Bracing for impact, I walked toward the airport’s final corridor, the one that would spit me into the steamy Kathmandu morning. The flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu had been filled with business travelers clicking madly on computers, sleepy families watching a Bollywood movie on the overhead televisions, and attendants offering passengers spicy snacks and miniature cans of Coke. The airport was loud with announcements over the PA and swollen with Nepali nationals returning home after two-year work stints in the Persian Gulf. I suspected that the most comfortable part of my journey was about to end.
I slung my brown, weathered backpack over my left shoulder, took a couple of deep breaths, and strode confidently into an olfactory barrage. Thick pollution, human waste, and burning garbage mingled with jasmine-scented incense, sandalwood perfume, and cardamom, coriander, and cumin. You could wander the Indian subcontinent to its farthest margins — from the Hindu Kush to the Bay of Bengal, from the Maldivian archipelago to the Himalayan massif—but you could never mistake its unique combination of scents for anywhere else on the planet.
Above me, the outside arch of Tribhuvan International Airport was decorated with bas-reliefs depicting tantric acts and scenes of mutilation. Before me and beyond a swath of moist earth, the early-morning fog hung like a ghostly cloak around the bony shoulders of a cadre of men huddled behind a barbed-wire barricade: the final hurdle between First World and Third.
I understood, on some level, that it was now or never. I understood that if I weren’t fully committed to the mountain-size task I’d been assigned, I should simply turn around and head back home. But I didn’t turn around. Instead, I stood tall, accepted the challenges of the life I’d chosen, and took a giant leap of faith into the unknown. And that leap of faith was a rush like I’d never felt before.
The men, whom I understood from a customs officer to be the crafty pilots of taxis and three-wheeled boxlike vehicles called tuk tuks, appeared to stand in solidarity, united as brothers in a proletarian trade, yet simultaneously willing to slash their nearest competitors’ tires for cab fare.
They looked restrained, even orderly, as they waited quietly behind the barricade and a group of six gun-toting soldiers dressed in purple fatigues. But I knew they’d be starved for business. The heaviness of the drivers’ hungry, hollow gazes wrapped around me like leg-irons and slowed my progress down the cement exit ramp. I was buying time—one foreigner against a mob on its home turf, nervous about being taken advantage of—and the drivers knew it.
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