Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Trekking in Nepal

There’s really no descent when you fly from Pokhara to Jomsom, Nepal. You take off from 2500 feet, sail between peaks and through wind gusts up to 8500 feet and then find the runway beneath you.

Yuba and I made the flight early Thursday morning. They don’t fly into Jomson after noon because the wind is too strong. We set out on foot from the little airstrip and through the little town. I had changed from short sleeves to long because the temperature had fallen as we had climbed.

After registering with the military people carrying old guns and wearing blue fatigues we walked along the riverbed for a couple hours. When the monsoons come all the rivers flood and getting around is a hillier and more time consuming proposition.

It was always easy to choose when to have lunch because there were only settlements every hour or so. The average village would have a couple hundred residents living in brick, whitewashed houses. We found a village at the base of the mountain and Yuba directed us to a guest house/restaurant.

Yuba is 26 though he insists he is 27 because he was born in 1978. The fact that he was born in September of that year and it is currently May is irrelevant to him. If it is 2005 and you were born in 1978 then you’re 27. It’s worth pointing out that Yuba is a smart guy. He’s getting some sort of IT bachelors degree and it’s only because the school is on break that we was able to guide me for the week.

I’m paying—overpaying I’m pretty sure—$22/day for the guide, food, and accommodation. I can’t imagine Yuba is seeing more than $10/day but this seems like pretty good work. The average worker in Nepal makes about $350 a year, he told me.

Yuba is a Brahman which is one the top castes in Nepal. The caste system is quite entrenched here and though Yuba is more attracted to Mongolin girls (who look vaguely Japanese) than Brahmans he thinks it would be more trouble than it’s worth to marry one. He dated a Mongolin girl for a couple years before she decided it just wouldn’t work.

(Nepal courtship and public health aside: Unlike other developing countries Nepal doesn’t have an AIDS problem because there is virtually no pre-marital sex.)

I think of castes as class distinctions but really they’re ethnic groups, which makes it a harder system to break; you look at someone and know their place. It was interesting to see Yuba get on so well with all the people we encountered. He has friends from various castes, he told me, but he’s not able to bring people from the low castes home where his parents live. In a country where the average worker makes about 1% of the average American income they still have that level of economic/racial discrimination. I don’t know what the lesson is in that, but there is one I’m sure.

Anyway, after lunch the real work began. We would climb up to Muktinath (12,500 feet) for the best Himalayan views of our trek. As we trudged up hill we were joined by two women who had been on our flight. The only way to get around here is to walk so there were lots of people “commuting” between villages. The one in the flowing blue outfit was 18 and the one in red was 16, if you could believe anything they said, which was debatable. They were a cheeky pair, Yuba told me later. They talked dirty to him but he couldn’t translate exactly what they’d said because of his limited English and tendency to giggle when explaining the conversation. They asked me why I hadn’t come with my girlfriend.

When we reached their village the girls invited us in for some tea. I’ve drunk more tea in a week in Nepal than during the rest of my life. I probably have four cups a day on average. Yuba and I kept climbing after the tea and I was huffing and puffing a bit. It wasn’t any worse than a good hard run. I was carrying about 25 pounds of gear, which I think was the heaviest pack I saw shouldered by anyone who wasn’t being paid or fed an oat bag for their labor.

Around 11,000 feet we ran into some women washing dishes in a stream. They spoke to Yuba and next thing I knew we were heading into one of their huts. They were holding their annual “Mother’s Committee” event and they invited us in. There were 25 middle-aged and older women sitting along the walls of the small room. They offered us some oat brandy which they had clearly been sampling themselves for the better part of the day. Yuba brought out his flute and played a couple tunes and the women got up and danced and clapped and sang. I was invited to dance with them and in a rare moment of choosing self-respect over a good piece of video, I declined.

Some time when you’re out with my friend Katie, who used to live in Denver and now lives in New York, ask her about the varying effects of alcohol at different elevations. She’ll tell you about the great quantities a Coloradoan can drink at sea level and how easy it is to get drunk when you’re a mile high, etc etc. After she explains all this, you can tell her the story of how I drank two glasses of Nepalese moonshine at 11,000 feet and then endeavored to climb another 1500 vertical feet.

Yuba doesn’t generally drink and he was pretty well hammered when we left the hut. He’s a giggly drunk and was good company. What I felt as we marched upwards was a rhythmic throbbing in my temples, seemingly in time with my pulse. It was no use resting because the pain was worst when we started up again so I tried to fight through it and get to the damn guesthouse.

We made it there and I was quite sore and weary. I’ll go ahead and admit at this point that the Jomsom trail is known as one of the easier Himalayan treks. “It’s good for old people, not young people like you,” a friendly Pokharian told me when I returned.

It was too cold and my head hurt too much to do much sleeping and in the morning I staggered out of bed to watch the sun rise over the mountains. My head hurt a lot. Yuba dragged me up to some super-holy Buddhist/Hindu temple where a sign described the symptoms of altitude sickness. At least then I knew the cause of my intense headache and nausea.

We walked back down to Jomsom and my headache went away. Going from 2500 to 12,500 feet in one afternoon had been a poor idea. Doing it with a belly full of oat brandy hadn’t helped much.

On the second night, back in Jomsom, I tried to call home to wish my mom a happy birthday. The call was 190 rupees ($2.70) a minute. By comparison, one of the guesthouses we stayed at offered dorm beds for $.50 a night. If we’re really looking for perspective, I could point out that a two-hour call would cost an average worker a year’s pay. All these figures turned out to be irrelevant though because the woman with the phone couldn’t get through on any of her 50 or 60 attempts. I was able to get through the next morning and the four minutes were worth all $11, I’m sure.

Yuba and I spent the next four days walking back down to where we had started. It had taken 30 minutes to fly from Pokhara to Jomson and it took six days walking and five hours in a miserable bus to get back.

In New Zealand everyone loves to tell you how there are ten times as many sheep as people. I haven’t seen any statistics like that here, but we definitely saw a lot more donkeys than humans during our week. They carry food and supplies from place to place since that’s the only way to transport stuff. If you want to know how far our culture has permeated the world, consider this: On a hillside in Nepal where the only way to get anything anywhere is on the back of a donkey, they guy directing the donkeys is wearing a Cleveland Indians baseball hat. There is no escape from America.

There are no actual Americans here though. Since 2001 the number of American tourists has plummeted (actually since late ’01 the overall number of visitors to Nepal has been cut roughly in half). The main groups here now are English, Australian, German, French, Japanese, and Korean. Also—like Swedes in Thailand—there is a totally disproportionate number of Israelis here.

On the trail and in the guesthouses these last six days Yuba and I saw few of any of them. There were the donkeys and the girls in the brightly colored outfits, there were the women washing dishes in the river and the guards with their heavy wooden rifles, there was the man walking down from Muktinath barefoot. Yuba gave him his sandals. “I saw a list of the poorest countries of the world,” Yuba told me. “Nepal wasn’t at the bottom, but it was close to the bottom, just a few countries were below us. But that isn’t right. Nepal isn’t poor. The government is poor but the people aren’t. Everyone here has a home and has food to eat. We’re okay.”


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