I have come to believe that the solo traveler exploring this planet, unburdened by the constraints, sensibilities or itineraries of others, is able to attract a certain serendipity as a travel companion. This tireless and generous partner moves with us quietly, spending its time creating opportunities and interactions for its host marked by strange coincidences and awe-inspiring moments of beauty – if, of course, we follow its subtle cues.
For many, solo sojourns are often embarked upon between relationships, career changes and graduations. Somehow, traveling alone allows one to swat away old mental cobwebs and make clear the next step to be taken. It’s like therapy, only much more fun.
I rarely visit tourist attractions when I’m out in the world, preferring to get acquainted with each country’s native peoples armed with only a trusty phrasebook. Every even comical attempt to communicate in the local language goes a long way. This practice has proven to create a bridge of smiles and genuine interaction with local residents.
I do my best to keep myself away from tourist herds and their native harassers. In your travels, if you’ve ever been set upon by aggressive touts and vendors who consider western travelers to be walking ATMs, you know.
Choosing the road less touristed has proven infinitely more satisfying and inspiring, guiding me in the exploration of over 30 countries to date.
One of my favorite destinations is Nepal, especially the Himalayas, where Sagarmatha, the Goddess Queen of the Universe, watches over her domain and metes out fierce justice from her high perch. Her mountain abode is better known to westerners as Mount Everest, upon which I spent three weeks in 1990. It was a magnificent, terrifying experience, surpassing even my lofty (sorry) expectations.
I had musings of climbing to her 29,000-foot summit. Really. But only until I found out that an unsponsored vagabond like myself would need to cough up $65,000 for Sherpa guides, porters, pack yaks, food, water, shelter, medicine and enough oxygen tanks for the whole crew, just in case we wanted to breathe up there.
The multinational expedition I did join was a bargain in comparison. Its destination was a peak called Kala Patthar, which, at just under 20,000 feet, would obviate the need for oxygen, as well as the discomfort of walking past the frozen bodies lying along the snowy route to the top, forever resplendent in their bright and expensive gear.
On this expedition were a few Aussies, a Kiwi medical doctor, three young upper-crust British women (who seemed comically out-of-place), a Dutchman and myself, representing North America. Nine of us altogether…a motley assortment of foible-rich travelers, some of whom (OK, it was the mostly the British women) bewildered us with their bickering and complaining, invariably missing the majestic beauty that was all around them. The upcoming weeks were going to be difficult physically, mentally and emotionally – did they not know this? In their defense, apparently, putting on make-up at high altitude helps to stem the apprehension…who knew?
However, when the make-up came out, the Aussies just lost it – immediately taking it upon themselves to rattle the clique with a hilarious and relentless salvo of good-natured ribbing. Branding them as “Whinging Pommes,” which is a smirk-inspiring, playfully derogatory moniker the Aussies used to describe our British climbing companions.
My backpack sported a small, understated Canadian flag patch since I had been living in Toronto at the time. Generally, Canadians are known as being so nice, polite and courteous that ribbing them would be just…wrong. When I shared that I was actually an American, living and working in Canada, I immediately received a fusillade of bad jokes about all things imperfect and intrinsic to the American traveling abroad.
Our weather-worn twin prop 12-person plane took off from Katmandu without fanfare, heading to the trek’s starting point, the mountain town of Lukla. At 10,000 feet, its airport is infamous for being the most dangerous in the world.
Flying in a relatively light, older and slow two-prop aircraft between massive and usually foggy mountains, one should expect some turbulence – threading as we were between and far below these magnificent peaks. I had known that big mountains create wind shear and turbulence in abundance, but to say this was a bumpy ride doesn’t quite do it justice. The British women were crying and at times let out blood-curdling screams that punctuated each violent tilt and wobble that threatened to throw us out of our seats. It was terrifying, but since I was sitting right behind the pilot, my resolve was strengthened by his calm control.
As we flopped our way through these enormous valleys, the mist finally opened into a clear window that allowed us to see Lukla’s airport for the first time. I couldn’t take in a breath. The British women went pale looking through the cockpit window as we approached the shortest landing strip I’ve ever seen, carved precariously into the mountainside with a few buildings flanking it and well, a mountain at its end. A short runway was bad enough, but nothing had prepared me for what occurred next.
A few hundred meters from the runway, the pilot pointed the nose of the plane down (!) and it looked like we were heading for an unscheduled visit to the side of a mountain. With white knuckles grasping my seat cushion I held on to the vision of the calm and steady hands of the pilot just a few feet in front of me. He probably has a family, I thought…probably not a suicidal psychopath at all. I did wonder if he was playing with us so he would have stories to laugh about with his drinking buddies…
Just when it looked like a point of no-return was at hand, he pulled up hard and aimed us at what was most uniquely frightening about this airport – the short runway was uphill! We had to approach the strip from below at just the right angle and then land wheels-down onto a slope rising in front of us, and stop before the rocky monolith at its end.
All of us were covered in nervous sweat and gratitude as our feet found the solid, unmoving grassy ground of the Himalayas.
Header image: Mount Everest as viewed from Kala Patthar. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Markrosenrosen.