It is Heathrow that is the first culture shock. I live in small town rural England. As I exit the lift on the departure floor of Terminal 2, I remember the reason for my decision to do so. I am overwhelmed by the scale of the building. The roof of the five-storey concourse towers high above the floors, all of which are simultaneously visible through enormous plate glass windows. The spacious and near deserted lift plaza gives way to an even more spacious departure hall, swarming with ants, scurrying purposefully about. They cluster round the bright lights of what used to know as check in desks. But at Heathrow, we no longer check in at desks. Instead, all we ants must select the machine relevant to our journey, which scans our ant passports and prints baggage labels for our ant suitcases. Hive police stand around giving the appearance of being helpful. We know their true function is to keep the lines of ants moving, trudging ever forward in service of the hill queen most of us will never glimpse. Our bags are weighted and loaded onto the conveyor belt. The anthill opens its mechanised jaws and swallows them, leaving me wondering if we shall ever see them again. I disclose my cochlear implant to the young ant behind the counter, for it may set off the scanners in security. She morphs instantly into human mode, talks unintelligibly into a phone and smiles. There are words, but the smile is enough to say the aberration that is my hearing has been noted in the anthill mainframe, its implications absorbed and neutralised. I am reassured that I will not disrupt the smooth proceedings of the anthill.
I proceed into the departure lounge through a security channel that I do not trigger and squander two precious hours of my remaining life on a healthy breakfast and The Telegraph newspaper. Their supply shortens by the day, these precious hours, yet still I make choices based on rituals developed over a lifetime. Newspapers tell me almost nothing I want to know any more. They are filled with wars and rumours of wars that unsettle me to the point where frequently I must stop reading to dry my eyes; this, and the err-ings of the grace-fallen who stumble through the mists of gleeful public disapprobation into the chill of tomorrow morning’s anonymity. Yet still I buy them, these newspapers, expending resource imprudently with inadequate evaluation, for they are as much a ritual to me as a first degree initiation in the United Grand Lodge or a liturgy to an Anglo-Catholic.
The flight is called and a mercifully short walk to the Thai Airways gate brings me into contact with smiles hovering over prayerful hands and many Namastes. It is my intention to sleep the flight away but I cannot. I share my insomnia with Captain America who has evidently fallen out with Ironman (I’m not certain why, for there are no English subtitles on the movie). Much alpha male dominance ritual is enacted in a carefully choreographed super-pugilism that leaves both protagonists astonishingly unharmed – unlike the wars in the newspapers. I find myself wondering if Captain America reads The Telegraph. Ironman is too busy with the blocked thruster jets in his shoes to disclose his reading preferences.
Eleven hours sleeplessness deposits me in Bangkok airport where I experience no culture shock whatsoever. This might be Thailand, but the differences from Heathrow are insignificant. I am profoundly relieved to discover that I can still buy as many Cartier watches, Hermes handbags and Agent Provocateur perfumes as I might wish. Here I meet my dear friend Rj, a healer of profound spiritual connection, and soon we are once more lost in a conversation that has little to do with Cartier handbags or Captain America. Food for the soul; I am making this pilgrimage for edification and insight and I am delighted to find it has started already over a Starbucks coffee in Bangkok airport. Surely this bodes well for the next two weeks.
I snooze my way though a shorter flight to be woken by the lowering of the aircraft undercarriage as we descend into Kathmandu airport. A single glance from the window brings white mountains and a green valley peppered with well spaced buildings. Is this Kathmandu or Shangri la, I wonder? I am as seduced as I am disarmed, despite the fact that we have not yet even landed. Kathmandu airport is indeed a culture shock. Even the officials smile as they point us to lines for visas and immigration. All is small scale, reminding me of how my UK regional airport, Bournemouth, used to look fifteen years ago. I could almost expect Biggles to emerge from a side door complete in leather hat and flyers jacket. But this is the 21st Century, and we have flown far from James Bigglesworth’s racist values – at least superficially. Perhaps it is a good thing that if you’re under 60 years of age you’ll not have a clue what I’m talking about.
As we pass the immigration barrier into Nepal we are offered prepaid taxis to the city centre – a better idea than negotiating with independent drivers, it seems. Rj heads off to his four day training course in singing bowl healing, a technique in which I know him to be already proficient. I step into my taxi having mentioned conversationally that I want to take a mountain flight in the next few days. A young gentleman joins the driver in the front with the intention of taking me somewhere I can book it on the way to the hotel. Hmm. Was this a wise move? Already the wheels of commerce are turning and the smiles seem to be merely pocket deep.
Nothing could have prepared me for Kathmandu. I have been to third world cities (no disrespect intended) before, but none have compared to this. As the streets become narrower the traffic gets louder. Drivers make little allowance for motorcyclists and pedestrians as we pass both within inches and at speed. Everywhere is commerce. Street vendors weighing onions on the back of bicycles jostle spice sellers offering rainbows powders next to broom sellers vending witches broomsticks from underground shops. Meat is sold open aired and unrefrigerated on street corners complete with flies at no additional charge. Garlands of paper flowers hang in profusion over incense, shoes and books in English. And everywhere an un-orchestrated carcoughany (spelling intended) colludes in a sunset chorus of mechanised motion.
Later, after I have checked in at Mums Home Hotel and lain for a couple of sleepless hours on my bed, I will venture out on foot, knowing that as a tourist I am fair game to rickshaw drivers, self appoint tour guides, restaurant owners and even the unscrupulous ‘student’’ who wants ‘only to practice his English’ on me as I walk. We have fallen into conversation and are proceeding further than I had planned, as the light starts to fade. I see my mistake and turn to retrace my steps, but not before he has requested a donation for the orphanage he represents. He doesn’t think my 100 rupee note sufficient for his ‘services’. My opinion differs and is immutable. It’s going to be that kind of trip. As I retrace my steps to Mum’s Home I resolve that on this trip I shall let myself be taken for more than is strictly necessary. Resources here are scarce and I will take away with me much value in what I see, experience, and I hope, learn. In my first few hours Kathmandu has already begun my education.