23Jan2013

Escape from Lukla!

Escape From Lukla

The airline “office”, a hole-in-the-wall affair on the cobbled thoroughfare littered with yakalo and mule dung that is Lukla’s answer to Oxford Street, “opens” at 2.30. So many of the rich panoply of nations that adorn Lukla when flights are backed up are loitering outside it.

“First time here?” asks a South African chick in war-weary tones.

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ve been stuck here four days but our guide’s been dealing with this bit. I heard it opens at 2.30.”

“It does,” she says. “Then he’ll tell you to come back at 3 to speak to the boss, and when you come back at 3 to speak to the boss, the boss will tell you to come back at 4. They usually get the lists done by about 4.30, but it’s total bullshit unless the planes fly anyway.”

Then why are you here, I wonder darkly. And then I realise that there really isn’t a lot else to do in Lukla.

Apart, of course, from getting absolutely obliteratingly drunk, which is seeming more and more tempting an option by the second, and will finally eradicate all the good that Everest Base Camp has done me.

“He’ll tell you to come back at 3 to speak to the boss, and when you come back at 3 to speak to the boss, the boss will tell you to come back at 4. They usually get the lists done by about 4.30.”

With a few variations – an interesting opening sequence where they can find no record of our booking adds an extra hit of adrenaline to my system, which could really do with more stress right now, because my circulatory system’s certainly not been working hard enough – and a couple of extra requests to wait and come back, the “system” works as she describes.

Wait, get told to come back, wait, get told to come back, wait, show papers, get told to come back.

During one of my waits I go to the airfield and ask the soldiers about helicopters.

There aren’t any more. That’s the last flight leaving. That one right there.

I watch the nose lift up and the scarlet heli hover like a dragonfly before it swings, belly heavy, down into the valley and round, round to freedom, with a sense of envy that brings me close to tears.

That’s the last flight leaving. That one right there. I watch the nose lift up and the scarlet heli hovers like a dragonfly before it swings, belly heavy, down into the valley and round, round to freedom.

Soon after this, the Brit shows up looking even more like a bulldog chewing on a lemon than he did when our helicopter fell through.

“What HAPPENED?” I say. “I thought you were on a five hundred dollar chopper!”

“Nah,” he says. “They cancelled it. The last flight’s gone.”

And indeed, that empty runway that we’ve been looking over for the last few days is now thoroughly clouded in a darkening mist.

“Wow,” I say. “That sucks.”

“Yeah,” he says. “This has been the worst day of my life. I’m booked on one at 9am tomorrow.”

Oh god, I think. This is like Groundhog Day. I could be coming to this airline office every afternoon to get booked on later, and later flights, chasing the same elusory helicopters day, after day, after day. I NEED to escape from Lukla.

This is like Groundhog Day. I could be coming to this airline office every afternoon to get booked on later, and later flights, chasing the same elusory helicopters day, after day, after day. I NEED to escape from Lukla.

There’s an American guy, also waiting. In addition to the myriad joys of being stuck in Lukla he has a tummy bug, a condition which, like colds, Nepal could major in.

“Think you’ve got it bad?” he says. “I’ve been up all night vomiting. Sorry if I woke you…” he adds to one of the assembled masses, who clearly has the misfortune to be just a plywood partition away from his exotic and noisy digestive motions.

“You know,” I say. “I can’t wait for a Negroni when I get to Kathmandu. There will be somewhere in Kathmandu that can make a Negroni, won’t there?”

“Why did you bring up Negronis?” he says.

“Because it’s my drink!” I say. “Do you reckon there’s anywhere in Lukla I can get a Negroni?”

“Yeah,” he says sardonically. “The Irish Pub has a fully stocked cocktail bar out the back.”

I am, as might be obvious, quite phenomenally gullible, notwithstanding my incredible talent for self-deception. My eyes light up, perhaps less in the vein of It’s A Wonderful Life and more like Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters, shortly after she starts levitating, but whatevs, and I turn to spring the bare hundred metres that separate me from the civilisation in a glass that is a Negroni.

My eyes light up, perhaps less in the vein of It’s a Wonderful Life and more like Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters, shortly before she starts levitating, but whatevs, and I turn to spring the bare hundred metres that separate me from the civilisation in a glass that is a Negroni.

“No, not really,” he says. “But they’ve got Bombay in the ‘Starbucks’ and if we’re stuck here for Christmas we could always make our own vermouth.”

“Yes!” I say. “With boxed wine and, umm, pine needles?”

“ESCAPE FROM LUKLA!” Negroni Guy says.

“ESCAPE FROM LUKLA!” I say. We are both now giggling hysterically. “We can make our own vermouth. But how the fuck are we going to manage Campari with the raw ingredients here? Hey! They have oranges, don’t they?!”

Wow! I think. This guy’s quite hot for someone who’s been puking his guts up all night. Hey! He’d probably scrub up OK for a five-star hotel! And his age probably starts with a 3!

And then, Jesus, woman, what is wrong with you? Are you on heat? You’ve got at least the first two-thirds of an entire bad rom-com written in your head about a 23-year-old   25-year-old could-just-about-conceivably-be-30-if-he-went-to-Sandhurst-which-he-didn’t soldier.

“We’ll still be here,” I begin, almost crying with laughter. “When the spring melts the frozen winters, and the rhododendron blooms, and the baby yaks begin to frolic in the fields, for we will never, ever, ever ESCAPE FROM LUKLA.”

Negroni Guy chimes in with a theme tune. “ESCAPE FROM LUKLA – DAH DUH DUM!”

“They have Negronis at the Radisson,” I say. I’ve spent a chunk of the afternoon catching up with urgent work projects and tending my long-suffering clients googling “Negronis in Kathmandu”, even going so far as to cyber-stalk and Facebook message the author of an article on the origin of the Negroni published on a Nepali website, and it appears that the bar at the Radisson in Lazimpath has not only a cocktail menu, but a cocktail menu with a Negroni on it.

Oooh! A phone call!

“We’ll still be here,” I begin, almost crying with laughter. “When the spring melts the frozen winters, and the rhododendron blooms, and the baby yaks begin to frolic in the fields, for we will never, ever, ever ESCAPE FROM LUKLA.”

It’s the White Knight, obviously, ringing to see how I’m doing.

I make the mistake of telling him. “Well,” I say, giggling hysterically. “I’ve been at the airline office for the last three hours, or, more technically, outside it. But it’s OK! Because we’ve worked out a way to make Negronis, haven’t we?!”

The guy chimes in.

“Yeah,” I continue, warming to my theme. “We can make our own vermouth using red wine and juniper berries, and then if we’re still here for Christmas…”

For some mysterious reason, the line appears to have gone dead.

“Jesus,” I say, to the assembled reprobates and wastrels. “I.Need.A.Drink. Anyone else want to go for a drink?”

“I can’t,” says Negroni Guy. “I’m on antibiotics and I’ve been vomiting all day.”

“It’s not really alcohol I need,” says someone else. “It’s benzodiazepines.”

“Mmmm!…” I say. “Diazepam! And gin!”

A surge of the crowd. The boss is back in the airline office, has finished the complicated work with pen and paper, and is now ready to pronounce our fates.

“Jesus,” I say, to the assembled reprobates and wastrels. “I.Need.A.Drink. Anyone else want to go for a drink?” “I can’t,” says Negroni Guy. “I’m on antibiotics and I’ve been vomiting all day.” “It’s not really alcohol I need,” says someone else. “It’s benzodiazepines.”

It is a peculiarity of the system at Lukla that, rather than deal with foreign names, people put on flights are identified by the lodge they are staying at, and the various lodge owners show up at the airline office to help out with any confusion.

I barge forwards with an assertiveness that’s positively Chinese, if not actually Vietnamese, and get to the front of the queue hysterical mob.

The boss, a man of no small dignity, works his way down the list, pronouncing sentence like some Victorian hanging judge faced with a particularly pesky under-age pickpocket. “Eighth flight,” he says. “9am.”

I begin to laugh, involuntarily and uncontrollably, at the prospect of being in an airport that’s seen precisely zero non-helicopter aviation in the last three days at 9am for an eighth flight. “Eighth flight?” I snort. “Bahahahahaha!”

Because only two Tara Air planes fly this route, they will have to have flown from Kathmandu to Lukla and back three times, and out of Kathmandu to Lukla again, before we even have a chance of being airborne.

He looks rather offended by this. “Yes,” he says. “Eighth flight. Be at the airport at 9am.”

“You either laugh or cry, don’t you?” says the South African woman sympathetically.

What I do, in actual fact, after over a month of successful non-smoking, is head to the nearest shop, buy a packet of Marlboro Lights and smoke them pretty much back-to-back in an ecstasy of self-loathing.

The boss, a man of no small dignity, works his way down the list. “Eighth flight,” he says. “9am.” I begin to laugh, involuntarily and uncontrollably.

Outside the airline office, things are both scratchy and tense. A mechanic at the airstrip claims to have access to a helicopter going to Phaplu for as little as $60 a head. From there, apparently, there are jeeps to Kathmandu.

“It’s twelve hours on a jeep,” says the South African’s husband, enthused by the prospect. “And there’s a bus stop at the end of the jeep ride. It’s like 5000 rupes for the jeep.”

“It’s not twelve hours on a jeep,” says a Canadian who works in Kathmandu. “A friend of mine did that journey. It’s 26 hours on a jeep over two consecutive days.”

“No it’s not,” says the South African’s husband, who is, for the record, a pilot.

“Have you NEVER travelled in the third world?” says the Canadian. “I know what these rides are like. You pile into the back. Then the driver stops off for tea with his auntie, and everybody waits politely. Then you get to a landslide, and you all have to get out and push. And then there’s some buffalo, and someone has a parcel to collect from a village that they’re delivering to a different village, and someone has a goat that has to be tied to the jeep…”

For a moment, I think the South African is going to hit him.

“I don’t believe in this helicopter,” I say self-importantly. “I’ll believe it when I see it. And, anyway, I can’t spend Christmas on a 26-hour jeep ride! I have a CHILD to think of, you know.”

“I know what these rides are like. You pile into the back. Then the driver stops off to see his auntie, and have tea with her, and everybody waits politely. Then you get to a landslide, and you all have to get out and push.”

By a process of persistent trawling and loitering, I manage to find two guys who are committed to getting out tomorrow, no matter what, and don’t believe in the $60 chopper ride to freedom, plus a couple of other possibles.

We resolve that if there has been no plane by 9am we will get a four-man chopper and come as close to signing a blood pact to this effect as is possible.

I ring the White Knight back to see whether he actually wanted anything important, as in, whether the money I’d transferred to his account had somehow gone AWOL.

“I’m sorry,” I say, with more than a little litotes. “I think I was a bit hysterical when you called.”

“How’s it going?” he asks, unwisely.

I am halfway through a long and tedious tale of woe when it dawns on me that, as a soldier, the man’s job involves people trying to kill him, and therefore he’s not entirely likely to fully empathise with the dreadful, terrible stress that is being stuck in Lukla for a few days, possibly about to miss one’s friends in China and being a bit late with a little light typing about cocktails and holidays.

We make a vague plan to go for beers assuming I manage to get myself to Kathmandu. Which I will. Because if I’m not in Kathmandu by lunchtime I’m going to a) miss the Chinese embassy and b) go completely insane.

I am halfway through a long and tedious tale of woe when it dawns on me that, as a soldier, the man’s job involves people trying to kill him, and therefore he’s not entirely likely to fully empathise with the dreadful, terrible stress that is being stuck in Lukla.

Back at our new base, I knock myself out into the sleep of the dead, and wake to a surprisingly clear sky and a phone with NO, whatsoever, absolutely NO messages.

I go into my sent items folder, to conduct an extensive meta-analysis of what I have done wrong apart from the obvious.

Huh?! I read it back. “I’m serious. Please don’t. You’re in danger of waking her up,” it says.

Wha’?! I never sent that! It’s perfectly punctuated – I’ve passed my text message pedantry to my son, whose posts, even on the forums he frequents, are flawlessly punctuated, right down to the judicious use of the occasional semi-colon – but I never sent it.

I read back my penultimate sent message. “Hi, Z here,” it says, with a proprietorial authority surprising in one so young. “Mum’s asleep. Please stop texting her.”

“LOL,” Mr Darcy replies, clearly under the impression that he is corresponding with me pretending to be Zac. “Have a good night.”

I message him to say that Zac’s been texting him and prepare to have a little chat with my spawn about boundaries, at least once I’ve had my morning coffee.

I read back my penultimate sent message. “Hi, Z here,” it says. “Mum’s asleep. Please stop texting her.” “LOL,” Mr Darcy replies, clearly under the impression that he is corresponding with me pretending to be Zac.

“The planes are running today!” says the man at The Nest.

“WHAT?!” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “The first two flights already left Kathmandu.”

“WHAT?!” I say again. Then my face falls. “We’re on the eighth.”

“Good weather today,” he says, consolingly. “Many flights today.”

No way! We’re getting out of here! We’re going to escape from Lukla! I brush my teeth, pack up our bags again, roll up the sleeping bags, again, and progress to the airport to check the status of our flight.

I hear a sound! A strange, magical, melodically beautiful whine, so different from the turgid chug of choppers.

A plane! A plane! An actual, real-life, wonderful Twin Otter, decked in the beauteous green of Tara Air! As it lands, slams the engines into reverse and flows with absolute elegance up the runway and into its parking bay, I am positively misty-eyed.

We really are going to escape from Lukla. The day of the Himalayapocalypse, and we are going to escape from Lukla!

Then I check myself. I will not believe we are out of Lukla until the plane has touched the runway at Kathmandu.

I hear a sound! A strange, magical, melodically beautiful whine, so different from the turgid chug of choppers. A plane! A plane! An actual, real-life, wonderful Twin Otter.

Our time at the airport passes in a vile miasma of obsessive checking – “Ah, you’re the lady with the little boy! Yes, yes, we know about you! Yes! Yes! You are on the eight flight!” – and counting planes. Our eighth flight is actually the ninth flight, because Nepal Airlines have slipped a cheeky plane in as well.

By 10.30am we have our boarding passes!

By 11am we are through what passes for security and on the runway with our bags.

By 11.10am I am wondering whether the flights have stopped again.

At 11.30 our plane comes into land, greeted with wild, ululating howls from the Westerners and discreet amusement from the Sherpas, who are probably used to this.

“Escape from Lukla!” I exclaim to Zac.

“On the day of the apocalypse, as well!” he says, launching into some complicated explanation that he found on a forum somewhere about why the Mayan Long Count is wrong.

Our time at the airport passes in a vile miasma of obsessive checking – “Ah, you’re the lady with the little boy! Yes, yes, we know about you!” – and counting planes. Our eighth flight is actually the ninth flight.

Flying out of Lukla would, to anyone in their right mind, be even more terrifying than flying into Lukla: sitting at the top of the runway, it feels positively kamikaze, what with the bloody great mountain filling the windshield and the atrocious internal condition of the plane.

But thanks to the special magic of Lukla, we’re none of us in our right minds.

And, as Tara Air’s expert pilots rev the absolute fuck out of the engine with the brakes on then send it scooting down the short, steep hill that is Lukla’s only runway, make it into the air before falling off the cliff to certain death and bank sharply before we hit the other side of the valley, we, all of us, break into a round of applause.

Finally! Finally! We have escaped from Lukla!

There will be laundry! Negronis! Bacon! Steak! Fabulous shopping, not just in the toxic melting pot of scary hippie clothes that is Thamel but in the fabulous, enormous air-conditioned mall that MUST exist somewhere within Kathmandu’s ring road, SOMEWHERE, like in every other Asian capital I have visited apart from Vientiane and Dili.

But first, I decide, I need to impress Mr Darcy with the magic of my personality, which is, I conclude delusionally, undoubtedly my very best feature and so TOTALLY what he’s interested in.

Either that, I think, staring bitterly and crossly at my suddenly silent phone, or find a nice little jersey frock that works with leggings by day and with tights by night, and some knee boots, head to a decent spot for a Negroni, and find someone who won’t stop communicating the second I announce my imminent arrival.

FFS.

4 Comments

  1. Anne-Marie says:

    Hilarious! I’m almost sorry you’re out, but looking forward to hearing about the Negroni.

    • Theodora says:

      OH MY GOD! You are so not going to enjoy what happens in Kathmandu. Or, maybe you are… Possibly speak soon? We seem to have working internet again…

  2. Great narrative. In the aftermath of your journey, one question comes to mind: in the future will Lukla be swarming with adventurers or deserted?

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