Leaving for Lukla or Monkeys in the Airport

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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An Ode to Airports – Terminals Aren’t Terminal

When I started this blog last April, one of my first posts was entitled, “Where am I going and where have I been?” It was made up of exactly one photograph, as at that point I was still working my way through the intricacies of things like figuring out that a tag wasn’t a piece of paper with a price written on it (and was a far cry from a backyard game).

But a layover at the Miami airport this weekend provided the perfect graphic to answer that original question – at least for the next six months. As I looked at exotic destinations on the departures screen, many much more exciting than my 40 minute jaunt back to Orlando, I saw the below:

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Where am I going? Quito, listed there near the bottom. (Or Orlando, depending on your time frame, shown just at the top of the screen.) And where have I been? Well, Raleigh-Durham – where I grew up – appearing right under Quito. (Or Orlando, once again, depending on your frame of reference.) For the record, “Raleigh-Durham” is a misnomer – I grew up in Durham!

Airports are like that. You can smell the adventure waiting at the other end of a flight. I still find it remarkable that 100 plus people can be sent 30,000 feet high at over 500 mph. At an airport, you can sum up the where you are and where you want to be in one screen shot.

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Another example – note the Havana, Cuba destination. I’m not sure I can recall ever before seeing Havana listed on a departure screen, much less right above Houston, Texas. What better way to show a shift in geo-political realities.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my family always arrived at the airport dressed in Sunday best and several hours before any scheduled departure. My brother and I regarded the waiting at the airport as much a part of the trip as the actual journey. I still remember the iconic TWA terminal at JFK, and how slick and modern Dulles Airport was, rising out of what was then a rural area outside of Washington.

Photo by Joe Ravi, lic. CC-BY-SA3.0
Photo by Joe Ravi, lic. CC-BY-SA3.0

As the reality of the Cotopaxi and Chimborazo climbs sets in (right now I am at the slightly terrified stage), I just need to take it one step at a time. And after the training – the next step is going to be at an airport. And whatever happens, I know that when I set foot in one of those ultra modern terminals, it’s not a terminal in the sense of an end. Yes, it will evoke memories of where I’ve been – but even more excitement over where I’m going.