To, The 14 passengers who died in a plane crash On their way to Lukla on August 25, 2010
What seemed to be a seemingly harmless, routine and a forward-looking journey turned turtle and it became the most horrifying journey of my life. As you read on you will realize how certain situations in life make you feel helpless to the extent of complete submission.
August 13th, 2010
As I embarked the 737-800 jetliner from Ahmedabad to Delhi on a cloudy morning, I was full of optimism. I was on my way to Kathmandu and further up to Lukla to cement a business deal with my Sherpa, Laxman Tamang for Nomadier (my Adventure Tourism Agency). Laxman was my Sherpa on couple of previous rendezvous with the Solo-Khumbhu region, my trekking expedition in 2008 and my summit to the Everest Base Camp in 2009. Even though I was going in an off-season, I was very excited on three counts. First, because Nomadier will be offering adventure packages that almost none of the adventure agencies in India are currently offering. Second, because I will be meeting my friend Laxman, my Sherpa, my mountaineering guide, my well-wisher after 15 months of hiatus. Third, because I will be going to Lukla, a place where I would love my epitaph to read, “Resting here is the most fearless mountaineer of all time.” (Kuch jyada hi ho gaya, I know)
Lukla is the starting point of all the Mt. Everest expeditions. Precariously positioned in the Solo-Khumbhu region, east of Nepal, it’s the only gateway to the outside world in the region. Ranked as one of the most dangerous airports in the World, Lukla has no other means of reaching there with an exception of a grueling 6 days, 80 - 90 hours trek from a petite town of Jiri deep down in the valley. And by the way, this is not anywhere close to trekking on a flat surface with Gatorade on the stand-by. You have to climb some myriad mountains and descend them, everyday. And the route during monsoon makes it even more challenging and life-threatening. Slippery rocks enamoured with weeds and mildew, through which you have to traverse; a trail surrounded by perpendicular mountains on one side and couple of thousand meters of deep crevasse on the other. With the fear of rock coming tumbling down from one side to the fear of you tumbling down to eternity on the other side, every step you take is a matter of life and death.
George Mallory, Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Scott Fisher, Rob Hall, Yasuko Namba, Anatoli Bourkeev, Bachendri Pal, Appa Sherpa, Jon Krakauer, Beck Weathers and our very own, from Ahmedabad, Atul Karwal and thousands of other people who have been passionate trekkers and mountaineers in the Everest region have first registered their footprints on the soil of Lukla before going any further. Few came back victorious; some are dead under the weight of snow, never to see Lukla again.
This mysterious town of 4000 odd Sherpas smells of dreams and uncertainty, life and death. Dreams, that a cautious man would brush aside and term those attempting it as “Mavericks”. This place is a host to most eccentric people in the world for sure because beyond this place you are entering “the Death Zone”. Every year, many people die beyond Lukla, which includes the most-seasoned Sherpas as well. But then this place has a charm. Lukla is the Mojo, more potent than any drug on this earth, more potent than any human relationship, more potent than any money on this earth.
I didn’t see any good babes in the morning and the flight was very uneventful. I reached Delhi by 8.30 am and thanks to the new runway, which is some hundred years away from the domestic terminal, the jetliner only reached the parking bay by 9.15 am. I still had lot of time because my onward connection was at 12.55 pm from the new T3 terminal.
GMR’s free international terminal transfer bus took some 1 hour to reach T3 in the midst of monsoon traffic chaos of Delhi. One can spot some innumerous debris alongside the approach road before you finally reach T3 and it surely got me thinking if it was once again that Indian promise to deliver international experience gone kaput. I was just thinking if it only fulfilled the expectations of our paunchy and ever hungry Indian politicians or will it ever fulfill the expectations of Indian bourgeois and the international travelers. Marred by the recent CWG controversies, I was hell bent on believing the former.
But I was wrong. The moment you enter T3 it reminds you of any other swanky International airport. Having traveled the length and breadth of the world, I can safely say it surely meets the best-in-class standards. Way to go India.
Since I had an upgrade voucher, I had the privilege of getting a seat in the business class of Jet Airways; I had an access to the Premier Lounge. Felt nice, an ego booster. But soon I realized that except for the rest room, where I helped myself with the nature’s call (Having woken up at 5 in the morning, there is no way my ass was ready to jettison the waste so early), there was nothing great about it. I was instead lured by the food court outside, which housed Domino’s, Café Coffee Day, KFC and many others. I went to Cafeccino and helped my self with couple of Kingfisher Draught Beer (Pushpa I hate Coffee). There are smoking lounges at regular intervals and that helped me just fine. It’s quite a walk from the hub to the gate number 11, where my flight was going to take off. Thanks to the travelators, the journey was devoid of short-breath.
With an hour of delay, caused due to the late arrival of the incoming aircraft (Yeah, yeah… well we all know this rhetoric you rascalas. Mind it), flight landed at the Tribhuwan International Airport (Named after the grandfather of much liked King of Nepal, Birendra Bir Bikram Shah, who was killed in the carnage at the Narayanhiti Royal Palace on 01 June 2001), Kathmandu at around 3 pm.
Kathmandu’s air has something about it. Why not? It has been ravaged by unstable political situation since eons and no government has been able to survive the full term since G. P. Koirala (Grand Uncle of Manisha Koirala). Eternal fight between Ranas (Prime Ministers) and Shahs (the royal descendants) has left the country high and dry. Add to it the Maoist movement led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda). It’s a lawless country, breeding ground for terrorists waiting to be exported to India from the porous borders between Nepal and the states of Bihar, UP and West Bengal. Poverty pricks your eyes and the landscape of Kathmandu reminds you of India that was 25 years back.
But there are positive sides to it. People are warm and friendly. Babes are better dressed than what you can find at Poly Esther’s on any given day. It has more foreign tourists than Benaras. And the best of the filter cigarettes will cost you only 80 Nepali Rupees (INR - oh someone please give me that Rupee symbol on my keyboard - 50).
The custom officials were least bothered to see my face or my documents and let me go without a word or even a fleeting look. Being an Indian, you can even fly to Nepal on your election card. I was received by Laxman’s son, Saroj who stays in Kathmandu during the off-season doing humpy whory and goes to Lukla during the season to earn monies as a certified mountaineering guide.
Saroj welcomed me as if some supernatural being had arrived in his golden chariot from Kailash Mansarovar. Though he speaks little English, but we share a great rapport of understanding each other. I could see the flicker in his eyes, urging me to make him and his father earn some money. While we embarked on a 1995 rusted model of Maruti 800 on our way to Radisson, he didn’t waste any time and started talking about the possible expedition routes in the Solo-Khumbhu region. On the way I picked up the popular Surya Filter Cigarettes.
I was quickly checked in to the club-class (God only knows what that means) room of Radisson without any hassles. With a promise to meet Saroj at 7.30 pm, he left the room after securing my baggage. I have been staying at Radisson during all my previous trips to Nepal and this being the fourth. It’s not just the comfy rooms, excellent service or the roof-top bar that gives you the panoramic view of Kathmandu, but the Casino Rad, the most popular Casino in Nepal, is what attracts me to Radisson. I cannot escape Roulette or Black Jack if it is within 50 kilometers of sniffing distance. If you play a minimum 10000 Nepali Rupees (INR…uff the symbol…6000) at the Casino, the booze, the cigarettes, gutka, pan masala and the food is on the house. It also stages a dance bar where Nepali women wear some skimpy clothes and gyrate on Govinda, Jitendra and Mithun songs.
For next two and half hours I was busy watching Al Jazeera (The English version), while sipping Bacardi I had picked up from T3. Guys who are fans of Nick Gowing on BBC, I bet Al Jazeera’s every programme and news can beat him hands down. I was so engrossed in the news that I could hardly hear Saroj banging my room door. It was 7.30 pm already.
On his Pulsar, which is considered to be ultra-modern, ultra hi-tech, space-age, ‘Inception’ inspired lean and mean machine, he took me to Thamel. He proudly said that he had got his biked waxed and polished in honour of my arrival. Little did I know that that idiot mechanic of Saroj had also waxed the leather seats of his bike! So every time Saroj would brake, I would go slipping down his 28 inch ass. Out of sheer embarrassment, I advised Saroj to do all this when his girlfriend is driving the bike and he is a pillion-rider.
Thamel is the most happening place in Kathmandu, known for housing all the foreigners who ever come to Kathmandu. Just five minutes away from Radisson, Thamel hosts the shops that can get you any gears, equipments and apparels for extreme to mild mountaineering as well as trekking expeditions. It also has some endless shops of curios, CDs, DVDs, books, maps, Gorkha Khukhris, Nepali art and jewelry, local clothes… Thamel, though smeared with litter everywhere, is the place to be. Dance Bars, Live Bands, Ghazal Bars, Pubs, Beer Bars, all types of restaurants and all types of cuisines and what have you.
We shopped for few CDs of Buddhist chants and then went on to a Ghazal Bar called Malingo (‘Bamboo’ in Nepali). What did you expect? A Nepali singing Ghazals like Ghulam Ali? Well in few minutes my euphoria died and I was subjected to some relentless Nepali songs and songs of Kumar Sanu…Sochenge tumhe pyar kare ki nahi, Mera dil to itna pagal hai woh pyar tumhi se karta hai…
It was a Friday night and babes were thronging this so called bastardized version of Ghazal bar. Red, to shiny blue to purple to black…they were all neatly dressed to kill in their evening gowns or short skirts and tops. Being absolutely upset with the music that was being blurted out live, I ordered for a Black Label, large and on-the-rocks. Then a glimmer of hope appeared. The waiter came to me and proudly informed that I can ask for a song of my request. By that time I was absolutely convinced that these singers don’t know a ‘G’ of Ghazal. So I requested for my favourite song, “Tera na hona jane kyu hona hi hai…” With a hope and wait, I gobbled up two more pegs of Black Label and then when I could not resist, I went to the stage and asked the singer if he is going to play my song or not. In his very desi Nepali accent he replied, “Saab zee, mujhe is gan(e) ke bol nahi aate hai.” My world came crashing down; I wanted to beat that guy to shreds.
Like a hurt Lion I announced my exit from Malingo and instructed Saroj to take me to Casino Rad at Radisson. Atleast there will be some half-clad babes accompanying Kumar Sanu’s songs and I will be absolved of seeing this stupid Nepali singer’s face.
At Casino Rad, Saroj was denied an entry. No Nepalese were allowed in the Casino due to new Government directive. I was wondering, “Which Government?” I bade farewell to Saroj with a promise to see him at the domestic Airport at 5.30 in the morning to catch the 6.15 am flight to Lukla and went to my room to crash in the comfort of the ever bouncing soft bed.
Only if it had dawned on me that I will surely miss this nice soft silky quilt and mattress of Radisson very soon.
August 14th, 2010
My alarm rattled me at 5 in the morning from the coziness of the silken quilt. And if you think I was going to take a bath and all and get dressed to impress, you are sadly mistaken. I was getting in to land where people don’t take baths for weeks together, so why not be a part of the community, even though it was just for two days. In the hindsight I should have taken a bath.
I quickly brushed my teeth with Colgate Active and gave a Jim Carrey “say cheese”, only to find out my teeth were none better than what they were yesterday. In exactly 600 seconds to follow, I put on my clothes, my boots, packed my bag, finished off the complimentary mineral water and checked all the drawers to be sure that nothing is left behind. I don’t know, but every time I leave a hotel room, even though I might have stayed there for just few hours or one night, I check all the drawers, irrespective I have touched them or not (forget using them). Maybe in my last life I would have been perennially forgetting my chaadis in the hotel room. This is some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder for sure.
Done with it, I checked out of the hotel like a superman and then I saw something the moment I approached the porch for the airport drop. Something that disturbed me a little and left me in a sense of doubt.
Rains were pouring dark and heavy. My past experiences of Kathmandu–Lukla flights said that I might not get to Lukla today. However, keeping my fingers crossed I stepped in to the hotel car. “Arey Saab zee, weather bada kharab hai. Lagta nahi flights ja payegi,” blurted out the chauffer. And then I immediately crossed my legs as well. I realized I had forgotten to pee.
Since there was no one threatening me to death with a 0.22 cal Remington, I managed to hold on… to my pee. The minute I got down at the domestic airport, I dodged couple of cultured looking people, found a blooming and healthy bush and relieved myself.
Kathmandu’s domestic airport is worse than any of our bus-stations. No security, no announcements, no chairs, no nothing. Check-in counters make you feel like you have reached the counter of Yamraj who is more than willing to admit you on the ride to the hell.
Welcome to the hell ride. Only small aircrafts of 14 pax capacity operate to Lukla and they too are archaic and rusted ones. I am sure some time in history Hitler or Mussolini must have traveled in them to hump (Just sit back and relax, humping will automatically happen. Read on to know how). Add to the misery, there are no seat belts; the seats make you remind of those three legged iron chairs in your college canteen, water sips in through the window and every 5 minutes the aircraft plunges by 20 feet or so, stabilizes its drunken state and moves on. And then the deadly runway at Lukla adds all the salt to the misery. At a gradient of 35 degrees, this runway is created on the top of a hill, with a steep fall of 3000 feet at the approach (just to keep in mind in case you miss it while landing or take-off) and is just about 550 meters extra-long for extra pleasure.
As we went to the counter (don’t visualize a nice babe sitting at the counter, saying, “Good Morning Sir. Can I have your Tickets please? Which seat will you prefer? There you go Mr. Desai, have a nice flight.”), a senile executive without an iota of smile on his face (seemed like his stray dog just passed away) checked us in. The bags were left astray without any tags or stickers and I was wondering if they will ever reach Lukla.
We security checked soon after. The only question the security officer asked me without frisking me was, “Czhaku, zhoory hai kya?” I promptly refused and he more than promptly let me go.
There was some kind of a commotion at one of the departure gates and upon inquiry; we realized that the flight for Lukla is just about to leave (remember no announcements). “Wow, this is magic,” I said to myself and riding on my luck we got into bus which will transfer us to that 14 sitter propeller driven Dornier flying machine.
As anticipated, the flight was full of bumps and at times it seemed that flight was being pulled by some paranormal might from both the sides, a tug of war of lords. However, having experienced this ride more than couple of times before, I was at ease. We reached Lukla at 7.30 am. Ours was the first flight to land.
Normally in an off-season there are only three to four flights in the morning, while in a peak-season (March to May and Mid-September to Mid-December) there can be as many as 20 flights or more. The flights only operate in the window of morning hours between 7 am to 11 am and then the Lukla airport is unceremoniously closed by Desai 7 Levers lock. The air at heights above 7500 feet gets thinner as the sun peaks in to the noon, making it impossible for an aircraft of this small size or helicopter to hold its self stable (Remember 'Into Thin Air'?).
I was honoured with the traditional Sherpa style welcome by my friend Laxman. They say some chants, say “Namaste” and make you wear a white or cream silk scarf around your neck. I was thrilled to see Laxman after a long time. Being fully aware that Laxman would not have indulged in the luxury of having a bath since ages, I still hugged him very tightly.
Most of the lodges in Lukla and above provide you very basic accommodation. One six feet bed carved out of cheap plywood, one wrinkled pillow, one smelly quilt and one solitary table is what you have in a room. No hangers, no cupboards, no attached bathroom, no soap, no glasses, no complimentary water, no towels, no nothing. They are the only available options at higher altitudes (up to a place called Gorakhshep, from where your final assault to the Everest base camp begins, beyond which even such Spartan lodges are not available). So when on a trek to the base camp, you do not have a choice but to use their heavenly five-star services. They are not expensive and 15-20 USD can get you a room for a day.
But in Lukla you have an option. There is a hotel called Yeti Mountain Homes, which is the by far most expensive hotel in the entire Solo-Khumbhu region. It has everything that the above lodges don’t offer (except that the hot water comes only for two hours in the afternoon, that’s when the solar powered heaters are in full swing). With all the facilities at a height of more than 9000 feet, it comes at a bomb of a price - only 100 USD per day!
I immediately dreaded the thought of staying at a Spartan lodge, especially since I was not on a trek. I proudly announced to Laxman to escort me to Yeti Mountain Homes.
His face became pale, “Amit Sir, it’s very expensive.” Laxman is a trained English guide and also knows little bit of Spanish and French.
I said, “Hey Laxman, its okay. I am here only for two days and I’m on a business trip and not on a trek.”
That point of time I had exactly 600 USD, wad of Rs. 500 notes which are not accepted in Nepal, debit card and few credit cards from disgruntled credit card companies.
Laxman was full of pride and every person he met on the way, he shouted at the top of his voice, “We are staying at the Yeti Mountain Homes.” People looked in awe and exhorted some strange hmm... of disbelief. I felt nice and I suddenly started walking like James Bond, full of confidence and ready to kiss any babe that comes my way.
It was a 750 meters walk from the airport to the hotel, through the deserted streets of Lukla. In the off-season, people go down the valley to find work and not much of the population stays back.
The moment we reached the hotel Laxman started communicating with the cook of the hotel (who had assumed the responsibility of the Manager. Even the Manager had gone back to Kathmandu since there were no tourists). It took some goddamn one hour for me to figure out what they were up to. Cook had mentioned that due to off-season all the rooms were closed and it will take some time for him to get a room ready for me. So we waited outside, basking in the morning Lukla sun. Suddenly, a beautiful looking Sherpa girl came with black tea (Yak milk can be awful, so I thanked her silently for brining black tea). As we sipped the tea, I overcame with exhaustion. Maybe slight lack of sleep since last two days and complete change in weather accompanied by less oxygen in the air made me feel tired all of a sudden.
After some wait, the cook had an approving glee on his face and announced that the room is ready. I asked Laxman to drop my bags off and allow me to rest till lunch time.
At 1 pm in the afternoon a knock on my door irritated me. I had to really gather myself to walk some 10 feet to open the door, obviously not pleased with the intruder. Laxman was ever smiling and said, “Good Afternoon Amit Sir.” All my irritation eloped in a fraction and I welcomed him in. He informed me that his family is waiting for a feast in my honour. I quickly got ready, applied my Polo perfume (the best remedy when you have not taken a bath) and set out to meet Laxman’s family.
Laxman has three daughters and one son. Eldest daughter has married a Nepali Police Officer and is staying in some western part of Nepal. She studied up to 5th standard. Saroj the second kid, ofcourse you all know him by now, studied up to 10th standard and is a certified guide now. Third kid is studying in 5th standard and Laxman is planning to marry her off soon. The youngest kid, Doma is 6 years old and has not been sent to school as yet. She knows fewer words than my two year old daughter! His wife is a typical house-wife and handles daily chores.
The feast, at one of the local lodges, was grand by their standards. Chicken curry (well there was hardly any curry, it’s was just plain dry broiler chicken) and rice – the big, fat and stained ones. Though I could not gulp the dry food, I managed to hold on a smile and eat it. I didn’t want to offend them in any which ways. At the end of the feast, cook from the lodge brought the bill and gave it to Laxman. I promptly took it away from Laxman and paid a whopping 3000 Nepali Rupees for four adults and one kid. Its only later I realized why the chicken was so expensive.
After the meal, we immediately got to the business. Confined in my room, we must have spent some 6 hours together chalking various routes, packages, inventories, human resources and monies involved. We had a deal, except that few issues were to be resolved, but then we had one more day with us.
By the time we were finished it was way beyond dinner time. People in Lukla eat at 7 pm and sleep at 8 pm. It was already 9 pm by then, but the cook at our hotel was kind enough to cook some Daal (plain and awful) and Rice. We finished the Bacardi I had got from T3 and once drunk, we were happy and content with the very basic Nepali food. While having a smoke after dinner, Laxman invited me to yet another feast the next day afternoon; but this time at his home, which is 1800 feet below Lukla.
I readily accepted the invitation and retired to my room. I went in to the Inception mode within a fraction of a minute.
August 15th, 2010
Saroj came to pick me up at 10 am to escort me to his home. I had barely woken up by then and once again I just changed my clothes, sprayed extra milliliters of Polo, brushed my teeth in ice-cold water (This time I didn’t check my teeth in the mirror) and was all set to go. Just then that beautiful Sherpa damsel approached me and asked if I wanted to have some breakfast. I smilingly refused, dreading the fact that if meals are so awful, how would the breakfast be?
We briskly walked down the valley in to narrow lanes full of pebbles and stones and waste water from houses flowing through them in perfect symphony. Smeared with litter and plastic, the narrow lane was not a pleasant walking experience. And when we just came to the edge of the hill where the lane and Lukla ends, Saroj showed me the beginning of the runway (slightly above us). He also showed a huge rock jutting out below the runway, where a Yeti Airlines crashed in October 2008, killing all the 14 people on board. After a brief encapsulation of what must have happened, we started climbing down the valley.
Through narrow openings and in the midst of thorny trees on both the sides, we walked with care. Infact climbing down is far more risky than climbing up. While climbing down you are really not sure of your foot-hold and you have some multitude chances of slipping and if unlucky, you can go down skiing on your ass for meters together.
We reached Laxman’s home in some one hour. I was again honoured with a traditional welcome. Laxman’s house is not any better than a house in the slums of Dharavi. Poor chaps live in one large room, which serves as a bedroom, drawing room, kitchen, everything. Laxman cannot afford to pay some 70000 Nepali Rupees (INR 40000) a year to rent a house in proper Lukla (it sounds as if I am talking Downtown New York). He still ends up paying 30000 Nepali Rupees for this shit-hole. The only saving grace is, the moment you look out of the window, the nature’s unbounded beauty binds you.
Oh my god, the desi chicken his wife cooked! I can still smell the curry; I still want to lick my fingers expecting some morsel of that desi chicken to come out my veins and give me that same blissful culinary sensation. It was exactly like the desi chicken that the lower cast communities of India cook - deadly spicy, full of oil and thin gravy. I just hogged, I had really not eaten since I had left on 13th of August.
With the paunches full, we took some rest. I started texting the entire world, “Happy Independence Day” and got busy with the very few responses I got. It is sad. There are some millions of texts which go out on Friendship Day, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, 1st of January… jamming the entire mobile network of India. But, there is hardly anyone who has time to wish each other on our own Independence Day. Maybe they want to keep the mobile network ‘free’ on the day of our freedom. Americans might be imperialistic bastards, but they have amazing sense of national pride. We should learn a lesson or two from them.
After the rest and the messages, we started with our unfinished business. Thanks to their mathematical prowess, my task multiplied and so did their awe for my quick calculations. I am sure they must have seen an Einstein in me. It was 6 in the evening by the time we finished our final deal. Phew!
While Saroj quickly trekked up to Lukla to confirm our tickets back to Kathmandu, Laxman and I took it easy. We set out for our trek back to the hotel almost half an hour after Saroj had left. By the time we reached the Hotel, the weather had started to change.
Dark clouds, thunder storm and heavy rains.
We met Saroj at the hotel and he was happy to inform that we (Saroj and I) are confirmed for the first flight back to Kathmandu next day morning. Laxman wanted to leave since it was getting dark, but I requested Laxman to stay back for dinner since it was the last one we were having together. He agreed without an argument.
We ordered for some Red Label and some Ra-Ra noodles. Laxman walked back to his home in the night in the midst of very bad weather (I don’t how he managed that without a torch), with a promise to come in the morning to see us off. Saroj was offered a night in the dormitory at the Hotel, so he stayed back.
August 16th, 2010
The day it all started…
Saroj woke me up at 6 am. He had this worried look on his face. He just said, “Look out of the window.”
Almost like a Mani Ratnam’s milieu from his idiotic and nonsensical movie “Ravana”, we were surrounded by thick clouds and the rains had started to pour. “My worst fear should not come true,” I quickly prayed. But the weather in Lukla often changes in matter of minutes and we were hopeful that this was just a spurt of bad weather and the clouds will soon wither away.
So once again… Arey my Colgate and Polo. We quickly packed, had some hot tea, and settled the bill for 260 USD (for which the cook took some 30 minutes to find the bill book, write, then count the USDs and give me the change). It was an extremely challenging task for a Sherpa to count 300 USD, then convert 40 USD in to Nepali Rupees and give me the change. He brought about every armoury in his hotel including paper, pen, pencil eraser, sharpener, and calculator to finally arrive at how many Nepali Rupees he has to give me. And the best part was; he refused all my intervention.
But then we finally managed to part ever cheerfully.
The moment we reached airport, there were just 4 passengers including two of us (Saroj and myself). Laxman was waiting to see us off at the airport and blessed me with yet another traditional send-off. I got philanthropic and quickly flashed two crisp notes of 100 USD each and gave it to him. “Laxman you are nice man and a very good friend. I want you to spend this money in putting your six year old kid to school. Promise me you will do that.” He gave me an assurance that he will do just the same and I felt very happy (maybe it pampered my ego a bit as well)
There is only one school in Lukla. There are children as small as 6-7 years who trek all alone for more than an hour to attend the school. The school is very basic and offers education only up to 10th standard. English is taught after 8th standard. With very few permanent teachers, lot of NGOs (run by Americans and New Zealanders) send temporary teaching staff from various corners of Nepal to teach these kids, but at a huge cost, finally to be recovered from the students. At times, due to lack of teaching staff, the school remains closed for months together. A monthly fee for the school varies from 1000 to 3000 Nepali Rupees (depending upon the grade, the staff that is sourced…)
By this time I only had some 200 USD left with me and some Nepali Rupees. I was okay with the situation since even if I had to spend one more day in Lukla, I wouldn’t have any problems.
The waiting had begun.
We kept staring at the farther end of the runway with a hope that cloud will somehow disappear. To be honest, I don’t think Lukla ATC has any clue on the weather forecast. At best they can peep out of their windows and say, well there is rain and clouds on the runway. There was no news, nothing.
Two hours went past doing nothing and that’s when Laxman asked if I wanted some coffee. It was a welcome offer and I quickly accepted it. We went to a tea-lodge called Himalayan Kitchen, just opposite the departure gate of Lukla Airport (actually 5 meters opposite the departure gate). As I sipped black coffee and while Laxman set off to meet his gang of friends, I thought of reading a book. The only book I had got for my trip. “Jangalnama” – is a travelogue of a journalist in the Maoist Guerilla Zone of Bastar.
Time slipped by and I got engrossed in the read. All of a sudden I could see few people barging in the tea-lodge and started blurting out something in Nepalese to the lodge owner. In matter of minutes, hot potatoes, rice, omelets and daal were served to them. I just failed to understand how come this guy made food for seven odd people so fast. Then I started making some sense of what they were talking by eavesdropping. To my horror, I realized they were the ATC guys and they had closed the airport. They must have ordered food long-time back, which means that decision to close the airport was taken a long-time back. Despair struck me, “Uff, one more day in Lukla. What will I do?” But then it was not so bad waiting for a day. I will figure out something and then I have this book to finish.
I ordered for one more black coffee, regained my composure and started reading once again. While the ATC guys got playing this stupid game of “Monopoly” and started selling and buying Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad…as if these cities are whores on the auction. Well, giving it a deeper thought, they are.
Saroj having disappeared somewhere (maybe he took this opportunity to spend some more time with his girlfriend, who is a nurse at the local Red Cross hospital); Laxman arrived to give me the rotten bad news.
“So Laxman, what’s the plan?”
He replied with a wink, “Even the whores have gone off to Kathmandu in the off-season.”
I gave a casual smile. “By the way, where are our bags?”
Laxman suddenly got perturbed and said with a very apologetic look, “Sir I forgot them at the Airport.”
Fortunately the guys who had the keys to the Desai 7 Lever locks were sitting right in front of us playing “Monopoly”. They were more than willing to open the airport for us and we got our bags back. And then a new challenge surrounded us.
“Where do we go from here, Laxman?”
“Sir we can go back to Yeti Mountain Homes,” he said without understanding my predicament.
“Laxman, to be honest I am running short of money and I think we should park ourselves in a normal lodge which is near the airport. It will also help us monitor the exact situation.”
He looked at me with suspicion. I am sure he must be thinking what kind of Ch…ya I am. From riches to rags in one day. I am sure he must be thinking, “Do din style mar liya, abhi aukaat pata chali.”
So we decided to check out a lodge called “La Villa”, which is exactly adjacent to the runway. I was pleased to hear that the charges for the same will be just 1000 Nepali Rupees (15 USD) per day. Again, as in Yeti Mountain Homes, the cook here was the make-shift manager. Kazi Sherpa, the cook, the incumbent manager of La Villa promptly ushered me to verify the room. I was thinking to myself, “As if I have any choice?” Kazi is just four feet and locals address him as, “Height Kum, Fight Jyada.”
I gave a nod of approval and quickly got my baggage in the room. It was 1 pm by then and I was really hungry. So after a very brief stay in my room, I straight away went to the dining room.
In every lodge they have very typical Tibetan dining room. Walls and the ceiling are hand-painted meticulously and intricately with countless organic colours, portraying various moods and poses of Bhudda fighting the “Battle Royal” with the demons (various forms of Dragons). Well, this visual delight is only restricted to lodges up to Namche Bazaar (3000 feet higher than Lukla), beyond which it’s just plain wood. Take it or leave it. Another highlight of this dining room is the shelves where well-polished brass and copper utensils of various sizes and shapes are neatly displayed. Seating is just one sided, benches kissing the periphery of the walls, so that you can use the walls as your back-rest. So accordingly the dinning tables, just enough to accommodate two, are bunged from three sides and the open side faces the benches. To add to the splendour, even the tables have very majestic carvings jutting out from the closed sides. The open central area embraces a closed iron cylindrical heater (It exactly looks like that archaic “Garam Pani no Bambo”, which any Gujarati will relate with). Powered by coal and wood, this heater is as good as any central heating system of a hotel in Iceland. The exhaust from the heater chucks out the smoke through a long vertical iron pipe that pierces in to the roof and out.
“Kazi, I am really hungry. What is it that you can cook?”
Kazi, with his ever enthusiastic pose replied, “Saab zee, sabzee toh nahi hai. Daal aur chawal chalega?”
I cursed myself, “What else did you expect Desai… a 20 page menu of Continental, Oriental, Thai and Indian cuisine?”
As if I was thrilled with his offer, “Well, ahem…That’s great. Ya… that’s great. And can you get us some whisky?”
Red Label was 300 Nepali Rupees for a peg, while Signature was 200 Nepali Rupees (INR 125).
I pompously announced, “Two large pegs of Signature for Laxman and myself.” Saroj has stopped drinking temporarily because he was just recuperating from Jaundice.
Before I could say Jack Robinson, Kazi served us hot and unsalted popcorns. I wanted to kiss him, just the way the guy does to the chef in Mainland China’s advertisement. Only to later realize that I was charged 350 Nepal Rupees for every serving of popcorns I had ordered.
I got back to my reading and Laxman and Saroj switched on the 14 inch, 10 years old, Sansui TV, which only showed some super grainy transmission of few Nepali channels and not to forget, Zee Smile and Sony Max. Those two channels will become my saviours very soon. In normal and earthly conditions I would not have watched these channels for a million dollar bait.
Kazi made his re-entry and served a plate crowned with mountain of rice. I have never seen so much of rice in my life in one serving (except during my trip to Guwahati, Assam in 2004 or so). Then very soon he neatly placed a huge bowl of Daal - lifeless, half-boiled, dry, devoid of any spices and colourless. Even the food in few of the hospitals can be termed as a delicacy in front of this serving.
I just couldn’t eat. I just couldn’t toss down this food through my throat. Harrowed, I quickly took few bites and announced, “I am done.”
I wanted to eat something, anything. Human flesh? Well maybe after a few days.
By this time exhaustion and sleep had taken control over my senses and I retired to my room. Very confident that I will sleep atleast till 7 pm or so, I was surprised to find myself wide awake by 4.30 pm, just after an hour and half of sleep. I can sleep anywhere, anytime, any situation and for any number of hours. Sound sleep is one of the God’s small mercies upon me and curse to my family members, especially on Sundays. I knew I was getting edgy; otherwise there is no power on this universe that could have woken me up so soon.
I washed my face with Garnier Face Wash for Men in the cold water and for the first time felt the need of putting on my down jacket (made of insulated material, something that I was wise enough to carry along as contingency. Though it’s huge, it can be folded to the size of your palm). I picked up my book, locked the room and peeped outside the main door of the lodge to check on the weather. My heart skipped a bit.
I couldn’t see beyond 10 meters. Dense clouds, spreading their presence horizontally. I just said a silent prayer, “Clouds, clouds go away, Amit Desai wants to go.”
With the innumerous choices I had of spending my evening, I went once again to the dining room and started reading. By almost 7.30 pm, I had gobbled up some 150 pages of this book.
Laxman, Saroj and Kazi all congregated in front of me and all had one question in their mind. I knew the question and replied, “Anything that you can make.” As I had mentioned before, 7.30 pm is too late for a dinner in Solo-Khumbhu, so I could very well understand their predicament.
This time Laxman intervened and said, “While you were sleeping I went to the bazaar and got some potatoes. Should Kazi cook Potato curry and rice for you?” About the same time Saroj had gone to the Airline’s office to reconfirm our seats on the first flight out of Lukla tomorrow.
The very sound of “Potatoes” got me a hard-on. They seemed like Caviars to me, only meant for the super-elite 7 or 9 course dinners. I felt blessed, till the time the food was served.
We helped ourselves with Signature Whisky. Potato Curry was announced and was proudly displayed on my table. I was aghast. I wanted to puke (The same way I would do if someone placed curd in front of me). Dry, half-cooked, lifeless, colourless, spiceless Potatoes. Aaarrrrrgggggghhhhh….
I whined, “How can you eat anything that is so dry? Where is the curry in the Potatoes? How am I supposed to eat rice with dry Potatoes?” Frustration had started lurking in. Depression was just around the corner. I could feel it.
They had a blank look on their faces as I jabbered some abusive language in Hindi thereafter. Once again I could not eat. Maybe, hunger was going to take a back-seat.
After finishing my dinner in some 300 seconds, I watched others relishing their dinner for another 1000 seconds.
Suddenly the transmission signals in that idiot box improved and Sony MAX was telecasting “Joru ka Ghulam”, a Govinda and Twinkle Khanna film. I instructed Laxman not to change the channel. It’s a story about a father, who wants to marry off his four daughters at one go. The only problem is; none of the daughters want to get married and in a way hate Man-kind. So he announces a dowry of Rs. 5 crore to anyone who marries his daughter(s). And there enters Govinda, right from Babylon. Obviously he has all the solutions in his hand (because he slept with a problem the previous night).
Sometimes these movies are fun to watch akin to watching Aastha or Sanskar Channels, where that Jain Munni, “Tarun Sagar Ji” is an absolute delight. I bet you will roll on the floor eternally after seeing his discourse. Or Bhojpuri films on Mahuva TV – “Jawaniya Jor Marela”, “Sali Howali Gharwali”, “Holi Mein Jump Mare”.“Comedy Circus” or “Laughter Challenge” stands a little chance in front of these mighty programmes or films. If you are surrounded by any wretchedness in your life, I seriously recommend the above channels for instant cure.
I forgot that I was hungry. I forgot I was sinking in to some kind of a depression. I forgot that frustration is looking straight in to my eyes and I forgot, outside the weather has only worsened.
Just about when the movie was on the verge of completion the lights went off, setting an ideal locale for Ramsey Brothers’ horror movie. Remembering the famous dialogue, “Yaha raat ko aadmi nahi, atma bhatakti hai,” I quickly secured my belongings and said goodbye to all and sundry. I quickly cross-checked with Saroj and we decided that he will wake me up at 6 in the morning to catch the first flight out of Lukla at 7.15 am.
In this part of the world, absence of electricity doesn’t bother you much (except when you have to carry a candle to navigate your way to the common Loo, some 50 meters away and out in the cold). Temperatures, even during this time of year, swing between 18 degrees in the afternoon to 8 degrees in the night.
You don’t change into night dresses nor do you have your evening showers and all. So I quickly flung my shoes in diagonally opposite directions and helped myself into the quilt. The quilt was quite cozy, but then soon I realized that there was this strange smell emanating out of the quilt and maybe even from the room. God knows when the quilt was last washed and in-between some myriad Americans, British, Japanese, Australians, New Zealanders and maybe even Indians would have used it for god-forgiving acts. Eeeeeewwwwwww…
While I tossed around in the bed thinking of remedies to ward off the smell, the sleep came to me thick and fast.
August 17, 2010
It was 6.45 am when I woke up with a jolt. I panicked. Either Saroj was sleeping and did not wake me up or the weather is bad. In either case it was not good news. I quickly crawled to the edge of the window and opened the curtain. I was aghast. The weather had not improved an iota from last evening.
I quickly got in to the submission mode and called my wife, “Too bad, I am stuck for one more day.” I wanted to speak to Anoushka, my daughter, but she was asleep.
I consoled my self, “All ij well, all ij well” and tried to go back in to the slumber once again. But the sleep wouldn’t come. My mind was caught in the grips of impending fear. I had heard from Laxman a day before that in the month of July, Lukla airport was shut for 18 days due to bad weather and I shivered from the very thought of its reoccurrence. After some internal pep talk, I gathered myself and out of the bed I was in a jiffy.
I started calculating my chances of getting out. One more day, two days, three days, a week or even worse, a fortnight. How will I survive? I didn’t have enough money. What will I do in this goddamn standstill and lifeless town? I have so much pending work back in Ahmedabad and Mumbai. I have a major presentation on Thursday, the biggest for Metieta till date (We were pitching for a Rs. 10 crore account of ATRECO, the real estate arm of Adani group). Countless thoughts and doubts started shaking my self-confidence.
Once again I snapped back from the train of thoughts and reminded myself, “All ij well.”
But what the heck…No monies, no television, no place to go (I was not going on a trek for sure, something that Laxman recommended), no bars, no pubs, no books (I had almost finished Jangalnama and the sole bookstore owner in Lukla had closed his shop in the off-season and gone off to Kathmandu), no music (I refuse to download pirated music on my mobile), no nothing.
Panic - take it easy my friend – panic- take it easy my friend…. Analog waves in my brains went on till I was thankfully interrupted by a knock on the door. Father and son greeted me with, “Good Morning.” Not to be rude to them I returned the greeting.
My first outburst was, “What is the other way of getting out of here Laxman?”
“Sir, six days treacherous walk to a town of Jiri and then an overnight bus to Kathmandu,” informed Laxman
For a brief moment I kissed the nadir of my hope. I quickly recovered and said with a forced smile on my face, “Is there any hope today? What are the ATC guys saying?”
“Sir, they think that flights will not be able to come today,” said Laxman
“But do they have any weather forecast based on which we can take some decision?”
Laxman was clueless and I got my answer.
I sunk in the bed with my hands on my head and gripping my hairs strongly and occasionally ruffling them.
Putting a brave front I quickly announced that today we have to do something crazy to pass our time.
Saroj was more than happy to offer his service as a base guitarist and a Nepali vocalist. Laxman came up with an idea of sourcing playing cards from somewhere. And I came up with this preposterous idea of cooking food provided Lord Kazi allows me to do so in his heavenly kitchen.
Saroj without giving an explanation quickly went off on his nimble feet and gave us this happy news on his return, “Kazi is okay.” I am sure Lord Kazi would have been happy to let off his duties for a day.
No brushing teeth, no face wash, no Polo, no combing, I just snuggled in to my shoes very quickly and informed, “We will quickly have a cup of black Coffee and then will set off to the market to buy stuff for our two meals for the day.” Life changed all of a sudden. There was something to live for; there was something to look forward. There was suddenly an air of excitement.
After having a 125 Nepali Rupees black Coffee, we moved upwards towards Lukla market, walking past the periphery of the airport. Lukla was deserted at 8 in the morning. Visibility 10-15 meters and rain had started to fall.
There were very few shops open, but fortunately Nepal Investment Bank with its lone executive was open and I exchanged my last 200 USD for 14200 Nepali Rupees. Laxman took me to a shop run by his niece and it was a happy sight to see her. She was all decked up so early in the morning, with blood red lipstick, mascara, blush, talcum powder and whatever. I wondered if she had a date with someone. Maybe morning dates are popular in Lukla.
Saroj took our leave and went to source his friend’s guitar and playing cards as well. He would later meet us at the lodge directly in the afternoon.
We purchased potatoes, onions, meat masala, garam masala, few ugly looking yellow and sodden tomatoes, khada masala, vanaspati ghee, bottle of coke, one full bottle of Signature and Surya cigarettes. Basic masalas were there at the lodge and Kazi was happy to give them on lease. And then I also took some incense sticks to counter the stench in my room. All within 2550 Nepali Rupees.
Then Laxman reminded me that we also have to buy a local Khukura (Chicken) for our evening dinner. I almost lost my grip on the ground when I heard that it will cost some 2500 Nepali Rupees to buy one healthy Khukura. Laxman explained to me that the Khukuras were not bred in Lukla, but were made available after some serious climbing of six days from Jiri and that’s why they were expensive. It’s now I realized why Chicken is so expensive and is considered to be feast for the locals.
While Laxman went about purchasing the Khukura, I managed to step in to the sole cyber café of Lukla to check my mails. I was anxious to visit hotmail and g-mail and all, since it was almost five days I had any access to my mails. Data services are yet not offered in Nepal, so Blackberry was in the league of Rs. 2500 Nokia phone. After having surfed for 40 minutes, I managed to open hotmail with great difficulty and managed to check exactly two and half mails and reply to one of them. The cyber café owner robbed me of 400 Nepali Rupees for his sonic speed services and I felt cheated and miserable.
Laxman was waiting outside with the live poultry that was screaming away to highest decibels. It could foresee its death. I thought of giving up non-vegetarian, albeit that feeling lasted for a brief period. But then I promised myself that I will not witness it being sent to nothingness and cut in to pieces.
Kazi and his dog Jumbo were expectantly waiting for us at the door of the lodge and they were more than happy to receive us. By the time we reached it was just 10.30 am, but then we decided to prepare for our grand lunch straight away.
Aloo Pyaaz ki Sabji, Paratha, Gujarati Khichadi and Kachumber was on the menu. I think for next two hours I was so engrossed in cooking that I had forgotten all the miseries and frustration.
I showed them how to cut the Aloo and Pyaaz in a specific fashion and then tomatoes for the Kachumber. Kazi was my second-in-command. He obeyed all the orders very religiously. The entire deck was ready for me to perform. I dare not fail and disappoint them. They were holding me in high regards, “Here comes a chef who will prepare some exotic food.” It was for the first time in my life that I cooked on a hearth. They say the food tastes better if it is cooked on hearth. I was tensed not to accuse this belief.
All waj well. Finally some food to my liking - spicy, well cooked, nice brown-red colour, oily and lot of thin gravy. I was scared if these Sherpas will ever be able take a morsel of such spicy food. But they ate and how… Maybe they eat everything as long as it is edible.
Completely satisfied with my performance and the fact that I had really eaten to my heart’s content in so many days, I sensed my spirits rising as high as Everest.
I once again reposed faith in Sony Max. This time – “Welcome”.
By the time the movie was over it was almost 4 pm and the eyelids were getting heavier and weighty and it was time for a quick siesta.
When I woke up at 6 and came back to the dining room, I was encircled by a strange stiffness. My limbs were aching and I had a slight fever. For next two hours or more I gulped down some 2 liters of tap water (spring water right from the heart of the mountains). I just succumbed to this weakness and asked for my down jacket and a pillow. For next few hours I just lay in a delirious state without being able to grasp what’s happening around me. It was about 10 pm when Laxman woke me up and asked if I was ready for the feast, the desi local Khukura. I promptly refused and went back in to the state of delirium.
I just slept in the dining room for rest of the night and no one disturbed me.
August 18, 2010
Engulfed with fever, I woke up the next day morning without anyone’s help at 5.30 am. I remembered that I hadn’t leaked since last 12 hours and painfully made my way to the common Loo outside. My pee froze. I froze.
The weather was as bad. I felt some strange weakness in my legs and just slumped. All of a sudden there was no desire to walk further, no desire to survive, no desire to fight.
There was strange numbness in the air. An eerie silence. There was void in the milieu.
Panic – panic - take it easy my friend – panic- panic - take it easy my friend….
Have I come to the international space station, where I will have to live in isolation for months together? Have I reached moon, where you don’t expect to find any life form? Am I in a dark cell of a jail, chained and sentenced for life imprisonment? Have I reached hell? Am I hallucinating?
I couldn’t help but panic. Its not the number of days you are stuck panics you. It’s the surroundings. They haunt you.
Before I could slip in to deep depression, I heard a voice from a distance.
It was Laxman. “Good Morning Sir, are you feeling better?”
“Worse and now I am losing my patience as well.”
“Sir, I am sorry,” said Laxman in his innocent tone
“Hey Laxman, it’s surely not your fault.”
“No Sir, I should not have called you to Lukla. I should have instead come to Kathmandu. It’s all my fault,” replied Laxman
“Well that would have been a good option, which I never thought of. But it’s not your fault for sure.”
“Laxman I am running fever, can I get some medicine?”
Laxman ran like an antelope and called Saroj and Kazi and helped me back to the dinning room. After some hot tea (For which Kazi didn’t charge me. So sweet of him), they quickly got some quilt and draped me with it. Saroj quickly called his girl friend and asked her to come fast. But she instead suggested that if I can walk, I should come to the Red Cross hospital and let the Doctor examine me. Well I was not down and out for sure, so I agreed to go to the hospital.
Red Cross hospital is a life-giver and saviour to many of the people in Lukla and thousands of climbers who come to this region. They not only take care of the local people, deliver babies, but are the leading source of rescue operations in Solo-Khumbhu region. During the off-season they only have one Doctor on call. They do not have permanent Doctors; they all come from Kathmandu for a week or a fortnight to offer their services.
A young looking Doctor, with lot of hair on his chin (Nepalis don’t normally have lot of hair, anywhere. I have not inquired about down below), examined me. Later the same Doctor will join me on our ride back to Kathmandu.
He said it was a normal fever emanating out of exhaustion and sudden exposure to high altitude and there is nothing to worry about. He quickly gave me some pills and dismissed me.
Walking sheepishly we made our way back to the lodge. I was drained out of every bit of my physical and mental strength by then. Instead of going back to the room, I attended the nature’s call first. I equipped myself first with all the necessary ammunition before stepping in to that dreaded territory called ‘Loo’. Though it proudly houses a WC, it stinks worse than any of the gutters in India. I had lit an Agarbatti and I had a fresh toilet roll in my hand. First, I positioned the Agarbatti hazardously by shoving it in a small crack that appeared at the joint of two ply-woods marrying each other. Then I cleaned the toilet seat with some wad of toilet tissue. Then I meticulously placed fresh toilet tissue on the seat of the WC and I sat with utmost care not to displace the tissues from the toilet seat. Now I am sure you don’t want to hear what I did next. So I will leave it at that.
Relieved, I went to the dining room instead of my room. I took a brief look at the pills the Doctor had given me. Who knows? This is an off-season and the hospital might not be getting the fresh inventories. These pills might be outdated. I decided to do away with them.
Some more movies on Sony Max. Some Sanjay Dutt, Vivek Mushran and Manisha Koirala movie.
For lunch I had the gravy of the chicken which was cooked the previous night by Laxman alongwith Parathas (Observing me yesterday, Kazi had quickly learnt how to cook Parathas the Indian way). In such weather, cooked food normally doesn’t go stale for two days.
Rest of the afternoon was uneventful. I just crouched myself in one corner of the dining area and then sleep came to me at some point of time.
When I woke up, I was feeling better and the fever has disappeared.
I immediately inquired with Saroj, “Did you bring the guitar yesterday?”
“Yes Sir, not only I have the guitar, but I have got the playing cards as well.”
Then an idea struck me to keep myself busy. I started messaging every possible person on this planet whom I know and kept busy by replying to their replies and so on for next two hours.
Once done, I asked Saroj if we can play cards and he happily agreed. For next one hour Saroj subjected me to some unintelligent and senseless card games of Nepal (quite analogous to Dhagla Baaji – Gujjus will know that). Ufff… spare me and I asked if the Signature bottle from yesterday still had some booze left in it.
Sherpas are very honest and clean. They had preserved the bottle and half of the booze was still lying unattended. Laxman and I quickly started our party.
After a peg or two, we got in to the mood of singing and requested Saroj to start his opening act. He sang few very sweet and soft Nepali songs; ofcourse none of which I could make any sense of. There were no lights and the candle light added that zing to the overall tempo.
And then it was my time to get even. Arey, I had to live up to the expectation of being a supernatural human being na. I started singing Hindi songs and then later we jammed on – “Come as you are”, “Coming back to life”, “Hotel California”, “Summer of 69”, “With or without you”, “Afterglow” and “Streets of Philadelphia”.
Surprisingly no one asked me for dinner and it just came at 8.30 pm. Same garbage. Garbage In and Garbage Out the next day.
I was slightly scared on monies, so I asked Kazi to give me the bill of the expenses incurred by me till now. He was very quick, unlike the guy at Yeti Mountain Homes. My jaws dropped when the bill came to some 8000 Nepali Rupees (Including tonight’s stay and all the expenses of Laxman and Saroj). I wanted to protest on their expenses added to my account, but then I refrained. They have done so much for me and this is a little burden I can take on me. After having paid, I was virtually left with no local currency or US Dollars. All I had was few 100 Rupee notes; otherwise everything else I had will not work in Lukla – no Rs. 500, no Rs. 1000, no debit card, and no credit card. I was reduced to being a pauper.
I retired to my room soon after and all of a sudden I realized that I had not brushed my teeth since last two days. Ting ting tinning…”Colgate ka suraksha kavach bachaye aapko masudo ki sadan se aur de aap ko din bhar ki taro taaza saans.” I went through the motion.
We had reached a stage where it was not necessary to check on the morning alarm or who will wake up whom. I quietly slipped in to my bed.
I could not sleep till 3 in the morning. I just tossed around in the bed remembering my entire childhood, my youth and my cynical state of thirties. I kept on getting up from my bed every now-and-then and smoking a Surya every 30 minutes or so. I must have smoked not less than 10 Suryas that dreadful night.
Exhausted mentally, I don’t know when I slipped in to R.E.M.
August 19, 2010
It was around 8 am in the morning when I woke up. I didn’t even bother to look outside, because I had already surrendered. There was no energy left in me, no laughter, no imagination, no hope and I suddenly felt like crying.
Though the tears cheated on me, I silently cried.
All of a sudden I missed my daughter. It was too early in the morning to get in touch with her.
I smoked couple of more Suryas, went to the kitchen to help myself with black coffee.
The waiting had begun.
My daughter will only wake up by 9.30 and not before that. She is a complete terror and stays awake till 1 in the night.
The hell had broken loose on me. I did not have anyone to talk to. Desperation engulfed me. I was weak. I was depressed. I had surrendered.
For the first time in my life, I witnessed the term “Void”. I just sat on my bed and stared at the wall. Blank. If someone would have taken a picture of mine that point of time, I would surely have made myself eligible to a mad-house.
And then a glimmer of strength... I could manage to get through my daughter at around 11 am or so. I had tears in my eyes when she said (as in her Mom repeated what she said), “Daydee, I have prayed to Sai Baba, he will send you an aponinan (aero plane) tomorrow without fail.”
I just sank in to depression this point of time. No hope, there was no way I can see my daughter soon. I was missing her and she was missing me.
I gathered my broken pieces, brushed my teeth (ya once again), washed my face with Garnier and for the first time shampooed my hair since I landed in Lukla and applied Polo. Nothing of which lifted my mood or got me feeling any better.
Like a dejected warrior, I had given up my arms and sluggishly walked up to the dinning room. I was tired and shit frustrated with the rhetoric. Nothing eventful happened for rest of the day. Every minute seemed like eons and every hour, a lifetime. I was not interested in Sony Max or Guitar or Cards or nothing. I had become a dead vegetable. To be honest, I cannot recount how I spent my Thursday spending the entire day in the dining room of the lodge.
In the night before retiring to my room I informed Laxman, “We start our trek to Jiri tomorrow.”
“And yes… one more thing. I am feeling very awkward, but I have to ask you for a huge favour. Can I have those 200 USD back that I gave you? I am ashamed to ask this, but I do not have a choice. Laxman, hope you take it positively. ”
He promptly agreed to get those monies in the morning.
August 20, 2010
I woke up to no revelation. The weather was behaving like a bitch. It was the same.
As I stepped out of the lodge and was smoking a Surya, I could see Laxman quickly approaching me.
“Good Morning Amit Sir,” greeted Laxman.
“Good Morning Laxman.”
“So are we all set for the trek down to Jiri?”
Laxman expressed his concern, “Amit Sir, do you really want to try this out? It’s a very difficult trek and you will have to climb and descend many mountains every day for next six days. Are you ready for it?”
“I am absolutely clear. I want to move on or else I will just go nuts over here. Atleast my mind will be occupied in trekking for next six days and not getting fucked as it is getting now.”
Laxman gave a threatening smile and said, “Well…if you say so.”
“So what do we have to buy for the trek down under?”
We quickly made a list of the things to be bought - Torch, Tissue Rolls, Biscuits, Glucon – D, Lime (if available), Umbrellas, Plastic covers for our bags, Booze, Cigarettes, …
That’s when Saroj joined us. He came with news, news that will rescue me by this evening.
“Sir, I just came to know that there was a successful chartered helicopter rescue yesterday from Surkhe, 3000 feet down,” informed Saroj.
I just latched on to this news. I asked Saroj, “Can you find out how did this happen?”
Saroj swiftly, without any holdup, started calling Agni Air (They operate chartered rescue helicopter services. By the way, remember the name of this Airline) and to my sheer disappointment and bad luck, they mentioned that they had organized yesterday’s stint to rescue their estranged staff from Lukla and in the off-season they do not operate these charter services.
I felt very weak and all of a sudden my body went cold, dead cold.
Laxman, as always, full of hope and positivism said, “I know one more such company which offers chartered rescue helicopter services.”
I got excited and warm as fast as I had gone cold some brief moments back and asked, “Who are they? Where? How? Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
Laxman suggested, “Amit Sir, we will go to the main market and let me try my luck.”
I think I must have created a world record of wearing the shoes in just 10 seconds and we were quickly off to the market of Lukla. Just before that Laxman handed over to me equivalent Nepali Rupees worth 200 USD and I cleared the remaining bill of La Villa Lodge.
Outside a filthy lodge on the main street, a board was hung. It read, “Air Dynasty – Your answer to rescue.”
We quickly entered the lodge and Laxman found his man. They quickly started communicating in Nepali. After lot of anxious moments Laxman came to me and said, “He is saying it’s possible, but it will cost us 3000 USD. Amit Sir, it’s too expensive. Let’s drop the idea.”
“Laxman, can we not negotiate with him?”
“Sir, little chance, but I will still try,” said Laxman doubtingly.
No sooner I realized that the negotiations were not happening and the guy was adamant, obviously taking advantage of the situation.
“Laxman, can I speak to this guy? You can act as an interpreter for me.”
Laxman quickly agreed.
Guy was quite arrogant, but somehow I managed to get in to his brains if I could speak to his boss. Boss was the Captain of the rescue helicopter, based in Kathmandu.
It was a sheer stroke of luck that he agreed and put me on to his Captain. I was impressed with the English of the Captain. I explained to him my situation, but he seemed to be least impressed. All he had to say was, “Lot of people have similar situation, so why I should I negotiate?”
I humoured him a little and he finally agreed to operate the chartered rescue helicopter from Kathmandu for a ransom of 2500 USD. I finally gave in and agreed. But the Captain was smart and in no mean words informed to me, “Mr. Desai please hand over 2500 USD or its equivalent Nepali Rupees to my guy over there and only then the rescue helicopter will take-off from Kathmandu.”
Since the credit cards and the debit cards don’t work in Lukla, I desperately tried to convince the Captain that I will pay him all the monies the moment I land in Kathmandu. But I am sure he must have become a pachyderm by dealing with similar clients like me over several years. He was very clear, “Money first, rescue thereafter.”
I was distraught. Here is a way out of this madness, but I don’t have Nepali cash. And that too a huge amount of 1, 80, 000 Nepali Rupees (Equivalent of 2500 USD)!
This is where a miracle happened. This is where I will never forget Saroj, Laxman and people of Lukla for rest of my life.
I asked Laxman and Saroj, if we can sell the three vacant seats on the chartered rescue helicopter for a price and reduce our burden. I also asked if such a huge amount can be arranged by them very quickly just in case we are not able to sell the vacant seats.
Saroj took the responsibility of selling the three seats and Laxman took even more difficult responsibility of arranging the entire amount just in case the three seats are not sold.
Before setting out on their mission, they said only one thing, “Sir, you will go today, come what may. You please have a coffee till we return.”
No family, no friend, no acquaintance would have done what they did for me in matter of next two hours.
The first person to come back was Saroj. He had not only sold three seats, but got back with a cash amount of 60000 Nepali Rupees. He proudly informed, “There are three desperados willing to come with you.”
A local Sherpa, an engineer settled in Shanghai who was sick of his cancellations every day and wanted to go back to Shanghai on time or else he will lose his job. The other two were – the same Doctor who had examined me at the Red Cross hospital two days back and his girl friend, a nurse. They were stuck in Lukla beyond their call of duty and were desperate to get back to Kathmandu.
Saroj mentioned, “Engineer is on his way and will join us soon and the other two will join us at La Villa Lodge in next 30 minutes.”
“Where is Laxman? How are we going to manage the remaining the 1, 20, 000 Nepali Rupees?”
Saroj said with conviction, “My Dad is on his job. He will surely do something for you.”
After 15 minutes of eternal wait, Laxman appeared over the horizon.
“Amit Sir, I am sorry but I have just been able to manage 80, 000 Nepali Rupees from few of my friends. I don’t know how will we get the remaining 1, 00, 000 Nepali Rupees. I am really sorry. Sir, I am really sorry.”
You cannot describe this emotion. It is alien to us because neither we have done this to anyone nor anyone has done this to us. I just hugged Laxman and said, “I will never find such a simpleton like you in the entire world. And Amit is your slave for rest of his life.”
Remember they are poor people. They don’t have much to eat and their houses are frugal. They are not educated neither they can ever afford to come to India to trace me back if I cheated on them. But they still went ahead and did this, for a stranger.
We shared with him the proceeds that we had by selling three seats. But we were still short by 40, 000 Nepali Rupees.
And then another marvel happened. The engineer who had got his bags and had already joined us, got to know of the predicament. Within a flash he took out wad of 1000 Nepali Rupee notes and gave us 40, 000 bucks. All he said to Saroj was, “I will give my bank account details to you. Will you transfer this money next week?”
Wowsie…unbelievable... This is destiny, nothing else. It cannot be anything else.
And then I remembered my daughter saying yesterday, “Daydee, I have prayed to Sai Baba, he will send you an aponinan tomorrow without fail.”
I was overwhelmed with favours and kindness of these Sherpas. I was speechless. I have never been more emotional in my life than this moment.
While I could gather myself, Laxman already approached the local guy of Air Dynasty and banged 1, 80, 000 Nepali Rupees in front of him. He quickly counted the monies and called the Captain.
Captain wanted to speak to me.
“Mr. Desai, we will shortly be on our way to Surkhe. Though the weather currently is bad, but I am confident of coming your way. You guys can start descend from Lukla in another one hour. I will see you at Surkhe.”
We descended to Surkhe as per the allotted time frame, 3000 feet below Lukla. Amidst very bad weather and poor visibility of 50 meters, the Helicopter ride back to Kathmandu along with the Engineer, the Doctor, the Nurse and Saroj was thrilling. We flew at an average height of 5000 feet, navigating the valleys surrounded by steep mountains on either side. After 1 hour and 20 minutes, we touched the tarmac of Tribhuwan International Airport.
Had I been a Moslem, I would have kissed the ground and swallowed the Kathmandu dust. But then I silently prayed to Sai Baba with a promise that I will visit Shirdi alongwith Anoushka (my daughter) very soon.
On August 25, 2010, in its attempt to operate its first flight after a long break due to bad weather, Agni Air, a Dornier aircraft, Flight Number AHE 101crashed in the Solo-Khumbhu region, killing all the fourteen passengers on board (Four Americans, one Japanese, one British and three members of crew included)
Had I stayed back and had this flight landed, I would have taken the same flight back to Kathmandu.
What this Indian cultured and well-educated society has never done for me, the people of Lukla have done for me. Forever I am indebted to them. Forever I will be indebted towards the good deeds of Laxman and Saroj.
And now, I am even more convinced that my epitaph will be on a tombstone in Lukla and it should read, “Resting here is the biggest debtor of Solo-Khumbhu.”