When the plane started descending, I opened the shutter and looked out for the first time. I expected to see a million yellow street bulbs shining in the night, the surprise of a city being even larger than I could imagine and the red lights of the cars travelling through highways like little fast ants through labyrinths. And then, as we got closer, maybe the layout of the city, the shape of the blocks, which areas were the fanciest, the houses with a backyard and maybe even a pool, and which ones were just landscapes of miserable existence, where people lived together like chicken, waiting to lay eggs, die and be eaten.
I saw none of that as our plane approached Kathmandu. Just darkness. I closed the shutter; you should never ask too many questions when it was yourself who chose to be put in a ridiculous situation. Floating in the middle of the sky in a tin box, that´s what I mean. There was not much to think about and a lot to accept as it came; reason does not really apply effectively every time.
I had slept during most of the flight. I had had a lot of help from whiskey, pills and three sleepless nights prior to the flight. I was thankful, most of it had occurred without me even noticing. The seat belt sign turned on and a lady´s voice spread through the plane. Had I been a native English speaker, I would have taken the microphone from her hands and delivered the message myself. One´s language can only take so much offence.
Anyway, it was only then that I noticed I had two seat companions. They most certainly weren´t there when I first got on the plane. A woman and a man. Their hair was straight and dark as black amber. Did they know each other? The loud humming of the plane and the annoying voice from the speakers vanished as I tried hard to figure my neighbours out. Their eyes were facing the front of the plane and every hand I could see was resting on its corresponding knee. There was no sign of physical closeness, yet their hair was so the same it could have been all twisted into a single braid.
I felt in my stomach how the plane stopped descending and just flew into a void in time, a soft caressing of the clouds. Then it happened: the one on my right bent her head over the other one´s shoulder, the hands on the knees moved rapidly and scrambled into a hand holding frenesí. They kissed, they were Chinese and married, I saw rings. My eyes were immediately drawn to her feet. They were as big as mine, bigger maybe; she was wearing short white socks with red ribbons in the front. I had recently gone to the doctor for a checkup and in the waiting room I had read a magazine article about Chinese women´s feet. Apparently, until a hundred years ago or so, it was almost impossible for Chinese women to find a husband if they had big feet. Small feet were seen as a symbol of beauty and sexual appeal. In order to get them, a young girl´s mother would breake all of her girl´s toes and wrap them tightly in silk bandages. They did this every day of their lives. And when their mothers were dead and the girls became too old to do it themselves, their daughters in law would do it for them, maybe even their sons. When this tradition was banned, families kept doing it in secret and girls would hide their feet from police officers and politicians. I was amazed I could just stare at this woman´s feet with entire freedom, her socks looked really comfortable.
My hand was swollen from the plane. I followed the blue veins that led to my knuckles and my nervous bony fingers. My grandmother had a limited repertoire of stories about each of her grandchildren´s lives. She used to tell me the same one every time she held my hands.
-The day you were born and the nurse handed you to your father, the first thing he did was count all your fingers and toes-. Apparently, only when he saw I had all twenty digits, my father begun breathing again. My grandmother found this hilarious for some reason; I always think about what would have happened to me if I hadn´t been so lucky as to have all my body parts. Would my father have been too alarmed? Anyway, who cared about fingers? In my father´s place, I would have wished for better things for my daughter than twenty meaningless sticks poking out of her extremities. I would have wished for beauty, beauty and extreme insensitivity.
Anyway, I knew I was in Kathmandu because of my grandmother and there was extensive work to be done. The plane´s final descent was announced. I squeezed the seat with my hands. My heart was racing.
-When you get nervous, say before an exam, and your heart starts pumping like crazy and your hands sweat and your pulse shakes, this is your body getting ready to fight or run away fast. We live the way we do, yes, but don´t forget we are just animals: we are designed to hunt and look for shelter-, she once said to me.
The international airport in Kathmandu was a two-story wooden house on the outskirts of the city. It was only when I was waiting in line to go through immigration that I realized how different I looked compared to everyone around me. Women in colorful dresses made of one piece of cloth, long hair tied in the back and dark lines under their eyes were walking around carrying their babies. Men pushed enormous old woolen suitcases, screaming children ran around holding hands and single ladies hid in the corners of the room. Signs all around me read Welcome to Nepal. Some of them were accompanied by curious facts aiming to familiarize visitors with the Nepalese culture. Did you know? In Kathmandu, horning is almost a language in itself.
The two men behind the counter wore long grey dresses. The desk was wooden and full of scars. It was roofed with small pieces of white paper, just like the one I was holding inside my passport. Where are you from, how old, are you a criminal and how many days are you spending in our country? All this information from countless strangers flew around in a hurricane around the top of the desk. I could barely see the men´s faces among all the little paper doves that went up and down and to the front and the back. The magnificence of the scene made it almost worth filling out the paperwork; so many facts, so much time and ink and paper invested in this beautiful piece of performing art.
-Fifty American dollars, miss.
I didn’t have any cash on me and I told him so.
-ATM machine! ATM machine!, the other one said pointing out with one hand while he stamped a passport with the other. His eyes wandering fast from one thing to the next.
-Do you take credit cards?
He shook his head, his eyes shut as he wiggled it from side to side, I knew exactly what he’d say. He wouldn’t stop until I moved out of his sight, so I did.
The machine was off and chained, a sign hung from the lock: closed for Dashain/ geschlossen für Dashain/ fermé pour Dashain.
-Go out, go out,- he looked disappointed, as if reproving my behavior.
I made my way to the stairs, the air in the last floors turned damp. There weren’t any carousels, but I did see my orange bag standing in a corner, surrounded by all types and sizes of luggage. I walked out through a wooden old door and into Nepal. A big crowd of taxi drivers stood around the gates, lurking for passengers in the darkness of the night. I chose one, he was smoking a cigarette, resting on the hood of his car. He spoke English.
-I need 50 dollars to pay for my visa. Do you think I can borrow them from you, take your taxi and pay for everything when we get to my hotel? After a small digression from my request –Where do you come from? What’s your name, madam? Which hotel? Anywhere you can recommend! - I got a bunch of rupees. I wanted to kiss the man, but previous experience had taught me that when in doubt about kissing someone, it’s better not to.
I took a quick look to make sure my bag was still standing in the corner although everyone had left; it looked lonely, like a young orange oriole that missed the seasonal migration. I rushed upstairs, skipped the queue and proudly waved the bills in front of the man. He was so tall that the curly hair on his head looked like the branches of a tree. He took the bills and counted them on the table, his eyes looking way down to his roots.