On the way to the Khumbu (1997)

by Naomi Sherer

The Elderhostel tour I was on met at the Seatac airport south of Seattle-Tacoma, Washington. All were strangers to me and to each other. Us old folks did not remain strangers for long. We sized each other up with rheumy sixty-two year old eyes, looking for kindred spirits. One crusty ex-high muckity muck from a high tech industry, since plowed under by a newer more powerful one, was designated drill sergeant for the group until we reached Bangkok. There we were herded by the Kathmandu Folkways Institute to the Nepalese Royal Airlines. At the time, no other airline was allowed to fly into Kathmandu. A grim soldier made me dig into my backpack for an object targeted by the x-ray demon.

My Swiss Army knife, complete with two screwdrivers, a toad stabber, butter spreading blade and slick little scissors, was confiscated, yes, taken by the army of Nepal. It was put in a separate little bag with the promise that it would be returned to me after landing in Kathmandu. Others had more lethal weapons than I, and all were neatly packaged away from our devious minds and bodies. College students in Kathmandu were on the brink of rebellion and the recently declared government was taking no chances.

Soldiers do not make snap judgments in trusting doddering old folks. Everyone is suspect. And I couldn't really blame them. We radiated dubious conduct in our threadbare hiking gear smudged with deer dung and bird guano from other trails in far away places. Distinctive cameras hung from our turkey-wattled necks, and thinning hair spiked with travel sweat stuck out like the statue of liberty's crown.

Kicking and screaming would not restore my knife to my pack. I had pared my fingernails before I left home, had no paper dolls to cut out, nor buns to slaver with artificial butter, absolutely no intent to stab the pilot, and certainly no inclination to hijack the plane. So I agreed to remain parted from my faithful red knife during the flight.

Kathmandu was exotic. Flowers abounded around the hotels. Trash abounded around the garbage pickup stations. Overpopulation and demanding tourists brought chaos to these noisy streets and quiet peoples. Strange vehicles fashioned from discarded odds and ends spewed diesel fumes in the narrow streets.

Innovative people created usable machines from scraps

Vendors attacked us like stick-tight weeds imploring us to buy trinkets for which we were encouraged to bargain. A thin and urgent peoples begged with choice phrases in many different languages until discovering which one we understood. Then you bought or shook the burrs off your arm.

But I didn't get out of the Folkways Institute. We were told to bring an extra copy of our passport photo because it might be needed to enter Sagarmatha National Forest. At home I blitzed into my favorite reprographics shop and got a Canon Laser copy of the one on my passport. Would you believe the suspicious authorities would not accept it? It faithfully reproduced every uncomplimentary feature I possessed, which was good enough for my driver's license. Why didn't it suit park authorities in Nepal? I was whisked away to a photo shop where another equally unflattering likeness was snapped.

Smugly satisfied that I was qualified to enter the Khumbu, I listened as Folkways instructors proceeded to expose us all to history, folklore and language of the Sherpas.

Folkways Institute area

Naomi Sherer

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