Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Arriving in Kathmandu

Correction to the earlier entry: the LA to Bangkok flight did not detour east of North Korea, but rather west. After we crossed from China into Vietnam we actually flew just west of Hanoi and then straight down over Vientiane in Laos. In the span of 36 hours I’ve gone from last minute Diamond Mold details, like making sure we have enough cash in reserve for next month’s payroll, to now thinking about Vietnam and Laos. That haunting aerial view 27 years ago of water-filed bomb craters staggered me, and gripping me now are thoughts that 30,000 feet below us the ground is like a canvas on which is painted some of the worst of human history, and yet some of the greatest feats of cultural resilience as well. Now in the darkness the only hint of land I see are occasional lights, but connected to each of those lights is surely a human story every bit as compelling as the one I’d like to think the central characters of this travelogue will be able to tell over the next month or two.

Reading the above over again it appears this blog has taken a heavy tilt toward rumination and perspective, and is decidedly light on cakes and ale. I’ll try to spice it up going forward as best I can.

04/03/11  BKK to KTM Thai Air flight 391. 10:15 AM.  How dramatically Bangkok has changed since I last saw it in ‘84. From the air the outskirts look like Cincinnati, or anywhere for that matter, modern, sprawling, developed. The rice paddies seem fewer. The endless spread of corrugated steel hovels and blue tarp roofs appear to have been bulldozed and built over. The klongs now flow next to tilt-up concrete factories instead of alongside and under stilt houses made of teak. I suppose this commentary is not really about Bangkok’s inevitable change, but rather how I’m suddenly 30 years older than when setting off on my first Asian adventure. That one also seems like just yesterday.

The Bangkok airport is brand new and easily the nicest I’ve ever seen. It has that clean Euro-design feel like something from the next century. The fabric roof is similar to Denver’s but much more next-generation. No sign of leaks. Orchids grow out of walls and bright orange birds of paradise spring up at the base of water features like indoor palm trees do at LAX. Every concourse is three floors high and each gate has shops and restaurants directly above it. You don’t have to run a mile to the gate after getting a bite to eat, you just calmly take the escalator down 5 minutes before boarding.

Along those lines, I was the last person to board the flight to Kathmandu. I have a bad track record of doing just that, boarding late, which includes several missed flights. Not to disappoint Carolee (at least in the sense of her being correct), she admonished Apa before we left to keep a short leash on me in the airport. It took some persuasion but ten minutes before departure I managed to talk Apa into letting me take a few more photos in the airport while the rest of the passengers boarded the plane. One photo in particular I have high hopes for: a svelte flight attendant in full silk ensemble who let me get back off the plane, even after boarding it, and take her photo from the Jetway as she stood smiling in the doorway …a souvenir for you Carolee, of a sort anyway, so you’ll always know I haven’t changed, am still incorrigible--and consequently am also just as dependably the same person who loves and misses you and Dana from half a world away.

As for the Canon G12 camera settings, I still haven’t been able to read the manual, all 213 pages of it that Craig thoughtfully downloaded and Tenzing had bound at Alphagraphics.  It’s more than an inch thick and weighs over a pound. Apa has gone on record as opposed to my taking it to base camp. “Too much, that one,” he says.

Apa just leaned back from his window seat ahead of mine and said “It’s 11:30 PM back home, everyone’s asleep, and no more Jazz.” By which he meant the Utah Jazz will have already finished playing unless they had the day off. Apa’s wife Yangjin is a huge Jazz fan and loves watching the games. Apa and I were at LAX last night and caught a bit of the 3rd quarter on a sports bar TV while the Jazz were holding their own against the Lakers, 62-62. Then all of a sudden LA went on a tear and reeled off 14 points. Not sure what happened to the Jazz, but Apa said Yangjin would be really disappointed. “She doesn’t like the Jazz to lose,” he said, and then just as quickly changed the subject, “We will have serious jet lag but we need to stay awake all night.” All night of course being all day here, no naps on the plane. Eyes have to stay open all the way to KTM.

Small world this flight to Kathmandu.  Geoff Tabin, M.D. ophthalmology from University of Utah has spotted Apa on the plane and comes over to say hello. He is full of energy and carrying a massive tome of some sort, a reference book perhaps. It has to be 3” thick. Just the way he moves down the aisle of the airplane you can tell he is probably a climber. And he is. He climbed with Apa in 1988, “Apa would already have 21 ascents if he’d made it with me to the top in ‘88,” Tabin says to me laughing. 1988 would have been a couple of years before Apa’s first summit. I try to do the math to figure out how old Apa would have been when he was cutting his teeth on Everest instead of leading others, but the conversation moves quickly and I lose the train of thought.  Geoff says he isn’t going to Nepal to climb, he is going to his clinic in Kathmandu.  Geoff operates a program which is called Himalayan Cataract Center, or a name to that effect. He does cataract surgery for the people of Nepal as a way of giving back. I am taken by how accomplished he is, how much he has fit into one life: an MD, a summiter of Everest, a doctor without borders, and the next minute he is gone, back to his seat. It’s yet another surreal experience on the road to Kathmandu. I am starting to really enjoy this trip.

If you’ve ever flown Thai Airways skip over this paragraph because you already know what I’m going to say. It has to be the best airline on the planet. I just told Apa, “You go on to base camp without me. I’ll catch up with you in two weeks. I’m going to fly Thai Air back to Bangkok, and then ride it back and forth to anywhere just for the service.”

We have landed in Kathmandu.  Apa is saying his goodbyes to Geoff Tabin near the back of the plane so I descend the stairs to the tarmac and wait for him there. It seems a good vantage point to get a photo: the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador stepping onto his home turf.  I take out the G12 and frame the shot. Immediately a uniformed policeman raises his hand in front of the camera “No photos! No photos!” The “pota” Apa calls them, Sherpa language for cops. Well…no photos, that’s pretty clear. I’ve been in Nepal less than two minutes and am already in trouble.  Apa comes down the stairs and has a few words with the pota to diffuse the situation. He’s already helping me out and we haven’t taken one step uphill. I remind myself to be open-minded, not assume anything, and as a guest in another country to be respectful.  One’s American-ness is hard to turn off on command, but we are walking now, passing a group of workers digging with picks and shovels.  The wind is hot and blowing, and the workers have cloths like bandanas over their faces to keep the dust from their lungs. In hindsight this turns out to be the perfect entre into Kathmandu. I’m not sure if the name Kathmandu translates to anything literal, but City of Dust comes to mind.

We enter the terminal, stuffy, low ceiling, ears not fully cleared yet, I am still swallowing, trying to get equilibrium, the sound echoes. Apa is introducing me to Ang Tshering, founder of Asian Trekking and Honorary Consul for Belgium in Nepal.  Ang Tshering motions us to a doorway.  Another pota stops us.  “VIP” says Ang Tshering and the pota steps aside.  We enter a dimly lit room with elegant furniture, sofas and chairs enough to hold twenty people.  My eyes adjust to the darkness. We sit down and put our carry-on bags on the coffee table. 

Several other people enter the room. “Naruz will take you to get your bags,” Ang Tshering says. “Apa will stay here with me.”  I am immediately nervous because on the customs declaration form I’ve filled out on the plane I’ve checked the box claiming nothing. Now in bold print on the form it says no more than US $2,000 can be brought into the country and I am carrying $2,200 in my pack. I explain this to Apa and he says not to worry, but I do. “Leave your carry-on here,” Apa says, “You go for your visa. Get your bags, and my bags, you know them—they are the yellow ones. You bring those with yours.”  So I am off with Naruz down a hall and out a side door that re-enters the terminal.

This is another out-of-body experience as I step into a sea of people, long lines waiting for immigration, customs inspectors, clerks checking documents.  “Wait here,” Naruz says, pointing to a support column for the roof. “Give me your passport and visa photos. I will be back.”  So I do what he says and wait. After a few minutes of taking in the scene it dawns on me that this is the oddest feeling.  Here I am standing in Kathmandu with no passport, no money (it’s all in my backpack) and no one around that I know. For a fleeting moment I savor the possibilities of disaster. This is what being alone with nothing feels like. It’s a unique feeling since I’ve always had something, some connection, some sense of place and purpose, but for perhaps 12 seconds I feel the emptiness of nothing.  And then it all comes rushing back in, all the noise, all the people, all the lines for customs, all the thoughts of Apa and Ang Tshering and Nepal and Everest and baggage and jet lag.

Naruz is back with my passport, a 90-day visa glued into it. We walk to the baggage area and put Apa’s two yellow bags and my red and black bags on a cart, and wheel it toward customs.  Holding my passport above his head and waving it Naruz steers us right past customs, says something to the inspector, and keeps on going. I have no choice but to follow pushing the cart in front of me. I keep expecting someone to say something, someone to shout, but no, we just walk on through toward the sunshine. Against the left wall there is an armed guard in a military uniform with what looks like an AK-47, but the magazine doesn’t curve as much as I thought an AK-47’s did. It’s a large automatic rifle and he’s holding it pointed at the floor on a 45 degree angle. I want to snap a photo but keep on walking. After about 20 yards I stop and think about going back. It’s an irresistible photo, but in the end it seems unfair to Naruz for me to be a camera-happy tourist, plus I’ve already been stopped once for trying to take photos. “No photos in the airport,” Naruz says, “they are tight on security now.”

Apa and Ang Tshering are already on the curb waiting for us. We pile into Ang Tshering’s SUV, but not before meeting Chris and Deke who have flown in from from California. They introduce themselves and are part of the Eco Everest team. We have met the first of our associates just outside the airport, but they are staying at the Yeti Hotel and we are headed for the Norbu Linka.

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