17Jan2013

Stuck in Lukla

The runway at Lukla airport, dropping off the edge of the valley.

As we amble from Phakding to Lukla – a walk that took us three hours coming down but half that going up, a measure of our increased fitness – we pass and, more often, are passed by folk we’ve met in the mountains.

They, like us, are headed to Lukla to reconfirm their places on tomorrow’s flights.

Apart from being one of the world’s most dangerous airports – and, if flying into Lukla was terrifying, I can only imagine what flying out will be like – Lukla is also famous for the backlogs of flights which can stack up for weeks when the weather is bad. In fact, one’s only just cleared.

Yet, on this bright sunny day, with tiny Sherpa children bouncing to school escorted by solemn and slightly larger Sherpa children, old ladies making yak dung cakes by the wayside, and monks in incongruously hipster trainers wending their way back from a ceremony, I am confident that we’ll be in Kathmandu tomorrow.

“Look!” says Nir.

We watch as the little Twin Otter plane banks into the valley and drops to the runway. The planes are running!

My heart sings with the delights of Kathmandu. There will be laundry! Hot showers! Wifi! Negronis! Steak! Bacon! Imported wine! Warmth!

The planes are running! My heart sings with the delights of Kathmandu. There will be laundry! Hot showers! Wifi! Negronis! Steak! Bacon! Imported wine! Warmth!

Hell! I might even get laid have a romantic hot date, for the cocky Gurkha is demonstrating, at least from the social confines of somewhere up a mountain, the celebrated Gurkha ability to make do with even the most limited resources an interest in my sparkling personality.

It is the laundry that I’m most fixated on. The pretty little cardigan I put on yesterday now stinks of BO – top trekking tip! Lay off the garlic soup when you’ve had clean laundry! — and, even when closed, our pack now emits the rich and yeasty aromas of a homeless persons’ shelter in Kiev during a cold snap.

Our socks are crunchy, our boots stink and, since part of Zac’s terms for embarking on our Everest Base Camp trek were that he did not have to wash until we returned to Kathmandu, his face is so dirty I can barely spot the freckles.

Tomorrow, I will roll up our fetid sleeping bags and grapple with the catches on the rollbags for the last time. Then we’ll fly into Kathmandu, complete and bill a few urgent jobs, arrange our China visas and head to Chitwan for Christmas. Sorted!

Tomorrow, I will roll up our fetid sleeping bags and grapple with the catches on the rollbags for the last time. Then we’ll fly into Kathmandu, complete and bill a few urgent jobs, arrange our China visas and head to Chitwan for Christmas. Sorted!

I wake at 7am to a bright, clear morning – our trekking lodge, like many in Lukla, literally overlooks the runway. It is not a large runway, but then Lukla is not a large town.

We are on the third flight out, an extra flight put on, as is apparently not uncommon, to clear the remainder of the backlog.

I watch the first plane come and go. “Should we go to the airport now?” I ask Nir.

“Not yet,” he says. “There is fog in Kathmandu. Maybe no more planes today.”

“No more planes?!” I say.

This seems ridiculous! I can’t believe it! Of COURSE there’ll be more planes. They’ve scheduled three flights! What’s a little thing like fog in Kathmandu going to do about flights when it’s so bright and sunny here?

“I think we should go to the airport and check,” I say.

Nir sighs, resignedly, with the air of a man who has been through all this before. There’s at least two Twin Otters’ worth of Westerners standing on the runway, among them an enormous multi-generational Aussie family group we’ve been hanging out with at lodges along the way.

I head to the terrace and yell down to them. “We’re on the second flight!” they say. “Should be here at 10.”

“I think no more planes today,” says Nir.

Bollocks! I think, most unfairly given the poor guy hasn’t seen his wife and kids in over three weeks. You’re just after a couple of days’ extra work.

I head downstairs and pack up all our gear, including sleeping bags.

“Should we go to the airport now?” I ask Nir. “Not yet,” he says. “There is fog in Kathmandu. Maybe no more planes today.” “No more planes?” I say. This seems ridiculous.

10am comes and goes, though the Aussies on the runway hold firm in their belief that the second flight will be arriving soon.

By noon, I’m acclimatising to the notion of being here another day.

Whatevs, I think. Lukla’s a charming little town. And we don’t have to walk anywhere! There’s a fake Starbucks. A pub with a pool table. Somewhere is showing one of the many Everest movies we’ve already seen daily on repeat. There’s a bookshop. A supermarket.

Being stuck here for a day isn’t that bad. Hey! I could even go out and check out the nightlife.

Sure, I’ve promised Zac first dibs on my computer and the internet, since his own is in Kathmandu, and another condition of his embarking on the Everest Base Camp trek was unfettered internet at the earliest opportunity, which means I can’t, in fairness, get any of this work done.

But there’ll be planes tomorrow, right? Right?! And… I’ve got a book! I can just chill out and read my book for a bit. Hey! I could even go out and check out the nightlife.

Even if we’re stuck here till Wednesday, which of course we won’t be, I can still sort out our China visas and get to Chitwan for a Christmas Day spent spotting rhino.

10am comes and goes, though the Aussies on the runway hold firm in their belief that the second flight will be arriving soon. By noon, I’m acclimatising to the notion of being here another day. Whatevs, I think. Lukla’s a charming little town.

By 2pm, the Aussie group have been evicted from the airport, and, the runway deserted but for uniformed soldiers, the airport is officially closed.

Never mind, I think smugly. We have no flights out of Kathmandu. We’re in no hurry. That’s the zen of longterm travel. We can go tomorrow! Or, push comes to shove, the day after.

And I like this lodge, I think. Sure, the showers may not work, but we’ll be in Kathmandu tomorrow.

This is virtual luxury. And there’s a little orphan child at the lodge, Tenzing, aged three, super-smart and English-speaking, with a fondness for being chucked in the air and tickled, and a bizarre willingness to sit on my lap, particularly when there’s chocolate pudding involved.

Watching Zac and Tenzing playing a game of battle-desks, and wondering whether I should order an apple pie and pretend to eat a bit of it so that Tenzing can sit on my lap and eat my “leftovers”, I think, I could have another baby! I could totally have another baby! Zac would make an AMAZING big brother.

Hell! Maybe I could just adopt this one?

I think: I could have another baby! I could totally have another baby! Zac would make an AMAZING big brother. Hell! Maybe I could just adopt this one?

My phone buzzes, prompting a rush of adolescent hormones and a surge of blood below the waist. The cocky Gurkha will be in Kathmandu in three days, he says, with absolute certainty. We should go out.

Clearly this man knows something about the planes that I don’t.

Maybe he’s tapped into some magic Gurkha Air? Hey! Maybe he can even help US get on this magic Gurkha Air?!

Hey! Maybe Zac and I can be rescued from Lukla with the help of a handsome Gurkha (and his quiet mate), lured by my sparkling personality and biting wit.

In that special kind of delirium that can be understood only by women and confirmed bachelors within panicking distance of the psychosexual witching hour that is the big 4-0, I alternate between embarrassing adolescent fantasies about the Gurkha and embarrassing menopausal fantasies about adopting Tenzing.

It’s quite a pleasant way to pass the time, especially given the only other things I can do with my time would involve detaching my spawn from my computer, thereby provoking a riot.

I alternate between embarrassing adolescent fantasies about the Gurkha and embarrassing menopausal fantasies about adopting Tenzing. It’s quite a pleasant way to pass the time.

Do I like dancing? the Gurkha enquires, rather sweetly.

Oh Christ. I have all the natural, seductive rhythm of someone living with acute Tourette’s; I’m the ultimate embarrassing auntie dancing at a wedding; and the guy is, even on the most optimistic of reckonings, at least a decade younger than me, quite possibly young enough for me to actually have babysat him as an infant.

During my 90s raver heyday he would have been… I attempt a quick calculation and my brain freezes in panic… Jesus, what DO young people even listen to nowadays?

“I have no rhythm,” I text, like some Victorian maiden, only not. “Cocktails are good. Anything but coke and strippers is fine with me.”

Nir heads off to the airline office to reconfirm our flights for tomorrow. I can’t help noticing that he’s gone a long time.

Oh well, I think. Maybe he’s met a friend.

Do I like dancing? the Gurkha enquires. Oh Christ. I have all the natural, seductive rhythm of someone living with acute Tourette’s; I’m the ultimate embarrassing auntie dancing at a wedding.

“Fourth flight tomorrow,” Nir says, when he returns.

Zac and I have set ourselves up in a cafe that has internet, boxed wine and Twixes, as well as the required view of the absolute non-action on the runway, and negotiated a deal on their computer so that I can get at least a token amount of work done rather than miss the pre-Christmas billing cycle altogether.

“FOURTH flight?” I say. “We’re on the FOURTH flight?!”

Passages from my guidebook start coming back to me, about flights being backed up for weeks, and people going stir crazy with the pressure, and how one should just roll with the punches and in no circumstances become hysterical.

I start posting hysterical status updates on my Facebook page, an activity I often confuse with work.

Passages from my guidebook start coming back to me, about flights being backed up for weeks, and people going stir crazy with the pressure. I start posting hysterical status updates on my Facebook page.

“I think if no flights tomorrow we start to walk to Jiri,” Nir says.

“Walk to Jiri?!” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “Five days, maybe six.”

I don’t WANT to walk to Jiri. It’s six days of solid walking, down one side of a valley and up the other, the equivalent, in vertical metres, of sea level to the summit of Everest, with only a bus at the end of it for our reward. I quite wish we’d walked in FROM Jiri, rather than flying, but I don’t want to walk out that way.

I want to get to Kathmandu and do my laundry! And have a Negroni! And, anyway, if we start walking now, we’ll get there on the 23rd, which means that I won’t be able to get our China visas in time for us to get to Chitwan for Christmas, and it also means six days with no internet, no work and, therefore, no money.

Fuck. If we go the Jiri route we’re going to be lucky to make it to Beijing for New Year.

“Is there not another option?” I say, feebly. “Let’s give it a couple of days.”

Once we start walking, we’re committed, and I don’t want to find us walking with planes we could have taken going over our heads.

I break the news to Zac that we may be here for a while and, quite possibly, walking to Jiri to boot. “Well,” he says calmly. “I think we can leave that option on the table. I’ll do it if we have to, but let’s try and find a Plan A.”

“Is there not another option?” I say, feebly. “Let’s give it a couple of days.” Once we start walking, we’re committed, and I don’t want to find us walking with planes we could have taken going over our heads.

I wake at 7am to be sure not to miss our 8.30am checkin and find the valley and Lukla veiled in clouds. “No flights today,” says Nir.

“Did you ASK?” I say, slightly hysterically. “Did you ASK at the AIRPORT?”

I mean, I can SEE there will be no flights this morning. I can also see that there’s at least three plane-loads of Westerners hanging out at the airport, presumably taking it in turns to ask.

But we’re already on the fourth flight! Will the flights keep slipping back? Can’t they just run them in the afternoon, instead?

Leaving Zac with custody of my MacBook, I proceed to bounce around the town getting a fix on what’s going on.

The Australians are talking about helicopters. $500 a head for a helicopter to Kathmandu.

Jesus, I think. That’s a bit steep. What are they, desperate? Lukla’s not THAT bad. It’s dull, sure, but, at heart, it’s a charming little place.

I say I’ll do some investigation. Turns out that if there’s a helicopter flying out from Kathmandu the charter price on the return flight is only $1500 for a six-man.

I go and report back.

The Australians are talking about helicopters. $500 a head for a helicopter to Kathmandu. Jesus, I think. That’s a bit steep. What are they, desperate? Lukla’s not THAT bad. It’s dull, sure, but, at heart, it’s a charming little place.

My phone, which I have in no way whatsoever been checking obsessionally every hour, and certainly, most definitely not switching off then on again in case something’s wrong with it, buzzes, announcing a missive from the cocky Gurkha.

He and the quiet one have bagged their mountains and, descending at some stupid speed, will be walking from Pheriche to Lukla…. TOMORROW.

Suddenly, being stuck in Lukla doesn’t seem that bad after all.

I mean, this guy is currently pencilled somewhere between various male models and an actor on my mental list of ludicrously hot men I have frequented, provisionally entitled “Wow! I Must Have Been Good in Bed or Something”, which I will review fondly shortly before I die of starvation alone in an unheated house and my emaciated cats begin to nibble on my cold, dead skin.

Further, he obviously TOTALLY rates my personality, displayed to its finest in a series of witty and sophisticated texts, each of which has taken me about a gadzillion years and positively adolescent amounts of emotional energy to draft and redraft.

My phone, which I have in no way whatsoever been checking obsessionally every hour, and certainly, most definitely not switching off then on again in case something’s wrong with it, buzzes, announcing a missive from the Gurkha.

“Tomorrow,” Nir says. “I think we walk to Jiri.”

Jerking out of fantasyland for a brief few moments, I do the maths. If we start walking to Jiri, that means Christmas in Kathmandu. And I don’t want to do Christmas in Kathmandu! I want to be looking at wild rhino in Chitwan National Park! I’ve never seen a rhino in the wild! And Zac wants to be in Beijing for Christmas, in time to meet our friends.

Jesus. It’s alright for Nir. He LIVES in bloody Jiri. But… that’s six days of walking, which means no billing, which means no money, which means, aaarrgggghhhhh…..

And, anyway, I have a potential booty call  platonic date drunken night out with perhaps a bit of tits and some snogging but definitely nothing more because I have read The Rules  I never put out  nice girls don’t do that  I am religious  women don’t want to have sex  this is SO totally a relationship and SO totally going places… Why was that again? I think I missed that memo.

“No,” I say. “We stay one more day and then maybe we walk to Jiri.”

Nir spends his usual three hours at the airline office. We are on the fifth flight tomorrow. WHAT?!

Definitely nothing more because I have read The Rules  I never put out  nice girls don’t do that  I am religious  women don’t want to have sex  this is SO totally a relationship and SO totally going places – I think I missed that memo.

Our third morning in Lukla dawns bright, crisp and clear yet with a cottonwool mass of cloud at the base of the valley that drifts and curls inexorably upwards, past the crashed planes that adorn the lower reaches of the runway, past the yak trains wending their way down into the valley and up, up into town, until, by 10am, when our flight was scheduled to leave, it is clear to all but the newest of new arrivals that no flights are leaving today.

The cocky Gurkha, who, being a) male b) nowhere near 40 and c) sane, seems unhindered by the drafting process, is texting me a running commentary on his insanely rapid progress down the mountain. Will I still be in Lukla?

“I don’t know,” I text back, entirely inadvertently playing it cool. “There are no flights but we might get a chopper.”

It feels, in its own way, quite glamorous to be texting an age-inappropriate and totally hawt soldier with a body my gay friends would kill for about helicopters, while he is on his way back from climbing a mountain, even if I do have to use urbandictionary.com to look up some of his young person’s vocabulary.

The screenplay I am writing in my head, while no longer exactly Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë material, thanks to a late-night exchange that came perilously close to sexting, is still definitely good for a straight-to-video mid-90s rom com, maybe even starring Jenifer Aniston rather than Sandra Bullock.

Fuck! I think, ironically given how judgemental I was about women wearing makeup while trekking, I have no MAKEUP. Not even MASCARA.

What DAFUQ am I going to do about my face?

And, oh god, I have three weeks’ worth of body hair to dispose of. And, oh god, the showers are broken and, since Nir insisted on doing my laundry rather than me doing it myself in my chaotic, water-wasting Western way, I have no clean knickers either.

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuckety fuck, fuck, fuck.

The screenplay I am writing in my head, while no longer exactly Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë material, thanks to a late-night exchange that came perilously close to sexting, is still definitely good for a straight-to-video mid-90s rom com, maybe even starring Jenifer Aniston rather than Sandra Bullock.

“Zac,” I say, faux-casually to my son and in no way whatsoever in the manner of a woman obsessed with an upcoming booty call the opening stages of a magical mountain romance straight out of the best and most contemporary Mills & Boon. “What do you think of the cocky one? I might be meeting him later if we can’t get a flight out.”

My spawn looks at me in horror. “Apart from the fact he’s 29, you mean?” he says.

“29?!” I say, taking a brief break from an extensive and in-depth textual meta-analysis of one of the Gurkha’s communications, centred on the intensely concerning absence of an X at the end. “He TOLD you that?” (I wasn’t aware that the two had even exchanged words – it was the quiet one who’d endeavoured to engage with my spawn.)

“No,” says Zac, screwing up his face in the mental effort of full awareness that he is now in a hole and his mother will not allow him to stop digging. “No, it’s just…”

“You MEAN,” I say accusingly. “I’m too old for him? Or he’s too young for me?”

“Not exactly,” says Zac, placatorily. “No, not that…. Not that at all… Definitely not that… No, definitely not that… It’s just…. It’s just…”

“WHAT?!” I exclaim. “It’s just… WHAT?”

“It’s just his face,” Zac says, doing his level best to achieve diplomacy. “It doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t look, well, worn. Not worn at all. That’s it!” my son says, with growing confidence that he has FINALLY found the right thing to say. “His face just doesn’t look worn.”

“Oh,” I say, trying to work out how young the guy can possibly be if my twelve-year-old has him pinned as under thirty while simultaneously wondering if Kathmandu’s minuscule corrupt elite are rich enough to support an in-market Botox clinic or whether they just get it done in Delhi. “I suppose it doesn’t.”

“It’s just his face,” Zac says, doing his level best to achieve diplomacy. “It doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t look, well, worn. Not worn at all. That’s it!” my son says, with growing confidence that he has FINALLY found the right thing to say. “His face just doesn’t look worn.”

“What was that guy in Kunming called again?” says Zac, eyeing me as I fiddle neurotically with my strangely silent phone.

“What guy in Kunming?!” I say impatiently.

“You know…” says Zac.

“No, I don’t bloody know!” I snarl. “I think you’re confused. There WAS no guy in Kunming.”

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