Bridging U.S. and Nepalese Operations: The First Weekend

by Laura Schmitz, VP of Operations


In my new role as VP of Operations, I’ve had the opportunity to work within all of our departments stateside to implement some new processes that will help to streamline our business and provide even better service to our customers. So what’s the next step? A trip to our Nepal office of course!  It’s always been on my bucket list, so when the partners gave me the opportunity, I jumped at it.  In addition to a great adventure, I am really looking forward to getting to know our Nepal team beyond web cams and Go To meetings.  Following is my story of how I arrived here and my first day. More installments of my adventure will follow. I hope that you enjoy!

The trip to Nepal took 32 hours Minneapolis to Washington DC, to Kuwait, to Bahrain to Kathmandu. I loaded up my Galaxy tablet with music, games, magazines, books and movies, packed my electronic cigarette and repacked my suitcase to try to achieve under 50 lbs approximately 15 times (I ended up with 2 carry-on size bags at no more than 27 lbs each). Right away, in traditional ‘Laura Unlucky’ style, I found out at Minneapolis that my stint from Kuwait to Bahrain had been cancelled. The United desk cheerfully informed me that the Kuwait team would be able to help me but most likely, I’d be stuck there for 24 hours or more. Good times. Then they changed my gate 3 times in MSP to go to DC. So, this was really not looking good. I finally got started and to my pleasant surprise, because of Hurricane Sandy, the plane wasn’t full, so I had 2 seats to myself… things were looking up!

I arrived in DC and found that, to my pleasant surprise, there was a smoking room. I know, terrible habit, but when you are traveling for at least 32 and possibly 56 hours, this is great news!  I found my gate and arrived to a bunch of angry passengers who had just found out about the cancelled stint from Kuwait to Bahrain. Again, the folks at the United desk let us know that the Kuwait team would have no problem getting us on our way. To my surprise, my row was only one of 3 that did not have all 3 seats taken. Score! Room to sleep, stretch, and I was sharing the row with a very nice Kuwaiti man, who was just talkative enough.  Maybe things were looking up. But not so fast, let’s remember that this is Laura Schmitz’s life; if it’s weird, it’ll happen to me. Some knucklehead checked in, checked in bags and then didn’t show up for the flight. We were grounded for over an hour while Marshalls looked for the bag to pull it for security reasons. I mean, I’m glad that they don’t just let random suitcases travel, but when it’s a 14-hour flight in the first place, one hour grounded is terrible! But the 15 hours went pretty smooth; I watched some movies, actually slept for about 5 hours and ate some of the food, which was surprisingly tasty.

We arrived in Kuwait around 6 p.m. local time. Again, another smoking lounge was located right outside the gate, thank goodness! Of course, I was the only woman in there and could feel that I wasn’t in Minnesota anymore by the stares and looks of disapproval of all who passed. At any rate, after a much needed smoke, I headed over to the transfer/transit desk to find out my fate. I waited in line for 1 hour and finally got to the front where another airline was helping United get passengers to Bahrain. There, I was informed that I wasn’t on their list. When I explained that I was on the flight (because how else could I be in Kuwait?) they asked me to wait on the side. I joined a couple of others who explained to me that they’d been some of the first in line and still hadn’t been helped one hour later, so I knew this wasn’t going to be very easy.  Another hour later, I asked what the scoop was; they told me to get into another line, right next to where I was already standing. In the meantime I was watching all but 9 other passengers happily get their boarding passes for later flights that evening. After standing in the new line for another 1.5 hours (yes  it’s been up to 3.5 hours now), I was informed that they were still working on getting the rest of us on a flight and that we should come back in an hour.  So off to the smoking lounge I went.

When I returned, I was asked again to wait in line; they hadn’t been able to book all of us yet (there were 3 left), so guess who was one of the 3 out of 117 passengers? You betcha it was me! But they assured us that they would get us out on the 11:50 p.m. flight. Good news right? Well, after yet another hour, we found out that the new airline Gulf Air was no longer accepting United’s bookings and in fact, some of those other happy passengers weren’t going to be allowed to board either.  A fight ensued at the desk between United and Gulf Air team members, with a lot of loud yelling, shaking of heads and fingers up and the United team lost.  They informed us that we wouldn’t be able to get to Bahrain until 7 p.m. the next day.  One of the other 2 in my boat was traveling with 3 other friends, and upon hearing this news, one of her friends asked if she could give me her boarding pass and stay with her friend in Kuwait. Wow!  The United woman said yes and told me to follow her to the gate.  I gave this wonderful woman a big hug, profuse thanks and promised to pay it forward someday as I hightailed it to the gate with the United woman. Now mind you, she just grabbed this other woman’s boarding pass, didn’t print one out for me and told me to follow.  I thought this was going to be weird…and it was.

 We arrived at the gate to find the other 11 passengers that had just found out that Gulf Air wasn’t going to let them on even with boarding passes.  Everyone was yelling and some of the Americans were acting pretty ugly, spouting off about fairness and discrimination. It was unbelievable. The United woman told me to wait as she went to speak to Josef from Gulf Air (he was the one who promised that I’d be on the last flight and would be able to make it to Kathmandu on time).  She then came out and told me to go to the head of the security line, where they let them know that I was cleared to go in, and then she was gone. I didn’t have a boarding pass, so when I went to the line, of course security said “you don’t have a pass”.  I explained that another woman had given up hers for me, and they looked at me like I had 3 heads; I mean, who tries to get on a plane without a boarding pass? I saw Josef beyond the security detector and glass and waved frantically to get his attention, he nodded and started coming over.  In the meantime, the yelling continued from the other passengers who wanted onto the flight as well.  One guy said to the poor man just taking the boarding passes that he was responsible for all of this and the rest of the mob started to agree and verbally abuse this guy.  Finally, after a few heated back and forths, I spoke up and said, “Hey guys, this isn’t his fault! It’s United’s fault for not arranging this after this cancellation, so if you have a problem, take it up with them!”  Needless to say, they weren’t my biggest fans, but after that, I was a big hit with the security guy; he let me through!  But with no boarding pass comes no seat assignment. I didn’t stand around and ask any questions; I skedaddled through the metal detector, met Josef and got a handwritten boarding pass for the LAST seat on the plane! I have the pass as proof of this decidedly bizarre but welcomed exchange. 

So I was on my way to Bahrain (woo hoo!) and I was going to make the flight to Kathmandu on time!  Bahrain had a wonderful smoking cabin (that was the name of it and of course I was the only woman smoking) and my 3 hours there was uneventful. 

I boarded the plane to Kathmandu and found out (to my surprise) that I was in First Class! I mean, after all of this, what a blessing! I found out that my friend Josef from Kuwait had put me there, which was a huge shout out to Josef!!  Not only was I in First Class, but the seat next to me was unoccupied, so I had a whole row to myself on top of it! The flight was great; it was early morning, so I watched the sun come up over the gulf and the desert as we flew over Iraq and Afghanistan.  I couldn’t help but think about and pray for our troops, many whom I met and saw in Kuwait and Bahrain heading out for their fourth and fifth deployments.  It’s a pretty barren place, and from the sky you can see how desolate and undeveloped it is.  I took a nap over India, trying to acclimate and avoid jet lag upon arrival. I woke up just in time to see the crossing into Nepal from India (I love the map feature on planes).  The descent into Kathmandu was breathtaking.  I took pictures, but they won’t do any justice to the majesty of the Himalayas and green hills, steppe farms and villages. I kept thinking, well this looks so pretty. But I’d thought Kathmandu was bigger and then BAM!  There it was…a sprawling city of color and oddly shaped buildings of various sizes, one on top of the other, as far as the eye could see.

I landed and followed the lines to get my visa squared away and as I was trying to figure out what to do, there was Samar!  What a welcome sight after this journey!  He knows a guy, so he was able to get a pass to help me navigate the process (usually people aren’t allowed in). Of course Samar knows a guy!

Sandeep had prepared me for the airport, letting me know it would be chaotic and Sachin had let me know that I shouldn’t expect Cinnabon and Starbucks.  It was a little chaotic but not too bad and after all of my journey woes, my luggage was actually there!  Things were definitely ending better than they started.  Samar helped me with the bags and expressed how surprised he was by how little I had brought. It turned out he had arranged to bring 2 cars thinking I’d be lugging a ton of stuff along! J  We got out the door and another welcome sight: Sunny! Also, Sanjib, who had spent time in the Eagan office, was there to greet me and to drive the other car. It was so wonderful to see them all and so nice that they were there to greet me. Our driver, Ram, helped get the luggage into the car, and with Samar and Sunny, we were on our way into Kathmandu.

First problem, there is no concept of parking lanes or order, so Ram managed to get us out of a no exit,  backwards into traffic situation within seconds.  This was going to be a wild ride.  The first thing that struck me was the sheer movement and density of this place.  There are dogs roaming, horns honking, motorbikes whizzing within centimeters of cars, dust, construction and smog, brightly painted houses and buildings; chaos but also pure awesomeness.   Also, Kathmandu is hilly, something I hadn’t thought about before, in some ways reminiscent of San Francisco with motorbikes, taxis and rickshaws in place of the trolley and about a million more people.

Ram is a miracle man, I’m not sure I can adequately describe the harrowing streets of Kathmandu with endless construction on every square inch, no concept of lanes, right side or wrong side, no traffic lights, no street names, it’s purely insane; my hats off to those that can navigate this place.  My advice, don’t think you can rent a car or motorbike here, you’ll either be permanently immobilized by fear or you’ll kill yourself.  It’s hard enough to try to cross a street as a pedestrian! 

After checking into my wonderful new home, Hotel Manaslu, hooked up by Subir with an amazing and cheerful staff, Samar & Sunny took me to just the right place to wind down from my trip, the Garden of Dreams.  It’s perched on one of the busiest intersections I’ve ever seen but the minute you walk in; you forget there’s a city out there.  It’s a beautiful and peaceful place.  We had a great lunch of traditional Nepali cuisine, unfortunately no momos on the menu, Sunny asked a few times too, but it was good, pretty spicy on one dish but I need to get my palette warmed up any way. 

I tried to stay up as late as I could to stave off the dreaded jet lag, but ended up falling asleep at 7:30.  Needless to say, I was up at midnight and went to sleep again until the morning in time to Skype with my husband before he went to bed on Friday night, the time change is a killer!

After a great breakfast at Manaslu, I headed out on foot to get to Thamel, the tourist section of Kathmandu.  It’s about a 15 minute walk to get there, but with the non-stop buzz of construction and honking of the crazy traffic it seemed like a bit of an adventure by itself.  After essentially playing human Frogger to get across the one and only street between me and Thamel,  I descended into one wild place.  I had a handy walking tour map  from my guide book and ignorantly thought I’d just be able to follow along and see the sights.  You may have read about or seen pictures of Thamel, but nothing can describe what it is actually like.  Being somewhat of an overzealous organizer, I was immediately overwhelmed by the compact streets filled with overflowing store fronts, hordes of people, dogs, rickshaws, taxis, bicycles, vans and buses, not to mention the impossible tangles of electrical wires hanging on by a string wherever you looked.   I was immediately cajoled into stopping at EVERY shop along the way and there are thousands in a twelve block area.  Each is the size of a walk in closet selling everything from knock offs to t-shirts to pashminas, to jewelry to shoes to books to maps to random household goods to food.  Not to mention the hundreds of travel agencies, cafes, restaurants, bars and hotels. 

Within about 3.5 seconds I was lost as there is no concept of address or street name.  Everything is centered around intersections  and “landmarks” like long standing restaurants or hotels.  I valiantly tried to stick to my guide map, but I was even more of a target for each shop owner noticing my wandering around confusedly.  I decided to put my map away and just brave it on my own; I mean how hard could it be to find your way around a 12 block area.  8 hours later, I emerged weary, with sore feet and an incessant echo of honking horn in my ears, still unsure where I had been or where I was. 

As I walked down each winding street, I’d come upon a square, each one had at least one but up to 6 or 7 shrines, temples or religious relics.  What’s extraordinary is that these things are hundreds and sometimes thousands of years old, but you literally stumble upon them like strewn shoes on a highway.  Hindus and Buddhists still worship at each one for varying reasons as evidenced by the red powder, rice and marigolds adorning them, but people, taxis, dogs and cows wander by as though they’re nothing special. Unfortunately, I missed most if not all of the significance of each one since I had to put away my guide, but I’ve read up and with my memory still working well, plan to walk through again to really savor the relevance and awesomeness of these things.

 Inexplicably I was hit up about 100 times to buy chess boards and flutes, not sure why these are hot commodities, but I just kept telling them that I had a chess set and couldn’t play the flute.  J  I quickly got off of the walking tour by zigging when I should have zagged and soon found myself on another busy street with a large shrine, pond and 2 parks.  I crossed the pedestrian bridge to see what the shrine was and soon realized that there were no other tourists around, I was clearly off the beaten path.  In a quiet section of the park, I discreetly took out my guidebook again to figure out where the heck I was.  Turns out I was looking at the Queens Pond, a shrine that is only open 1 time per year, of course, this was not that time.  But I was able to look at through the gates, and it was really amazing.  Unfortunately I had gotten off my trail by about 8 blocks though, so I tried to wind my way back to where I wanted to go.  I chose what seemed to be the right way; none of the signs are in English and remember no concept of roads or addresses, so I attempted to use my inner compass.  After walking for a ways being asked for money by an impossibly cute but persisent child who followed me for 2 blocks; I was unsure I had made the right choice so I stopped a policeman and asked where my destination, Durbar square was….he pointed straight ahead 2 blocks, smiled and shook his head.  I laughed and thanked him profusely. 

Upon entering the square I was immediately greeted my very nice men telling me how beautiful I was and letting me know where I could purchase the mandatory entrance ticket to this historic place.  With some pep in my step, I happily followed.  My ego was soon deflated about 15 seconds later though when they declared the 2 women behind me just as beautiful.  J  Turns out that in addition to ensuring that tourists pay the entrance fee, they also are happy to be your guide for a good price.  By this time, weary from my trek and 4 hours into what was supposed to be a 2.5 hour guided walk, all I wanted was some lunch and a place to sit down.  I graciously declined much to their chagrin.  I headed into the square, past the infamous Freak Street and settled into the Grasshopper Café for some Nepali tea and momos, delicious!  Service was friendly and I lingered for about an hour watching the street vendors and tourists haggle outside.  I read up on the square while eating so I could soak in the history without having to walk around aimlessly with my book. 

As soon as I emerged from the café, I was cajoled into stopping at a bowl vendor, he was a medicine man and wanted to show me the power of the bowls, he was a good salesman, I bought one and for about 25% less than the asking price, I was getting the hang of the bartering thing.  About 3 feet later, I was stopped by a woman selling jewelry, she and her son provided me with a stool and filled me in on all of the gems and silver before me.  I found a pretty cool necklace, but the price seemed a little high.  I got up to walk away, and they ran after me with another necklace…2 for the price of one.  How could I resist?  I paid her, and she threw in a lucky gold pendant, she told me to come back and she’d give me good prices.  I might take her up on the deal later in my trip.

 As I walked another 50 feet, the real jewels of the square emerged.  Temple after temple, shrine after shrine all in one place.  It was hard to figure out where to look or go first.  Each one more ornate or taller than the last.  There is one for a living goddess, a pre-pubescent child that actually lives in this 300 year old temple as well as one that dates back to the 1600s.  It’s truly incredible to look at.  I also saw a few cows wandering around and lying down in the shade of the temples as again people, rickshaws, taxis, motorbikes and buses whizzed by.  These temples and shrines dot the path all the way back to Thamel.  I took a ton of pictures, just trying to burn the majesty and history of it all in my brain. 

What’s really amazing is that unlike historic places in the States or the great cathedrals and castles of Europe, these places aren’t commercialized or stripped of authenticity at all.  There are the guides wanting to take you around (which, when I go back with my husband, I might take them up on) and a few women selling postcards and marigolds, but other than that there’s no formality, you just wander around as people are worshipping and praying and monks are meditating.  It’s truly an out of this world experience.   Finally, I started my way backwards on my guided map tour.  I had memorized the route from my book and did my best to pay attention to the landmarks and intersection names as best I could.  I really wanted to settle into one of the rooftop garden cafes for a snack and a beer to write about my experience and read up on some more of the history of the temples and shrines I had just seen.  Just when I thought I had gotten the hang of getting around Thamel I zagged when I should have zigged and found myself wandering aimlessly again.  Fortunately, a nice older Nepali man who was not selling flutes, treks or chess boards noticed my confusion and stopped to see if he could help.  I explained where I wanted to go, and he not only showed me the way but walked there with me to ensure I made it ok, he didn’t expect any money or anything.  I could have hugged him! 

I made it to one of the rooftop gardens recommend in my book and spent the next hour looking at the oddly organized chaos below, eavesdropping on a table of French people’s conversation (they were surprised when I left and told them to have a nice day and let them know where the shop was they were looking for…I love doing that! J) and just relaxing.  I stepped out onto the street, narrowly missing getting run over by a motorbike and contemplated walking back to the hotel….8 hours later, even the best of walking shoes feel like high heels after a night of dancing or walking around Vegas, so I opted for my first taxi ride.  Fortunately, Samar/Sunny/Shekhar/Suresh and Santosh had all let me know that a cab ride should be around 150-200 rupees, so when the cab driver said 300, I said 150….he smiled and said ok.  Apparently not all tourists get the inside scoop.  J  Arriving back to Hotel Manaslu, I was grateful for the peace and quiet of the place.  Thamel is definitely must-see but I don’t think I could live there.

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