Saturday, May 7, 2011
Fear of flying—II
I noticed the pilot, who had just flown the aircraft to Nepalganj from Juphal, sauntering near the plane talking to a tourist, drinking out of a mug that said COFFEE in brown letters all over it. He looked composed. I wondered how he could be so and also what kind of a man would want to fly such a small aircraft, and so many times a day. Earlier, inside Nepalganj airport, I’d spent over two hours at the airline counter, putting on a long face and telling them I had to fly out to Juphal that morning, no matter what. The flights had been cancelled for over ten days due to bad weather and scores of people were trying to argue their way through to get on the airplane; some even coming to blows. I finally got lucky when someone at the airline counter decided to kindly put me on the plane. But when I stepped into the Cessna, I thought it might not be so bad if the flights got cancelled for another ten days or more and I had to take another flight to Kathmandu.
The next thirty minutes on the Cessna my heart threatens to fly out of my throat. It just gets worse as the plane dives into the mountains, traversing through them so you only see walls of mountain on either sides of the window. Where would I land if the plane brushed against them? One of the wind-swept mounds? How long before they would find us? I am still playing with these thoughts when the plane lowers onto a small piece of land—the airstrip. The plane hits the ground with a thud and we’re all holding-on fast to whatever is within our reach as the craft makes a U-turn at the end of the airstrip overlooking a cliff and finally comes to a standstill. The Eagle has landed!
Snow-capped mountains sprawl before me. The airport terminal is a humble skeleton of slim wooden pillars. No roof. I am later told that the corrugated tin roof was blown off by the wind last year. A new terminal, which is to replace the one blown out by the Maoists during the insurgency, is still “under construction”. Little, colourful billboards advertise Tourism Year 2011. Welcome to Dolpa!
No phone calls can be made because the telephone tower does not work when there is no electricity. And Juphal and Dunai make do with sharing a couple of hours of electricity on alternate days.
The next two days are a journey of guilt and realisation. All the people I interview have the same story to tell. There must be more food. “It’s the dream of all Dolpalis,” says the first woman I interview. Some women curse me for talking their pictures. Why don’t you give us some medicines instead? Pay for the photo. Some hold me on the road for several minutes just so their pictures will be taken. Can you print the photos for us? I only nod.
Children catch my eye everywhere. The first three I make friends with are about five and are carrying huge jars of water from the army barrack across the suspension bridge. They climb down a steep rocky slope before walking 30 minutes to their destination. The jars spill, half soaking the rags they wear. Their lips crack; one of them looking like she just ate something deep red. I walk away. The children arrest me in a stupor. I get my Bodyshop gloss out and apply it to my chapped lips.
There are colourfully decorated mules along the road, just as malnourished as the children. They stop at times to eat their own dung to assuage their hunger.
My feet sink into the sandy track, as we follow the Bheri to Dunai. Yestai ho, Dunai ko bato, two brightly dressed women smile as they pass me. There will always be all kinds of people you meet on a journey like this. There are local traders, trekkers, policemen, drunks, porters and mules. But mostly, children. I notice that children have a layer on their skin. Dark brown soil that’s turned into a part of their bodies. They take it to school with them,
bring it back home, carry it around to the cow-shed where they help their family with the feeding, then come back to plough the field and gather some more dust. A girl picks my arm and says “kasto seto haath,” and for once, I’m not proud of my clean skin. I start wishing I had a layer of mud on me for a while, so that the girl didn’t pick my hand in wonder. I start wishing I hadn’t had that full meal of daal-bhat-tarkari in the morning.
“Who cares about what they are doing in Kathmandu?” the postman tells me, as a swarm of flies polka-dot his waistcoat. “They will never make a difference to our lives.”
Rice is too expensive, is the expression I know by heart now. I also know that when you say bhat, you don’t always mean the white sticky grains on your plate you’ve eaten at home every day and shoved into the bin if you’ve had too much. Bhat is what is a little more filling than roti and can come in different forms.
It’s time to pass through the skeleton of an airport terminal once again. A police woman checks my body and my bag in a “separate” room, divided from the men’s by nothing.
Time for Cessna again! I wonder what makes our courageous pilots fly in and out of these regions every day. I also wonder if
there will ever be a time when I can drive to Dolpa. And if then the locals would not be so hungry, or cooped up in the mountains in grinding poverty.