I buy more pashminas?

I haven’t mentioned Kwan who is from Thailand. We met Kwan in the hotel lobby while waiting for the bus to the airport. We befriended her and funnily enough she and I ended up on the same plane while Mariam and Barbara were together until Barbara made the decision to return to the conference because the plane hadn’t left by 9am and this was the time we were supposed to be back in session.

Keep in mind Kathmandu is not a large airport, especially the domestic side we were in, Kwan and I lost the other two for about an hour. Don’t ask, I am still not clear on what happened. We eventually found each other and all was well with the world.

Flying Business Class

There are so many other highlights of my trip, I can’t believe it is over … as I mentioned I am sitting in Business class on my way back to London. How did this happen, you may ask yourself, especially knowing my penchant to be economical, or as my brother would say, cheap.

Well, Marian was also scheduled to leave today – Friday. Her flight was later than mine but she changed flight so we could travel together. Wonderful! Another lady joined us in the taxi to the airport, Angela from South Africa. The three of us quickly became fast friends and were soon laughing and talking our heads off as though we had known each other for years.

When we arrived at the airport, we learned Mariam was traveling in business class. We asked to be upgraded but the man checking us in could not commit. We made our way through the various check points and went to the Executive Lounge. Mariam couldn’t get us in so Angela and I went to the restaurant and had instant coffee while Mariam was in the Lounge. She eventually came back with the Gulf Air Country Manager who is from Bahrain, Mariam, who I’m convinced is a member of the Royal Family in Bahrain, worked her magic and presto, Angela and I were upgraded to Business Class and Mariam was upgraded to first class!!

Upon reflection

I look back at my time in Kathmandu fondly. The country is extremely poor. There are women and children on the street begging, it breaks your heart. There was a woman sitting on the street who had leprosy. I walked past her and the sight of her disfigured face, hands and feet tore at my stomach. There was a bakery a few paces away I went in and bought bread, rolls and a few other things and took it back to her. At least this way I knew she would have food. You never know what happens to the money you give to people. Others may take it, but at least with food, she and her family can eat.

I saw another sight that will stay with me for a long time – some cows were traveling in the back of an open truck. One of the cows was standing and it looked as though it was giving birth. I pointed this out to Mariam and we looked closer and realized that the cow wasn’t giving birth, it was disfigured and there were two legs sticking out of its butt. We saw another cow a few minutes later with a leg sticking out of its back! How is all this possible?

My last full day in Kathmandu started at the conference. I was beside Mariam and casually mentioned that there were still a few items I had to purchase before I left this amazing country.

We listened to a gentlemen, Albie Sachs, a judge from South Africa tell his story. He had lost his arm during a bombing of his car that was designed to take his life. His story was riveting. I wish I could do it justice, I can’t, so I won’t retell it. I do know he wrote a book, if you get a chance Google him.

A final shopping excursion

As we approached the first morning break, Mariam and I looked at each other and with just sign language we decided this was the perfect time to go and have a last look around the city we had grown fond of and return to the shop where we felt the best deals could be had.

I have to mention, I have become known as The Banker on this trip. Mariam and Barbara put me in charge of price negotiations. They couldn’t buy anything until I had had an opportunity to get the best prices. By the time we left I had it down to a fine science.

I sit here half way to Bahrain and know I made the right decision to come half way around the world.

I don’t know when or if I will be back but Kathmandu will go into the archives of my mind as one of the experiences that will help to define my Appreciative Inquiry journey.

1 comment:

MissBermuda said...

To know you is truly to love you. It was a pleasure to read of your experiences. You certainly reminded me of things that I don't normally see - the disfigured cow, deteriorating infrastructure, the woman with leprosy.
You have unintentionally reminded me of my blessings and how easy it is to be a blessing to others.

Thanks for sharing!