Sunday morning came bright early and at 8:59 am I was at Everest Travels.
Less than 5 minutes later I was sitting in the private office of the manager.
“S… Tobacco picked it up. Your ticket is with them.”, he was apologetic. “But I can call my contact at home and find out who has it now”.
He made the call and turned to me.
“He’s coming right over now. Please wait here”.
Twenty minutes later a faintly annoyed man bustled into the room.
“Where were you? I sent the driver to the airport but you were not there. He has the ticket and your hotel reservation with him”.
His tone was accusatory and he brushed aside my attempt to explain that I had waited 90 minutes for someone to show up and there was only one flight in the morning from Calcutta so what the hell was he talking about.
One hour later I was being driven to the airport to catch the flight to Simra. My own reservation had been cancelled. Everest Travel took care of that. Finally I was back at Kathmandu airport waiting to board the plane to the little town in the plains near the border with India where the cigarette manufacturing plant was.
Remember that DH6 Twin Otter? One of them now appears in the story for the first time. Or is it the second? Anyway, there it was with it’s non-retracting undercarriage and as I climbed in and saw the 19 seats lined up 2 a breast, my heart beat a little faster. It buzzed onto the runway and was airborne before we knew it. Then it climbed and climbed in a banking arc and soon I could look down at the mountains below me. It seemed that if I just reached down I could touch them. I watched in awe at the cracks, fissures and crags made by the Indian subcontinent pushing with all it’s awesome power against the continent of Asia.
Ten minutes of flying brought us in a low banking turn and I saw the airstrip, the grass airstrip and before I could think “Oh my god, we’re coming into land in a field!” we were bouncing down the strip.
This time there was someone to meet me! For the next couple of days I spent a pleasant time at the plant. Measuring, making notes, figuring out the layout. I met with a bunch of people and made copious notes. Finally it seemed the trip’s early issues were a thing of the past. All was going to be well.
The day I was supposed to leave on the returning flight to Kathmandu, I was still presenting and looking at my watch regularly. I didn’t want to miss the flight. The HR Manager was blase. “Don’t worry so much. They’ll wait for you. I’ll send someone ahead. Worst case, we’ll send you back by road”.
It was 24 hours by road over treacherous mountain roads and 15 minutes by air. A dilemma, I know, but air won.
Insisting on being at the airport in time I was dropped off 45 minutes before the departure time. There were two flights which were expected in from Kathmandu, both turning around and heading back. They were 20 minutes apart. I was booked for the second one.
I was dropped at the terminal building, which was medium sized rectangular concrete block. Just outside in the drop area was a lone tree. Under the tree sat a chai-wallah plying nobody with chai under the open sky. I walked into the terminal. Soon I would be on the plane back to Kathmandu to spend another night there before Indian Airlines took me back to Calcutta, where I would have to go through customs. In any space mission they say re-entry is the trickiest, but I was determined not to let thoughts such as this remove the glow from business well done and the fat contract I had just won.
I walked into an empty terminal building. There was not a soul in it. A couple of rows of benches, a counter, an office behind it, firmly shut, the usual scales and at the other end from the entryway was a curtain. I was confused. Had they dropped me somewhere else? No, it looked like this was the terminal, all right, there were unmistakable signs. I walked over to the curtain and pulled it aside.
6 feet behind it, 2 steps led to a field and I could recognize the sections of grass worn in a straight line that was obviously the runway. Everywhere I looked there were green fields. Across one of them, coming towards me, were a trio with a laden bicycle between. Two men and woman. As I watched they walked on, across the airstrip, lifted the bicycle up over the steps and pushed right past me through the curtained doorway and out the other end.
I looked at my watch and wondered where everyone was. Ten minutes later a large coach arrived and I was in the middle of a throng of people, some of them very official looking. Apparently, the passengers and the airport staff all arrived on the coach from Birganj an hour north down the road. Soon of course the usual chaos that seems to envelop airports everywhere was in evidence.
As I waited I saw the intensity of the chaos definitely escalating and becoming more strident. A strange urgency and much yelling and gesticulations amongst the staff were definitely in evidence. I looked at my watch. In less than 10 minutes the first of the flights would be landing just outside the wall behind the office. No one had boarding passes yet. The foreign looking lady sitting by herself at the end of the row of benches was smiling and rolling her eyes. The rapid streams of Nepali were too much for me. I gathered something was seriously wrong. I walked over to the foreigner.
“You seem to know what’s going on. Would you mind explaining it to me?”, I asked her.
“You know what’s happened? The staff have forgotten to bring the keys to the office with them. So they can’t check anyone in and issue boarding passes”
From the corner of my ear, I could faintly hear twin turbo-props, with that peculiar buzzing sound they make. A Twin Otter was coming in.
I knew my troubles were not yet over.