Of the approximately 44,000 airports globally, Nepal is home to several of the world’s most dangerous. A month before we were scheduled to touch down on a Kathmandu runway, 49 people were killed when a plane approached the same runway from the wrong direction, crashed, and burst into flames.
I was borderline agoraphobic not 3 months before this trip. I was afraid to leave my house. And here I am, on a plane descending into Nepal…about as far away from my home, my dog, my bed, and my coffee pot as I could get.
In my dingy plane seat, I am like a kid in a quiet house after watching a scary movie. I overhype every little sound and vibration the plane makes on its descent. Everything is a reason for my anxiety to lose its freaking mind.
But with a shudder and a groan, the plane stops. We get our things. We wait our turn. And, with a certainty that we have just cheated death, I step into the Nepali sunshine.
Our tour starts here in Nepal’s capital. The plan is to road trip from Kathmandu to the Nepali national forest, Chitwan. Then Lumbini, the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama. From there, we will cross the Indian border and head for Varanasi, the world’s oldest continually occupied city. Then to Agra, home of the incomparable Taj Mahal; Jaipur, with her sprawling street markets and famously mischievous monkeys. And finally, Delhi. The tour company calls this route The Pilgrimage.
We enter a small hall right off the runway and join a queue to get our visas. Every resource online said that travelers destined for Nepal should obtain their visas at the airport after arriving. This consistently gave me heartburn. “What if they refuse to let us in? What if some quota is instated the day before we arrive? What if we need some document and don’t find out until we’re there and can’t access it?” Anxiety is creative.
Around me, my fellow travelers are as diverse as the world itself—Planet Earth in microcosm. I hear French, Mandarin, Australian and British accents, and in front of me, a young woman holding a Ukrainian passport is struggling to stay awake. Some people are clearly climbers, with Everest Basecamp in their sights, and others are obviously religious pilgrims in the birth country of Buddha.
As we inch our way closer to the visa application machines, we can see people getting frustrated. Turns out, the machines provide very little instruction and only in English. There are no attendants. And the user interface is confusing. Anxiety’s ears perk up, “I tried to warn you.”
But then the English speakers in the crowd step up. Using rudimentary sign language, they point to fields on the screen and then to the lines in their fellow travelers’ passports indicating what information is needed to fill out their application.
The Ukrainian in front of me hands me her passport and shrugs toward the screen. I help her type in her passport number, her name, her date of birth…hypersensitive information that she would never have shared with anyone, much less a stranger from another country.
When the final prompt asks for a photo of the applicant, everyone responds the same way. No one wants to have their picture taken after traveling untold hours in a cramped plane. Nervous laughs and eye rolls as ball caps and glasses are removed. But it’s okay because eventually, everyone has to do it. No shame here, friend. We’re all dealing with the same crap together.
My Ukrainian friend sticks right beside us through all the different stages of entering the country: visa application, currency exchange, receiving our visas, and finally admission into the country. We stand in lines together for hours, unable to speak many words between us. But we smile at each other.
One of the clever little lies Anxiety frequently whispers in my ear is that humans should not be trusted (especially the ones that are different from me). They are wicked and treacherous and selfish and conniving. They destroy the earth and each other and everything good.
The reason this lie is clever is because, once it is planted, it is like the hardiest grass and almost anything will encourage its growth. Anxiety says, “Humans are not to be trusted.” and Depression says, “It’s true, just listen to the news.”
The seeds Anxiety plants, Depression will water. I’m not minimizing the fact that humans are capable of great evil (because we are). But to focus on our capacity for great evil without giving equal airtime to our capacity for great good is unbalanced at best and delusional at worst.
And there’s another subtle trick in Anxiety’s lie: it’s never, “WE are wicked.” It is always, “THEY are wicked.” Such a deadly slight of hand that fuels racism, sexism, agism – almost all the ‘isms’.
In this shabby little airport, watching total strangers help each other navigate clunky visa machines, I feel a little sunshine on my soul. Yes, humans maliciously steal each others’ identities. But they also help each other apply for visas in Nepalese airports.
We jump into a taxi after waiting to exit the airport. Other motorists buzz around us, observing no apparent lanes or signs or speed limits or capacity limits of their vehicles. This is my first encounter with Indian/Nepali traffic and it will never pale in its ability to flood my senses.
We zoom through alleyways that look too narrow for our car by several inches but somehow, we make it out the other side without losing our side mirrors. It is hot inside the car but, when the windows are rolled down, the dust makes it impossible to breathe.
Crisscrossing above all the dust and honking vehicles are hundreds of high-line wires. They dangerously wrap around the tops of telephone poles like spaghetti noodles in the prongs of a fork before dispersing in every direction. I can hear Anxiety scribbling down careful notes like some sort of self-appointed safety inspector and I try to ignore her.
Tim keeps looking at me, saying incredulously, “We’re in Nepal right now! Can you believe we’re in Nepal right now?!” He loves this stuff.
We arrive at our hotel and drop our bags in our room before meeting up with our tour group in the small, humid hotel restaurant. They are all women, right around the same age as Tim and I, with the exception of our male guide, Anant, who looks to be about 10 years older than us.
Now that I am finally sitting still, exhaustion begins to set in. If I were to lay down right now, I would easily sleep for hours. But the group is going out into the city to get dinner, and I can see that my extroverted husband really wants to go too.
“Yeah, let’s go get some dinner,” the tigress says. I’m glad we do. We quickly find out that it is Hindu New Year’s Eve and Kathmandu is electric with excitement. We join the throng that fills the dirt streets and wind our way around piles of rubble and parked cars. In the streets, oil lamps shaped just like Aladdin’s flicker, and hundreds of colorful prayer flags stretch from building to building.
Everything is so close together. Anxiety reminds me of the earthquakes and mudslides that slammed Nepal a few years prior and points out how the city is like so many Jenga towers side by side. We make our way to a small staircase between two storefronts.
Upstairs, a cozy restaurant, dimly lit, is filled with celebrating climbers. The hosts push several tables together, hobbling together a space big enough to accommodate our group, and we sit down. We eat papadum (a paper-thin, crispy bread) and traditional Nepalese style dal bhaat: curried chicken with spicy black and yellow lentils served over fragrant basmati rice. It is delicious. But, after we eat, I quickly began to crash.
An element of my Anxiety is socially oriented. As an introvert, my social battery dies quickly and, paired with Anxiety, I feel myself deteriorate rapidly when I’m overstimulated for too long. In the loud, overcrowded restaurant, coupled with travel-weariness and dehydration, I can feel myself losing grip. But I tough it out until the group returns to the hotel.
Late that night, asleep in our humid hotel room, I suddenly hear loud booming and people screaming outside. All the careful notes Anxiety had been taking throughout the day – notes about the earthquakes, the haphazard city infrastructure, the mudslides – converge on my subconscious and I wake up in a panic attack. I am certain, in my stupor, that the sounds are from an earthquake. In reality, it is just New Year celebrations: fireworks, music, and revelry. But my panic is uncontrollable.
As I tremble in the hotel bed, I think, “I can’t do this. I have to go home. I have to.” The tigress is gone. She left me, a shivering sweaty mess, in Kathmandu. My husband snores gently beside me, unaware of the commotion outside the hotel or inside my head. I am devastated with myself. He had so looked forward to this trip but I can’t keep going. It is just too much, too soon.
So the next morning, we take a taxi back to the airport and catch the next flight home. I resume my routine, fall deeper into my depression, and wrestle guilt for the rest of my life for having quit that first night in Nepal.
This is almost how the story ended.
In the beginning of great stories, the Hero is often faced with a ‘will she or won’t she?’ moment. This moment is when the Hero must decide to make a change. To do something different. To take a stand.
That one decision puts them on a completely different path than the one they would’ve walked. On Hindu New Year’s Eve in Kathmandu, I faced my ‘will she or won’t she?’ moment.
Will she keep going? Or will she go home? Will she take a risk? Or will she run back to what she knows is safe?
I take a few deep, intentional breaths. And then I turn to Anxiety:
“I am here now, for better or worse. And I am staying. I will show up for the tour tomorrow. I will see this trip out.”
My heart doesn’t stop racing. I don’t go back to sleep. Those living with Anxiety know that there is no magic spell or trick to pull you out of a panic attack. But I do make a decision.
And I hear the tigress slip back into the room.