FINAL POSTING FOR EVEREST BASE CAMP TRAVEL LOG. Thank you for staying with me and for your beautiful comments. Hope to see at least some of you soon.
Why I am here.
It is 7:15 am. Our flight out of Lukla is at 8. I savor a yak cheese omelette and my last Himalayan coffee. Or so I thought. Neither disappoint. Then we descend from the Tara Lodge toward the airport. It is a short 10 minute walk. We are weaving through alleys. Down a series of several stone steps. Around wet puddles. Uneven pavement. Soon we come up to a staircase with handrails leading down into the terminal room.
There, a dozen or so locals are bunched up at the counter. The floor is marked with social distancing circles. No one seems to notice or care. No one is wearing a mask. Neither am I. I am the only foreigner. Dawa pushes through the bunch. And quickly emerges with tickets in hand. He places my duffel bag on the table before a uniformed guard. Open it please. The guard asks. I unzip it. It gives off an Eau De Himalayas smell. More accurately, Oh! De Himalayas. There are things in there that would gag a yak. He sticks his gloveless hand in and starts digging underneath. Moving things about. He is flipping things. Turning things. Feeling things. He opens a plastic bag with dirty underwear. He peers in. I am in awe at his bravery. This man takes his job seriously. This man is a hero. I don’t know what he makes. All I know is that it’s not enough. He even smiles and helps me zip up the bag. I want to offer him sanitizer. An award for valor. An apology. Something.
I walk down a small set of stairs. There, awaits a second guard. This one is checking my backpack. He digs through it with the eagerness of a dog looking for a lost bone. Again bare handed. He unzips my toiletry case. Checks out my toothbrush. Inspects the toothpaste. Hold up a tube of cream. Fiddles with my nail clipper. He zips it back up. Then it’s the computer plugs. The computer. My cell phone charger. Then back into the backpack. This time his arms are up to his elbow. He is digging. And making faces. He pulls out the nail file from the bottom of the bag. That same damn nail file that almost did me in. The one I never found. He is finally done. I close up my backpack and thank him for finding my nail file. He flashes a big smile. He then does a full body wanding. Checks my passport. Looks over my ticket.
I am dumbfounded. I mean really fellas. Would you look around this place. There are people wandering on the runway. Half the airport is not fenced in. This is not Tel Aviv. we are in a remote village. In the Himalayas. Its most important export is yak butter. The only way to get here is with a duct taped crop duster. Can we just stop pretending that this is Ben Gurion airport. And just chill.
The check point leads to the “VIP Lounge”. I have no clue what VIP stands for in Lukla. But let’s just say it not the same as Doha. And just leave it at that. However, as expected, there is a barista making the best coffee this side of Namche Bazzar.
I am among a handful of others awaiting the flight from Kathmandu. It is impossible to know exactly when the plane will arrive. There is no radar here. It is a visual landing dictated by the clouds and the fog. Like the weather here, the schedule changes by the minute. Today the weather is cooperating. Sorta. We wait.
The Lukla airport is the gateway to this entire region. This lone plane is the lifeline for these villagers. Delivering goods as well as transporting people in and out. The fifty thousand or so EBC trekkers that come each year must land in Lukla first. This workhorse of a machine runs all day. Weather permitting. Back and forth. Back and forth. It is efficient as hell. And probably very lucrative for the owners. I mean how much can it cost to pay a pilot, fuel and a couple rolls of duct tape. Somebody is making bank here.
After 2 hours of rumors about arrival time, we finally hear the whirring sound. The plane quickly lands. A group of no less than 10 workers with bright yellow vests are eagerly awaiting. They are a well oiled army. The second the plane hits the ground. They move into action. One runs out holding a tray with tea for the pilot and the attendant. First things first. The rest attack the plane from all directions. Opening hatches. Rolling portable steps. Dragging giant wagons. One is unloading the front. 4 or 5 are in the middle. 2 or 3 near the tail. The wagons are loaded with the cargo. Eggs. Rum. electronic equipment. Sheets of plywood. Rice. You name it. The plane is packed to the brim where passengers would normally sit. Seats are folded down to make room for the cargo. They are done unloading in 10 minutes flat. The seats are then quickly reset. And boarding begins.
Masks are required during the flight. So everyone has to bring one along for show. Within 5 minutes the captain is done with his tea and we are in the air. I notice fresh duct tape at the cockpit entrance. I don’t feel any safer. The attendant who seems to be the only one who is aware that covid exists is wearing a full on. Head to toe. Disposable Hazmat suit. Complete with gloves. Face shield. And hair cover. I am sitting at the exit seat. She pulls out the tattered instruction pamphlet. She points out a few things to me. I am not wearing my glasses so I just smile and nod. Then she asks me if I would accept my role as exit manager should there be an emergency. I am tempted to bring up the duct tape. The leaky roof. The fact that this plane has no where to land in these mountains in case of said emergency. Instead I smile and nod some more. She smiles back. Deep inside I know we both agree how ridiculous this charade is.
We are flying above the Himalayas. The world looks different from here. Less magical. Everything is still. Puffy clouds dot the landscape below. From this height I can see the outlines of trails scarring the sides of these giant mountains below.
As we pull further away, the question that Dawa asked makes an appearance. Why are you here. Flying above these clouds. These mountains. The snaking Milky River below. Seeing the tiny villages from this distance. The thin trail outlines. The question of why am I here comes in and out of focus. I resist answering it.
It is 9am. I am sitting on the balcony at the Aloft in Thamel. Across the way I see the same people tending their gardens when I was here 2 weeks ago. Still sweeping their stoops. Still hanging their clothes. Talking with neighbors. An elderly couple are teaching a toddler how to walk. He is walking from one to the other. They are clapping encouragement. The sound of crows is ever-present. Bellows of incense smoke rises from one rooftop circling a prayer flag pole on another. Once again smog has surrounded the city. Stunting the mountain views. The sound of whistles and horns fills what’s left of the air.
10 am. The smog is lifting. Slowly. The outline of the horizon is coming into view. I am still sipping my latte. It is cold now. Dawa is meeting me at noon. We will be having pizza at Fire and Ice. Apparently, THE pizza place in Thamel.
Turns out, there is no quick answer to Dawa’s question. The answer unfolds over time. I couldn’t tell you why I came here. All I know is that the mountain kept tugging at me. At first I resisted. But over time I gave in. In these past few days my life has changed in ways I cannot explain. All I know is that my eyes have gotten wider. My heart fuller. My body stronger. My mind clearer. And that my friends is part of the journey called life and a damn good reason for coming here.
And much love to you all.