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September 4, 2008 / calebdresser


I was sad to leave Kathmandu. I could have happily spent a lot longer wandering the varied streets and looking for opportunities to ask people politically sensitive questions, not to mention enjoying the pleasant climate. Facts being what they were, though, I was traveling with a science team on a tight schedule, so the eighth of August found me on the tarmac at the airport, scratching my chin and looking at a potbellied prop-plane of the very appropriately named Buddha Air.

In a state of mild amusement – this plane ticket had cost nearly as much as the jetliner flight from Delhi – I ambled over, climbed up all three of the steps needed to elevate me to cabin-level, and found a convenient chair-like nook to strap myself into. An elegant young woman appeared at my elbow, smiled, said hello, and then without warning shoved a large wad of cotton fuzz into my startled hands. From this I learned that our airline had decided the weight of a stewardess plus cottonballs was more valuable than the weight of soundproofing. Doing my best to fill my skull with more fluff than it had already come by naturally, I was unconvinced.

Still, I must admit that they made a real effort. I was offered newspapers in Hindi, English, and Nepali, and thanks to the size of the plane I got to watch the takeoff through the windshield. The flight even included a drink service, in which our spruced-up flight attendant crawled through the cabin pouring Mountain Dew on people out of a big green bottle. I spent most of the time looking at clouds, hiding my camera, watching the stewardess, and taking pictures out the window when she turned her back and there was anything worth photgraphing.

The terai, Nepal’s rice bowl

After landing on the cracked pavement of the Bhairahawa airstrip, we climbed back down the three steps and I made a mental note to stop leaving the mountains every time I got used to being a comfortable temperature. While the first beads of perspiration congregated just above the bridge of my nose, the other passengers – all ten of them – waited for their bags to be retrieved from the plane, and the guy who’d strapped his skiis to the roof-rack went to get them down… ok maybe not, but I think my point is clear.

Someone, probably government troops, had decided to sandbag the airport, so every corner of the terminal sported a protected position or an unoccupied machine-gun nest. I hardly saw the point; the Maoist insurgents never worried about air superiority and they still won the war, but I guess once you have soldiers under your command you might as well keep them busy. The people around Bhairahawa hardly seem the type to fight a revolution – growing rice and smuggling fertilizer in from India on bicycles are more pressing concerns, and besides, its just too hot.

Sandbags on the roof of the Bhairahawa airport

A senior scientist from the agriculture station met us outside the terminal with a jeep and driver. The road to town was indistinguishable from those I’ve traversed in Nepal’s large neighbor to the south, right down to the advertisements and the uniformly Indian-manufactured vehicles, although there were fewer of these on the roads thanks to fuel rationing. We arrived in a cloud of dust at the best (and only) hotel in town, where we agreed to pay thousands of rupees for the privilege of lugging around enormous brass keys attached to room number tags on which I briefly considered cooking a pizza. Perhaps sensing my hunger, our new guide shepherded us to the research station, where we shunted from office to office in a seemingly endless succession of courtesy calls that blissfully ended with a plate full of rice and vegetable dishes in the canteen.

Street scene outside our hotel in Bhairahawa, Nepal

After our meal, we received a tour of the field experiments, which looked well-run but were not too interesting to look at as they had been transplanted not long before, so treatment differences had yet to become apparent. I kept myself amused asking questions about rice while trying to envision the geological forces at work beneath my feet and capture the front range of hills they had produced on my increasingly senile camera.

Foothills of the Himalaya rise out of the terai beyond the research fields



Leave a Comment
  1. Becky / Sep 6 2008 5:43 pm

    Caleb, whenever I look at your photos I find it difficult to believe that you were holding the camera, your feet on the ground several feet below the lens.

  2. Leeann / Sep 14 2008 7:38 pm

    Sounds like a very… unique flight experience, there. I can’t imagine landing at an airport and seeing sandbags. I pat you on the back for staying composed in situations like that.

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