Stepping off the plane into a new world

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I arrived into Kathmandu on a Korean Air plane. Most of my fellow passengers were Korean or Japanese trekkers. I deduced this from the hiking boots and high end gear they wore. Despite my inability to speak Korean, the excitement as the plane began its decent palpably filled the cabin. A frenetic energy shifted into the voices and body language of twitching feet and hand gestures. Everyone craned for a view of the Himalayas, myself included.

The moment the plane touched the runway at ten people shot out of their seats and headed for the overhead compartments before the plane even slowed on the tarmac. I chuckled inwardly as the stewardesses chased them down, herding them back to their seats. As the plane continued to taxi, more people popcorned out of their seats, the stewardesses bustling after them. Clearly, every passenger felt the pull of Nepal, the Himalayas, the rich history, and culture. They wanted their feet on that old soil, immediately.

Eventually the plane stopped. To disembark this 450 seat plane, we descended a staircase from the front door of the aircraft. Stepping out onto that staircase, amidst the throng of fellow passengers, I felt the Nepali air for the first time. The sun shone brightly above, in that clarity that only winter can achieve. The air felt simultaneously cold and warm. It lacked the icy bite of winter moisture that I grew up with. My first breath in Nepal greeted me with air pregnant with fragrances.

Later, when walking through the busy streets of Kathmandu, I would recognize the mixture of spices and sizzling street cooking that mingle with the cloying, sticky-sweet smell of incense, the acrid burn of wood smoke, and the punch of diesel that thickened the air into its unique first impression.

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As I disembarked the plane, I recognized one of my fellow volunteers, Jasmine. Early in the flight, I met another colleague Emma. We gathered together and helped each other weave through the mysterious immigration, baggage claim, and customs declaration. Moving swiftly past the optional baggage X-ray machine, we stepped out into Nepal for the first time. We were greeted with a window to the outdoors, packed firmly with taxi and bus driver’s beckoning eagerly. In the few seconds it took us to orient, we were approached three times by various driver’s helpfully placing their hands on our luggage. A gently ‘No thank you’ and wave of the hand sufficed the first time, and luckily we spotted Andrew Schlabach (the Acupuncture Relief Project’s co-founder) and Elissa Chapman (our team leader) bouncing up and down in the arrival waiting room. We had arrived and we had help.

Once we got our baggage to the minivan Andrew had hired to get us to our hotel in the Thamel district. Andrew welcomed us to Nepal by hugging each of us and placing white, silk Tibetan scarves or khatas around each neck. A khata is traditionally given as a sign of respect and love. In Tibetan buddhism, it is a custom to give a khata to a monk or teacher, and they will bless it and return it to the giver.

With our khatas around our necks, we hopped into the minivan and left the chaos of the airport around us. First impressions: they drive on the left side of the road in Nepal, if the driver chooses to stick to a side. The roads are very congested with cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, street dogs, monkeys, and people. Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Honking is a necessity on Nepali streets and occurs frequently. Cars rarely stop for pedestrians gathered at street corners or crosswalks. The safest way to cross the street appears to walk slowly and predictably out into traffic and allow the traffic to slow or swerve around you. Later in the day when we practiced this form of street crossing, I began to more clearly understand faith. The rules of the road as Andrew informed us in our first car ride in Nepal are: ‘if it is bigger than you, then it has the right of way.’ I witnessed the truth of this many times in our short drive.

After arriving at our hotel, The Earth House, we tucked our belongings away and ventured forth, single file for the first time in Kathmandu. Walking on the street in Kathmandu for the first time created a sensory overload. At all times you must be vigilant of automobiles and bikes. The air is filled with honking and bike chimes. The streets are narrow and can barely pass a car at times, and yet everyone motorbike, car, cyclist play chicken in transit. The streets are lined with shops full of colorful, shiny, fascinating things and shopkeepers eager to draw you inside. The smells saturate everything and the architecture projects the weight of time from each buildings elaborate carvings.

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And yet, I soaked it in. Despite the chaos of traffic and the shopping district, I felt immense love for this country and each moment thrust into this old city. I knew the jetlag tugged on my senses, making every new experience stronger and slightly overwhelming. I relaxed into that feeling of overwhelm, knowing I have a few days to adjust before heading over to the clinic in Chapagaon.

I’ll write more about the influx of information, new experiences and culture in the next couple of days. But for now, it is time to drink some coffee and start a new day of adventures. Stay tuned.

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