/ 8 June 2024

Book extract: Moving On

Barbara Ludman

Kathmandu was complete chaos — cars, bikes, rickshaws, driving at great speed on both sides of the dusty potholed road, weaving in and out among people and donkeys. They were first in line for the flight to Lukla the next day – altitude close to 3 000 metres – to start their trek. 

“I believe this is the world’s most dangerous airport,” Jerry said casually, as the twin engine plane stopped short of the mountains looming, it appeared, just a few metres away. 

“Nice to know, now that we’re on the ground,” Amy said. She was trying to keep her excitement under wraps. Of course Jerry had arranged for a guide. 

Dipak met them at the airport and led them on a three-hour hike to a tea house in the next village, where the main dining room was warmed by a furnace fed with yak dung. He showed them their room — a plywood box with a double bed and a single blanket. 

“Uh oh,” Jerry said. 

“It’s okay,” Amy said, “we can cling to the edges.” But they didn’t. 

At Jerry’s suggestion, they lay nose-to-toe. Snuggling, sleeping bag to sleeping bag, got them through the night. It was a pattern they repeated at every stop, as the rooms grew colder and colder. 

The next day, they hiked up to Namche Bazaar, at 3 400 metres. Amy began to flag and Jerry offered to carry her backpack but she demurred, dragging it up the stone steps to the tea house. 

When they set out again after two days of acclimatisation, they found swing bridges before every village, long flights of stone steps and the occasional narrow ridge, shared with yaks laden with goods. 

Dipak told them to stop and give way to the yaks, who had been known to push hikers off the path — and it was a long way down. Amy used those encounters as a chance to stop and catch her breath. 

The tea houses were pretty much identical — plywood walls, furnaces in the dining rooms, ablution facilities down the hall or outside. There was no hot water. 

Jerry had had the foresight to bring plenty of baby wipes, which were okay for a couple of days but not for the entire trek. “It’s surprising what you can get used to,” she told Jerry, after braving a freezing cold shower. 

Six days after leaving Namche Bazaar they hiked through a snowstorm and down slippery stone steps to a tea house in the village of Gorakshep, at just over 5 000 metres, where they would be staying while their bodies got used to the thin air. 

Only then would they be considered fit enough for the final push to Base Camp, which they had been able to see from the trail —the brightly coloured tents and flags and the famous Khumbu Icefall in the distance. 

The next day dawned with blue skies, or so Jerry told Amy, who lay in bed for a while, listening to the bells on the yaks delivering supplies to the guest houses. The days of acclimatisation were the best for Amy. 

She wandered the streets, catching her breath, buying fruit and Snickers bars and trying to engage local people in conversation. She was picking up a bit of Nepalese — hello, how much, would you like a Snickers bar? And wherever they stopped, she also picked up a trail of small children who, indeed, would like a piece of chocolate. 

“I think I’m in love,” she said to Jerry, on the morning they set out for the final push to Base Camp. Jerry looked alarmed. 

“No, silly, not with you,” she said. “Mel’s safe. No, it’s Nepal. I think I’m in love with Nepal.” 

“It’s too cold for you,” he said. “I keep worrying you’re going to turn into a block of ice.” 

“I’m okay with it,” she lied.

They set out in a state of great excitement, despite the snow that began to fall when they were nearly there. But Base Camp turned out to be a big disappointment.

Serious climbers preparing for summit attempts were not very welcoming to wimpish trekkers, who were treated like daytrippers — which, in fact, they were. 

“I don’t suppose they’ll offer us a cup of coffee?” Amy said. 

“Come on,” Jerry said. “Let’s go back.” 

Tracing their path back to Kathmandu, but more quickly this time, with no need to acclimatise —they passed struggling trekkers on their way up to Base Camp. 

On one long and steep section through the national park, Amy wanted to assure them it would get easier, but the trekkers kept to themselves, concentrating on saving their breath and keeping their feet from slipping. 

Amy didn’t, and suddenly felt a shooting pain in her left foot. There was nothing she could do about it with a couple of hours of hiking left, so she carried on in agony. 

At last they arrived at the guest house. Sitting near the furnace in the dining hall, she could finally take off her boot. She’d only twisted the foot, not the ankle, she was relieved to see, but it really hurt, and she rubbed her foot vigorously to take the pain away. 

Two tiny children who had been racing around with sticks, pretending they were horses —  or maybe donkeys — noticed Amy, stopped playing, came over and stroked her ankle. They looked ineffably sad. 

“It’s okay,” Amy said, moved by their concern, hugged them each in turn and handed over a Snickers bar. 

In the days that followed, on the trail and in the guest house in Lukla, she couldn’t get the children out of her mind. In Kathmandu and Lukla, in the bigger towns, one could see children sharing iPads and teenagers with an ear glued to a phone. But in the hill villages, sticks had to stand in for even the most basic toys. 

What happened when they reached school age? Were there even textbooks, much less iPads? Was there a future for these children? 

“There are schools,” Dipak told her, when she asked about facilities in the hill villages. “But they struggle. The government wants the children to be taught in English, because it is the language of the future. But the teachers don’t know English well enough to teach in it.” 

“What about mother tongue?” Amy asked him. “We have a lot of mother tongues,” he said. “Twenty or thirty. Look, I’m fortunate. I live in Kathmandu. My second brother is at MIT in America, studying civil engineering. When he starts making money, it is my turn.” 

“Are you also going to MIT?” she asked. 

“I haven’t decided where to go. But I’ll leave engineering to Krishna. I am more interested in hospitality.” 

Jerry weighed in. “I’m not sure where this conversation is going,” he said, “but the shuttle’s about to leave.” 

Five hours later they were in Kathmandu, and a few days later, back in Johannesburg. 

It was easy for Amy to adjust to Johannesburg’s altitude, after climbing above 5 000 metres, but everything else seemed out of joint. What was she supposed to do with the rest of her life, without Greg? 

One day, she started to email the provincial education department, then scrapped that idea. She wanted to teach, not spend the day in the staff room, which is where the teachers spent most of their time when she did her practical training in Soweto.

She was in the classroom because she was a student teacher, but the people who were supposed to supervise her were nowhere to be found. 

Meanwhile Jerry and Mel were getting married — Mel realised that he could have lost Jerry under an avalanche or down a crevasse. “Will you be my Best, oh, I don’t know, Person?” Jerry asked Amy. 

“I’d be honoured,” she said. “Do I have to arrange a stag night?” 

Jerry laughed — and then she could hear him over the phone, shouting her question to Mel, and she could hear Mel laughing too. 

“I think we can skip that.” 

“Flowers then,” she said. 

“Just bring wine,” he said. 

“Next Sunday. At the house.” 

The impending wedding concentrated her mind. What did she really want out of life? The next morning, she phoned Dipak, who was home in Kathmandu after taking some clients from Japan on a four-day trek. 

A couple of days later he phoned her back. That’s when she bought a one-way ticket to Kathmandu, promised the lawyer she would stay in touch, and phoned Charlotte, the estate agent who lived on the next street, to offer a sole mandate.

Moving On is published by Modjaji Books.