Turbulent Travels with Buddha in Nepal
Posted on Jun 13, 2012 / Author: Per Unheim / Tags: Human Rights and Development, Education, Culture and Communities, air travel, Buddha Airlines, Nepal
As we felt our chubby Buddha Airlines turbo prop lift off from Kathmandu airport’s domestic runway, our team of six Nepali and three international consultants breathed a collective sigh of relief. Despite an hour’s delay and the onset of increasingly inclement weather, we were on our way to our destination: Dharan Sub-Metropolitan City, the historic home of Nepal’s Ghurka soldiers. Well, almost…
The weather at this time of year in Nepal seems oddly predictable: sunny mornings and afternoons followed by overcast skies that quickly turn much darker. After nightfall comes light rain, followed by bolts of lightning that light up the Kathmandu Valley and thunder that shakes the foundation of the city’s predominantly brick and mortar buildings.
When you are not flying and sitting safely in the warm and comfortable confines of your hotel, it’s easy to enjoy this weather. Having spent most of the last 12 years in eastern Canada, it even makes me feel at home, given the parallels between these storms and those that roll through southern Ontario and Quebec during the humid summer months. But when you have to fly regularly for work while on assignment in Nepal, even moderately bad weather only means delays, cancellations, and a lot of confusion and anxiety.
This proved to be the case during our first attempted flight to Dharan via Biratnagar in the country’s southeast and near the border with the Indian state of Bihar. Delayed over an hour for unexplained reasons in Kathmandu, we were optimistic about reaching our destination that same evening as we were shuttled out onto the tarmac to our waiting plane. Though the skies were now a deep grey, we still had little reason to doubt that we would reach our destination: no message had been conveyed about possible weather trouble, or at least not about the type of weather that could force a radical change in routing.
Halfway though the 35-minute flight, however, “that type of weather” surfaced. After one big drop followed by more stomach-rattling turbulence, we were advised by the pilot that due to unfriendly weather coming our way, we would be returning to Kathmandu. Only a short time later – and after making a sweeping u-turn at about 10,000 feet – came a second announcement that, as if it had been planned all along, we were now commencing our descent to Kathmandu, so would we kindly fasten our seatbelts and store our electronic devices. Gladly, we all thought.
Stepping off the plane back at our original point of departure, it was now raining lightly and it was clear that the weather would only get worse. We recovered our bags, sorted out our rescheduled flight for early the next morning and confirmed that, due to a likely city-wide strike by Maoist extremists, we would have to travel to the airport before daybreak the next day. By the time we left the airport, the rain had picked up and the anticipated thunder and lightning soon followed. Turning around mid-flight was a wise decision after all.
Though also delayed, our flight the next morning to Biratnagar arrived safely and featured a view of the towering Himalayas prior to takeoff, a mix of sun and light, puffy clouds, and a smooth descent to our destination. We were even able to start our work as planned by 10am that morning, just as our municipal government counterparts were arriving at their offices.
Though our schedule wasn’t badly affected in this particular case, stories such as this are all too common in Nepal and illustrate one of the many challenges of working in this small, under-resourced and geographically and climatically diverse nation. While the weather may appear perfectly calm in Kathmandu, which is close to the geographic heart of the country, conditions can easily be much different at one’s destination, even if only 25 minutes away by plane. These variations combined with an outdated domestic flight check-in and boarding process can easily fray the nerves of even the most experienced traveler. Flyers should bring extra reserves of patience, the most precious of attributes, when working in this small but seemingly vast South Asian country.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.