Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Myth of Sisyphus

Ducking my head, I stepped from the plane onto the jetway, and from the cool air inside the cabin into the oppressive heat of an Islamabad evening. After more than thirty hours of contorting ourselves into cramped airplane seats, and lounging at airports from Vancouver to Beijing, Alik and I had finally arrived in Pakistan. Down at the baggage carrousel, one big duffel appeared, then another and another... I held my breath as the conveyor belt grew empty with one of our bags still missing, but then a bulging blue duffel emerged. I exhaled in relief. 

Outside, dazed from jetlag and sleep deprivation, we stood by as a cabbie secured a small mountain of expedition duffels to the roof rack of a Corolla. The thin string he used didn’t seem adequate for the purpose; I hoped gravity would help to keep the heavy bags in place. As we drove into the city, lightning flashed and sheets of rain came down, forcing commuters on their small motorbikes to seek shelter under overpasses. “Your bags are waterproof?”, asked Ali, our guide to the thickets of Pakistani bureaucracy. “Not so much”, I waggled my hand in reply. 

After the sticky, humid heat of the tropical night, the airconditioned coolness of the guesthouse was a welcome relief. We lingered over egg-fried rice, struggling to keep our eyes open. Back in our room, having snatched only the occasional head-lolling, seated nap over the past two days, sleep came easily. 

By midmorning the next day, having already breakfasted on chapatis, omelettes and potato curry, we were back at the airport. Initially the agent at the check-in counter balked at the number and weight of our duffels, but Ali managed to negotiate the excess baggage charges down to a reasonable sum. There was no lineup at security, and fifteen minutes after arriving at the New Islamabad Airport, we were sitting at the gate, boarding passes for the flight to Skardu in our pockets. 

Gradually more people showed up. Locals in shalwar kameez, the women’s turquoise and purple, the men’s beige; other climbers in bright pants and logoed t-shirts. The pilots and flight attendants chatted among themselves as they waited for the plane to arrive at the gate. In a couple of hours, we’d be in Skardu, having spent but one night in Islamabad. But then the skies, clear until now, started clouding over – figuratively and literally. The scheduled boarding time came and went. A PIA official announced a fifteen-minute delay. Then came the dreaded words: “The weather in Skardu is bad, the flight is cancelled.” 

Back at the guesthouse, we pulled our duffels from the trunk and off the cab’s roof, and schlepped them back to the room we’d vacated only a few hours earlier. “Lunch?”, Ali suggested. We walked up a broad, tree-lined avenue, past a succession of dental surgeons’ offices, to an Afghan restaurant. 

No tickets were to be had for next day’s flight. With more rain and cloud forecast for Skardu, we consoled ourselves it probably wouldn’t go anyway. It did. As we settled in for the evening with books and podcasts, Ali messaged us there was a chance of tickets for an early flight the following morning. We zipped the duffels shut, set the alarm for just after six, and went to sleep full of hope. 

In the morning, after grabbing some toast and black tea, we hauled the bags out in front of the guesthouse. The cab that’d take us to the airport was due to arrive at seven. But a quarter after the hour it hadn’t come yet; at half past it still wasn’t there. The desk clerk called me inside: “A call for you.” It was Ali: “No tickets this morning.” There was nothing for it but to drag the duffels back into the room. 


For his sins (accounts vary as to what those were) the mythical Greek king Sisyphus was doomed by the gods to laboriously roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have it trundle back down as he almost reached the top – and to repeat his labours for all eternity. Most of us regard being condemned to repeat a futile task with horror. The gods certainly chuckled, thinking this a fitting punishment for a mortal who had offended them. But not everyone saw Sisyphus’ fate thus. In Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Camus disagreed. “The struggle itself toward the summits is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” 

I expect tonight we’ll go to sleep full of hope, and tomorrow morning happily haul our duffels out again.

A small mountain of expedition duffels.
"One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

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