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Tourists board a flight out of Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu. (Shruti Shrestha/REUTERS)
Tourists board a flight out of Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu. (Shruti Shrestha/REUTERS)

If we wanted to get out of Nepal, we'd have to follow a local custom Add to ...

With just under 30 international flights a day, Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport isn't exactly bustling. Maybe it's the barren landscape of the Kathmandu Valley, the inescapable heat or the dated “telecommunications” counter: There is something about entering Tribhuvan Airport that feels like stepping into an old western movie where the pace is as slow as the tumbleweed rolling by.

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The busiest area is the international departures terminal, where each day numerous travellers wait and wait (and wait) for a spot on standby. Many foreigners aren't aware that the concept of first come, first served is religiously ignored.

My partner and I had been in Nepal for just over one month, relishing in the beauty of one of the world's most mystical countries, where prayer flags dance in the wind, the snow-capped Himalayas connect earth and sky, and trekkers share stories over plates of momos (Nepalese dumplings).

But it is possible to get Kathmandu-ed out. After a shortened trek due to altitude sickness, and too many run-ins with suicidal scooter drivers, we were ready to get off the Hippie Trail and on to Southeast Asia's Banana Pancake Trail.

On our first attempt at catching an earlier flight to Bangkok, we arrive at the airport a few hours before departure time when the terminal is already packed with travellers anxiously awaiting a standby seat. About 30 to 40 foreigners are scattered on benches and the floor, waiting passively for their names to be called. A similar number of Nepalese, apparently not as confident in the queuing system, are hovering possessively close to the ticket counters.

In vain, we attempt to put our names on the wait list. The ticket agent refuses, instructing us to come back only after everyone has been checked in. After two hours, we return. “The flight is full,” he snaps at us.

The following morning, we rise as early as the monks and get to the airport just as it opens, securing first and second place on the wait list.

Four anxious hours, two unpleasant trips to the bathroom and one overpriced cup of chai tea later, our names are not called.

During that time, the number of Nepalese standbys had magically dwindled. At one point, I even witnessed a family's personal tour guide slip behind the ticket counter and print out boarding passes as the airline agent assisted her.

Something is not right. There is an announcement. The room goes silent. The flight is full, again.

Back at our guest house, the smiling Buddha-like hotel manager greets us warmly. Pouring us a cup of steaming chai, he sits us down for a crash course on Nepalese airport economics: bribery.

Sensing my disapproval, the manager finally persuades us to try the Nepalese way by using the classic line, “When in Rome.”

After a sleepless night, we repack our bags and say goodbye to the manager, who delicately wraps a silk scarf around each of our necks in the traditional Nepalese gesture of respect.

Keeping a low profile at the back of the departures terminal, we are on lookout for Tribhuvan airport's “godfather.” Hovering in the background is a short, lean, uniformed man in his mid-40s with a collection of security passes hanging from his neck and thick-rimmed glasses that only add to his already uncanny resemblance of Woody Allen.

With our passports in hand – and two crisp American $20 bills strategically poking out of the pages – I drift by three times before he finally bites.

We chit-chat about where my partner and I are from, our travel plans, and so on. He says he will see what he can do to help us, and I hand over our passports without a second thought.

Instantly, a plethora of emotions rush through me: elation, as I look back at my partner with a thumbs-up; then worry, as I wonder if Mr. Allen will return; and finally, regret and embarrassment for breaking a traveller's No. 1 rule – never give your passport to anybody.

Just as we begin to imagine our most valuable pieces of ID being dismantled in an underground passport chop shop, I look up to see Mr. Allen motioning me over. Money has been replaced with boarding passes, and it is time for us to check our bags in.

Yes, bad karma may lay in our future, but so does a sweet, heavenly banana pancake.



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