Tuesday, May 08, 2007

"Stranded" in Kathmandu

It turns out I’ll be in Kathmandu at least a couple of days longer than expected.

Royal Nepal Airlines, the company that I have enjoined to transport my self and my belongings along the Bangkok leg of a journey that concludes in San Francisco via Hong Kong, is at the moment perhaps succumbing to the initial stages of implosion and ultimate self-destruction. One of the airline’s two planes is grounded with mechanical difficulties, and has been so for nigh on a week. Thus all flights to Bangkok and a smattering of other Asian cities representing half of the company’s routes have been cancelled. It hasn’t been possible so far to get a seat with another carrier since all of them are full and will be for some time as they struggle to absorb the hordes of deposed passengers.

So for the time being I’m “stuck” in Kathmandu, which in effect means that I hang around in cafes and drink lots of tea, eat pastries, and read books and magazines. Not a bad deal. And for now, Royal Nepal Airlines is attempting to run all of its routes with one plane. So I’m waiting, literally, for the plane to Bangkok – the plane to Bangkok.

In negotiating my situation with the ticketing agent the other day, I chided him that it seems presumptuous for a company with two, and now only one, airplane to call themselves an “airline.” I remarked that there ought to be a minimum number of planes one has to have to call oneself an airline. We discussed what this number ought to be: six, twelve, twenty? Hard to say exactly. I said that a company with just one airplane ought not to be called an airline – really at that point you’re just some guys with a plane. A hobby pilot with a Cessna could have overheard our conversation and chimed in, “Hey buddy, you gotta get to Bangkok? I’ve got a plane…” and no one would think to call him an airline. Using Royal Nepal’s logic, I joked, “I could go out and get an ice cream cone and call myself Baskin Robbins.”

The ticket agent and I laughed among the pandemonium of incensed travelers that had descended upon the Royal Nepal Airlines (sic) corporate office in central Kathmandu. The place really needed more authentic laughter; there’s nothing like air travel delays and complications that set people off into vitriolic fits of anger and indignation. Myself included – I hate airports and airplanes and everything having to do with them.

For instance, I hate standing in a long line before the ticket counter. Invariably I’m there next to a harried and exasperated middle class family with two or three or four kids with food smeared on their faces and shirts that wine and nag their parents for this or that and cause all sorts of commotion and disturbance. The family always has, in my judgment, way too much luggage, and in the ticket line I silently heap scorn on them for their blind and ignorant materialism as well as their lack of travel-savvy that unavoidably leads to chronic and excessive over-packing. The parents invariably look worn down to the point of breaking, and seem posed to shout at any moment: If you kids don’t stop…we’re not going on this vacation! I mean it! We will get back in our over-priced, gas guzzling SUV and drive right back to our characterless suburban tract home and it will be McDonald’s and video games for the next two weeks!!!

And once you’ve survived the ticket counter melee, your first reward is to have a grumbling security ogre take away your shoes, jacket and bags for inspection by other ogres while he or she pats you down with suspicion. The second reward is an interminable wait to board the plane in an environment “improved” by its having been made to resemble a shopping mall. Well I hate shopping malls; and airports made to look, smell, sound and feel like shopping malls I hate even more.

Being on the plane is miserable as well, since it’s cramped, smelly, either too hot or too cold, the food is crap and the flight attendants often hassle you if you request a vegetarian meal. What’s with that anyway? When they eventually come down to my seat, they say, “Roast chicken, or meat lasagna?” and I answer “vegetarian, please.” Then they have to go get this long piece of paper that looks like it was printed on an ancient dot-matrix printer and find my name to see if I specified a vegetarian meal in advance of purchasing the seat. Whenever I am given the option I specify vegetarian, even though I know this will almost surely result in consternation and delay of the meal service later on.

The anti-vegetarian bias in our society is something that has always bewildered me – it makes absolutely no rational sense. Great care is always taken to ensure that several options are available to meat eaters; meanwhile the “vegetarian option” is usually sad and inadequate. But meat eaters are really omnivores – they can easily accept vegetarian meals if necessary. (I’ve only known one person to eat exclusively meat who wasn’t an Inuit.) The reverse is not true. Thus it makes logical sense to stock an excess of vegetarian meals, rather than an excess of meat meals. It would be cheaper as well – I’m surprised the airlines haven’t at least caught on to that aspect.

As it is, I more often than not end up accepting a meat meal on the plane. I can do this because I am a “flexible” vegetarian. I abhor dogmatism in all its forms, including the dietary. What strict, or, as I call them, “dogmatic” vegetarian and vegans fail to realize is that their rigid adherence to dietary restriction is in fact a form of indulgence. Perhaps my Protestant upbringing has led me to look upon indulgence with measured trepidation, given its often-touted linkages to eternal damnation. The thought of being sent to Hell for indulging in strict dietary dogmatism is nearly equivalent to my love for bacon in my decision to be a “flexible” vegetarian.

Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes, how air travel is so unpleasant it makes me want to thrust my head into the whirling silver blades of a Waring blender…

Another thing I hate about air travel is that feeling in my stomach – up high, just behind the ribs – that ache that I get standing there at baggage claim staring holes into the sliding metal plates of the luggage carousel waiting for my bag to appear. I’m always thoroughly convinced that my bags have been lost, owing to the assured incompetence of the baggage handlers at whatever airport I’ve just come from. To-date my bags have never been misplaced. Though my fear is empirically ungrounded, I still suffer the symptoms each time I approach a baggage carousel.

Furthermore, I hate how everyone from the plane dashes to the baggage claim in a near sprint, even though we all now it’s gonna be at least fifteen or twenty or thirty minutes until the bags come out. And I hate how everyone piles up by that little doorway covered by the heavy black rubber strips where the bags come out. The crowd is so thick you can hardly see through between the bodies to spot your bag when it eventually arises from the dark underworld of the luggage conveyor system. Isn’t that annoying? I bet everyone there thinks about it and agrees that it’s annoying. Yet it still happens. Why are humans such silly, bloated, obstinate goats?

I could go on and on naming other stuff about air travel that irritates me to the point of distraction. Like how as soon as that little “ding” goes off when the plane pulls up to the jet way, every friggin obstinate goat on the plane leaps up and clogs the aisle and makes getting off the plane take longer. Usually right about then some jerk next to me is on his cell phone: “Yeah…yeah…I just landed…Salt Lake City…no, I said…Salt Lake City…Oh, it was great…yeah, Charlie and me played nine holes everyday…those guys in accounting screwed the whole deal…” All this is made worse by the fact that I’m half standing up, bleary-eyed and feeling hung over even though I haven’t had a drop to drink, hunched over trying not to bang my head on the underside of the carry-on luggage bin, while this pompous schmo on his cell phone is right by my ear shouting to his wife or whomever about his stupid business trip. Aaargh!

I could go on and on about the living nightmare that is air travel, and the vehement curses that I lay upon all of the selfish, inconsiderate, fat, smelly, boring, egocentric professional jerk-wads I invariably encounter (attract?) when I travel by plane. But people who complain incessantly and interminably are also on my list of individuals deserving of a slow and exquisitely painful death, and I wouldn’t want to be hypocritical.

So with all of this in consideration, the reader will have me back at the Royal Nepal ticketing counter, making jokes and yukking it up with the ticket agent. As I’m attempting to get my travel arrangements sorted out, amended, ratified, confirmed, stamped, and sealed into a parchment scroll with a dab of wax bearing the imprint of the seal on the ring of the king of Nepal, all the while making jokes, smiling, and maintaining as light a heart and mood as the situation could possibly permit, I abruptly become aware of a couple of young British women – aspiring Royal Nepal Airlines (sic) passengers, as it were – who were decidedly not taking well to my slap-happy approach to the snarled conditions of Nepalese air traffic.

Ah, my teachers had finally arrived! There’s a saying in Buddhism that difficult people make the best teachers. Although it causes me great pain to do so, I have to admit the deep truth of this assertion. It is so because people whom we think of as “difficult” are so, almost invariably, because they reflect to us characteristics we revile about ourselves.

These young – probably mid-twenties – British women were what I would call “high maintenance,” though in fairness I offer the caveat that I find a very large percentage of women, and a good deal of men as well, to be “high maintenance.” I’m an incurable introvert, and as it requires such a Herculean expenditure of energy on my part to be in the company of my fellow species while maintaining a modicum of civility, I tend to cut a broad swath in my mental grading of the disagreeableness of other people. Were I to be able to attain a higher degree of objectivity on the matter, or were I to have encountered these young ladies under different and less stressful circumstances, I might have found them mildly likable. Perhaps.

At any rate, their freshly painted claws were out, and their bangle earrings fluttered and danced as they attacked my poor jesting companion over the cancellation of their flight to Bangkok. You see, their friend (or “mate” as the British call their friends, a word I always thought should be reserved for copulating animals) was due to arrive in Bangkok on a flight from London at such-and-such an hour, and that they had to be there to meet her since they were all due to be relaxing on an Andaman Coast beach with drink in hand and toes in sand by noon on Tuesday. These travel plans were perforce carved into granite tablets because they were all on “holiday” (another curious word used by Brits to mean vacation) from work and had a limited and tightly scheduled window of opportunity for proper rest and relaxation.

Well, the bottom line, in reality, was that there was no way these prissy, shrill London birds were getting to Bangkok, unless, being “birds,” they sprouted wings and flew there under their own power. As I mentioned, Royal Nepal has one plane, and it’s not scheduled to go to Bangkok until Wednesday at the earliest. All the other carriers are full from taking up Royal Nepal’s slack. But of course, what’s reality in the face of an obnoxious, self-important young professional’s will to badger her way onto a plane?

Too much, I suppose, since my young traveling cohorts had to make due with the same wait in Kathmandu that I’m presently enduring, with its perfect weather, pleasant tea shops, ubiquitous used book stores and mouth-watering apple crumble. I find the fact that “reality” won this round against the girls’ relentless protests gratifying. Reality should always win, right? Sometimes it seems like it gives out and I begin to wonder. But in this case, rooting for the home team didn’t disappoint.

I stated out the outset that these girls were my teachers, and now that I’ve thoroughly decried their characters I’m bound to show how this is so. The girls were pushy and impatient, and wanted “their” way, right away, no compromises, no nonsense, no nothing. They were ready to step over or on any one or anything to get what they wanted. Their trip to Bangkok to meet their friend was more important that all the travel plans of all the other people who were suffering in the same logistical quagmire. They wanted special treatment, special consideration; and if the consequences for others of their getting what they wanted were unfair or difficult, they didn’t care.

And this is exactly how I am. And I resented them for being exactly how I am. They did a really good job of outwardly showing the hatefulness and self-importance that continuously brews within me. I, as a show of my coolness, affability, and “enlightened” nature, made jokes and made light of the situation. See how relaxed and groovy I am? See how mellow and confident in the face of distress? I am so cool – I don’t get overheated! I just cozy my way up to the service agent and make friends.

I act real friendly like, so they let their guard down a little. You see, I know they’ve been dealing all day with hotheads and pompous jerks that think they’re so important and deserving of special consideration. When the agent finally gets to work with me – well, it’s a relief! In fact, it’s a pleasure and an honor for them to have me at their ticket window! I’m so cool -- people just naturally regard me as their friend. I know how tough it’s been for them to deal with all these other jerks. I offer sympathy. I make some jokes, so that we can have a laugh and take some deep breaths before we have to do our regrettable business. Too bad I can’t hang out at their window all day! We’ve been having such a great time…

But veiled beneath this suave approach is a seething storm of angry egotism not unlike the violent whirling red spot that terrorizes Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. This monster would crush the life out of every wretched soul in the ticket line if it meant I’d get on that plane sooner. The venomous gargoyle I call my ego is, in reality, a million times worse than what my teachers were showing me the other day in the ticket line. They were going easy on me – it could have been a lot worse if I’d had to suffer a more full-on witnessing of my own egocentric maliciousness.

But at the time I was mad at them for being so pushy – I was annoyed and felt very superior with my cool-guy attitude. It took me a day or so to get over it and to acknowledge the lesson there for me. They were good teachers – and the whole situation was a perfect classroom for learning how the ego works.

Buddhism posits that the causes of suffering are ignorance, attachment and aversion. My personal experience continually confirms the veracity of this view. If one is attached to the realization of a certain outcome – say, arriving in Bangkok in time to meet one’s friend and go to the beach, or in my case, getting rapidly into the comfort of a friendly home territory – then for this outcome to be threatened causes suffering. We often call this “stress,” and react to it in myriad unhealthy ways. In addition to causing suffering for ourselves, negativity spills over into our environment and affects those around us.

This is why I hate airports and air travel so much – because the psychic environment is so poisoned by the collective stress and negativity of thousands of people who are helplessly enslaved to the spite and capriciousness of their own egos. I am one hundred percent guilty of this myself, and my personal powers for putting down the ego, letting go of attachment and seeing my surroundings through compassionate eyes are fairly puny. I become an anti-social knot of resentment and frustration as soon as my meager spiritual defenses are breached by the onslaught of modern techno-frantic ego-stoking life.

Of all the hubs of activity, transportation and commerce in our society, airports, owing to the especially high-stress environments they create, are perhaps the best classrooms for learning about the ego and its sinister workings. At some point in the next few days I’ll be boarding a plane for Bangkok, then another for Hong Kong, and finally another for San Francisco. Ripped from my comfortable and relatively isolated corned of the tea shop, I’ll be thrust mercilessly into the thronging classroom of egotism studies, 101, for a lecture lasting no less than thirty hours. I’ll make heroic efforts at compassion and equanimity, though I beg your forgiveness in advance for the almost certain slippages back into ordinary resentment and spite.


Mizuho said...

yikes dude, you have waaay to much time on your hands right now. and apparently so do I, since I read through most of that. "But veiled beneath this suave approach is a seething storm of angry egotism not unlike the violent whirling red spot that terrorizes Jupiter’s upper atmosphere" really? I love that it all comes back to science (of course, I'm biased...).
I think it will be a nice feeling for you to fly into San Francisco--whenever I come home, it always feels as if a huge weight is lifted off of me and I suddenly become lighter.

Shachar said...

Josh! I love your writing. I've been blooging too http://people.tribe.net/176cb692-2eb1-42cd-8402-e05dc04bf9da/blog

I like what I've written, but reading your stuff inspires me to tickle my victims, i mean readers a bit more.

Your airport story reminds me of a Tibetan movie called "The Cup".

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