Hello! I’m writing this on a plane from Kathmandu to Pokhara, a small prop plane with maybe 21 seats. I’m sitting cross-legged on my narrow seat because my big backpack is jammed into the space where my legs might be, and my small backpack is piled on my lap. Actually my legs have kind of fallen asleep... but at least I know my luggage will arrive with me, and also that when a Yeti Airlines (real name, no joke) official asks, "Are you checking a bag?" that the answer is totally your choice.
I was ticketed for a 1:00 p.m. flight and when I checked in at 11:42 a.m. the guy asked, “Do you want to be on the 11:30 flight?” Ummm, sure? At noon they said the 11:30 a.m. flight would leave at 12:45 p.m. and we took off around 1:15 p.m. So, Nepal Time is a real thing.
As we prepared for takeoff, the flight attendant paid zero notice to me and my bags crammed around my seat. She cheerily offered me a Yeti Airlines branded caramel and cotton balls for my ears to dull the sound of the plane’s propellers.
Landing soon, cheers!
Hey friends, finally got out of the Lukla airport. Yes, this is the one in the YouTube videos, supposedly the "most dangerous airport in the world," with its angled, very short runway that's jammed into a mountainside. More relevant to my three days there, it's possibly the most dysfunctional airport. Everyone shows up with a ticket that has a flight number and departure time and it seems normal, but the airlines keep a separate list that has everyone assigned a number 1 through 20. People listed under #1 go out on the first flight, whenever weather and whims allow that to happen. Hive wisdom was that groups #14 or higher never get out, and I sat around Lukla for a long time listed with #15, #16 and worse.
Meanwhile, helicopters were taking off constantly and I really wanted to get on one! I made a nuisance of myself to the helicopter operations manager and a few pilots, and they finally sneaked me onto a medivac flight for a cash sum that I'd rather not specify and which I'm certain stayed in the pocket of the ops guy. No matter, he came into the waiting area singing out loud, "You're going to Kat-man-du!!" and I was STOKED!
In addition to my first helicopter ride I also got my first ambulance ride, with the Australian couple who were the primary passengers on the helicopter. A 1970s-era ambulance met us at the KTM helipad and their guide and the medical assistant were both like, "You get in too." (?!?!) In the back of the ambulance, the Australian woman was on a stretcher, and sitting on the bench alongside her were the medical assistant, her husband, me and their guide. The guide and the medical assistant chat each other up the whole time, and the Australian man gives me a nudge and wink when they appear to exchange phone numbers. As we're driving through Kathmandu with the siren on, the guide says to me, "You're staying in Thamel, right?" (Solid guess - it's the main tourist area.) "The hospital is close by there. We save you a taxi!" I'm sure the insurance company won't mind...
PS: I ran into the family later and they are all fine! We didn't even learn each other's names but we hugged hello on the street when we recognized each other.
[Click for photos: What happens in Lukla stays in Lukla. At least for 2-3 days...]
iii. Kathmandu air cargo customs building
You know in action movies when drug smugglers bury cocaine deep inside shipments of coffee and there's a dramatic scene when the police tear open the shipping container to reveal the contraband and the customs officials are like, uhhhhhh......
So, I'm standing in this massive warehouse that processes all the cargo that's shipped by air to Kathmandu, which I think means basically anything that's shipped to Nepal. I'm waiting for one tiny FedEx package, but all around me are piles of merchandise and goods. As the afternoon wears on, it gets busier and busier -- the floor-to-ceiling gates that held all the cargo on rafters behind lock and key are opened, and little by little all these piles of goods are brought out to the receiving area. Art Vandalays are all over the place, waiting for their shipments. Towers of crates and boxes are deposited by forklifts, some of them tumbling over in direct defiance of their 'fragile' labels. I see eight boxes marked Yamaha guitars, 50 HP desktop computers, medical supplies from an Indian factory, hundreds of boxes of Swarovski jewelry, 24 boxes marked "neon" that just crashed to the ground....
At first all the shipments are in piles unopened, their recipients standing by. Then the customs officials get to work, flipping through paperwork and interrogating the import guys and opening boxes to verify the contents. It's taking forever for a customs agent to get around to me with my single box, so I stand there making note of other people's stuff that is now cascading out of its packaging. Nervous, urgent men are working to prove to the skeptical customs officials that everything is just as the manifest says it is. (Having had my own spurious interaction with one of the import agents, I look at everyone wondering who's getting a cut of what.)
Two customs officials finally get to me and I find myself holding my breath that the FedEx box my sister sent me does, in fact, contain the cell phone that I think it does. The agent had told me sternly, if there is anything else in this box you HAVE to tell me. You have to say exactly what's inside. "It's just a phone, that's it!" I promised.
The customs officer ripped open the box and in addition to the phone, out spilled handfuls of silvery, individually wrapped Peppermint Patties. For just a moment, the customs official thought she'd caught me, and for a moment I panicked, too. Then I tore one open -- partly to prove it was innocuous, and partly because I'd been there for hours and was starving. "Candy!" I beamed at her, offering her one. She half-smiled, disappointed but amused, declined the Peppermint Pattie, and handed me my phone.