Jomsom: To begin with, a slight paraphrase of the opening lines from Casablanca, my favourite movie of all time. "Here the fortunate ones might obtain a helicopter and scurry to Pokhara. And the unfortunate ones, they wait in Jomsom, and wait, and wait, and wait..."
For a few days this week, Casablanca came to the Thak Khola, thanks to inclement weather and cancelled flights. So we waited, and waited, and waited.... In these situations, one either goes spare or starts observing matters with a wry and slightly jaundiced eye. I chose the latter. Ensconced at the Hotel Xanadu in Jomsom's main bazaar, the foreigners chatted about the trekking, the prices, the porters and eventually talk turned to their favourite topic: their bowels. I remember these conversations well from my early days on the road so I kept silent when the nether regions came up.
Two young Americans from California were wondering just how a certain fellow known as "W" ever, ever made it past frat house beer parties to the White House. "It's so-o-o embarrassing," they groaned. "He's, he's, well, not very bright. And he's only been outside the US four times." I wondered aloud whether the undoubtedly more intelligent but distinctly robotic Albert Gore Junior might have done any better. Reaching back into my decades of vital experience in these matters, I reminded them that his wife-known by the unlikely moniker 'Tipper'-made her name in Washington by leading a campaign against one of the great evils of all time-nasty rock and roll songs. She fell afoul of a personal hero of mine in doing so, the late Frank Zappa, and she came out badly wanting.
Both my temporary friends from the American left coast were shaking their heads in dismay by this time. "We voted for (Ralph) Nader," they said, washing their hands of the main contenders. "And that's why Bush won," chimed in a nearby Brit who mysteriously knew more about the US elections than they did, "he split the vote". An argument ensued, so I left the hotel to check with the control tower for the umpteenth time, in need of another dose of false hope.
Outside, a group of French trekkers were standing around their rucksacks, making that unique Gallic noise of derision and frustration. It's a puff of air through pursed lips, but something else happens to it along the way to give it just the right tone of Parisian scorn. They were angry at the cancelled flights, railing at the weather and being mobbed by local characters trying to sell them seats on a helicopter that was rumoured to be arriving soon. I even heard one of them say "Oo la la". It's true. I swear it is.
Then into town swept a procession of what the Indians call "godmen", robed sadhus. But these were Americans, and they were determined to get out of town, flights or no flights. With remarkable and almost divine efficiency, they booked all the available helicopters and started nobbling forlorn foreigners, trying to sell them seats at a profit. I asked them what they intended to do with the money and they smiled with serene certainty. "Ishwar jannaa," said the headman in Ohio-accented Hindi, his long wavy white hair and beard snapping in the brisk winds.
All of Jomsom had come to watch the fun. Not much happens in the capital of Lower Mustang. A Newar from Kathmandu, working with a private airline, put it to me this way. "We get up early, we check in the passengers, meet the aircraft and see it off. Then we play cards until it's time to start drinking."
Choppers started clattering in, provoking mini-riots on the runway. It turned out that only Nepalis were allowed on the cargo flights so these quickly filled up at Rs1,000 per seat. Smaller helicopters took foreigners out in waves, including our American sadhus. And eventually, I climbed aboard my own charted biman and headed for home. I wish Ingrid Bergman had been there so I could tell her "the problems of two little people don't mean a hill of beans in this crazy world, you're getting on that plane". But she wasn't, so I settled for leaning over to the bewildered pilot, on his third run from Pokhara, and giving him my best Humphrey Bogart. "Fly it again, Sam."