Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Flights of Fancy

On the road out of Lukla, walking North, the path drops steeply after passing under a Kani, veers to the right and then makes a sharp left-hand turn. At this point there is a memorial to the people who died in the fatal air accident at Lukla airport. This tragedy happened in October 2008, and this was the airport that we had just floated into.

Having heard some of the old-wives tales about this particular flight – “They have to cut the engines in order to swoop down to land”; and “when you take off the aircraft actually drops over the edge of the cliff before it picks up height” I had done an internet search to try and discover the truth about Lukla Airport. And I discovered that the truth about Lulka Airport is at least as lurid as the fictions and immediately regretted having made that discovery. I resolved to keep this awful information to myself and not let on to my travelling companions.
. . . . .the runway is a mere 460m long and it has a 15 degree
Needless to say my companions had also done the same search. Collectively I think we had discovered that the runway is a mere 460m long and it has a 15° degree slope. There is only one way into this airport, and that is uphill; and there is only one way out, and that is downhill. Furthermore - to quote from Wikipedia – “Due to the terrain, there is no prospect of a successful go-around on short final.” And there you have it, in layman’s terms if the pilot is in anyway wrong in his or her perception as to where the runway is, how long it is, how fast he or she is going, and how high he or she is, and any number of other variables; and he (or she) gets it wrong; then you, the passenger, are - to put it bluntly - stuffed.

Flights between Kathmandu and Lukla are generally taken in Twin Otters a deHaviland aircraft with a capacity of 21 passengers and crew that is designed for short take off and landing (STOL) situations. These aircraft are the work horses of the region. They are functional and have no frills.

We crammed aboard, grabbing the port side seats so that we could see the mountains on the outward journey. On our plane these seats had the wonderful attribute of being both “window” and “aisle” – luxury! Stuffing our back-packs either under the seat or clenched between our knees we waited with bored affectation for the safety briefing – which consisted of strict instructions to those unlucky enough to be sitting next to the emergency exit as to what lever not to hit during the flight. The penalty for tripping the wrong lever is instant ejection from the aircraft – closely followed by most of your fellow passengers.

Aside from the lady who was throwing rice over her shoulder as an offering to whichever Hindu deity deals with flying, the passenger complement comprised nervous trekkers, one cheerful chap and one morose chap from the Nepal Civil Aviation Authority, a Buddhist Monk and a Flight Attendant. I know that the Flight Attendant is obligatory and have a sneaking suspicion that the Monk is also on the airline’s payroll – the one to succour to the temporal needs, and the other to the spiritual ones in event of any small directional errors. Oh, and of course the two pilots.
There is no door between the cabin and the flight deck
I knew there were two pilots because there is no door between the cabin and the flight deck. Must be hell for the nervous pilot having 19 potential back-seat fliers behind you all giving conflicting advice –
“left had down a bit”,
“non, le main a droite devant”,
“Nein, nein, dumpkopf keep zee hand steady but mind zee mountain, nach links wenden” and so forth and so on.
At Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport as we taxied between various mini-buses, trucks and re-fuelling bowsers, weaving between obstacles to find a bit of clear run-way for a sporting chance of a clear run at a take-off, the Flight Attendant was backing down the aisle almost bent double (head room is a bit of an issue in these aircraft) dispensing boiled sweets and cotton wool. And it is here that you can distinguish between the seasoned traveller and the mere amateur.

Astonishingly some of the passengers took dainty bits of cotton wool and screwed them into their ears and unwrapped the boiled sweets and sucked them! Completely missing the point that the airline was making a valiant effort to alleviate the undoubted anxieties of this flight. Fortunately there was a sufficiently large wad of cotton wool for me to tear off a sizable chunk, and I also snaffled a generous handful of boiled sweets.

Take-off was a gentle affair and we rose steadily through the infected fug of Kathmandu to emerge into a wonderland of distant snow capped, cloud shrouded mountains, and the deepest and steepest valleys in the world just below our feet.
 . . a wonderland of distant snow clad mountains 
30 minutes or so into the flight the cheerful chap from Nepal Civil Aviation who had befriended us (and who we kept bumping into over the next three days) declared with barely disguised excitement that Lukla airstrip was in view; and so it was, small and steep and awfully short, especially when seen through the Plexiglas window of the flight deck. How the hell is this admittedly small aircraft going to get down to, let alone touch-done, let alone stop on this sidewalk of a runway was beyond me.

Bracing myself I screwed a boiled sweet into each ear and stuffed the large wodge of cotton wool in my mouth. I aimed my camera down the aisle through the cockpit window and closed my eyes. At least I could not be heard whimpering and would not hear the heavy breathing of my fellow passengers, but would get some great shots of our final, oh so final, descent. Behind me I was aware of the Flight Attendant and the Buddhist Monk. The former was gazing out of the window with an air of studied boredom and the latter was serenely engrossed in the soccer pages of the Himalayan Times. The only discordant action was the lady flinging rice all over the place – which seemed to concern no one.

As we landed in a flurry of applause and rice I realized that next time it might be better if I unwrapped the boiled sweets, and even gave them a cursory suck before screwing them into my ears. That way they might stick in place a little longer.

There are no clear photographs of the descent or final landing, although for some extraordinary reason there are some blurred shots of feet (a later all too common subject) and the backs of nameless heads. I do however have clear photographs of the astonishing mountains and vertiginous cliffs that guard the gateway to this part of the Himalayas and Sagarmatha National Park.
Yaks and Trekkers sharing the main street from the airport

There are also clear memories of the frenetic ground-side activity at Lukla Airport; baggage handlers flinging various sacks, packages and containers onto hand trolleys. Porters matching bewildered clients with their bags. The cacophony of shouting ground staff, roaring aircraft engines and shrill police whistles hastening civilians off the apron so that the planes can re-load and takeoff, all spiced with the sickly smell of half burnt av-gas. Outside the Yaks wait with worldly patience to be loaded with whatever goods they are going to lumber up the Khumbu Yalley over the next 5 or so days.

Twelve days later on the road into Lukla, walking South, just as the path climbs steeply up to the Kani  there is a memorial to the eighteen people who died in the fatal air accident at Lukla airport in October 2008, and it’s a reminder of just one more hurdle to be crossed to leave this magical land.
On the road out of Lukla, walking North, the path drops
steeply after passing under a Kani . . . 

Monday, 17 June 2013

Yeah, Innit!

Someone exposed me to the following phrase the other day, and I reproduce it in full:-

UPW Tip of the Day:  
People with impoverished vocabularies live emotionally impoverished lives. People with rich vocabularies have a multi-hued palette of colors with which to paint their life's experience, not only for others, but for themselves as well.
(Anthony Robbins)

I gazed at it for a while with a feeling of emptiness. I thought perhaps that I could re-punctuate it, but no, the punctuation was complete – rock solid. I read it out aloud with different forms of emphasis, but no – this elicited no further nuances of meaning. I tried to reproduce it in differing fonts, but this didn't help.

I thought bugger it, maybe I'm trying to be too analytical, so I put the phrase on a lead and walked it round the garden. The dogs and the cat followed warily, the dogs running in front, and then behind and back to the front following a herding instinct. Yorick showed feline disdain and tracked our course by chasing random lizards and gambolling over errant pine-cones. The phrase was laggard and lumpen.

I threw it for the dogs to fetch, but it just lay there against an elderly mole-hill circled by the collies a couple of times and then ignored. I bounced it against the floor of the stoep but it failed to react and made the sound of a wet tennis ball without any of the cheerful attendant bounce. I threw it against the wall, hard, but again the result was disappointing, so much so that I feared that I may have dented the plaster before the thing slid unprepossessingly down the wall.

I half filled the bath and launched the phrase in it to see if it would float, but – it didn't – well not quite, it reeled drunkenly from one side to the other with just a little more of its body below the surface than above, like a slightly optimistic iceberg.

Finally I set in on a low table against a wall in our lounge, and there it sat, sullen, grey and squat. Even attempts to train a wall mounted spotlight on it elicited only a feeble dull reflection. A poor and muddled representation of a Grecian Urn which would never be celebrated with an Ode. Yorick, always alert for a new source of potential income or excitement (I'm never sure which) approached the scowling phrase, sniffed delicately at its base and swollen belly, and walked his front paws up the side. Standing at half body stretch he looked on top of the thing and with exquisite precision inserted his left paw into the restricted neck.

An ugly aphorism, grey and squat, and
never likely to have an Ode composed in 
its honour . . . 

“Yes!” I exclaimed, “of course!” And as Yorick leapt with electric panic from the table and fled the room I swooped on the phrase, swept it up and gave it an exploratory shake and was rewarded by a distinct rattle, a sound like a single pebble rolling from side to side as I tipped the lumpen urn, and I thought – “Ah, someone has lost a marble!” Following Yorick’s lead I tried to squeeze two pincer fingers into the neck but could not, but I could go one better than the cat and upend the offending vessel. Out of the sorry urn plopped a lost marble, and out floated a yellowed piece of what looked like cigarette paper. I replaced the phrase on the table and picked up the frail piece of paper. It was crumpled and dusty and smelt faintly of the secondary fragrance of weed smoked long ago by the last fingers to touch the paper. I turned the paper over and saw written in bold if shaky capitals “YEAH INNIT!”

“Yeah Innit?” I mouthed out loud and as I did a loud CRACK rent the air behind me. I swung round and there, where the phrase had squatted, was a pile of words on the table with a rising cloud of dust and a distinct musty moth-ball smell tinged with a whiff of glossy new magazine print polluting the air.
A pile of words worth more as a pile than from whence
they came.

So, quite by chance, and with a little help from the cat I had uncovered the primitive shriek of a previous reader and thus released the Inarticulate Genie from the Ugly Urn.

At last one of the daftest aphorisms ever to hit the Internet had been destroyed and reduced to its constituent parts, its unconnected words. A fine example of the whole being far less than the sum of the constituent parts!

A cat of limited vocabulary - but lots to say about life . . 

Having uncovered this dreadful piece of language eugenics, this literary despotism, I have dug a little deeper - and what I have unearthed beggars belief . . . . .