April 2002. A chapter of near accidents has brought me to Kathmandu from Perth. We drive with grandkids and dogs north from Busselton and enjoy fish ‘n chips in Fremantle while watching colourful acts in the kid-friendly Buskers’ Festival. Then I have a leisurely shower, hair wash and chat with family before going to bed. I change into night-shirt and take a look at my ticket to see what time I can sleep in until – then I look again. Departure at 0125 hours it says. I count, twice. No, it isn’t midday-ish tomorrow: it is midnight-ish tonight! It is 10 p.m. Time enough – just.
On the dash to Perth’s International Airport, a lighted notice flashes past my vision and I remark to my son Colin that the police are imposing double penalties for traffic offences during this Easter holiday weekend. Seconds later, Colin is flashed going through a red light. Then, missing the junction onto Tonkin Highway, he is flashed again. But he gets me there in time.
The ‘plane to Singapore is very full and cramped, but the airport terminal a delight to wander in, with its gardens and poi fish ponds. On the flight into Kathmandu I am given a luxurious seat in business class, sitting next to a talkative Kiwi entrepreneur who recounts his chequered life-story non-stop until we land, but I cannot remember a word of it.
I go through customs without a hitch, stopping just before the final gate to delve into my backpack for my ticket and wait while a scruffy-looking official tears off the luggage sticker. Finding a taxi is easy: a tout beckons as soon as I pass the barrier. Avoiding some begging kids, I pile into a clapped-out saloon which winds through narrow noisy streets between countless cars and buses going in different directions.
It is a mayhem of noise, horns, bicycles, people, rickshaws and vehicles all vying for space in narrow roads. Yet no-one collides. It is easy for me to shift gear from first-world Australia to third-world Nepal. The minute I leave the airport I feel at home amid the frenzied traffic, stinking litter and smiling people. It is as if I were back in Nairobi.
The four-star Malla Hotel is a plush haven, where I meet Udaya, our striking long-haired Nepali tour leader. I have a bath and prepare to go out for a wander. I can’t find my black pouch containing travellers’ cheques anywhere. I comb through my luggage. I go to reception – no, Udaya has not picked it up by mistake. He is concerned and most helpful. I might have dropped it in the taxi; I’d better go with him to the airport when he meets the rest of the tour group. The odd thing is I still have my ticket which had also been in the black pouch.
My jet-lagged mind slowly starts turning. We ask the desk at the airport to trace the taxi driver. Then I enter the baggage hall and speak to an official. Proud of myself, I suddenly recognise and point out the scruffy man who originally asked for my baggage ticket. Udaya approaches with a Singapore Airlines official and I go through my story again, not really thinking there is any hope. I’ll just have to use a cash-point, I suppose, and claim on insurance for the lost travellers’ cheques.
The official takes me outside.
“Wait here” he says, “I’ll go to the office.”
I wait until he returns about fifteen minutes later “Is this yours?” He shows me my black pouch, complete with everything in it. It was handed in, he says. Perhaps I will give a reward to the finder?
I look round for the finder.
“No – I will pass it on,” he says, quickly.
Gratefully, I empty my purse of the R300 I have just cashed. What luck. But my brain is cranking into gear and I wonder if the “finder” might perhaps be that same scruffy individual who had torn off my luggage sticker in the first place…