Stranded in paradise
I was with other Kiwis in Nepal and our trek was nearly over. We were walking back towards Lukla, accompanied by a stray dog.
The night before, in Phakding, I'd given away most of my clothing, including jacket, raincoat, gloves and long trousers. I also gave away my boots, because of sore toes, and was wearing my only other footwear, a pair of sandals not meant for such walking. I was looking forward to relaxing at Lukla, our last night on the trek before flying back to Kathmandu early the next morning.
And then … oh, the wonderful hotel breakfasts, the strong hot coffee! Hot water jug and teabags in the room! Hot showers! Clean clothes! Last minute shopping! And a day in Singapore … more hot showers, more teabags, more strong hot coffee. It's odd what we miss. Fruit, yoghurt!
I pottered happily through the battered little main street of Lukla and spent 500 rupees (about $7) on a t-shirt with yaks and yetis on it. I had almost nothing left but tomorrow I'd have the money I'd left in Kathmandu.
We settled in at the Paradise Lodge, a modest teahouse where on the wall hung photos of the owner, Dawa, with Sir Ed and Lady June Hillary. They once stayed there too. We had an early night as at 5.30am we had to pack our bags and get ready for our flight. Our group would be the first out.
And breakfast at 6am. All well and good … but it had been raining in the night. My room mates and I in the Cho Oyo room could scarcely see out the windows for fog.
Flights delayed. I ate my omelette, played three games of scrabble and finally found a battered copy of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. It was still only 7.30am.
The day wore on. I spent 150 rupees on vegetable soup for lunch and had 20 rupees left, not even enough for a cup of black tea. A couple more games of scrabble.
Most of Into Thin Air was missing, and I couldn't find the rest of the book anywhere. More trekkers arrived from the hills and crowded into the lodge. Would we be sleeping on the floor at the airport that night? It had happened before … quite often. And when flights resumed again, the last to arrive would be the first to fly out, so we'd be well down the queue.
We watched the IMAX movie Fifty Years of Everest on a small TV screen and were informed we could stay at the Paradise again that night. Pam, Denise and I moved upstairs to the Everest room. And our dinner would be provided. Cheered by the news, I borrowed 300 rupees for a beer.
Next day – the tenth of the tenth of 2010 – was Glenys' birthday. Dawa gave her a hug and put a yellow kata around her neck. Still raining, and the fog showed no sign of clearing. Some of us went for a walk up to the local, Swiss-run hospital. I borrowed a jacket. Marie, Jill and I walked on further and I took a few more photos of the yak-cow crossbreeds known as dzopkyos. They were just wandering along the trail, looking as aimless as us.
Later in the afternoon I went for a stroll through town. Children and chooks and not much else. I played more scrabble, searched again for something – anything - to read. Yet more trekkers arrived and we were selfishly pleased when Dawa turned most of them away. I borrowed an intact copy of Into Thin Air. We were allowed to sleep in the Everest room again. It even had its own toilet and cold water wash basin, and others less fortunate called in to use them.
The next day was just as foggy and un-flyable but now, like a lost tribe of Israel, we were to move. Maybe we'd worn out our welcome in Paradise.
We trudged up the stone steps towards the deserted airstrip and down again the other side. Finally we came to another lodge, where a young European couple seemed to be the only other guests. The dining room was dark, roomy and richly decorated, with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum softly playing from hidden speakers. An upmarket move indeed, but it turned out we weren't going to stay there. An old Russian helicopter had been arranged for us, and soon we were trudging back to the airstrip.
An hour or two waiting but the helicopter didn't come. I didn't mind at all, for we returned to the Villa Sherpani to an unaccustomed afternoon tea – huge thermos flasks waiting for us, for tea, coffee or hot lemon. There were even biscuits.
Cheered up, though still dirty and penniless, I wandered through the grounds, where the woman who ran this lovely place explained how, before her day's work each morning, she walks clockwise around the chorten and then up to the nearby monastery. There were more dzopkyos to photograph, and our shared meal that evening was the best of the whole trek – salad, potatoes, buffalo meat and even mango.
I'd have happily stayed there a few more days, dirty clothes and all, but next morning it was breakfast at 5.30am and back to the airstrip.
The Russian helicopter duly arrived, and from then on there was no stopping apart from a rushed trip to pick up what we'd left at the Kathmandu hotel – and reluctantly hand over our credit cards for our share of the helicopter. Then a dash back to the airport to catch a plane to Singapore … and once there, just time to scurry along to the sky train and catch our originally scheduled plane to Auckland. Exhausting!
So because of fog in Lukla, it was too late to enjoy those planned stopovers in Kathmandu and Singapore. Instead, I was stranded in Paradise without money or clean clothes.
It was a time of limbo, making me realise how dependent we are on the weather and on things working. What could I have done if I'd been by myself – tried to somehow earn my keep? It was a lesson on living with uncertainty. After all, life is uncertain at the best of times but we often manage to pretend otherwise.