Monday, June 04, 2012

A New Home in the Clouds

Several times today I stopped and thought about how this entire experience seems surreal.  I had no idea what to expect, but when our plane soared out of the clouds and I saw those first snow-capped peaks my heart jumped and I was instantly elated to be here.  Arriving in Lukla and walking to Pema Choling has been like climbing a ladder to the top of the world. They say that Lukla is the gateway to the Everest region, but I'm convinced that it's the gateway to heaven. 

The day started early for us - by 4 AM we were packing up at the hostel and headed for the airport. Today is Monday, May 28th and the deadline for Nepal's General Assembly to have written the country's new constitution. Strikes have been declared daily for over a month - a cry out by various ethnic groups who want to have their voices heard and rights secured in the constitution. By 4:30 AM we were in the car with Bhagwan, who informed us that a constitution had not magically materialized overnight and no one knows what will happen next. The country is in a state of limbo. No one was out making a ruckus in the streets at 5 AM, but as we were walking into the airport terminal we heard several (at least 6 or 7) distinctive gun shots.  All we were thinking is that if Kathmandu is about to break out in a revolution, we picked the right time to head for the hills. 

Nate, Emma, Joanna and I were on the first flight of the day. The 40 minute flight from Kathmandu offered our first breathtaking views of the Himalayas. I was a little concerned when the pilot appeared to be using a Garmin GPS system to navigate. It was sort of a crash landing, but we survived. 

Having claimed our baggage, we looked around for Dawa, the RCDP coordinator in Lukla who was supposed to meet us at the airport. He wasn't any of the seven guides and porters trying to sell their services to us right outside the one-room-shack terminal, but when one of them heard we were looking for Dawa he said, "Oh. Yes. I know Dawa. I take you him. Come!"
And so we followed him into one of the many guest houses overlooking the airport, where we were introduced to a man who reacted as if he were expecting us.  

Dawa invited us to sit down and we ordered breakfast in what we learned was his guest house and restaurant.  I decided the yak cheese omelet was exactly what I needed to fuel up for the day of walking ahead. Once we were settled Dawa walked to one of the many windows lining the lodge and said, "This is good, you come early.  See the clouds, the weather is changing quickly and no more flights will come in today." Landing in Lukla requires being able to see the runway, and apparently - due to exceptionally cloudy weather - we'd gotten on the first flight that was able to land during the past five days.  Many others had teased passengers by getting so close and then having to turn around right before Lukla, as heavy clouds obscured the huge himals through which the plane would have to navigate.

It wasn't until about 15 minutes into our breakfast with Dawa that we realized we had the wrong Dawa. But in the end, no harm done, because the Dawa we were looking for is married to this Dawa's sister. 
"Ohhh...you are looking for my brother in law," Dawa finally concluded.

Our Dawa was in Namche for the day, but we called his cell phone and he said he'd send us the porters.  "Porters" are what they call the Sherpas who carry loads of gear, food, wooden planks - and just about anything else you can imagine - up, down, and through the precarious mountain trails.  These small men with incredible stamina are vital to the region's economy, as none of these trails are conducive to motorized vehicles & helicopter landings are expensive and require flat landing areas (and if you can't tell by my photos, flat land is scarce in these parts).

You can imagine our surprise when the porters that showed up were mere kids! Our one week of intensive language courses equipped us to find out at least names, ages, and hometowns, revealing that Simba was 16 years old and the smaller boy Babu was only 13.  I honestly didn't think it possible at first, and was constantly astounded as Simba and Babu practically bounced over the steep, rocky mountain trails with loads of over 90 pounds each.  They carried these loads - consisting of 2 of our big packs strapped together - for over 6 hours! 

We stopped in the village of Ghat for lunch, at Dawa's house, which is also a guest house and the place where Emma will be staying. She'll be teaching English at the primary school just 5 minutes up the hill, along with Adriana, an Australian girl whose been here for a week.  Emma is adorable; I miss her already! She's 22, my age, and originally from Chonqing - a province in southwestern China.  Emma just finished her bachelor degree at a university in Hong Kong, and this fall she'll be moving to Bloomington, Indiana to start a five-year PhD program in Math.  Her uncle is a professor at the University of Oregon, so after our trekking adventures to Namche, Everest, and other places here in Khumbu, I'm looking forward to traveling with Emma again when she comes to visit her aunt and uncle - and now me, too! - in Oregon.  

After lunch Nate, Joanna and I continued our trek with Simba and Babu, finally reaching the monastery around 4 PM. The last hill, from the river at the bottom of the valley up to the monastery, was especially grueling. It was quite an exciting and equally exhausting day!  

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