SO FAR, I HAVE BEEN CARRYING a bamboo basket and tumpline for roughly three-quarters of a mile in Nepal and already the locals' responses are falling into a tidy pattern.
My three fellow porters and I approach a stone hamlet at the back of our string of clients, eight Chinese yuppies from Shanghai, and instantly one of the country's ubiquitous semi-feral children spots me—the freakishly huge queri sweating, grunting, and wincing under the weight of 13 pounds of his own clothes.
"Look! Here comes White Eyes carrying a dhoko!" he yells, and skips ahead to tell everyone the circus has arrived.
Wrinkles of joy crease the foreheads of old women bundled in crimson shawls. Lazy men slurping milk tea chuckle and ask one another, "Is it his own stuff?" and "Where's he coming from?" before one of them reaches way back into the dustiest corner of his memory and finds enough grade-school English to shout, "Good! Good! How many kilos?"
When I respond in Nepali, "Why are you laughing? What's so funny?" everyone breaks into fresh laughter and the questions really fly, beginning with, "Why are you carrying your backpack in a basket?"
"It isn't mine; it's the tourists' backpack," I lie, pointing to the Chinese.
Then the wittier men respond: "Ahh, the tourist is carrying bags for the tourist—a good match!" or "How much do foreigners charge?" I smile and fumble to adjust the head strap that has slipped, painfully and embarrassingly, over my ear while my fellow porters trot on effortlessly under nearly quadruple the weight.
It will be this way for five days. The trip the Chinese have planned, the classic Ghandruk Circuit "teahouse trek," starts at the village of Phedi, hits Dhampus, Ghandruk, and Ghorepani, and exits at Nayapul, tracing a scenic horseshoe at the foot of the 8,000-meter Annapurna and Dhaulagiri massifs. Most days we'll climb only about 3,000 feet, shuffle just five miles through a bit of snow, and stay in the established, electrified lodges that tourists call teahouses and porters call hotels. Max elevation: a comfortable 9,800 feet. Meals can be purchased everywhere. Each hotel has a porter's bunkroom, usually in the dank basement or near the outhouse pit toilet. It is the cushiest full-blown trek a porter can hope to score. But locals' flattering jokes aside, it is already glaringly apparent that this will not be easy.