Freelance food, drink and travel writer, single parent Theodora Sutcliffe has been living the life nomadic with her son, Zac, since January 2010. Among other adventures and mishaps, they’ve dived an undersea volcano, trekked for days in remote jungle to meet nomadic hunter-gatherers, taken themselves down the Mekong in a leaky skiff, driven 3000 miles across Indonesia on a motorbike, and walked away from a car crash in an Egyptian oasis. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Theodora and Zac, (accidentally) in Nepal for Christmas!
Day 1: Thursday
Zac, my twelve-year-old son, and I recently completed the Everest Base Camp trek, and we’ve been stuck in the little town of Lukla for three days with no planes going in or out due to bad weather.
The airport’s so dangerous – the runway drops off a cliff edge into a valley, with the other side perilously close – that the planes, which fly on visual navigation only, won’t run unless the weather is flawless both in Kathmandu and Lukla, so it looks like our only option is a helicopter.
We could walk out, of course, but that would take six days, which would mean no work and no money for six days, and also arriving in Kathmandu on Christmas Eve. I’m hoping to secure our visa for China, our next stop, then head to Chitwan National Park to spot rhino on Christmas Day.
I find us slots on a helicopter for $350 each – but I don’t HAVE $700 cash, and I can’t take out more than $400 a day on my card. A Gurkha we met on the mountains spots me $350 worth of Nepalese rupees in exchange for an internet bank transfer, and we’re good to go.
I race around packing and organising, and return to find that the other passengers decide to pay $500 a head for a different helicopter, which means that now our helicopter won’t happen, as there aren’t enough of us to fill it.
I don’t have $1000 in cash and I have no way of getting it either, so I decide to stay in town and hope there’ll be cheaper options tomorrow.
By now almost gibbering with stress, I spend three hours at the hole-in-the-wall passing for an airline office reconfirming our flights. They put us on the eighth flight out tomorrow, at which point I begin to laugh hysterically.
Everyone in town, by now, seems to be doing nothing but running around like headless chickens chasing imaginary helicopters – apart from Zac, who’s an oasis of calm, catching up with some long overdue gaming time on my MacBook.
Day 2: Friday
Magically and amazingly, the weather clears and the planes start to run! The Nepalese put on flight after flight to clear the backlog.
We’re on the eighth, and there’s a round of applause when the plane lands, another as soon as we are airborne, another when we bank successfully out of the valley, and a collective intake of breath when our Twin Otter hits a thermal and drops about 50 feet.
Six days’ walk takes only 25 minutes on these little planes, and the pilots are amazing.
I’m desperate to arrange our China visa, as we’re due to meet friends in Beijing for New Year, but the visa section of the embassy has already closed. We check back into our hotel, collect the stuff we left there while we were trekking, and I traipse around town trying to find a laundry that can get our fetid, stinking wardrobe clean in under 30 hours. Because it’s winter and there are rolling blackouts, no one can.
Zac chooses where we eat – his favourite momo joint, Momo Star, and we dine on the delicious Nepalese dumplings that Zac’s been missing for a while.
Christmas is coming up, and Zac and I discuss what to do, now that we’ll be stuck in Kathmandu arranging our Chinese visas. None of the children’s options in the local paper seem right to him – he’s twelve, almost a teenager – so we decide we’ll have two rounds of turkey and see The Hobbit.
I catch up on some work that’s due before Christmas while Zac produces a blog post by way of unschooling. (We’re fairly free with his education, as he learns an immense amount simply by experiencing things and independent reading, but he does have to write things once in a while).
After spending three weeks stinking and grubby, I’m desperate for new clothes suitable for cold climates. In a fake Zara store, I find a jersey dress that should look good with leggings: like Chinese girls do, I will layer long-sleeved thermals, tights and leggings under it to cope with the temperatures without looking like the Michelin Man.
Then I go for a facial to get the trekking dirt out of my skin, plus a sorely needed mani and pedi. I try and persuade Zac to at least have a massage, but he’s not interested.
Zac picks our dinner destination, a vegetarian Israeli place called OR2K that confirms Zac’s view that Israel has the best hummus in the Middle East and reintroduces me to the joys of green salad, something sorely lacking after being up in the mountains.
Day 3: Saturday
The pair of us have been fantasizing about steak and bacon for weeks, and I’ve been gagging for a Negroni. The Northfield Cafe does flawless crispy bacon, so we gorge on fry-ups while trying to work out what we’re getting the family for Christmas.
Kathmandu’s an amazing place for gift shopping, but the pressure selling and haggling makes it a real hassle. Sometimes, I’d honestly rather just have a price tag.
We get our list completed, find a wandering shoe maker to repair our trekking boots, and traipse round what seems to be all of Kathmandu’s upscale shopping outlets failing to find a new pair of jeans for Zac and a pair of non-slutty black knee boots for me.
Still in our stinky trekking clothes, we stop by at the cake shop of a five-star hotel for a chocolate eclair under the impression it’s a mall.
By way of education, I get Zac to research and write an essay on the formation of glaciers and why they’re under threat. We crossed a glacier on the Cho-La Pass in the Himalayas, we’ve seen a lot of moraine, and talked to experts about the impact of climate change, so it’s a good way to crystallise his learning.
For dinner, we find an amazing steakhouse, called K-Too, and I teach the bartender how to make a Negroni. Zac discovers the joy of chicken fajitas.
Invited out by some soldiers we met on the mountain, I endeavour to keep up with the British Army at the only nightclub in Kathmandu to stay open past 1am. I fail.
Day 4: Sunday
Because we’ve been in Kathmandu before, we’ve just spent more than three weeks in the Himalayas, and I’m feeling the effects of last night, we’re both in the mood to take some time off from sightseeing.
I arrange times to Skype with friends and family on Christmas Day: it’s a scheduling nightmare because Nepal is 5.45 hours ahead of GMT and the fifteen minutes play havoc with my hungover brain. Zac’s dad, who’s Australian, is in Colorado, snowboarding; his grandparents are between the UK and Australia; and we have other folk in the UK to catch up with as well – and everyone has their own schedules for Christmas Day.
By way of education, I tear Zac off his game of Anno 2070 (one way he keeps up with his friends in different countries is by gaming online with them and chatting simultaneously over voice on Skype), and get him to write a history of mountaineering in the Everest region with a focus on Mount Everest.
In the afternoon, we go for tea with a botanist we met who was collecting samples on Everest.
We have a half-hearted stab at Christmas shopping, but neither of us are in the mood, and Zac’s decided to get downloadable computer games for everyone he can.
He decides that as a twelve-year-old atheist he’s too grown-up for a Christmas stocking – a shame, because I really wanted to do one for him – but he agrees, under pressure, that he would like something to open, thank you very much.
Day 5: Monday
We spend Christmas Eve morning at the Chinese Embassy, where it turns out that visa regulations are tighter than they were last time we got a China visa (in Kuala Lumpur). The best they can do is a 30-day single entry tourist visa which we can extend in-country, and they want plane tickets, hotel reservations, and passport photocopies before they’ll issue it.
We can’t get photocopies until the power comes back in Kathmandu later that afternoon, so I set about booking fully refundable plane tickets and hotel reservations for the weekend. When the power’s back on I try two places until I find one with a working photocopier and printer.
On the way back, my boots break again. Zac borrows 200,000 Nepali rupees from me, pops into a shop, asks me not to look and then emerges with some fake North Face trainers in an appropriate colour and the right size. That’s my Christmas present, and very thoughtful it is too.
We pass the wandering bootblack. It looks like he’s bought himself a new pair of trousers with the proceeds of his “repairs”.
Zac’s big presents, because we travel with only what we can carry, tend to be experiences. For his twelfth birthday he went paragliding in Pokhara. For Christmas, as he’s too light to ride the world’s longest zipline, whitewater rafting looks like an option. But the guys we see are not optimistic about getting a group together, so we decide on a Plan B of a trip to a theme park in Beijing.
Our main Christmas treat, we’ve agreed for a while, will be The Hobbit in 3D. I head down to the Civil Mall, which I’m told by expats has the best cinema in Kathmandu, and buy tickets: I also find some black knee boots that are, amazingly, not too slutty and, even more amazingly, actually in my size (in Asia, I’m a 40, which is, in most of Asia, a guy’s size, not a girl’s).
Then I hunt around for little presents for Zac, silly things like a bubble-gun, not to mention the Simpsons box set he’s been after for a while and – yes, I know! – socks. For dinner, we manage to combine two of Zac’s favourite things: turkey and a buffet, though none of our fellow Christmas orphans have any kids.
Day 6: Tuesday
It’s Christmas! As we’re not religious and our consumerism focuses on experiences and enjoyment rather than “stuff”, it’s really an opportunity for us to catch up with family and be a little bit festive. Zac opens his presents, which he’s pleased with, Skypes his dad, and then we head to the Chinese Embassy, where today, although one of Nepal’s many public holidays, is a day like any other day.
There is, it emerges: a problem with Zac’s Nepali visa. The Chinese can’t process our paperwork until we get it fixed at Nepali immigration. Oh god!
I’m really glad that I booked our flights for Sunday, because what should be a one-day process now looks likely to dominate the week. I’m also becoming anxious whether the Chinese will even let us in, and desperate to confirm to our friends that we will be in Beijing for New Year, at least.
We head to K-Too for lunch, chicken fajitas for Zac and a “chateaubriand” steak for me, then go to see The Hobbit, which Zac rates and I find overlong and tedious, then head back to Skype with more family.
We have a second Christmas dinner that night at K-Too, with turkey for Zac and steak for me, bump into some climbers we met in the mountains, then Skype more family.
Despite beginning at the Chinese Embassy, it’s not been a bad day at all. We still haven’t done our Christmas shopping, but as the sum total of presents we’ve received is a PayPal transfer of ￡100 from my mother, I’m sure no one’s really going to be bothered. It’s the contact, the Skype, that’s the important thing.
Day 7: Wednesday
We spend a chunk of the day at Nepali immigration. It turns out that when we entered the country, they inadvertently put the wrong year on Zac’s 90-day visa, meaning that it technically expired in February 2012. Everybody can see what the problem is but no one’s quite sure how to fix it.
We finally find a guy who can change it. I need to handwrite a letter requesting the change, which I do. Then he crosses the date out in red pen and writes the new date on the visa, also, in red pen.
I insist that we need a stamp, or a letter on headed paper, explaining the error for the Chinese. Eventually he finds a stamp, which means – oh god! – Zac, who travels even more than I do as he flies internationally to see his father, now has only two blank pages left in his passport.
As we eat our Indian dinner, I’m wondering whether we will ever, ever get to China. The noise and the hubbub and the colours and the sensory overload of Thamel is starting to get to both of us. It no longer feels exotic and exciting but squalid and tedious.
The air quality leaves me longing for the crystal clear air of Beijing and I’m fed up with turning down offers of marijuana, tiger balm and musical instruments every time I leave the guesthouse.
We pick up our Chinese language classes with our online tutor, and catch up with Zac’s grandmother. We usually study over Skype, but due to the lack of internet in the mountains, we haven’t really studied at all for a month. Funnily enough, it does all seem to be somewhere in the back of our minds, though.
(Day 8: Thursday)
By now, most folk at the Chinese Embassy seem to know me by face, if not by name. And, AMAZINGLY, our paperwork is finally good to go.
I hand over the two hundred dollars I changed from Nepali rupees at our hotel, fill out a few more forms, and get a receipt. Insha’allah, we pick up our passports and visas tomorrow. Next stop: Beijing!
After spending a few months in China, Theodora and Zac are back in the UK, and enroute for Western Europe – probably Amsterdam, Paris, Catalynya, and Italy. But, truly, everything’s up for grabs, and Zac is already itching for Russia. You can follow Theodora at EscapeArtistes and WorldFoodList, and Zac at KidVenturer.