The speckled marble tiles sprawl underneath black metallic chairs, which hold a few bored-looking passengers. This way to the immigration, says one sign. Another warns that littering will cost you 200 rupees. In wheels a trolley bearing an oxygen cylinder; in the distance, a German shepherd roams around, sniffing for non-permissible objects. And while officials dart around holding tea in plastic cups, a lone escalator pauses now and then to listen to a worker drill a hole on the wall in front. Add to this mix of sluggishness and frenzy large arrows pointing up towards the ceiling to mean ‘straight forward’, and the ground floor of the international departure lobby of the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu can be overwhelming, confusing and a bit daunting – even for old hands, and certainly for first-timers.
For Tirtha Bahadur Pokharel from Pyuthan district in midwestern Nepal, leaving the country is not a new experience. Although only 26, he has already spent ten years working in India: three in Chennai, five in Gujarat and two in Mathura. But none of these trips involved taking a flight. This Friday evening, however, he is heading to Doha, in Qatar, via Dubai, on a two-year work contract. Yet with only a rucksack and a plastic bag for luggage, he seems poised more for a school trip than an international flight. The mandatory labour stamp on his passport, though, indicating another outbound labour migrant, quickly clears up any confusion an onlooker might have about the purpose of Pokharel’s journey.
What the stamp does not clear up, however, is his own confusion, as he stands by himself at the departure hall of the airport. The novelty all around is dazzling – ‘I did not realise that there would be so many passengers flying out,’ he says, surveying the scene – but it is also unnerving. Although the airline check-in counter is right in front of him, he needs someone to glean the information from his ticket and point him towards it.
‘I’m wondering how I’ll get to Doha,’ he says, standing in line for his boarding pass, when a passenger in front passes him a form that he needs to fill out. It is a small green card issued by the Immigration Department to collect information on departing Nepalis. ‘Is this for luggage information?’ he asks the person, clarifying that he has no luggage to check. ‘No, this has to be filled up,’ the man says and turns back to face the counter. Pokharel takes a look at the form and immediately ticks the box next to Foreign Employment under Reason for Travel. As for the rest of the information, despite being asked in Nepali, he proceeds to provide it, painstakingly, in English.
‘Jari gareko?’ (What’s that?) he asks, before realising that he needs to fill in the date his passport was issued. And when he gets the date wrong, he worries if crossing out and re-writing will land him in trouble. It does not, at least for now, because the woman behind the airline desk is not the one who needs it. ‘Where do I go from here?’ Pokharel says, peering at his boarding pass to see if it contains an answer. ‘Wonder how I will get to Doha,’ he repeats, but refuses to admit that he might be scared of the prospect.
Neither does fellow Doha traveller Men Lama, 19 years old, confess to any such fear. ‘If a man wills’, he says, pushing his luggage cart, ‘he can do anything.’ Lama acknowledges, though, that he is somewhat nervous, since the longest journey he has undertaken thus far was the one from his home in Kanchanpur, in the far west, to the capital, just a week ago. He confesses to feeling sad about leaving his parents and younger siblings behind. Does he also miss his love, Aasha? He hastens to hide the tattooed name across his forearm and, trying to divert the conversation, says, ‘The economic situation at home is desperate.’
Lama’s brother-in-law, a recent returnee from Malaysia with whom he is travelling, seems as clueless about navigating the various counters at the airport. They are to take a flight to Bahrain first, but are instead standing in line at the check-in counter for Qatar Airways. Neither have they obtained their labour stamps, mandatory if this is the passenger’s first flight to the employer country. ‘Are there two different systems for flights to Malaysia and Doha?’ the brother-in-law asks, after an official waving a blue marker around sends them first to be recorded at the labour desk, and then to stand in line at the correct travel counter.
At the labour desk at the far end of the hall, an official peers over three young women’s passports and the attached copies of work visas for waitressing, obtained from the Embassy of Bahrain. ‘With women, you have to be cautious,’ he says – like a father, but not quite. Every single day, he sends back at least one or two women, especially those intending to go to the Gulf countries with a stopover in Delhi. ‘Such journeys via India arouse suspicion because the passengers don’t yet have work visas with them,’ explains the head of security at the airport, Deputy Inspector General of Police Narayan Bastakoti. ‘Flying to Delhi is easy, does not require a visa, but the women might never make it out of there. They could be trafficked into prostitution.’
At the moment, though, these Bahrain-bound-via-Doha women are more concerned about getting through on time, and about the weight limits and identification tabs for their luggage. Although between 19 and 22 years old, and all three of them from outside of Kathmandu, they do not look particularly vulnerable; on the contrary, they seem to be the quickest in finding their way around. Having controlled their tears for now, and with little help, they swiftly locate the correct airline ticket counter and stand in line for boarding passes. As two of them chat about the contents of their suitcases, and the third tells a bewildered caller on her cell phone that she is really leaving Nepal, it is hard to accept that they experience no tinge of anxiety. ‘We are leaving homes for want of an alternative,’ says Chandrakala Rai, expecting no pity but with a certain fatalism. Do they feel lost then? ‘Not yet, this is still Nepal,’ says Navina Devkota. ‘Plus, we have each other,’ adds Kopila Tamang.
It seems that this sense of togetherness – that they are not the only ones leaving Nepal in search of employment – prevents these migrants from spiralling into disorientation and despair, at least here at the outset. As Men Lama points out, ‘Everyone in the village has left for the Gulf.’ Or, as the three women note, ‘We have relatives already working in Bahrain.’ Besides, there is no choice but to trudge on. Getting this far has required hours of queuing up and a lot of money, almost certainly sending most of them into debt.
As they step on the lone escalator, ferrying them up to the second floor, more confusion awaits – but then, there is a certain sense of calm in the hall full of outbound migrants. In those few quiet moments, they might notice the big banners hanging from pillars on either side of the escalator. Embroidered on each in what is by now dusty blue is a Buddhist symbol, the ‘eternal knot’, seemingly saying: You think you are getting out of here, out of poverty, but there is no escape. If anything, though, the journey so far has already taught these migrants that, somehow, they can find their way out – to the other side. As one of them says, ‘Paae kamaunchhu, napaya ghumera aaunchhu.’ If I can, I will earn. If not, I will travel around and return.