20Jan2013

The Morning After

Clouds in the Himalayas.

“You realise – or you would do if you hadn’t stayed out till 4am getting sozzed,” says Zac over breakfast. “That if we don’t get out of Lukla today or tomorrow, we’ll be spending the End of the World in Lukla.”

Oh Jesus, I think. He’s right.

Of all the places to spend the Mayan Apocalypse, Lukla falls very, very low on my list. It’s not even high enough to escape the giant tsunami.

Also, if we don’t get to Kathmandu tomorrow, we don’t get our Chinese visas in time to do Christmas in Chitwan, spotting rhino.

My sluttish post-coital glow, after my oh-so-unbearably romantic tryst with the Gurkha (henceforward Mr Darcy), and quiet satisfaction that I left before haggard o’clock (AKA daylight) is replaced with a sense of mounting and horrible anxiety.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “They had seats on choppers for $300 yesterday, so they may well be cheaper today.”

“Helicopters VERY expensive,” says Nir. “$500, maybe.”

“If we don’t get out of Lukla today or tomorrow, we’ll be spending the End of the World in Lukla.” Oh Jesus, I think. He’s right. Of all the places to spend the Mayan Apocalypse, Lukla falls very, very low on my list.

I am not in the best frame of mind. I want to get Christmas sorted, some work done, some money in and our Chinese visas. None of these are achievable while stuck in Lukla, a town for which even Zac’s remarkable tolerance is wearing thin.

Further if I hadn’t gone and got my knickers off with Mr Darcy, I’d have had a chance of a repeat in Kathmandu. Damn, damn, damn!

Oh well, I think. At least it was worth the grooming. A lady of my advancing years does not often get that close to that kind of physique, tended with a devotion normally found only in confirmed bachelors who frequent the more pumping late night hostelries in Vauxhall.

I can’t help recalling, however, that Mr Darcy has spent four years in England and three in Brunei. This makes him, according to the obsessional age maths I am still using, having not yet acclimatised to the fact that I am so bloody old that, like policemen, lovers will get younger with every passing year, somewhere between 23 and 25.

That is to say, he is quite possibly younger than my godson, definitely young enough for me to have babysat him as an infant, and, in the worst case scenario, actually young enough to be my biological child.

Still – hey! – get myself a decent frock, some heels and a bit of a spa thing, and I can pop to a five-star, or, better, the sort of indie yet upscale speakeasy style cocktail lounge I am convinced must exist somewhere in Kathmandu, perhaps in Lazimpath, and sort myself a Negroni AND an age-appropriate more age-appropriate lay BOTH AT THE SAME TIME.

I set out, a woman on a mission. I am going to get us out of Lukla TODAY.

Somewhere between 23 and 25, which is to say, quite possibly younger than my godson, definitely young enough for me to have babysat him as an infant, and, in the worst case scenario, actually young enough to be my biological child.

I don’t have to go far to find a helicopter. Chopper after chopper is chugging onto Lukla’s diminutive runway, with one of the parking places for the non-existent Twin Otters transformed into a second helipad.

And in scenes reminiscent of the American evacuation of Saigon, bags, bundles and tourists in tour-group branded trekking gear pile on, and on, and on, while an entire shanty town’s worth of neatly packing-taped cardboard boxes develops on the runway.

I’m just waiting for the first person to leap into the air and cling desperately to the skids as the things take off, like that scene in Tropic Thunder, or the guards to raise their 1960s vintage Winchester rifles and fire warning shots into the air as previously sane walkers, rabid for the delights of Kathmandu, bodily storm the airport.

There is desperation in the air. And, for once, it isn’t all coming from me.

Lukla, right now, has all the calm and sanity of the Rihanna plane.

I’m just waiting for the first person to leap into the air and cling desperately to the skids as the things take off, or the guards to raise their 1960s vintage Winchester rifles and fire warning shots into the air.

The remainder of the Aussies, I notice, who only yesterday afternoon seemed sanguine and prepared to sit it out, are among them.

“Are you off, then?” I say. “How much did you pay?”

“Five hundred,” says the girl. “We just couldn’t take any more. We needed,” she says, with an emphasis only someone who’s spent more than three full days in Lukla with no end in sight can fully understand. “We needed to get out of Lukla.”

My phone buzzes. It’s Mr Darcy. Very politely he thanks me for last night. If there are any helicopters going, could I let him know?

I draw a thick black line through the helicopter rescue scene in the screenplay in my head and try and think of something to replace it. I start work on a promising alternative involving tigers in Chitwan.

“We needed,” she says, with an emphasis only someone who’s spent more than three full days in Lukla with no end in sight can fully understand. “We needed to get out of Lukla.”

By 10am, I am on helicopter negotiation terms with everyone in Lukla. Some we have met on the mountain. Others we haven’t. A few new arrivals remain remarkably sanguine and confused by all this hysteria.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Sherpa, hard-nosed traders since they crossed over from Tibet five centuries ago, have cornered all the helicopters and are holding prices at five hundred bucks a head.

I decide to take a systematic approach and ring every single helicopter charter company in Nepal. There’s one that has 24-man choppers. I figure that’s got to be cost-effective.

It isn’t. They cost $7,000 per hour, and we’ll need to pay for two hours for them to fly out from Kathmandu and back.

Bugger. I’m out of options.

Ah! A properly familiar face! It’s Mr Darcy’s mate, the quiet one.

Maintaining the polite fiction on both sides that he in no way battered on Mr Darcy’s door while we were mid-coitus, and that I have in fact in no way whatsoever frequented his lodge, we swap helicopter info for a while.

If there’s a chopper coming out of Kathmandu, I explain, the return hire price should only be $1500 for a six-man. I give him my number and say I’ll let him know if anything comes through.

I ring every single helicopter charter company in Nepal. There’s one that has 24-man choppers. I figure that’s got to be cost-effective. It isn’t. They cost $7,000 per hour, and we’ll need to pay for two hours.

I find plenty of choppers with slots, four-man, five-man and six-man. But most of them are only missing the magic one person to fill their complement, whereas Zac and I are two, and all of them are charging an eye-bleeding five hundred bucks a head for a full chopper.

It is amazing how rapidly signs of the exotic, be that yak trains, mule trains or helicopters, can pall.

Now the very sight of mules parked in the street makes me want to get the hell out of this one-horse dorp and every single bloody yakalo makes me positively stabby.

Jesus! Forget the Himalayapocalypse! We could be stuck here for Christmas. And that would mean missing our friends in Beijing altogether.

Last year, apparently, three thousand trekkers were stranded in Lukla for weeks, many of them with connecting flights to catch, helicopter prices soared to $2000 per head, and eventually the bloody army had to airlift them out.

Now the very sight of mules parked in the street makes me want to get the hell out of this one-horse dorp and every single bloody yakalo makes me positively stabby.

I’m passing The Nest, the lodge where we use the internet, when the pissed-off Brit and the sardonic New Yorker I’ve been chatting to earlier grab me.

“He’s got a chopper!” they hiss – a cheap chopper is like crystal meth in these parts. “Seats are $350. Are you in?”

“Hell yeah!” I say. “There’s two of us.”

“Right,” they say. “We’ve got room for two more.”

I text both Gurkhas. “We’ve got two more who want seats,” I begin. “I’m just texting them…”

But an English girl and a French guy on the front terrace are in like Flynn, and by the time the quiet one arrives the chopper is full.

The quiet one, it begins to dawn on me, is actually a really nice guy.

Shame I don’t fancy him, really.

Then, oh fuck, I think, like some Victorian maiden, only not. They’re not pulling the old switcheroo, are they? Oh dear god, no.

What kind of dreadful harlot DO they think I am?

“He’s got a chopper!” they hiss – a cheap chopper is like crystal meth in these parts. “Seats are $350. Are you in?” “Hell yeah!” I say.

“Will they take credit cards?” I ask the guy at the lodge.

He rings up to check. “Cash only,” he says.

Where the hell am I going to get $700 in cash? I was cashed up when walking in the mountains, because there are no card facilities above a certain height (many of the posh lodges at the lower elevations will, I understand, run a card for a fee of around 10% if you’re super-stuck).

But now I’m almost flat out, and I’ve got a cash withdrawal limit of a mere £250 per 24 hours on my card.

The English girl, rather than screw up the helicopter we have just successfully filled, agrees to spot me some cash in exchange for a bank transfer and heads to the bank, while I start to panic about whether I’ll be packed up before the chopper gets here.

The quiet one appears. How’s it going?

“I think we’ve got seats,” I say. “$350. But I can’t take enough money out for two on my card, so that girl said she’d spot me the cash for a bank transfer.”

“If she doesn’t,” he says. “Ring me. I’ll sort you out. You can give it back to me in Kathmandu.”

Aw, I think. That’s nice of him.

“That girl said she’d spot me the cash for a bank transfer.” “If she doesn’t,” he says. “Ring me. I’ll sort you out. You can give it back to me in Kathmandu.” Aw, I think. That’s nice of him.

“How long do you reckon I’ve got?” I ask.

“Half an hour,” says the pissed-off Brit, who’s demonstrating all the lust for life and passion for existence of the Grinch.

Oh fuck. I need to pack up all our stuff, get our bill paid, go to the bank and fill out the triplicate forms required for cash withdrawals in these rarefied climes, and get Zac’s arse in gear.

This is becoming incredibly, incredibly stressful. And I can’t help notice that, despite being at the most 300 metres distant from me, Mr Darcy is communicating by text.

That CERTAINLY isn’t happening in the screenplay in my head. Bugger!

Despite being at the most 300 metres distant from me, Mr Darcy is communicating by text. That CERTAINLY isn’t happening in the screenplay in my head.

Quite why the town with the closest thing the Khumbu has to a regional airport can’t stretch to an ATM machine, I don’t know, but withdrawing cash at the grandiosely titled Lukla Investment Bank is no bagatelle.

On the way down, I meet the British girl. Her bank wouldn’t let her withdraw the extra $350.

I queue, fill out a form, take it to a separate counter to get it stamped, get my passport photocopied, and fill out a second form. This too is stamped, and I head back to the first counter to get my cash, which is enough for one seat, not two.

It all seems to be taking an unconscionably long time and I’m under no illusions that if we’re not ready when the chopper chug-chug-chugs up the valley like something out of Apocalypse Now our bargain $350 seats will be gone faster than horse meat in a shark tank.

If we’re not ready when the chopper chug-chug-chugs up the valley like something out of Apocalypse Now our bargain $350 seats will be gone faster than horse meat in a shark tank.

I scamper back to base in a state of mounting hysteria. “ZAC!” I say. “Stop gaming! Shut down now! We’ve got a chopper! We won’t be spending the Himalayapocalypse in Lukla!”

“Yay!” yells my spawn. “ESCAPE FROM LUKLA!”

We do a little happy dance, and then realise that this might be considered rude. Still, I reckon the Sherpa are used to it.

I get Nir and the Sherpas working on adding up our gigantic bill and shove our fetid laundry and sharty sleeping bags into their various homes, while instructing my spawn to “Get to The Nest and hold that chopper! Don’t let it leave without us!”

We have lift off! We are good to go! Today is the day that we ESCAPE FROM LUKLA!

I can see the helicopter now, emerging from the mist as part of a neat formation, accompanied by some 1980s big hair power rock, like something out of Top Gun, only not.

I can almost feel the lift as its nose rises from the ground. I can see Lukla vanishing behind the mountains and the bright lights of the major world city that is Kathmandu appearing in a long, slow pan, skyscrapers topped with cool, funky rooftop bars stretching as far as the eye can see, top-flight air-conditioned malls just packed to the gunnels with affordable street fashion to beautify myself en route to my pick of amazing rooftop bar, 5* hotel bar, or, of course, intimate Japanese-style cocktail lounge…

I mean, I know Thamel’s not like that, exactly. Or anywhere you else you go through from the airport. Or on the way to Boudhnath, or Pashputinath, or any of the major sites. But Lazimpath has to be, right? That’s where the EMBASSIES are.

“We’ve got a chopper! We won’t be spending the Himalayapocalypse in Lukla!” “Yay!” yells my spawn. “ESCAPE FROM LUKLA!” We do a little happy dance, and then realise that this might be considered rude.

Dragging myself away from my reveries, I ring the quiet one. “Err, listen,” I say. “You know you offered to spot me that cash? Well, the girl couldn’t get enough money out on her card, so…”

“Yeah, sure,” he says. “Where are you?”

“I’m at the Nest,” I say. “Or I will be. I just need to sort my bill out.”

“How much money do you need?” he asks.

“Three hundred and fifty, I think,” I say, fumbling with a gigantic wodge of Nepalese rupees and trying to work out how much more I need to pay Nir for the extra days’ work. “Wait a minute…. Ummm, yeah, three hundred and fifty dollars should do it.”

“Do you want it as dollars or rupees?” he asks.

“Ummm,” I say efficiently, and in no means whatsoever like a total fucking flake who doesn’t even know how much money she currently has, let alone how much more money she actually needs.

I flick through the Monopoly money from the bank in their elastic band and the other wodge in my purse. I try to multiply 350 by 90 and then add 5%, then give up and times by a hundred instead because I think I need some money to pay my lodge with and it can’t be more than the difference between 350 x 90 + 5% and 350 x 100 + whatever that wodge in my purse is worth. “Let me think. Yeah. 35,000 rupees.”

Nir, obviously, refuses to let me carry the bags. And so in his absolute last role as porter-guide, we progress to The Nest.

“The guy reckons the helicopter will take a bit longer,” says the Brit.

Thank god!

I try to multiply 350 by 90 and then add 5%, then give up and times by a hundred instead because I think I need some money to pay my lodge with and it can’t be more than the difference between 350 x 90 + 5% and 350 x 100 + whatever that wodge in my purse is worth.

The quiet one shows up, brandishing a paper-clipped roll of Nepalese rupees like the proverbial knight in shining armour. “There you go,” he says. “You can give it back to me in Kathmandu.” And for this act of kindness to a damsel in distress, I shall henceforth term him the White Knight.

“No, wait,” I say. “I’ve got a laptop. If you do internet banking I can put it in your bank straightaway.”

I go through the pantomime of finding an internet exchange rate, adding the 5% that the bank puts on and some random margin for being royally screwed on currency exchange at both ends, and talking him through my terrible maths, on the basis that, being a soldier and all, he’s probably even worse at it than I am. “There,” I say. “Does that sound right? It might be a bit over but it won’t be under.”

“There IS an official exchange rate…” he suggests gently, for all the world like someone markedly more numerate than I am.

“Nah,” I say. “That’ll be fine.”

I’m buggered if I’m going through that maths again.

“If it’s over I’ll buy you a beer in Kathmandu,” he says.

I conduct the internet banking in a form of exaggerated and explanatory dumb show, like someone showing their elderly grandmother how to use Facebook, while he patiently corrects the numbers I have failed to copy from his card.

Good lord, I think. This man has the patience of a saint.

I head back to the lodge with Nir so we can sort our bill out.

Brandishing a paper-clipped slab of Nepalese rupees like the proverbial knight in shining armour, “There you go,” he says. “You can give it back to me in Kathmandu.”

On my return the mood at The Nest seems to have darkened. “That guy’s full of shit,” says my countryman, with the chirpy expression of a bulldog chewing not just on a wasp but an entire hornet’s nest. “This helicopter’s never going to happen.”

“What?!” I say. There are LOADS of helicopters. They must have got a hundred people out of here since they started chugging in with the dawn.

I get a hideous sinking feeling in the very pit of my stomach, like a very small but fully-loaded elevator has just dropped from my ribs to my lower intestines.

I’ve just spent the last three hours running around like a headless chicken and now the helicopter’s fallen through?! That CAN’T be happening.

“Yeah,” says the New Yorker. “He pulled the exact same shit yesterday. I can’t believe he’s done it again.”

“WHAT?!” I say. I have a stack of Nepalese rupees now better measured in centimetres than numbers, and I’ve packed up all our stuff, all over again, and checked out of our lodge. We’re HERE! On the terrace! By the airport! Ready to go!

“He’s full of shit,” says the Brit. “All he’s saying now is that if we have $500 it’s not a problem.”

“Oh!” I say, and the penny drops.

The guy at the Nest has got himself an option on a chopper coming out of Kathmandu full – he’ll clear a cool $600 on the return flight if it comes off, presumably with a hefty kickback to the guy who offered him the chopper, but if no choppers leave Kathmandu full, there won’t be any return flight. And, with spots now selling at $500, he’ll be lucky to hold his option now.

The Gurkhas, meanwhile, have secured spots on a different helicopter for $400 a head.

“WHAT?!” I say. I have a stack of Nepalese rupees now better measured in centimetres than numbers, and I’ve packed up all our stuff, all over again, and checked out of our lodge. We’re HERE! On the terrace! By the airport! Ready to go!

I am now in the sort of situation I hate most, one of active uncertainty. I can’t make the decision to do nothing, to wait and go with the flow, just settle in and get on with work and schooling, primarily because I need to get that China visa sorted but also because I would rather saw my own arm off and beat myself over the head with it than spend even one more night in Lukla.

But any active decision I make to do something lands me in potentially more trouble, whether that’s walking to Jiri with planes going overhead, dropping a thousand dollars on a chopper only to find the planes start running the next day, or picking yet another chopper that turns out to be a work of fiction created by an entrepreneurial Sherpa or to have been diverted to something trivial like rescuing fucktards who have managed to fall off mountains or go up them too fast.

I am a tight little ball of tension and stress, the most stressed I’ve been since our bike broke down in Flores.

On balance, I figure, the least stressful option is to accept that we’re not leaving today and try and find something else to do with my time, hope the weather clears for planes tomorrow, and get a solid option lined up in case it doesn’t.

Primarily because I need to get that China visa sorted but also because I would rather saw my own arm off and beat myself over the head with it than spend even one more night in Lukla.

I explain to Nir what we are doing, and that he should make his way to Jiri.

We bid our fond farewells, he drapes the traditional gift of kata scarves around our necks, I bung him some cash and say I’ll send him more by way of Narayan, and I endeavour to contain a sense of mounting hysteria and a desperate craving for a Negroni or, if not that, at least a gin and tonic.

“Do you need a room tonight?” asks the man at The Nest.

“Yeah,” I say, resignedly. I can’t be arsed to drag our backpack back across town, and anyway, we’ve moved on from there.

I haggle and he cuts me a decent deal.

Mr Darcy texts. “Are you here yet?”

A flash of irritation surges through me, and I scrumple up the blacked out helicopter rescue scene in the screenplay in my head, throw it into a rubbish bin, also in my head, pour kerosene on it and light it.

“No,” I text back. “I already told you. We’re stuck in Lukla. The chopper didn’t come through. And I won’t have the cash for a $500 one until tomorrow.”

“I hope you can come to Kathmandu tomorrow,” he texts back, from the safe distance of, umm, Kathmandu.

Ooh! I start work on the screenplay in my head again, craft a carefully nonchalant text that is in no way indicative of perimenopausal insanity, stalking or both of the above, and find some people to have a beer with while we wait for the airline office to open.

10 Comments

  1. Rob says:

    Jezz, you write a good story!

  2. Catherine Hartmann says:

    More more more!!!!!

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you! I will try. I have a little more written up. Just need to go and find us a flat, using only my not-very-good Chinese…

  3. I am so caught up in this whole shabang right now. It’s becoming my new nightly routine. Love it!

    Also, you make me feel so much better about dating someone 10years my junior. :D

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you! I’ve never dated someone ten years’ my junior. The closest I got to it was seven years, and that was a lot at the time… Mind you, I’m quite spectacularly immature, so it should be more plausible than it is…

  4. Catherine Hartmann says:

    I am at the point where if you don’t get out of Lukla in the next installment I might lose it myself.

    • Theodora says:

      All I can say is that, if anything, it was actually worse than it sounds…

      • Catherine Hartmann says:

        I can’t comment on the next installment for some reason but I think I read it within minutes of you posting it and thank god! Obviously now I am itching to know what happened in Kathmandu……

        • Theodora says:

          I don’t know WHY it keeps switching the comments off. They’re on now. I’m going to take a little break to get a post about the practicalities of Everest Base Camp up because otherwise I’ll totally never do it, and then we’ll be back in Kathmandu…

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