LETTER | As I write this, only a rusty chain-link fence separates me from the airstrip of what many would regard as the world’s most dangerous airport, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, Nepal.
It is Day 3 of lockdown for five of us Malaysians stranded in this picturesque mountain town situated 2,860m above sea level which is the gateway to Sagarmatha National Park, home to the Everest mountain range.
You are aghast, perhaps, at our audacity. How dare we bask in the fairytale idyll of this glorious Himalayan outpost when Malaysia – indeed, the whole world – is burning from the unprecedented horrors of the Covid-19 outbreak. How dare I make an admission of the luxury in which we are entrapped.
The truth goes much further.
We first made plans to hike to Everest Base Camp as long ago as November 2018. Over the course of a year, we scrimped and saved. I took on weekend tasks to make more money. This is no Friday evening getaway to Malacca, after all. We trained hard – running before and/or after work, cardio, strength training, weekend hikes at the many hills around Peninsular Malaysia. We even started taking the stairs at work – imagine the horror! We watched our diet and our health.
By August 2019, we had to make the payment on our deposit for the trip. It was all in the almighty US dollar. As I said, there is no denying we are indeed a privileged group to even be in the position to make sacrifices such that we can afford to tick off our bucket list.
In January, Malaysia reported its first case of Covid-19. We were taken aback. What do we do? Some of us have made full payment of the costs. We have most certainly bought our gears and apparel. Flight tickets, travel insurance, leave applications. All necessary arrangements have been made.
In the media, attention was very much on certain manoeuvres taking place in a certain hotel. Intermittently, coverage - albeit with a slightly xenophobic slant - was given to sporadic new cases of Covid-19. The masses were told to stay calm and wash their hands. That, we decided, we most certainly can do.
After discussing, and weighing the fact that there were no reports in Nepal, we decided to proceed as planned and we all coughed up whatever outstanding balance on the payment for our trip. We applied for and were granted our visas for travelling.
We flew to Kathmandu on March 11and on March 13, we took a Dornier-228 out to Lukla and started trekking. By no means was it a stroll in the park. There was the altitude. We were progressing incrementally at about 300-400m of altitude per day. In the day, the sun shone as brilliantly as the icy winds were strong. At night, we had the freezing cold to contend with as temperatures hovered around -5°c or sometimes lower.
Our last shower had been on day one of the trek, when there had still been running water. After about eight days and roughly 65km, we reached the famed Everest Base Camp. It was deeply moving. The gratification of body and soul cannot be described in words. It had been gruelling and taken a toll on us. In the aftermath, we combatted fatigue, hypothermia, acute mountain sickness. But we did it all by ourselves. Now we return home. Or so we thought.
During our trek, when internet access had been patchy, news filtered into us that Malaysia is imposing a movement control order, whatever that meant. New cases and deaths were growing exponentially. The solution seemed to be self-restraint. We were told to report ourselves to the embassy and we did so on 16 March. In the meantime, flights were being rescheduled or cancelled outright. There was only so much we could manage from 5165m.
On March 18, enforcement of the movement control order (MCO) began. Our flights home on March 29 were cancelled. We were at risk of being stranded. The plan was to keep calm, hike back down to civilisation, return to Kathmandu and decide on our next move. On the way down, slipping and sliding through snow, slush, mud and yak dung, we successfully contacted someone from the Malaysian embassy in Nepal.
To our shock and disbelief, we were told that the embassy never received our list of nine Malaysians sent on March 16. It was hours later that a different person called back saying he did receive the list. This apparent lack of coordination and communication within such a small consulate certainly left us concerned. But we decided to keep the faith that only the very qualified and very competent would be despatched to serve Malaysians abroad, on Malaysian taxpayer money.
Within three days, we reached Lukla. Flights have been booked to fly into Kathmandu the next morning where we will have to physically attend at the Malaysian embassy and airline offices to sort out our return to Malaysia. Then, Nepal detected its second case of Covid-19 and took swift action to lock down the entire country.
There was to be no domestic land or air transport. A curfew was imposed and no one is to step outside their homes. The dramatic reaction stood in stark contrast to the dithering of our own government back home. Privately, I was deeply impressed. However, that also meant that I and fellow hikers were under effective house arrest in our lodge at Lukla.
Over the past three days, we discovered through our own efforts that there are 34 Malaysians in Nepal. We got in touch the best we can. We formed chat groups. We have reached out by every means to all channels. We posted on social media. We contacted the embassy time and again for updates. All we hear is to keep calm, to obey local laws, “Apa boleh buat?” In short, nothing of use to us.
At the very least, those of us still in Lukla, where electricity is not stable and the weather is in the single digits, and mineral water, wifi and phone charging have to be paid for, want to go to Kathmandu where there are better facilities and access to medical treatment. At the very least, we can finally have a shower.
We have news that the French and Australian governments have tried to send in planes to get their citizens out of Lukla and their efforts gave riled up the Nepalese government to the extent that the French and Australians just might be successfully taken out.
Meanwhile, our efforts at contacting the officials at the Malaysian embassy have gone nowhere. To add salt to injury, we are told on good authority that when informed that they may try to arrange to evacuate us from Lukla, our Malaysian embassy kept mum because that would entail forking out money to hire a plane.
We are sorely dismayed at how things are turning out. In the news, we read that Malaysians stranded in India, Iran and elsewhere are being returned home. When we check on the Wisma Putra website, which has not been updated since March 18, there is no mention of Nepal.
On the other hand, we hear of three Malaysians being evacuated from, of all places, the Maldives. We mean no disrespect but think for a moment how the numbers are stacked. Three in the Maldives against over 30 in Nepal. Surely, the odds should be on our side. We are left puzzled at the arbitrary evacuation efforts.
Perhaps it is economic – what is Nepal to our government but a source of cheap labour? Certainly no oil or other business interests for the powers that be.
We continue to suffer in the mountains, forsaken and abandoned by our embassy officials and our own government, while nationals of other countries are slowly being evacuated, and our own antibodies wear thin and funds run low.
The lesson from all this, perhaps, is that Malaysians should never partake of any leisure activities abroad requiring discipline, physical exertion and willpower. That we should stick to shopping, beach holidays, and generally just staying home (not at the mamaks!) mindlessly consuming, health be damned.
But I jest.
To all Malaysians, let us all comply with the MCO. Perhaps then, when the graphs flatline, just maybe, all Malaysians abroad can finally return home.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.