During times of trouble, those with power and authority are our saviours, isn’t it so? One of the most poignant lessons I learnt during the lockdown in Lukla was that help can come in any form. On the 26th of March, the local Lukla municipality presented a piece of paper to us. It said that all lodging and food would be covered by the Rural Municipality. There was a sigh of relief and gratitude to the authorities but what came next was a bigger surprise.
“A stranger is shot in the street, you hardly move to help. But if half an hour before, you just spent ten minutes with the fellow and knew a little about him and his family, you might just jump in front of the killer and try to stop it.”Ray Bradbury, AMERICAN AUTHOR AND SCREENWRITER
The Mighty Nepali Hearts
‘Stranded In Nepal‘, a support network created in under 24 hours to aid stranded tourists from all over Nepal was the brainchild of Raj Gyawali, founding director of a Nepal adventure travel company. Together with Nepal Tourism Board, the purpose was to gather data and disseminate accurate up-to-date information to tourists. All logistics to rescue trekkers as well as handling of official paper work were under their supervision.
After five days, the eagerly awaited announcement came, “There will be rescue flights tomorrow out of Lukla. Seven planes will be flying in. Be ready to get on any of those planes tomorrow early morning,” an announcement from the Nepal Tourism Board read. We were over the moon! The first thing we did was to register our group details for the earliest flight out. This wouldn’t be the first flight out of Lukla. Earlier in the week, a handful of trekkers managed to fly out of Lukla, courtesy of the chartered flights arranged by their respective embassies. Nevertheless, we were hopeful for this coming rescue flights. Although, we had to pay USD 180 as opposed to getting a helicopter for USD 400, we didn’t mind it. The bottom line was that we were finally getting out!
Escape From Lukla: Attempt No. 1
I had written down all the names of my teammates. The first flight out tomorrow morning looked promising. That night we packed our bags thinking when tomorrow comes, we will be reunited with the rest of our teammates. And so at 5.30 am in the morning, we were all awake and ready to have a quick breakfast before heading to the airport. At 7 am, we were there eagerly waiting for our turn. The temperature was -2°C and there were already at least 50 trekkers waiting at the gate. The system was as such: names of passengers would be called out by country groups before we were allowed to check-in and board the flight. Each flight could only accommodate up to 14 passengers. There were at least 200 trekkers and today, there were only seven flights coming in. Meaning no more than 50% of us would get on those flights.
The Waiting Game
For those whose embassy were not able to arrange a chartered flight, the Nepali government had arranged for local commercial flights to rescue them. Ours was Nepal Airlines and so we waited patiently out in the cold for our names to be called. Now herein lies the problem. We were way below the priority list as chartered flights by some embassies were at the forefront. Naturally, this created a backlog. The last flight out of Lukla is always by noon. After which, the conditions were no longer safe for flying due to strong winds.
I won’t deny that it was painful watching other travellers depart on their planes while we waited with zero certainty. At 12.30 pm, the last flight departed and we were not on it. At this moment, there were at least another 150 trekkers stranded in Lukla. We headed back to our lodge with a sinking heart. “Tomorrow, there will be more flights out,” our guide reassured us. We kept our chin up and made that painful short walk back to our lodge for lunch. Tomorrow we shall try again…
A Moment Of Reflection…
That same evening we walked to the local stores to stock up on some snacks. We were unsure for how long we would be staying here so we might as well stock up. You could say it was a moment of solitude and reflection for me and my teammates. That short walk in an almost empty town to a convenience store, flanked by imposing mountains and valleys did bring some peace to us.
We spoke about lives, unabridged. We spoke about our love of the mountains and what inspires us. Along the way, we met some of the kindest Nepali people whom we shared an eye-opening banter. From a shopkeeper whose very livelihood was threatened, to a guide who had lost his source of income for the whole year, all they had were smiles on their faces. We understood their plight, yet amazed by their incandescent joie de vivre. “We will somehow endure. All it takes is some patience,” said a Nepali guide.
Escape From Lukla: Attempt No. 2
After yesterday’s disappointment, we kept our spirits up. So, at the break of dawn, we stood at the airport gate, hitting yesterday’s replay button all over again. To our dismay, the first flight out was a chartered one for the Germans, and the subsequent flights were for the Americans and Europeans. Nepal Airlines, had yet to arrive.
At 10 am, the chief of the municipality appeared at the gate and read out a new list of names. This time it was for all mountain guides. How ironic! Just a day ago, there were talks that all tourists would be evacuated first, followed by the guides. And now the tables had been turned. All guides were now inside the terminal. We could only wait helplessly from the outside. Now, one would assume that most of us would be dissatisfied, but we were genuinely happy for them. Understandably, being citizens of this country, they had equal if not more rights to be rescued.
The Lukla Underdogs To The Rescue!
The hours began to whizz by and the crowd was thinning out. There were 50 tourists left and yet, the promised Nepal Airlines plane was a no show due to technical difficulties. After six hours out in the cold, we were beginning to lose hope. Suddenly, someone exclaimed, “Quick! Give your passports!” The man of the hour was the owner of our lodge, Bhimsan who could be seen inside the terminal. With only two planes left to depart for the day, the remaining trekkers were scrambling to get on board. We quickly handed over our documents through the fence and after ten minutes, he returned with our passports and seat confirmations. However, knowing our luck, we were still sceptical. We didn’t want to get our hopes up until we had boarded the plane.
At the stroke of noon, our names were finally called! It was the most surreal experience being on the other side of the gate. Inside, we paid the full amount for our flight and gladly checked in our bags. Our guide, Ramji, had the widest smile on his face. He had pestered our lodge owner to help us by all means, and he had succeeded.
The Tearful Goodbye
We watched a group of stranded tourists painstakingly made their way back to their lodges after failing to secure a flight out. I understood that feeling and could only empathise with them. We took a moment to convey our gratitude to the owner of Hotel Nest for going the extra mile for us. I will always remember that final hug we shared with our guide Ramji before he boarded his flight. Soon enough it was our turn. I ended this journey the same way I had begun, with a glint of tears in my eyes and gratitude.
A Life Long Lesson…
If someone were to say, I hope you had learnt your lesson, I would gladly say yes. Not because we regretted the outcome, but because the hardship taught us courage. The chaos made us into a family unit. Although the despair did bring out the worst in people, in our eyes, we saw only the best of humanity from Nepal, and all the way home to Malaysia. While it is true that those who hold power can make a difference, it is the underdogs; those who have little to offer and nothing to gain, that will eventually teach you your most poignant life lessons.
As our propeller-driven plane took off, the mighty Himalayas began to whizz past us. I gently wiped away the tears in my eyes. I now understood this quote from Prophet Muhammad… “Be in this world like a stranger or a passing traveller.” I travelled not for the want of worldly possessions but for my soul to learn, to understand and not to fear what I do not know. At the end of the day, I am happy that I gained more than what I could ask for…