It was confusion between the AM and PM expression of standard versus military time that left this French guy at the airport twelve hours too late and, consequently, led to us meeting. This was his second attempt to Indonesia. I waved my ticket, the third reincarnation over seven months of a flight to Nepal. Identifying that we were compadres in our dilemmas, we toasted to adventure while the truth of what adventure really entails hang over us.
I resented it when a friend in Bangkok had said, “You were too excited. (Now) just don’t be so excited.”
How could I not be excited? My hopes and dreams never seem to be exhaustive. How can I calm down when I have the opportunity to turn any one of these into tangible reality? In my imagination, Everest was the manifestation of the most extreme point on Earth, a honeypot of tales of insurmountable odds for glory. Seeing the world’s biggest mountains for myself had been first on the bucket list for a long time. I tried to read between the lines of the universe sending me national holidays and broken bones to stop me from walking on the shoulders of the Himalayan giants, but I’ve learned that things are as deep as you want to believe they are. Finally recovered from these curveballs, I was ready to give it another shot. Still, even if I didn’t like what I heard, the advice was given in good faith and inadvertently foreshadowing. Some enthusiasm was dampened at immigration in Don Mueang International over the two day overstay on my Thai visa which, of course, I claimed ignorance.
In Western cultural idioms, there’s a saying about the third time being a charm. In Nepal, there’s respect for resignation to one’s fate. It was probably a combination of both that brought me safely to Kathmandu and eating momos, dumplings, with a hovering waiter.
“So how long in Nepal?”
I told him the truth, and it came out curt. “I don’t know.”
Still looking at me, arms folded, he leaned against the balcony and said without a second thought, “No trekking for you.”
Caught off guard and unsure if this was a statement or a question, I dunked another momo in hot sauce and waited for some clarification that would incite the proper response.
“You don’t look so strong.”
I raised my arm and flexed.
Clearly amused he answered, “Okay, I see you are determined.”
I told him I was flying to Lukla, the gateway to the Sagarmatha (Everest) region, the next day. And I kept silent about how actually booking a flight was still on my list of things to do. My first morning in Nepal had been long, spending all of my hard earned bargaining tricks on North Fake outdoor gear in the tourist ghetto of Thamel. Later, to the booking agent in the tiny room between two Tibetan singing bowl shops who pulled out a sticky laminated poster of airlines and their timetables, I had only one question.
“Which one takes the most risks?”
Daredevils or not, and supposedly cushioned by the first flight out in the morning, the flight was delayed in the typical fashion for this region of the world. Flights into and out of such altitude come with no guarantees since the predicted forecast is always mixed weather. What is expected are clouds in the afternoon and some precipitation at some times. The only planes that go in and out of the Lukla airport are tiny and carry at most twenty passengers. These they send and land as many as possible whenever there is a window of clear skies. Still, the recently paved potato field, now Lukla airport, with its tiny landing strip carved into a cliff and ending in a stone wall is “the most dangerous airport in the world.” For six hours the flight attendants at the gate went back and forth between “Lukla airport is closed” and “The plane is still in Lukla.”
Then abruptly it was announced that we were boarding right now and to “Hurry!” At least ten flights were called out. The crowded airport became one mass cheer followed by one stampede toward the same gate.
A bus drove fifteen of us to the tiny plane of promises. We were yet in the air, but there was already tension in our ears from the beam on our faces. Excited chatter rang throughout the cabin. In only thirty more minutes I would land on the roof of the world! I could have died from the anticipation, if not from the design of the Lukla airport itself.
Before takeoff, one of the pilots, the one sporting a leather jacket, turned around and welcomed everyone. There was no barrier between the cockpit and the rest of the plane, and we all leaned in a little closer.
“What if I told you we can’t go, because Lukla is closed again?”
It took us some time to make sense of his question through the noise of the engine. For a long moment no one responded. We did not appreciate the pilot’s humor.
“That’s not funny,” accidentally fell from my lips.
Then everyone broke out in nervous chuckles. We were so incredibly glad that alternate reality was only hypothetical.
The pilot, red grin spread wide across his face, turned off the plane. An attendant boarded us back onto the bus and ushered us inside the Kathmandu airport. Like children, we slumped back into our hard plastic seats and were each handed a packet of peanuts and a cup of juice. They didn’t want to deal with tantrums. Somehow this whole thing replayed itself a second time.
Even though the skies were sunny over Kathmandu, I didn't question what they were at over 9,000 feet in Lukla. I trusted the professionals when they said it was unsafe to fly. But since everyone here was powerless against the weather, we were left up to the whims of chance. I wondered who I could pray to. Ganesha, the remover of obstacles? Garuda for his swift wings? Chenrezig for mercy? I considered summoning a clarity dragon to part the skies. If only it worked that way.
At 3:30 PM, we made our final defeated attempt to leave the airport. If we didn’t this time, there would be no hope of leaving this purgatory until tomorrow. As we crept along the runway—an old German couple, a young Californian couple, a Japanese family, an American family, and me— we were collectively not present. Forward looking, there was only somber silence. I don't know which was worse. Fear of the unknown or bracing for disappointment? The words of my Bangkok friend and the waiter are just plain sick.
Finally, breaking through the anxiety, someone yelled out what we were all thinking.
“I don’t want consolation peanuts anymore! I want victory peanuts!”