Category Archives: Publications/Writing

Precarious Flight to Shangri-La

The magazine in Australia that I mentioned before published another one of my stories. I again hope they don’t mind if I share. It’s very exciting to see one of my pieces in print, and it makes me really proud. Below you can find the full text with a graphic of what it looked like in the magazine. I’ve added a few hyper links to the pictures and videos mentioned in the story.

The Dornier 228 turboprop sat eighteen passengers. It was just wide enough for a person to stand in the aisle, both arms outstretched, fingertips touching the sides of the plane. I settled into the dark blue fabric of my seat, as the stewardess picked her way over hiking boots and backpack straps, distributing hard candies that would help our eardrums adjust to the altitude during takeoff.

The stewardess’s uniform mimicked a traditional Sherpani chupa—a full length red jumper tied in the back over a white silk shirt, framing her neck like the collar of a kimono. A colorfully woven rectangular apron pinned to the front of her dress completed the look. As I took my foil-wrapped candy, I wondered if it was an Agni Air policy for stewardess uniforms to include the apron, or if it truly signified that the attendant was married, as it would in Sherpa culture.

The two pilots completed their pre-flight checklist, and asked the stewardess to sit in the last remaining seat, next to fifty kilo sacks of rice and other commercial goods wedged around cargo netting that held passenger luggage at the back of the plane. The propellers whirred to life, and the tiny aircraft taxied down the Tribhuvan Airport runway.

It was June of 2009 and I was traveling to the Solukhumbu region of Nepal with my husband P, and our school friend RH. Intent on hiking the most famous of Himalayan treks, our journey started with the thirty minute plane ride from Kathmandu to Lukla; a tiny airport-village perched on the side of a high mountain cliff, acting as the gateway to Shangri-La.

Lukla was both a beautiful destination, and a treacherous one. It consistently appears on lists of the “most dangerous airports in the world” as it is positioned amid slender, snaking, high altitude valleys, and is carved from a ledge 2,850 meters above sea level. On approach the runway, which is less than 460 meters long and 20 meters wide, looks more like a narrow parking lot than a place to land a plane.

To accommodate the short length of the airstrip, the ground is pitched at a twelve degree angle to decrease landing speed, and pilots conduct maneuvers such as “backwards thrust on propellers” to further decelerate the aircraft. One travel guide noted, “If this worries you, one comforting thought is that only the most experienced pilots in Nepal are flying to Lukla.”

Our Agni flight departed the Kathmandu Valley and sped toward the wall of jagged snow-peaked teeth on the horizon. Fifteen minutes later we were gliding through a constricting green gorge shaped by the raging glacial river below. Mountain ridges were close enough to count individual treetops from the windows of the plane. The pilots were navigating by sight; in such a claustrophobic environment GPS units are not as trustworthy as a steady pair of eyes, and flights can only occur in good weather. Limited visibility meant grounded planes, or potential crashes.

This route certainly has its share. Before our arrival, four flights had ended in disaster during the previous five years, including a 2008 Yeti Airline crash that killed eighteen. A German family captured the accident on video as they stood on the hill above the airport, camera trained on the edge of the runway. The plane’s engine hummed deeply on approach, but the valley was cloaked in a dense wall of cloud. The family waited for the Twin Otter to burst dramatically from the puffy whiteness and complete its journey safely to the tarmac. Burst it did—as a fireball—just below the edge of the runway. The German father muttered a shocked “Scheisse!” before dropping the camera. Chunks of white metal, rubber wheels, and other wreckage could be seen from both the ground and air for months.

I tried to forget these images as the runway came into view. I reassured myself that it was Yeti Airlines that crashed, but I was flying Agni. I reasoned that the pilots had a vested interest in landing safely. I chided myself on seeking foolish adventures and putting myself at needless risk. I promised myself that I wouldn’t fly this route again.

The approach was quick—from sky to earth with little change in altitude. The plane bounced hard on touchdown, and I gripped the back of RH’s seat, bracing for the aircraft to bank and flip, another gory headline for the news. Instead the wheels rolled to a hard stop before the pilot maneuvered the plane to the stone-built airport terminal.

A deep sigh escaped my chest; I hadn’t realized I’d held my breath through the final moments of the flight.

*

RH, P and I spent the next few days hiking in the beautiful mountain landscape, and at the end of our trek, we found ourselves inevitably back in Lukla. Unless willing to hike another five grueling days to the closest wheeled-transport, a flight from the tiny airport was the only way back to Kathmandu. The choice was clear; we boarded the same Agni flight—anxiety quickly forgotten in lieu of a successful adventure.

*

Fourteen months later, in August of 2010, a news article caught my eye. The title mentioned a “tourist plane crash” in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The flight departed from Tribhuvan Airport, intending to fly to Lukla, but turned back midway due to inclement weather. My heart sank when I saw the company—the Agni flight crashed before reaching Tribhuvan. All on board were killed including one Briton, one Japanese, four Americans, five Nepali and three Nepali crew.

I searched Nepali news websites, eager for information. Unlike American news, which censors more graphic photography, I came across a series of grisly photos taken by the Nepali army and released to The Himalayan Times.

The plane smashed into a rice paddy fifty miles outside of Kathmandu, and the muddy, water-filled crater was strewn with scraps of clothing and metal. A crowd gathered in the rain, hiding under umbrellas, watching the salvage work.

The most haunting picture in the series was of two Nepali army troops wearing green fatigues, wiping their hands on a white cloth after loading light blue plastic bags of human remains into the back of a truck. There were five plastic bags in the picture, each no larger than a backpack. The garbage bags were translucent enough that one could tell the contents were fleshy, like the soldiers were carrying blue shopping bags of ground turkey meat.

That meant the bodies had exploded on impact; there was nothing left but small pieces of each individual, mixed up in that mud pit and fished out by men treading barefoot through the water, looking for chunks of human. I had nightmares of small blue garbage bags filled with body parts, waiting on the curb outside my apartment, ready to be taken by early morning garbage men.

It took time to connect the tail numbers. A follow-up article mentioned 9N-AHE. I searched through my album for the trek, and scrutinized each photo from Tribhuvan and Lukla: A photo of the white Dornier 228, with Agni’s black, yellow and red stripes along the side. Another with Rory and I sitting in our seats, toothy-smiles for Prajjwal the photographer, excited to fly to the tiny airport in the clouds. A third—Rory and I pose outside of the plane upon landing in Lukla, as porters carry luggage from the aircraft. A fourth, our plane taxis down the short runway, new passengers aboard, the tail number visible yet small. I zoom in on the picture; one click, then two, then three. I make out the characters: 9N-AHE.

I re-read the articles—severe weather, spatial disorientation and loss of flight instruments, mechanical and pilot error, outdated crew checklists. The flight was doomed from the start. A flight I had travelled on. That picture of Rory and me in the dark blue fabric seats, smiling. Those seats are gone. Someone sitting in the same chair became chunks of flesh in a blue plastic bag in the back of a Nepali army truck. It made me physically ill.

I thought of the beautiful stewardess wearing the red chupa, passing out foil-wrapped candies. I wondered again if her uniform apron meant that she was married. Did she leave behind a husband, perhaps a young child?

American by Birth, Nepali by Marriage

I’m kind of outing myself a little, but I recently wrote a story for a new Nepali magazine. I wanted to share it (I hope the magazine folks don’t mind) as I really liked how it came together. I was asked to talk about my views as a non-Nepali married to a Nepali, and I see the article as a nice introduction to how I see my world today.

——-

“Can you see Mount Everest from your house?” I asked my friend, a native of Kathmandu. We were sharing French fries in the campus cafeteria, and I was making conversation. I remembered the glossy photos of past Everest expeditions in the National Geographic I received each month, like a prize, from my grandfather after he had finished reading. Every article on Everest started with the expedition team departing from Kathmandu; a yellow star on the map followed by dotted lines that connected the city to the top of the world. I assumed the giant mountain towered on the outskirts of the capital, like an ancient skyscraper of rock and ice.

My friend narrowed his eyes, searching my face for signs of sarcasm. Finding none he smirked, and responded, “Oh yeah, and some times during gym class we hiked to the summit to have a glass of tea.”

I had only been at the university for a few weeks, so I was almost naïve enough to believe him. I knew very little about his country aside from the magazine pictures, an unfortunate side effect of 1990s American public education. High school curricula simply weren’t very “global,” at least when it came to non-Western countries.

A year later I would meet my future husband, not more than a few hundred feet from the cafeteria where I first began to learn about Nepal. He was bean-pole skinny, with medium-length black hair, and glasses that tinted in bright sunlight. He was quiet, and sweet, and would occasionally leave a sticky note on my dormitory door that inquired, “के छ?”

It has now been almost nine years, and not only have I been to Nepal, I have seen Mount Everest with my own eyes—while panting for breath on the steep upward climb to Namche Bazar. From Kathmandu it took a small plane and two days of hiking to catch a misty glimpse of the mountain, and would take several more days of hiking if I wanted to touch its feet.

I have journeyed far in other ways too. I am now part of a Nepali family and my identity includes words like buhari and bhauju. I celebrate American Thanksgiving and Dashain, Christmas and Tihar. Our home is often filled with laughter and conversations with friends in both English and Nepali.

I have fallen in love with a man, but also a country.

My journey has not been without bumps. I cringe each time my father-in-law greets me at the airport by pinching my arm and exclaiming joyfully about how “fat” I have become. Ironically my mother-in-law compares the amount of rice I eat to that of a five-year-old child, but I have to surrender; I will never be able to keep up in the daal-bhat department.

My biggest hurdle has been language—that same hungry five-year-old would clearly beat me in a Nepali oratory contest—but I lumber on, still feeding my mind a few new words every day.

In many ways I have become a hybrid. I am American by birth and Nepali by marriage.  As the years unfold, our cultures are better interwoven, pulling two worlds together with a tighter thread.

Delicate Mzungu–revisited

**UPDATE** It has now been chopped to 1,998 words! Changes below.

Readers of my blog will be familiar with this story, however I spent a lot of time this month retooling and polishing it into a traditional short story for consideration in an upcoming anthology of “interesting stories of travel abroad” by international educators.

It is only 2,183 words long, so if you have time, I’d love to have my readers give some feedback. Even if I’ve asked you to read this in the past few days, this latest edition has gone through a lot of editing (particularly in the middle and end), so it might be worth a re-read. I think it is nearly ready for submission and I am eager to share:

Mzungu is a Kiswahili word that originally translated as “aimless wanderer.” Yet it has evolved colloquially in East Africa to refer to people of European ancestry—like an 18th century inside joke about imperialists spinning in circles, lost on the Maasai Mara. As an Irish-American with pinky-white skin, my mzungu-ness was as obvious as the strong Kenyan sun.

I felt no offense by this newly christened identity. Neighborhood children would sing, “Hey mzungu! Where are you going mzungu?”  Minibus conductors leaned out their doors to solicit us: “You there! Mzungu! Come!” Kitschy t-shirts in the Nairobi tourist markets quipped: “My name is not Mzungu!”

Instead, it was the adjective “delicate” harnessed to mzungu that stung, like a sharp accusation of weakness.

*

I was in Kenya for five months, studying abroad at one of the oldest undergraduate programs in East Africa. Students spent two weeks in Nairobi taking language and culture courses, alternating between two weeks of field experience in communities around the country. We lived with local Kenyan families and tasted many different recipes of life.

My first wrangle with the “delicate” modifier occurred in agricultural western Kenya. Fresh from orientation in the capital, my group of twelve plunged into our next sojourn, living with rural Kenyan families. I communicated with my hosts in my simple Kiswahili, insisting to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them. “Tafadhali”—please—“let me carry that bucket of water on my head, like you, back from the well…let me hoe the potatoes, let me feed the chickens…” I wanted to hunch over the large aluminum basin in the back yard and learn how to scrub the laundry by hand. I wanted to sit with my host sister and slice the leafy green sukuma wiki in preparation for dinner.

But I was told again and again, “It is okay, please rest. Wazungu# are delicate; we don’t want you to tire. Tafadhali, have some biscuits.”

I respectfully protested, “I’m not delicate. Please, let me help. I’m here to learn!”

The few times I was given a chance, I would either mess up—I stumbled while balancing a bucket of water atop my head, drenching myself—or something odd would happen, like a sudden nosebleed while I bent over the laundry basin. Each unfortunate incident reinforced their theory of the delicate mzungu.

*

Three months later, it was time for my group to travel to the savanna of southern Kenya, within sight of the Tanzanian border. It was the height of the dry season, and the landscape was barren but for occasional acacia trees. We were in Maasai-land, the ethnic group known by their iconic red clothing—women’s sarongs and men’s wraps called kanga and kikoi—and the wide, flat, beaded necklaces worn like starched Elizabethan collars around the women’s necks. Both genders kept their heads cleanly shaved and sported pierced earlobes that hung in stretched loops.

We camped along the edge of several Maasai family settlements. Called boma, they dotted the plains like sparse oases. The first week we walked through the countryside with the moran, the young male warriors of the tribe, who taught us how to identify different plants, herd goats, and survive a pastoralist lifestyle. Yet out in the relentless sun, the days were long, tolerable only by hiding under hats and loose long-sleeved clothing that kept us ventilated like desert Bedouin.

We burned through the clean bottled water brought from Nairobi, and the group had to share the ground water. We attempted to purify it by boiling it over the campfire, but bits of sediment still floated in the sulphurous liquid. Although it was another lesson in the reality of life shared by much of the world, my stubbornness resurfaced.

I was convinced that I didn’t need as much water as the rest of my classmates. I believed my body had better adapted to the dry climate, and I could, like a camel, sustain myself on just a few sips of water a day. I thought this could prove that being an mzungu didn’t automatically mean I was “delicate.”

My body dehydrated, but I was too naïve to pick up on the signs. My skin became dry and tight, and I had less use for the makeshift outhouse dug from the ground. Young people feel invincible, as though surrounded by an invisible bubble. Eventually everyone has an experience which pierces that bubble.  Mine was coming soon.

*

 During our second week in southern Kenya the group was divided into pairs and sent to different Maasai family boma. The settlements were enclosed in a circular acacia thorn fence.   This kept out roaming predators and protected the large herds of livestock which constituted the principal wealth of the family. Within this fence were several huts made of sticks, mud, and cow dung, built small so that an adult must stoop when standing inside. My hut was empty except for a piece of cowhide pulled tight across an elevated stick frame, used for sleeping.

I was paired with Nicole, a petite spiky-haired student from New York City. We spent the evening sitting outside our hut with our host mother, who was likely younger than either of us. We spoke no Kimaa, the mother tongue of the Maasai, so our communications were mimed. After sharing a dinner of boiled cornmeal and milk tea, the three of us sat under the heavy blanket of stars, which shimmered like millions of shards of glass.

*

The next morning Nicole and I arose from our shared cowhide cot and exited the hut into a cooler, overcast day. A moran named Joel Twiga—twiga being the Kiswahili word for giraffe, and a play on Joel’s lanky physique—had been summoned to help translate. He spoke of a large festival happening a few miles away at the “Big Boma”: every few years, families gathered to celebrate their men as they graduated from one phase of life to the next—childhood to warrior-hood, to junior elder, to elder. Our family wanted to take us.

They dressed Nicole and me in full Maasai regalia; a piece of fabric was tied around our hips like an underskirt, two red kangas were tied like toga across each shoulder, held tight by a belt, and we were adorned with white beaded necklaces. The clothing felt comfortable in the cool morning air—but they left large patches of neck, shoulders, and arms exposed.

Joel led us to the festival, and we joined the thronging mass as the sun broke through the clouds. Nicole and I were the only wazungu faces in the sea of red-clad ebony. Some children cried, scared of the mzungu-Maasai imposters, while other people wanted to greet us—“Soppa!” in Kimaa, answered by, “Ebba!” Two thousand people treated us like celebrities.

At first we were ushered from hut to hut, like high level ambassadors, as we greeted the elders. Then we were stationed in the sun to watch a medley of dance; the women vigorously shook their shoulders, causing their necklaces to bob as if floating on stormy ocean waves. The men responded by pogoing ever higher into the sky. The air was thick with ululations, and with the metallic smell of blood from goats butchered for meals not far outside of the boma fence.

By mid-day, Joel, Nicole and I were summoned to honor the regional chief. He welcomed us to his hut with a chummy slap on the back and handed each of us a warm bottle of Tusker, a popular Kenyan beer. I nursed mine while Joel translated the chief’s sermon. I was having trouble focusing on Joel’s words, as the beer and the heat soaked through my skull. My face had a fever-flush, but my skin remained dry of sweat.

After the chief’s hut, the sun became blinding and severe; I could feel every patch of exposed skin broiling in the afternoon heat. I grew agitated and disoriented by the constant attention of the revelers. Joel offered a placating umbrella, and I found a place to sit in the dust, hiding myself like an ant under a colorful mushroom. When evening shadows pulled long across the boma, Joel agreed to take Nicole and me back. I nearly passed out on the return walk.

*

That night my skin was on fire. My face, arms, and a patch of my neck and upper back were the color of cooked lobster shells. Lying on the cowhide cot was like rolling on a bed of freshly sharpened nails.  I could barely tolerate the weight of my loose fitting clothes.

The following day our professor, a tall sable Sudanese man, returned in the program Land Rover to take us back to our original campsite. I felt sore and periodically lightheaded, but remembered the milder sunburns of my childhood, which subsided in a day or two. I failed to realize anything was seriously wrong, and joined the other students in a night drive through the grasslands in search of zebra, antelope and lion.

We had been driving for nearly three hours, spying on a family of zebra in the Land Rover’s headlights, when my world spiraled.  I was instantly sick. A few moments earlier the bouncing car had been fun; now it was torture. My abrupt shift in demeanor alarmed our professor, who signaled our caravan to turn back. I had to sit very still, and breathe very deeply, to keep from vomiting on the return trek. By the time we reached our camp, I could barely walk under my own power. I retched up the contents of my stomach before I was dragged to my tent.

It was the start of one of the longest nights of my life. I vomited until I could not, then vomited some more. I shook and muttered, delirious. I was certain that the daytime heat would kill me. Nicole and the professor sat by my side all night, forcing me to sip water laced with rehydration salts. Finally, at dawn, I fell into a fitful sleep.

Our professor drove half an hour to find cell reception and made arrangements for my transport to Nairobi Hospital. Before his return, I had awoken, more coherent than the night before, but my back and neck had exploded in a mosaic of sunburned blisters. He loaded me into the Land Rover, and the other students waved goodbye.

*

The Nairobi Hospital, called the “European Hospital” during colonial rule, is a state-of-the-art facility and by far the fanciest in the country. Amongst locals, even the arriving patients dressed in beautiful outfits for their visit, while I arrived straight from the bush; filthy, dusty, and limping.

The intake doctor noted in my chart that the “mzungu dressed like a Maasai and was badly burned,” so each time a new nurse came on duty she had to meet that unusual mzungu. I was admitted for four days due to dehydration, sun poisoning and heatstroke. My treatment was a rehydrating intravenous drip and burn cream for the blisters on my back.

On my second day, the hospital director visited my room. He was a bulky, dark-skinned Ugandan doctor; a personal friend of our program director and one of the urban homestay fathers. He looked at my chart and examined my back.

After making his assessments, he held out his fist and asked, “See this hand?”

I nodded.

“It is a strong African hand. I can put it near fire and it will not burn. But you…you are an mzungu, and you are delicate. You must be more careful.”

*

In Kiswahili there is a saying, heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo—it is better to lose your eyes than to lose your heart. I may have bruised my pride on that burnt African savanna, but I found my taste for all the extraordinary experiences life has to offer. I hope never to be far from that next adventure, but I promise there will be a lot of sunscreen and water.


#Wazungu—the plural form of mzungu.


Author bio:
C is Assistant Director at the International Students Office at xxx University. In addition to traveling in various regions of Africa, she enjoys South Asia, especially Nepal. C lives in New England with her  husband and dog.