Himalayan Highs - and Lows · April 8-25, 2006

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I was determined to celebrate my 51st birthday in the shadow of Mt. Everest.

I had spent days searching the internet for a group tour through the Himalayas, but the story was always the same. "Yes, we offer many treks in the Himalayas. But we've had to cancel them all because tourists are reluctant to come to Nepal at this time." Nepal was in a state of unrest, with both communist rebels and pro-democracy activists trying to unseat the king. Between the threat of a civil war and the fear of Maoists who prowled the mountains extorting money from trekkers, tourists were staying away.

I had earmarked two weeks of vacation time towards this birthday trek in the Himalayas, so I was very reluctant to change my plans. I love traveling solo and am rarely intimidated by travel warnings. So although I was aware of the turmoil in Nepal, I opted to do a solo (non-group) tour, with a guide and porter for support. I was in reasonably good health, although I had done only light trekking in the past. My goal was to make it to the Mt. Everest base camp.

The plan was for me to fly in to Kathmandu, where my guide and porter would join me, and the next day we would proceed to Lukla, the starting point of the trek. As luck would have it, I arrived in Nepal on a day when massive rallies, a transportation strike, and demonstrations were erupting all over the country. Without transportation, my guide and porter would not be able to join me for several days. So I found myself with time to spare in Kathmandu.

In response to the demonstrations, the government had imposed a tight curfew, which dictated that no one was to be on the streets during the day. The streets of Kathmandu were deserted. Almost all shops were closed. Strangely enough, although this was never officially stated in the curfew proclamation, tourists seemed to be completely exempt from curfew.

So here I was, wandering the empty streets of Kathmandu, under the watchful eyes of gun-toting military men and police. The fearful eyes of the Nepali locals peeked out of every window. When one exuberant child leaned out from his doorway and greeted me with "namaste," a policeman was on him in an instant, ordering him back inside. Evenings I spent in the few cafes that remained open. One night, in the midst of dinner in an outdoor cafe, a sudden downpour interrupted everyone's dinner. Thunder and lightning and a fierce wind that blew all the tablecloths off the tables. The waiters made a mad dash to get everyone inside. I asked the waiter whether this was typical, to get such unpredictable, ferocious downpours. "The Nepali god is crying," he said. "We are all crying here, so the god is crying with us."

It was still raining when I headed back to the hotel. I wanted to run, so that I wouldn't get so wet. But I was afraid of being mistaken for a fleeing agitator, so instead I walked slowly, cautiously, deliberately. I was completely soaked by the time I got back to the hotel.

The transportation strike eased up four days later, and we were able to proceed with our trek. I planned to use the ubiquitous tea houses for lodging all the way up to Mt. Everest base camp.

Having done a lot of research about trekking in the mountains prior to departure, I was very aware of the possibility of altitude sickness. However, I was not expecting it to hit me so hard from the very first day. At the end of my first day of hiking, my head was throbbing and I was shivering violently. I had no appetite. When my guide urged me to eat some garlic soup (which the locals believe relieves symptoms of mountain sickness), I did, but promptly threw up everything. I knew if I felt this way in the morning, there was no way I could continue.

But by morning, the shivering and headache had stopped and my body felt almost normal, so I decided to continue with the trek. This would become my pattern for the next six days. Evenings would find me completely spent. By morning, after a night of acclimating to the altitude, most of the symptoms would subside (except for the struggling for air), allowing me to enjoy the exquisite beauty of the mountains.

And oh, the mountains! What can one say about the most spectacular place on earth? April is the peak blooming time for rhododendrons. Brilliant red blossoms against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. Hundreds of furry yaks, bells tinkling, plodding up the rocky slopes. Sherpas, with packs that looked like they weighed more than I did, nimbly making their way up the mountain. Many times in the course of that week, I would just sit on a rock and stare, mesmerized. I could not have imagined a more delightful, satisfying, way to spend my birthday.

We were 24 hours away from Mt. Everest Base Camp when the snowstorm hit. Blinding, freezing snow. I tried to press on, but even though I thought I was moving, I was making little progress. The mountains themselves disappeared behind a white curtain of snow. My guide recommended heading back to the lodge where we had stayed the previous night, and trying again in the morning.

But morning brought no respite, only more relentless snow. My breathing had become disturbingly erratic and I frequently struggled for air in the thin atmosphere. We decided to wait out another day. When the snow still had not let up by morning, we reluctantly made the decision to head back down. The disappointment of having to give up when I was so close weighed heavily on me.

I didn't know it at the time, but at that moment, thousands of miles away in the U.S., my father had just passed away.

While hanging out in the tea house lodges with other trekkers, one recurring theme I heard had to do with cravings for their favorite foods. The tea houses had reasonably varied menus--everything from pizza to spaghetti to french onion soup--but it was definitely not gourmet cuisine. So trekkers who had been on the trail for a week or so frequently fantasized about their favorite foods. An ice cream sundae, with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. A juicy, rare steak. A Big Mac with cheese.

Me -- I had absolutely no appetite (a symptom of mountain sickness), at least until we were almost back down the mountain, so I wasn't bothered by food cravings. Even my beloved Pringles (yes, they did have them in the tea houses) weren't enough to entice me. But I had fantasies of a different sort.

All the way up the mountain, as I shivered in the lodges from altitude sickness and tried to get used to the community squat toilets, my two fantasies were of a long, scalding hot bath, and a Western-style toilet to call my own. One that I wouldn't have to wait in line for, or precariously navigate in the middle of the night with a flashlight. Instead of Big Macs, I fantasized about soaking my weary body in a hot bath for an entire evening.

Needless to say, there were no bathtubs in the tea houses. But in my research before I left for Nepal, I had read about a luxury hotel in the Himalayas, which sounded like it might have them. The room rates were prohibitively expensive, so at the time, I didn't seriously consider staying there. But after ten days of squat toilets and shivering, and trying to console myself for not reaching my Everest base camp goal, I decided I deserved a birthday indulgence.

On the map, the hotel looked like just a short detour from our route. But what I didn't pay attention to was that the detour was straight uphill. Two hours of climbing in icy snow later, I was wondering whether any fantasy was worth this much effort. The hotel, called Hotel Everest View, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest altitude hotel in the world. It is tucked away deep in the mountains, at 13,000 feet (3964 meters). By the time I finally made it to its doors, exhausted, cold, and struggling to breathe, I was cursing myself for this indulgence. The hot bath had better be worth it.

As we walked up the steps, my heart sank. The place looked completely abandoned. There were no guests at all. The door was open, but the lobby was empty. Our "hello, anybody out there?" echoed through the lobby. We rang a yak bell hanging by the reception desk, and finally someone came out into the lobby.
Before I could speak, he quickly pulled me into the dining room, where there was a stunning view of the mountains.

"Come quickly, you can see Mt. Everest right now, before the sun sets." And indeed, the view was spectacular. But my mind was on other things.

"Do you have a room available?"
"Yes, yes, we have rooms. But..."
"I just need two things in the room -- a bathtub, and heat."
"I am sorry, madam. Our pipes burst because of the cold last night. We do not have hot running water, and the heat is not working."

I saw my toilet-and-hot-bath fantasy go down the toilet.

"But madam, we can make you hot bath."
"You can?? How?"
"We will boil water and bring it to your room."
"You'll boil a whole bathtub full of water and deliver it to my room."
"Yes m'am. It is no problem. It will take about an hour."
"But I want a long hot bath - maybe several hours."
"That is no problem. We will bring extra water. And we have space heater also."

While they got busy boiling, I had a dinner that was several orders of magnitude better than lodge food, and then retired to my room. Sure enough, about an hour and a half later, a posse of men with eight buckets of boiling water arrived at my door. They dumped six of the buckets in the tub, and left two more sitting on the floor, enough for a nice,long, soak. Now that's five-star service! One of them returned with two giant hot water bottles that he tucked into my bed.

I soaked in that tub for hours, until I started falling asleep. (I was picturing this entry in my blog: No, she didn't die of altitude sickness. She drowned in a bathtub in the Himalayas.) Then I crawled into a bed with fluffy down quilts, snuggled in between the two giant hot water bottles, and fell asleep with the "goddess of the sky" (the translation for Sagarmatha, the Nepali name for Mt. Everest) towering over me.

Paradise.

That night, I was very happy that I was not doing the trek with a group. It's very doubtful that, had I gone with a group, I would have had this experience. Altering our planned schedule would have required an excruciating Decision By Committee; half of the group would have vetoed the unplanned two-hour detour, and the other half would have objected to the cost of the hotel. So we would have ended up nowhere! That night, I had the entire hotel (and its staff of about 10 people) all to myself. A single night at this hotel cost me more than all the other 14 nights at the tea houses, combined.

But that bath! That bath will go down in history as the most exquisite, satisfying bath I've ever had in my life.

When I arrived back in Kathmandu, I found that curfew was just a few minutes away. A taxi driver approached me as soon as I stepped off the plane, and I quickly followed him to his cab, my guide and porter behind me. Heading out to the hotel, my guide gets into a fierce fight with the taxi driver. I don't understand what they are saying, but there is such anger in her voice that I wince every time she lashes out at him, and am afraid to ask her what they are fighting about. I suspect that it has something to do with the looming curfew. On this day curfew was to start at 11:00 AM, just a few minutes after our arrival. The driver had a "For Tourist Use Only" sign on his car window, which allowed him to drive in the city even during curfew. He didn't know at the time that my Nepali guide and porter with me; they simply followed me to the taxi when I agreed to go with him. I'm guessing the driver was not so happy about that. If he transported Nepalis in his car during curfew, he risked getting in trouble with the armed militia who were patrolling the streets. My guide, on the other hand, had no other choice. If the taxi didn't take her, she would not be able to leave the airport until curfew ended nine hours later, at 8:00 PM. So she was determined to get to a hotel.

In any case, it led to a blowout between them. They fought the entire time he drove. I was exhausted from two weeks of grueling physical exertion, feeling sad about saying good-bye to the mountains, achingly disappointed that I hadn't achieved my goal of making it to Mt. Everest Base Camp. Add to that the stress of being in a moving vehicle with two screamers, and I was teetering on emotional overload. Agitated, my driver missed my hotel by several blocks, and got even angrier when he learned he would have to go back. By then, I'd had enough. "Just let me out right now. I'll figure out how to get to the hotel from here; I'll walk the rest of the way. I handed him some money, grabbed my luggage and bolted. I've never been so relieved to get out of a vehicle.

At the hotel, while waiting for my room, I checked my email at the internet center in the lobby. That's when I learned that my father had died.

I stared at the screen for a long time, frozen. I have always wondered whether I would cry when my father died. My father and I have been estranged for over 20 years, since the day my mother died. Through the window in front of my computer, I watched policemen with rifles patrolling the streets. The week before, as I cautiously explored Kathmandu in spite of the curfew, the fear in everyone's eyes brought me back to my father's house. My father did not have a rifle, but he had knives, axes, and fists, and he did not hesitate to use them. He was a ragingly unhappy, violent alcoholic who did a lot of damage to a lot of people. After my mother died, in the midst of the unbearable grief, I felt a tiny sliver of relief: she was safe at last. He could not hurt her anymore. As a child, when I did something he did not approve of, he would announce: "You are no longer my daughter." In retrospect, I should have been happy not to be his daughter. But at that age, confused and frightened, all I could think of was, how is that possible? In the end, I don't know whether it was I who disowned him, or he disowned me. Now, it no longer mattered.

In the hotel room, I curled up on the bed, unmoving, for a long time. And then, along with the Nepali god, I cried. I cried for the fear in the eyes of the Nepali people. I cried for the exquisite beauty of the mountains. I cried for things unfinished. I cried because I could breathe freely again. And I cried for my father.

The next morning, the formerly deserted streets of Kathmandu erupted with celebrations when it was announced that democracy had been restored in Nepal.

And that is my entry to your vacation story contest.

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