Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Roof of the World

There’s only a brick wall between domestic and international, at Kathmandu airport, the runways cosily mingled together. The tannoyed messages are indecipherable, as in airports the world over, but here they’re indecipherable in Nepali, which adds an exotic Asian flavour to our ignorance. Through the window of the departure lounge, we watch a dog, trotting along the runway, until he’s out of sight. It’s chaos.
We get up at five thirty, to catch Everest in her morning glory, but it’s seven o’clock already, and we’re still grumpily terrestrial. We play the bored passenger version of musical chairs, trying out a selection of the uncomfortable plastic seats which fringe the hall, edging nearer and nearer the transit bus exit, our tickets going limp in our clammy fists. I check out the tea-stall, for a cup of cheer, but the chai-wallah’s crouched down, pouring into glasses on the grimy floor, so we limit our desires to the bottle of tepid water in my bag.
Every so often, a little man comes in through the exit, and spirits lift. “Cosmic Air Flight Number 432,” he calls. There’s a shifting in the hall, and the elect few bustle through the disappointed many. The little man does important laps of the hall, practising his human tannoy number, scraping up the stragglers. He must have had special training, to strangle his larynx: nature, imitating art, imitating nature.
You can choose from three airlines, to do the Everest thing – Cosmic Air, Yeti Airlines, or Buddha Air. Apparently, Buddha Air fly closest to the mountain (how close do you want to be, I wonder?) – so that’s where our money is. In US dollars, of course.

Still waiting. I come out the other side of impatience, into karmic acceptance, that it’ll never be our turn. It doesn’t make the minutes pass any less slowly, I just don’t mind their being slow. Finally, megaphone-man calls “Buddha Air 201,” but we’re so far beyond hope, we stay put for a while, before cramming into the bus. I look around, as I always do, at the motley rag-bag of random strangers I might have to share eternity with, should things go awry once we’re airborne. A French couple and their friend, a young Eastern-European pair, some indefinable Scandinavians, a smattering of Americans, Mr Roland, and me. The usual cocktail.

The plane’s a Beechcraft 1900D, which doesn’t look man enough for the school run, let alone leaping up and down the Himalayas. Every seat’s an aisle seat, Roland says, which puzzles me until I see the plane, which is like a silver Smartie tube. Seven rows of single seats, either side the narrow aisle, every one with its own window, so we don’t have to take turns. The middle ones have a bit of a job on, with the wings. Course, without the wings, we’d all have a bit of a job on...
The air hostess sashays up with a tray of cotton wool balls, and gives us each a boiled sweet. The do-it-yourself altitude kit. I don’t believe in deferred pleasure, what if the engine explodes before the end of the runway? I pop my sweet in, and finish the last lick before we even start to gather speed. The continent Mr Roland, whose sweet’s still in its wrapper, looks smug... I distract myself, looking for the trotting dog, as we thunder into the air.

We look at the Legoland of farms and houses, laid out, below us, on the brown mountainside. There’s cloud, and when we break through that, snow. The skyline’s on the other side of the plane, so all I can see is the back of Mr Roland’s head. I’m already more than familiar with that particular topography, so I look out of my own window, but all I can see is cloud, and anonymous pieces of Himalaya. Roland bobs about, taking photos through the smeary double-glazing.
The hostess moves down the plane, showing each passenger landmark mountain tops, first in the living rock, then on the standard issue line-drawing attached to the seat in front. One by one, we’re invited up to the cockpit, for an “Omigod!” moment. The pilot and co-pilot have the best view – but they’re driving, so I suppose it’s only fair. They do two flights a day, because they can’t guarantee visibility beyond mid-morning, when the haze sets in. What a great job – two laps of some of the loveliest and most dramatic scenery on earth, then back home for elevenses and a chocolate Hobnob.
I’m just clunk-clicked back in my seat, when we do a U-turn, and the mountains are on my side (of the plane, I mean, Mr Roland and I aren’t falling out. With each other, I now mean... did I mention I was a linguist?)
There they are, the Himalayas, sparkling in the sun. They’re older than time, but look fresh-minted. Everest – known to the people, who live at her feet, as Sagarmatha – has a fragile beauty which makes you catch your breath, and forget how many lives she’s cIaimed. Worse than cruel, she’s indifferent. I take photos, then want to watch with my own eyes, not through a camera lens. Then I feel guilty that I’m not garnering the moment, to gorge on, later. I establish a click-gawp loop, broken only by the lady from 4A (wingside seat, so near yet so far), wondering if she may take a picture out of my window. She may.
The hostess catches the soft underbelly of satisfied ambition, and whips out t-shirts and dvds for sale. The t-shirt says, “I didn’t climb Mount Everest, but I touched it with my heart.” You can imagine how tempted Mr Roland is, but they don’t have his size. Nor mine. Nor anybody’s, for that matter. Unfortunately, the same schmaltz is on the sky baptism certificates we’re all awarded, which means they won’t be on the dining-room wall, framed, any time soon.

The snow gives way to brown earth again, underneath us. Even in the warm sun, it looks inhospitable. I think of these isolated farmers, scratching a meagre living from the bare rock, when the tourists have all gone home to their cable tv and micro-waved dinners. A breath-taking Himalayan landscape clambering over every window-sill comes at a price.
We land. We thank the Captain, and de-plane. No-one says much on the bus, which takes us straight to the car-park, where we scatter forever, without so much as a good-bye. We’ll not be sharing eternity, as it turns out, but we’ll be in the cropped bit of each other’s photos of this magical day.