November 30, 2007

On Top of the World

Eureka. I fixed the blog. Took only a week of my life.

I hope you like the new design and the new sidebar that lets you easily cruise stories by clicking on a country name. (My work as blog doctor isn't quite finished -- I still have to restore the RSS feed buttons. A glass of cabernet might give me some ideas...)

But I'm feeling good. On top of the world, even. Which reminds me of a travel story.

That's the real top of the world,
Mt. Everest, in the photo. It's not a bad photo, but it's not as good as the one that got away.

Mike and I were in Kathmandu,
Nepal, and we had tickets for one of the Everest flight-seeing tours that take off, weather permitting, early each morning. The day we were scheduled to go, the Everest flights were cancelled due to extreme wind, and we were told to come back to the airport the next day to see if the weather and our luck would change.

When we arrived under thick, gray skies at 6 AM, no flights were leaving. The agent at the Royal Nepal Airlines counter told us to relax at an upstairs cafe from where we could see the giant departure board hanging on the terminal wall. "If your flight shows a departure time, come immediately to the gate. The plane will board and take off quickly." When the mountain gods open a clear window of opportunity, you make your move before they close it.

Just before 8 AM, we watched numbers drop into place in the slots next to our flight listing. We were going. In five minutes. We slapped some rupees on the table to pay for our Nescafe and hightailed it to the tarmac.

As we took off, the day lightened, the sun burned through the fog and sent it packing, and the sky turned a blue that was a cross between cobalt and cornflower. The next 90 minutes were utter majesty, and the heart-stopping grandeur of the Himalayas sitting right outside the window of our 14-seat prop plane canceled out the heart-stopping fear of being in a 14-seat prop plane with the Himalayas sitting right outside the window.

I burned through rolls of Fujichrome. These were Earth's highest mountains. I felt humbled by them. And blessed to lay my eyes on them. These were mountains I'd read about all my life in first, my grandmother's, and then my own, National Geographics. I knew their names and their snowy, stony profiles. I recognized and named them as we flew past: Gauri-Shankar; Melungtse; Cho-Oyu; Nuptse; Lotse; Ama Dablam; Makalu.

My Nikon purred, and I clicked off frame after frame. When Everest appeared, I shot what was left of the roll I was working and loaded a new one. Just after the roll was loaded, Mike and I were tapped to come up to the cockpit. Hard to believe, but Everest flight passengers are invited, by turns, to spend a minute or so in the cockpit with the pilot. The pilot names and discloses altitudes of the peaks filling his windshield, and, although he does this perhaps a hundred times a week as each open-mouthed tourist on all of his flights enters the tiny instrument-filled sanctum to gaze on the top of the world, he does it reverently. He loves and honors these mountains,
sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus.

Mt. Everest straddles the Nepal-Tibet border, and in her people's cosmology, she's the Mother Goddess of the Universe, called Sagarmatha in Nepali, Chomolongma in Tibetan.

Everest was outside the window as we walked to the cockpit, and as we entered the pilot banked the plane to begin the turnaround back to Kathmandu. The flight route was up the Himalayan spine to Everest, then back down the spine to Kathmandu. As the pilot turned the plane, he flew straight toward Everest, and we were the ones in the cockpit at that incredible moment. Mt. Everest filled the windshield.

I raised the camera and clicked the shutter. Nothing. Frozen. Everest was full in my face, and my Nikon, which had been around the world with me several times over and had never failed me, was dead.

I looked out the windshield and sucked in every inch of Everest I could get my eyes on, hoping I could imprint her face and summit and every one of her cols and crevasses forever in my mind.

Our cockpit visit ended and we went back to our seats. I lifted the Nikon and pushed the button. Click. Frame advance. The camera performed like a star for the rest of our journey.

My Nikon and I have been together for 30 years. The only time she's said, No, I won't capture this for you, was when she came face to face with the Mother Goddess of the Universe.