Mistakes Man, Mistakes
My wife and I travel a lot. Perhaps not as much as the average businessperson, but a lot no less. Especially abroad. But as much as we’ve traveled, we still make mistakes. These mistakes have led to missed flights, dangerous situations, wasted money, missed opportunities, lost property, lost time, anxiety, anger, frustration, and embarrassment. I wish I could say we’ll be mistake-free on future trips, but I know it’s not the case.
On our four-week trip to India, Nepal, and Mount Everest Basecamp, we committed several mistakes. Not everything was entirely our fault, but still. And apparently our mistakes nearly led to my death, or so I was told. At any rate, I felt like death for about three weeks straight. So let this story serve as a warning to those that follow.
Mistake #1: Trusting Someone Who Works Behind a Counter for a Living
We were set to depart from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and arrive in Kathmandu, Nepal with layovers in Paris and Bahrain. It would only take us 32 hours in total. What a breeze. I suppose that’s what I get for traveling on airline miles.
Checking in at the Air France counter was a typical encounter:
Air France Employee: I have you checked all the way to Kathmandu.
Us: Great. Thank you!
Air France Employee: You will just have to exit the plane in Paris, collect your luggage, and check in at the counter for your flight to Bahrain.
Us (thinking): (That seems strange. We have a very short layover in Paris. Why wouldn’t they just check our baggage all the way through?)
Us: Ok great. Wait, will we have enough time in Paris to collect our luggage, go through customs, and then make it through all the lines to re-board?
Air France Employee: Yes. Absolutely. You’ll have plenty of time.
After boarding the plane and sitting on the tarmac for almost an hour, we realized we were in trouble. But since there wasn’t much we could do about it, we decided to drink a lot and worry later. But after several drinks, several laughs, a nap, a failed attempt to watch a movie, and a pounding headache, we soon noticed we were descending into Paris. Our worries quickly reappeared.
When landing at Charles de Gualle airport, we immediately went into “Amazing Race Mode” and pushed our way to the front of the plane as if we were exiting the Titanic. Long hallways, wheelchairs, and small children proved no match for our speed and agility. We found ourself in the connection crossroads with 25 minutes remaining until our next flight took off and just about tackled the first Air France employee we saw at a counter.
Me: We’re connecting through the Bahrain but we need to exit, grab our luggage, make it through customs, and return. Can you help us?
Air France Employee: Why weren’t your bags checked through to your final destination?
Me: Good question. You tell me. (sarcasm completely lost on the employee)
15 minutes until our plane departed
Air France Employee: Let me call someone.
The best the Air France employee could offer was a walkie-talkie call to another employee near baggage claim. Our answers to some very important questions were relayed to the less-than-eager-sounding employee near baggage claim.
Air France Employee: What color are the bags?
Air France Employee: What size?
Us (thinking): (Shit, we’re not helping our case)
5 minutes until our plane departed
Air France Employee: If we find your bags we will put them on the plane to Bahrain. You can pick them up there.
The “if” in that statement particularly stood out to me for some reason. The reason being, “if” almost certainly meant they would not find our bags.
Confused and discouraged by the entire situation, we boarded our plane to Bahrain.
In a small wing of the Bahrain airport we spent 8 hours waiting for our flight to Kathmandu. Well, waiting and hoping to see the arrival of our luggage. Every hour or so we’d check in at our gate to get a status update.
Me: “Are our bags here yet?”
Airline Counter Person:“What is your name?”
Me: “I just talked to you an hour ago. We’re the couple who were waiting for our bags from Paris.”
Airline Counter Person: “Oh, yes.”
Me: “Yes, our bags are here??”
Airline Counter Person: “No. Well, let me check. No.”
With nothing really to do, we absorbed the sights, smells, and culture of the Bahrain airport.
Airports be Crazy Sometimes
Airports around the world are funny places. By that, I mean that you tend to see some very diverse people, but overall the airport seems to be a pretty genuine reflection and representation of the city’s population. In London’s Heathrow, you will certainly see more Oxford shirts, bespoke suits, Seville Row-like stuff on pale-looking people. In Miami International there’ll be more short-sleeved button-up shirts with the top two or three buttons unbuttoned, short shorts, and large gold necklaces on bronzed-looking people. In Los Angeles International there will certainly be more hipsters in sweatpants wearing sunglasses indoors. Even the restaurants seem to match. For example, I had the best mojito of my life while eating a cuban sandwich in the Miami airport. And I had Amazing sushi in Tokyo’s International Airport (Haneda). Etc., etc. Bahrain did not disappoint.
I know we were in the Middle East, but I swear to you I was so surprised by all of the thawbs (dishdashas?) being worn by, well, almost everybody. I quickly scanned the room so my feeble brain could assess our surroundings.
“It’s mostly men. All male goat herders. All huddled together on the floor. Wait, are they all really goat herders? This entire airport smells like livestock. So at least a bunch of these guys must be goat herders. But they couldn’t have all left their goats at home, right? Why do they all look like goat herders? White is such a bad color to wear while goat herding. It’ll be dirty all the time. Oh wait, the heat is a big factor I’m sure. That’s why they wear that color. And their clothes look like they breathe, which is good. No underwear? Yeah, probably no underwear. But that’d be bad with white. They should maybe wear a nice, soft beige. I hope this smell doesn’t make in onto our plane. Seriously, where are the women? I don’t think I can deal with 8 hours here.”
My thoughts are obviously not that deep.
It was kind of surreal for two Westerners to be walking through groups of people that were so foreign to us. Our attire, though plain in colors with no writing and fairly modest, still screamed, “American! Look at the Americans.” And the people around us did their best to answer our call.
Chili’s = A Most Welcome Disgusting Restaurant
We felt so far from home. So far. So alone. That is, until we looked up and saw a very American restaurant staring back at us.
Chili’s might not be our cup-of-tea back home. In fact, before Bahrain my wife had never eaten there. But it did it’s job in a pinch. It made me feel comfortable – though not as comfortable as I would have felt if they actually served alcohol. But I also felt a little guilty sitting there. I feel like I’m such a hardcore traveler, yet I was overjoyed with the sight of something from back home. I was a disappointment as a traveler. At least there wasn’t much of a risk of the food making me sick.
But I can see why people don’t like America. America is everywhere. EVERYWHERE.
One last attempt to recover our luggage in Bahrain proved fruitless. Were our bags going to show up in Bahrain right after we left? Were they still in Paris? Did anyone know where our bags were? Did anyone know how to get our bags to us? Did anyone care? We left Bahrain confused and discouraged.
Kathmandu always sounded like one of the most exotic cities in the world. Firmly on the hippie trail, it sits at the crossroads of intersecting cultures. In theory, it sounded amazing. In reality, it was disgusting. Interesting, but disgusting.
We had one day planned in Kahmandu before we were to fly into the Himalayas and hike to Everest basecamp. But since we didn’t have our luggage, or any of our hiking gear contained within, we took our time to get to know “Kat.”
I believe morning walks are always the best way to get to know a city. In Kathmandu this again proved true. The city is quiet, almost serene, in the early hours. You get time to be alone with the temples. No one begging, no one bothering. Beauty abound. But, unfortunately, also trash abound.
Every morning several small trucks with a couple of barefoot, ungloved, garbagemen circle the city. These brave men have a thankless job. A job they are assuredly happy to have, but difficult no doubt, since trashcans pretty much don’t exist and people are flippant about littering. A job that consists of grabbing mounds of trash (think diapers, condoms, rotting fruit) with bare hands for hours everyday. A job that no American would dare take, or would dare imagine. A job that seemed like it was made unnecessarily more difficult than it should be based on the fact that the Kathmandu citizens didn’t seem to care about the impact of trash on the city, the impact of their footprint on the planet. But the bigger problems of the city were the homeless, the poor construction of the buildings, and the overpopulation.
Problems too deep and complicated to discuss here.
Another day passed by in Kathmandu with no report on the whereabouts of our luggage. Then another day. Then another. Everyday we drove to the airport, walked through the airport exit past heavily-armed guards to baggage claim (“I’m American” worked every time), and everyday we received bad news. We finally decided to begin our trek without our bags and scheduled a flight to the Himalayas the next morning.
Mistake #2: Packing “His” & “Hers” Bags
My wife and I are a team. We do everything together. But we do need some separation in life. It just makes sense to divide our clothes and toiletries. Well, it made sense before this trip.
The morning of our flight we received a call in our hotel that they “may” have found one of our bags. Or both. Or neither. The only thing we knew is that no one knew anything. We also knew that if only one bag was found, it would be a lot easier if it were mine.
Wearing the same clothes for five straight days wears on you. We were already tired and irritable before we even made it to the mountains. But hope was in the air when we departed toward the airport. We only had 30 minutes between the time that the international airport baggage claim opened and when our flight to the Himalayas departed.
Our taxi dropped us off at the domestic terminal where we met our guide. We checked in without luggage and off I sprinted to the international terminal.
Airport security around the world is not intimidating in the least bit. Except for U.S. Airport security (my home country), which scares the shit out of me. It’s really intimidating and I absolutely don’t trust U.S. customs agents. But everywhere else I’m confident I can talk my way out of just about anything.
When I went to the airport for the third day in a row, you’d think they’d recognize the crazy American walking confidently the wrong way through security. I got past the first two rifle-carrying guards by pointing to some imaginary object behind them and continuing to walk. I walked around a metal detector, not through it. Then a scary-looking guy got out of a booth and stepped in front of me.
Scary-looking guy: Where are you going?
Me: To pick up my luggage.
Scary-looking guy: You cannot go there. I’m sorry.
Me: I’m sorry you think that. My luggage is waiting for me. I’m going there.
Scary-looking guy: …
I confidently walked away and made my way to a locked door with a dais in front.
20 minutes until my flight left
I stood at the dais and waited impatiently.
15 minutes until my flight left
A familiar-looking airport employee began his walk, more than two football fields away, toward me and the locked door which may or may not have my luggage. His gait was slow and painful to watch. When he reached the dais, his post for the day, he didn’t acknowledge my presence.
“Hello, it’s me again,” I said. “Any news on my luggage?”
He pulled out a very unofficial-looking piece of paper. “Yes,” he replied. “We have one of them.”
He then took out a comically large metal ring full of keys and began trying them.
“Oh God,” I thought, “Can this be any more like a movie cliche?” By now another airport employee arrived and explained that he had the key to the door. We were in. The door opened and I followed both men in.
Entry to the Promised Land
We entered a room that was roughly 20 feet high and 100 feet long. Luggage was stacked everywhere. In some places it went all the way to the ceiling. I just stood there, dumbfounded. There was no way I could find my black suitcase in this giant mess of a room. Some of the luggage looked like it had been there for 20 years. It was hopeless.
Just then, one of the airport employees called out to me, “No, not here. Come with us. Over here.” I followed them into the adjoining room. The room was not really a room though, it was an airplane hangar. Not an airplane hangar with airplanes, and not an empty hangar with my bag sitting neatly waiting for me in plain sight. This airplane hangar was filled with thousands and thousands of suitcases.
“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” I said.