Friday March 5, 2021 early AM…
It’s 1 am and I can hardly sleep. A combination of very strong coffee, jet lag and excitement keeps me tossing and turning all night. Try as I may, sleep is nowhere to be found. I am using every trick in the book. Changing sides. Hugging pillows. Relaxing my body from head to toe one slice at a time. Nothing seems to work. By 5 am I stop trying.
I am supposed to meet Ngima at noon. That’s 7 hours from now! An entire day practically. I look in the mirror and my eyes are bloodshot with dark circles. I am looking old and tired. I throw cold water on my face and decide to re-pack my gear and settle down to write. Today I am meeting my actual trekking guide. The legendary Dawa Sherpa. He comes highly recommended by my friend Jeff Franco who had him as his guide in pre-covid times when he did the Annapurna Trail. I feel lucky that Dawa was available to also be mine.
Around 10 I go downstairs. I take a walk around the neighborhood. I stop to buy some deodorant which I forgot to pack. They have only one kind at the nearby convenience store, and the scent is called “hunk”. Sold! On the way back to the hotel I exchange some dollars into Rupees which I may need along the trek. The exchange rate is one dollar to 115 Rupees.
By now, I am starving. At the hotel restaurant there is a breakfast buffet a mile long. Everything you can imagine. Eggs, fruits, Indian specialties like Uttapam, Steamed Idly and Poori Bhaji (Google them. I did!), plus croissants and that same strong coffee that kept me up all night. There are 2 other customers in the dining room. I take the table on the same balcony overlooking the city and I begin to notice the crows. There are crows everywhere darting and dodging between the narrow buildings. They seem to be gathering around me Hitchcock style. I laugh it off. This morning the distant hills that surround Kathmandu are a mere grayish blur. The smog and dust has overtaken the scenery. Even the Buddha Stupa, the big temple with a towering white dome, just a few km away, is a hazy white speck. I settle down and enjoy the breakfast, eating slowly and deliberately, Buddhist style.
Moments later, Ngima arrives with his wife, Tenzing. She is pleasant and looks more Chinese than a typical Nepalese. He is his usual charming self. They own the company together and she is clearly the boss. She carries the credit card machine and the calculator. We sip more coffee and make small talk. Ngima’s English is heavily accented and I am hard of hearing. It’s windy and cooler than before. We decide to move inside to settle the bill for the trek. I ask her how business is during the pandemic. She smiles and says that hopefully it will get better soon. Covid has done a number on tourism in Nepal. She informs me that there are over 3000 companies that specialize in trekking the Himalayas and many of them have had to shut down or scale back heavily. They are grateful for my business as I am one of the few customers they have so far this year. She thanks me profusely and adds, “you are like medicine for us”.
Ngima shares my covid results from yesterday’s test: Negative. That’s the last hurdle we’ve been waiting for to begin the trek. Interestingly he received my results before I did! He briefs me on the entire itinerary. A couple of fairly easy days and a couple of ass kicking ones. Thousands of feet to ascend and about 6 hours of trekking each day. I am intrigued and nervous and able to make out about 60% of what he is telling me. I figure that’s good enough. Tenzing tries to interject. Her accent is no better. We exchange lots of smiles, uncertain nods and sit in awkward silence waiting for Dawa who arrives 30 minutes late.
Dawa is short. He is hardly 5 feet tall. He looks sturdy and weathered. We Namaste one another and he looks me over. He asks me if I am ready. I tell him that I wasn’t sure. He is satisfied with my honest answer. I am convinced that he can carry my entire 6’3″, 225 lbs over his head and right to Base Camp! He informs me that he will pick me up at 5 am tomorrow morning to make our 6:15 flight to you know where! (Remember that airstrip and landing? I certainly do!) We will have breakfast in Lukla and will begin the trek right after that. He asks me about my gear, the rating of my sleeping bag and if I have Diamox for altitude sickness. Everything checks out. We make some small talk, check our cell phones, more awkward silence and then we go our separate ways.
I head to my room and begin to pack. I will be having an early evening room service dinner. No coffee this time. I have no idea what’s really ahead. All I know is what I am told by others who did this trek before me. This will be life changing.