Leaving for Lukla or Monkeys in the Airport


Twenty years ago, Husband J and I and our dear friends M and S used to sit in restaurants with small children in tow (who were frequently vying to see which of them could engage in the most dangerous dinner table activity involving condiments) and fantasize about the exotic trips we’d take once we were empty nesters. We started small – with St. Augustine, graduated to Iceland and discovered we actually made good traveling companions – and now I write this from Namche Bazaar in Nepal on our trek to Everest Base Camp.

But first things first. How did we get here? After enjoying a night at a hotel at the Hyatt, courtesy of our daughter A, we got up at the ungodly hour of 2:45 am to check in for our flight to JFK. At least we could return to our rooms after. At JFK we had the pleasure of the Airtrain tour of the whole airport since it turned out going from terminal 5 to 4 required visiting every other existing terminal first. Tours of the backsides of airports ended up being a theme of the trip.

Emirates lived up to its name, free drinks, good food and an unending supply of movies. After 12 long hours our gigantic Airbus descended in Dubai as gracefully as one of the egrets on Lake Ivanhoe. And we could even see the landing through the cameras affixed to the outside of the plane.


We took yet another airport tram – this time to circumnavigate the airport in a short 45 minute journey from terminal 3 to 2 with a visit to terminal 1 thrown in for good measure. Terminal 2 was a far cry from the rarified and modern Emirates terminal. It was teeming with people, all wearing every variety of regional dress of the Arab world imaginable.  As usual, I realize how provincial we are in our outlook. Where were the groups of men in white robes, wrapped a bit the way the Masai wrap their cloaks, from? How about all the men in long cotton shirts, sitting barefoot in lotus position? And the group of ten or so women lying on the floor, completely encased in their black burkas, with one older woman awake and sitting guard over them?

Finally our four hour layover ended and we boarded FlyDubai for a four hour flight to Katmandu. I had the pleasure of sitting next to someone who immediately fell asleep and hogged the entire armrest, not to mention part of my chair. More about him later. There’s a karma story coming.

After finally getting some sleep on the plane, we landed on time in Katmandu. Fortunately we didn’t face another airport tour. Hint to travelers – get your visas before you arrive! It was the equivalent of a TSA pre. Our duffel bags all arrived as did our guide, Z.

Katmandu traffic is insane. The city was packed, people selling wares along the street, tiny shop after tiny shop. Hordes of motorcycles weaved between vans and vehicles, for all the world like a motorcycle gang out of Mad Max.

It took close to an hour for what we learned the next day was only a 20 minute drive. Finally turned into what I think was a more elegant section of town (it was dark) and to the very nice Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel. We had a lovely quick meal at the bar – and then spent another hour repacking and reweighing everything to get our luggage down to 15 kg. They are serious about the weight on the flight to Lukla.

A 5 am we journeyed back to the airport. It was a scene of chaos. Trekkers, guides and monkeys (yes, monkeys) running through the airport getting ready to board the 20 person flights to Lukla. Well, not the monkeys. Went through at least three metal directors and M and I kept getting relegated to the special women’s line – but never had to remove shoes and no one worried about liquids.


The plane ride lived up to its reputation. 20 people, 10 a side and an open cockpit. It turned out we were one of the last flights out – the rest were canceled for weather reasons. We flew between sharp green mountains , clouds floating around us, and eventually a glimpse of the high snow covered Himalayan peaks, pasted against the sky like white jagged metal.


Landing in Lukla is like landing on an aircraft carrier. The runway is short and if the pilot doesn’t make an immediate right turn you’ll run into the side of the mountain.

We deplaned, found the bathroom (first rule of travel – go to the bathroom whenever you get the chance), and had a cup of tea at a nearby tea house. We were ready to trek.



Fly Like An Eagle

Summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii


One reason I am enamored with altitude may well stem back to airplane trips taken early, early in my life. These started in the 1960s, when my mother, sometimes accompanied by my father but frequently on her own, would take my brother and me to England to visit our grandparents. In my earliest memory, I was four and my brother was two. I don’t remember much of that trip but from then on, I have much firmer recall. By the time we were six and four, my brother and I had realized that the coloring books dispensed by the flight attendants – then called stewardesses – made fine swords and the little Pan Am wing pins were potentially even better weapons to use against each other.

But, fast forwarding to the 1970s, my interest in how to torment my brother on long airplane trips had ceased to be my major in-flight activity. In those days you had to pay for headphones, which would enable you to listen to the single movie being projected on a drop down screen or the few “radio” channels assembled by the airline. This was an expenditure my parents saw as completely needless. Undaunted, however, my brother and I soon learned that if you pulled your armrest up to your ear you could actually hear the movie and the music – albeit risking a crick in your neck and not a very good sight line for the movie.

That particular flight – we must have been returning to the United States because it was day – the sun shone through the plane window, there were a few layers of fluffy clouds below us, below all that the Atlantic Ocean stretched as long and blue as my eyes could see, and the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle” was playing through my armrest. I must have been somewhere in my teens. There above the clouds I felt safe – yet utterly free, unleashed of whatever cares pulled at me from far below. I was conscious, even then, that I would always remember that moment.

And to this day, when I board an airplane – despite the waits on the Tarmac, the ever narrowing plane seats, and the ever broadening list of things you have to pay for – I still hope that once above the clouds I’ll recapture that same feeling of serenity. Very occasionally I still do. But maybe that’s really why I climb mountains. Looking down from the summit at the rolling surf of clouds below gives a lightness to your soul that rarely happens anywhere else.