Nine of us flew to Humla on a tiny charter plane – it was the only way we could be sure to secure a flight. This was high season, after all, and most of these 15 seat prop planes were on their way to tourist destinations like Lukla, which is the start of the Everest Base Camp trek. Others were flying to the eastern part of Nepal, having been booked months earlier to bring families home after the largest festival of the year, Dassain. And what was surely on everybody’s mind, which nobody particularly wanted to talk about, was that there was one fewer of these planes in Nepal after one of them crashed in the mountains just a week before we arrived in country.
There’s a saying in Nepal that pilots don’t fly through clouds, because in Nepal, clouds have rocks in them. We waited on the tarmac in the southern town of Nepalganj to board our little charter, and in the chaos of disembarking one flight and piling our stuff onto this little charter we all found time to comment – apropos of nothing, of course – on what an exceptionally fine, cloudless day it happened to be.
Because we were only nine, half the ground crew was loading up our backpacks and tents while the other half of the crew were removing six seats from the plane itself, and using that space to pile on bags of rice. Humla is as remote as it gets in Nepal (and therefore, the world) and every chance they get they fly rice and supplies up there. There is no train, after all, nor are there any roads. Rice gets dropped from the sky or it doesn’t get there at all.
We landed safely in Humla and tumbled off the small plane (not quite kissing the ground but our minds were there), and were greeted on the tarmac itself by Gyljan, our house manager, and one of my favorite people in the world, a girl named Priya.
If you happen to have read Little Princes, you might remember that Priya was one of only two girls in the original Little Princes Children’s Home. She was the older sister of the littlest boy, Raju. She had been living in Humla for two years now at our children’s home there. She was now perhaps 15 years old – impossible to know for sure in Nepal, even for the children. She was, at the moment, the only child at the children’s home. The rest were with their families for the holiday, even her little brother. Raju and Priya were true orphans, a rarity, but we had found an uncle for them in our search, and Raju had stayed a little longer in the village to be with him and his cousins.
Gyljan welcomed us with the traditional Buddhist prayer scarves, the golden silk khatas, while his wife put necklaces of marigolds around our necks and Priya gave us all tikkas, red dye mixed with rice on our foreheads. When she got to me she gave me a huge smile.
“Where’s Liz?” she asked, looking around, putting my tikka on absent-mindedly.
“Liz? What about me?”
“Yes Brother, I am happy to see you too!” she said. “And where is Liz?”
I had to explain that Liz was back in Kathmandu doing work for her company, Still the Sea, and she reacted to the news as an older sister might to a younger brother who had, as usual, just screwed something up. Farid had warned me that she was really looking forward to Liz, so I placated her with a handwritten letter that Liz had written her, and the promise that I would try to be as entertaining as possible.
A couple of men and hearty women took our packs and tents and started the walk up to where we would be staying, a guesthouse up the hill, and we followed. Humla was not a tourist destination, far from it, actually, and our group was gazed at in wonder by men and women and children in the dusty village. We stared right back and smiled at them and they smiled back too even when they were herding packs of goats and long-horned yak-like creatures that would have seemed to require their full attention.
(It seemed these were half bull, half yaks. Jackson Freed, age 11, emptied our minds with the question: “If they’re half-cow, can Hindus eat them?” to which Ellette responded “Only the non-cow half” which means that I’ll never be able to go into Starbucks again and hear “Half-caf” without thinking “half-calf”, so thanks for that, Ellette.)
For all the mind-blowing that a trip to Kathmandu can do, that city is nothing compared to where we were now in Humla. When we were first planning this trip I wasn’t sure if our group would accept the fact that this was going to be unlike anything they’d ever seen, or whether they would cling to the landing gears and ride our plane right back to civilization.
What I didn’t count on was this enthusiasm, respectful and delighted and far more composed than I was on my first trip. For the hundredth time, I was thankful for the adventurous folks we’d taken along for the ride. And our little three day trip was only just beginning.