I’ve always been tickled (in my very nerdy way) by how foreign language studies always include a cute little chapter on modes of transportation: modi di trasporti in italiano, les transports en français, and un sistema de transporte en espanol. I’ve always thought these chapters to be a little silly. Sure, getting around is the essence of travel, but I guess I sort of assume that transportation vocabulary would be the easiest part of a language to pick up on the ground, on the fly. So, why am I considering something so seemingly trivial?
On my recent adventure in Bhutan and Nepal, which I’m still trying to fully process, I unintentionally experimented with two new modes of transportation: horseback and helicopter. Yep, you heard it right. Let’s start with the horse. For those of you that know me well, you probably know that I don’t get along so well with animals: I’ve been scratched by cats on multiple occasions and chased by golden retrievers and rottweilers, among other dogs. When my body gave in to one of Nepal’s finest super-viruses midway through our trek (I’ll spare you the gruesome details), my options were few: walk downhill, out of the question given my severely weakened state; remain in bed at 14,500 feet, with temperatures dipping into the single digits at night; and finally, a six-hour-long, back-breaking ride on a glorious mountain horse, with the handsome price tag of 21,000 Nepali rupees. So horse it was. Six hours later, I arrived in the steeply terraced village of Namche Bazaar at 11,400 feet, barely able to coordinate muscle movement and suffering a throbbing shoulder from grabbing onto the front and back of the saddle for dear life as I descended more than 3,000 vertical feet. The following six days were significantly less exciting as I hunkered down in my 0 degree sleeping bag, recovering from the trauma of the pony ride and trying to convince myself that I didn’t have typhoid disease (“Annie, you’re immunized!”).
But enough about my tragic attempt to be equestrian. Let’s turn, instead, to the real action: a pathetic and failed attempt to escape the Everest region gateway town of Lukla (9,300 feet), due to the confluence of atrocious weather, Nepal’s finest corruption, and superfluous numbers of rabid trekkers willing to empty out their pockets to return to Kathmandu by a twin-engine Otter plane (standard for domestic flights in Nepal) or a modern, five-seater helicopter. In order to explain how my brother and I were forced to decide between climbing aboard a 30-seat Russian-made helicopter operated by the Nepali Army or applying for permanent residency in Lukla, allow me to delineate the FULL trip home. Fasten your seatbelts.
-In total, 5 days in Lukla with 2,000 other rabid foreigners, most prominently our best German friends;
-4 days at “4th position” (yeah, right) on a helicopter wait list, despite the coming and going of at least 50 helicopters in that time period;
-Joining the ranks of Lukla’s finest airstrip spectators. Let me be clear: no sports here, just intense spectating of the comings and goings on the airstrip (actually very few) for 5 days;
-10 doses of dahl baht (lentils and rice, the Nepali national dish) per person…6 weeks in Asia enhanced our capacity to stomach a pound or two of rice in one sitting;
-Cobbling together a bar for three: 1) keep the rokshi (local moonshine) flowing at all times, easy when a full Sigg-style bottle costs a whopping $1.50; 2) Nepali rum, with just a tad bit of Coca Cola to take off the edge; 3) Mount Everest whiskey, which we consumed while a fellow temporary Lukla-ite conveniently shared that a few people have actually been paralyzed by the product in the past few years; 4) 2 bottles of mediocre French wine; 5) Johnnie Walker Red Label, mixed with ginger tea to make it a bit more “local”;
-The 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th “false starts”; we lost multiple helicopter seats to corruption, Nepal, higher bidders, local lodge owners (*cough, mafia bosses*);
-Being told that we would return to Kathmandu “soon,” a full 2 days before our actual escape (yes, escape, not simply a departure);
-In our usual impressive gastronomic fashion, doing more than our part to deplete the bread supply of Lukla. Not our fault, though; with rapidly diminishing cash funds, French toast and cheese toast were the easiest ways to economize. And really, why interrupt the 6 weeks of a completely white diet?;
-Going through two rolls of completely elastic toilet paper; seriously, Charmin, introducing a sample square or two to Asia would be well-received;
-$700 per person later (hello, travel insurance), procuring seats (let’s use that term loosely, and switch to “pieces of foam”) aboard a 15-year-old Russian-made Nepal Army helicopter, along with 25 of our closest Japanese friends;
-Surviving the 35 mph wind gust that accompanied the landing of the Russian behemoth, more or less a metal tube with a giant rotor somehow affixed to the top;
-Pushing fellow trekkers out of the way (no joke) to procure our foam on the aircraft;
-40 minutes of flight time at 13,000 feet to the Kathmandu International Airport, where we landed on a questionable patch of grass to await the arrival of a Jet Airways 757 on the adjacent commercial runway. Can you say close call?;
-Falling out of the bowels of the helicopter when a Nepal Army official released the cargo latch to unload our waterproof duffels, which served as trusty cushions during the flight;
-A questionable reentry into disgustingly wonderful Kathmandu (see “navigating nepal” for the full scoop on that); stopping on the side of the road to procure some piping hot samosas wrapped in a sheet of the Nepali national newspaper…can you say traveler’s diarrhea?;
-Biding our time before our midnight flight by devouring two lavish and “untracked” buffet meals, complete with all-you-can-eat Indian food;
-Watching at least 5 hours of Al-Jazeera;
-Getting miserably tired and fearing for the worst: “Are those samosas about to make a comeback?”;
-A final “This is Asia” (TIA) moment: ordering ginger tea without milk and receiving black tea laden with powdered milk (enough already!);
-Navigating the Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport, complete with at least 5 full-body, friendly frisks per person;
-A 5-hour flight from Kathmandu to Doha, Qatar, and avoiding the temptation to appease the presumably suspicious Qatari authorities with loud, joking signage: “NOT JEWISH”; “NO AIDS’; “NO MALARIA”; “NO DENGUE FEVER”…any number of things that aren’t necessarily welcome in their desert paradise;
-A 6-hour overnight layover in the Doha International Airport, complete with some luscious medjool dates, my first dose of “fresh” fruit in weeks;
-A 14-hour flight from Doha to JFK in New York City, but no complaints–145 passengers on a Boeing 777 with the capacity for 293: endless gelato, sandwiches, pancakes, and a final dose of paneer…
So which was more taxing: the full journey home, or the 6-week-long journey through the Himalaya? Since I’ve now recounted my experimentation with Nepal’s finest forms of transport, I will be sure to follow up in the next few days with some vivid details from my time abroad. Until then, I will continue to brave the subzero temperatures in my current high-altitude paradise.