Land in muggy Kathmandu following a flight via Istanbul, and get whisked through congested streets by two strangers. There are steaming piles of decaying rubbish along the side of the road. It piles in pyramids on street corners: colourful mountains of stinking trash. There has been a conflict with authorities about refuse and a stand-off has led to the disposal of household waste in the streets.
Tangles of wires hang from electricity poles; in some cases entire spools of cable hang in uncoiled loops. The thick black chaos stretches from pole to pole all along the streets, some cables dangle dangerously low. Send a picture to an electrician uncle back home and smile at his response. Suppress the OCD that starts to flare at the crazy tapeworm of wires that dissect the streets like a surgical scar. Sigh relieved when the car turns into a concrete clearing that leads to the gate of the hotel. Disembark, give tips, check- in and make your way to the room where you meet your roommate: a Canadian teacher who arrived the day before. Dump your bags and dive in a hot shower. Uninspired by the rubbish mounds, change your plan of sight-seeing in lieu of catching a few hours rest. The streets probably look better in the dark.
Level two in the Hotel Traditional Comfort is where the group meets for the first time. There are two sets of father and sons, an Australian couple and a chap from London who beams a happy smile as he tells us the reason for his yoga pants are lost luggage. An Irishman wears a red face and breathes whiskey breath.
"Was on-it last night," he says, "in bits," he adds.
The guide, Maski, talks us through the ins and outs and declares a 4:30 meet the next morning for the flight to Lukla. Dinner for the group will be in a local vegetarian restaurant. The Irishman declares himself too unwell to go to dinner and saunters off into the Kathmandu night in search of a cure.
The bus whips through streets bustling with cars and mopeds and decants the group in the dusty streets of Thamel. The paths and kerbs are lethal affairs, either ferociously high or erratically cracked: you need your wits about you, and no notions of high-heels. While others are testing the resilience of an ATM, nip into an outfitters shop and pick up a North Face down-coat. Content with a discount from the owner, find the group and board the bus for the short journey to the gorgeous Avata restaurant.
The guide, Maski, asks on the bus how much the coat cost. 50,000 Rupees, the answer given. Maski has a fit and shouts to the driver to turn back.
"We're going back to the shop," he says, "you were ripped off, that's too much."
Protest and say it's fine, that the cost is ok, but it falls on deaf ears. Maski wants the bus turned. He is willing to fight for one of his group.
"Are you sure it was 50,000?" he asks.
"That's about $400," he says.
Feel your heart skip a beat. Damn, that is dear! Take out some notes from your wallet and show him what you paid. Watch his face turn from a steely temper to a wide grin.
"That's 5,000," he reassures, "not 50,000."
Listen to him laugh the entire rest of the way to the restaurant. Smile knowing that he was willing to support. Remain blissfully ignorant that for the duration of the trip in Nepal, those zeros on the Rupee notes will prove a challenge. Everest Base Camp will be reached but numeric competence will remain unattainable.
Become vegetarian in advance of the trek through the Himalayas. Eating meat is not advised: killing one's animals is forbidden on the mountain, so unless a creature dies of natural causes, the only meat source is that carried up the mountain by porters who transport it in large, bin-like containers on their backs. After a few days of trekking up the mountain, the meat can surely be classed as aged... but edible? Tofu in Avata it is. And handsome tofu at that (if tofu can ever be classed as eye-catching).
Chats around the table are spirited and upbeat. Say a silent 'thank you' for your luck at finding a group of people who will become friends for life. These people are happy, have a wicked sense of humour and are a joy to be around. Laughter comes easy. Stories flow. A Scot, a Canadian, a Londoner, a Russian and a sweet American are the best accompaniments to a fine meal.
On that first night in Kathmandu, become a veggie and laugh until your side hurts. The tribe has gathered. The trek will begin in the morning. But before then, there is time for a nightcap in the rooftop bar.