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.
As we exit town, Kharkhar, a veteran porter who has begun sharing his favorite penis jokes, stops walking so that he can turn to face me. He looks serious. Gone is the big smile revealing a jumbled rampart of tobacco-flecked chompers.
"Eric, little brother, tonight we'll stay in the same place. You're alone. I'm your friend. We'll stay together, OK?"
I'm flush with happiness. Not only because he's invited me to sleep in the porter's bunkroom, offering symbolic entrée into the generally hidden life of the world's toughest load carriers, but because if a Nepali porter says he's your friend, then he's your friend. And if I'm going to increase my load—day by day, pack by pack, to a moderately respectable 60 pounds—I have the feeling I will really need a friend.
I'VE WONDERED WHAT it's like to be a porter since I first misspelled Kathmandu. Ten years ago, while living and studying in Nepal, I escaped that urban ashtray for a month and lived in Simigaon, a steeply terraced farming village one valley over from Everest, where most of the men were, or had been, trekking porters. The way they described it, portering was one big party, hardly work a lighthearted affair that bordered on "happy peasant" cliché. Could that be true? I wanted to find out by working with porters as a porter except for that small detail of carrying heavy things.
A dhoko-naamlo isn't fun. It's an ancient tradition from a simpler, more Hobbesian time. The dhoko, a cone-shaped basket with a flat bottom, is woven out of bamboo slats to be roughly as tall as your torso. The naamlo, or tumpline, is a section of rope with a three-inch-wide head strap, generally cut from a flour or rice sack. Wrap the naamlo around the back side of the dhoko; position it just in front of the crown of your head; insert anvil collection.
Aside from the fact that you can get one for roughly a dollar in any Nepali village, the dhoko-naamlo's main virtue is that it allows one to carry backbreaking amounts of gear. In treks like ours, 25 kilograms, or 55 pounds, is the minimum any porter will carry. Twelve-year-olds routinely carry 20 pounds between villages, and in an exhaustive 1999 study of 635 porters, the average weight was 160 pounds. A trekking porter earns between $3.50 and $6 per day and the equivalent of a day's wages in tips per week assuming he gets them. According to Porters' Progress, a fledgling cooperative based in Kathmandu, guides frequently steal their porters' tips. Despite this, almost every Nepali ethnic group works as trekking porters: Sherpa, Tamang, Magar, even the Tharu, whose home in the 300-foot-high lowlands certainly gives them no historical or biological advantage. I would be the first porter I knew of from Weak Rich Westerner caste.
My longtime buddies at Sherpa's Adventurers, a Nepali restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, loved the idea. They offered an exhaustive list of contacts in Solu-Khumbu (the Everest region), my notes filling with the names of a dozen folks three Nima Sherpas, two Ang Tsering Sherpas, two Pasang Sherpas and walking directions. I set off this past February with light spirits and 50 pounds' worth of sneakers, jackets, and watches to deliver to their families.
Finding a job wasn't quite so easy. I arrived in Kathmandu to discover that Prachanda, leader of the 11-year-old Maoist insurgency, had come out of hiding to make a public appearance at a fiery rally downtown, foreshadowing the local strikes that would cramp travel in the coming weeks. Tourism has already declined so steeply since the rebellion by 70 percent at its nadir that only a rare porter finds three months of work per year. To make matters worse, peak season wouldn't start for two weeks. And then a cold snap hit, canceling mountain flights to Solu-Khumbu.
Striking out in Kathmandu, I rerouted to Pokharaa, low-lying launch pad for Annapurna treks. But interviewing blind at the 100-odd trekking agencies there left me jobless and down in the mouth, thinking I should just give up and carry baskets of rocks at the local quarry for 14 cents a load. Roughly a week later, however, dumb luck found me chatting with the Chinese. I began pleading my case just as they were getting ready to start their trek.
I introduced myself to the group's guide, Shiva, and then my fellow porters: Kharkhar Chantel, 43 years old and wearing a CarQuest baseball cap; Gopal Rai, 35, wearing Gold Star vinyl sneakers and one layer of thin fleece, head to toe; and Hari Rai, 18, in cotton cargo pants and hoodie. I gave them a respectful namaskaar and declared that I would soon carry one of their 60-pound loads on my forehead.
They smiled and namaskaar'd back.
THAT NIGHT, WE SEAT OURSELVES at the end of the picnic table, me facing the Hotel Greenland's Imax-size windows, framing Annapurnas II and IV breaking through the clouds for the first time all day. The Chinese "Ohhhh" in unison and scramble for their battery of digital cameras.
"What direction is that?" I ask Gopal, his back to the window.
"South," he says, not looking up from a copy of the Annapurna Post.
Gopal and Hari can read. Kharkhar, born 25 miles west of Pokharaa in an impoverished village a short walk beyond the end of the road, is illiterate. He grew up farming three fields of potato and corn with his three sisters and occasionally attending grade school, until he traded that for a one-room mud-brick house outside of downtown Pokharaa. Soon after, he began portering, and has since made some 200 treks at the foot of the Annapurna range. At some point, his wife divorced him.
"She wanted money, a car," he explains.
"And his penis didn't work," Gopal interjects dryly.
"Yes, but it's a big one!" Kharkhar shoots back, giggling.
Kharkhar is serious and direct, except when a joke occurs, and then whether the topic is women, men's "bananas," marriage, or another of his favorite themes it instantly delights him and he's the first to laugh.
Gopal, by contrast, is like Silent Bob. He will go hours without saying anything, and then toss in a witty joke, which he will grin big about but never laugh at. Only his two sisters are still alive. His mother and father died, as did his nine older brothers of what, he doesn't know. "They were all suffering with some sickness, we did pujaas, and they died anyway," he says matter-of-factly. He was born in Khotang District, below Solu-Khumbu, studied up to grade five, and has been a porter for 13 years.
During the school year, Hari studies management at Tribhuvan University, in Pokharaa, but he plans to return home to Solu-Khumbu when he's done in three years. "I'll farm and teach and maybe in a couple years there will be a rural development project that I can work on," he says. "I miss my family."
The one thing we have in common, we discover that night, shivering on our large shared bed in the bunkhouse, is that we are all single males. Kharkhar switches on the bare bulb and rolls over to show off his new (cheap) black plastic wraparound, mirrored-lens sunglasses.
"Are those for the snow?" I ask.
"They're for sleeping," he says, turning to me with a devilish grin. "Tonight, a sexy, sexy man is coming for you."
Hari pipes in with the high-pitched voice of a woman: "Oh, rich tourist, marry one of my beautiful brothers!"
Already, the trip is taking on the dynamic of a bachelor party. Crossed with a forced march.
AT 7:30 A.M., THE CHINESE have lifted their cameras, so we go!
Hari hoists a 3,700-cubic-inch Lowe Alpine, fully packed, then throws a bigger blue pack on top, resting crosswise between his head and shoulders. Gopal slides the naamlo over his forehead and, from a squat, lifts his basket full of three full-size packs. Kharkhar grabs three seemingly brand-new packs lashed together with cord and carries them with a naamlo, shoulder straps and waist belt flapping. I shimmy into position. Today, I am heinously burdened with the entire personal belongings of Shiva (small pack), Kharkhar (wool hat and a neon ski jacket that was warm and waterproof 20 years ago), Hari (extra sweater), and Gopal (not so much as a booger).
The Chinese spur us away from Hotel Greenland, but as soon as we're on the trail, Kharkhar says, "Bistaarai jaanus" ("Go slowly") and we drop off the back, stopping briefly about every 15 minutes at the trailside benches, called chautaraas, as will be our habit. This slow, efficient pace is kind of bothersome. I'm used to walking like the Chinese briskly, then not at all during yummy snacktime and I can't get the hang of the basket. It lists to the left after each fresh start, causing the sternocleidomastoid muscles stretching from my ear to my shoulder to tense like cables. Once off kilter, it slips farther.
Kharkhar, Gopal, and Hari have no such problems. We plod along toward Ghandruk, six and a half miles away. Our heads constantly bowed, the darkening light and background noise of chirping birds make me think we've entered a forest. As we walk, my only view is what is right in front of my feet: a slate path that gives way to mossy roots and dirt speckled with crushed fern. Just before lunch, I see a shiny chewing-gum wrapper. The Himalayas are truly breathtaking.
Kharkhar asks how I'm doing. I wiggle my head from side to side to signal "OK," and my neck cracks.
At 2:30, the Chinese are beginning to bonk, and we stop in Landruk well behind schedule. Guide Shiva informs them that they must decide if they want to stick to the original plan, descending 1,000 feet to the Modi River, directly below, and climbing 2,100 feet of stairs to Ghandruk. The discussion carries the gravity of one made at the Hillary Step. Cowboy borrows Shiva's photocopied map, gathers the six women in a semicircle forum, and hails Mountain on his red Motorola walkie-talkie. Watches are checked. Questions are asked. It seems to come down to hot showers.
Fifteen minutes of democratic squawking later, Cowboy turns to Shiva and says, "We decide to go to Ghandruk." They race off.
Kharkhar, not surprised, says, "Yup, they're going to Ghandruk."
Hari, staring across the valley, says, "We won't make it till seven tonight."
Then, the only words Gopal says all day: "It's very far."
None of this is said with acrimony. There's a tinge of bafflement as in, "How do the Chinese, tired as they already are, expect to make it?" and a note of foreboding as in, "Oh, boy, we're not gonna eat daal bhaat until late" but overall, the comments are issued in an even timbre.
We push off. "Don't descend too fast or your balls will sag," Kharkhar advises.
FAR ON THE OTHER SIDE of the lonely, cement-walled dining room of our Soviet-style monstrosity, Hotel Manisha, the Chinese are whupped, cradling their heads on the palms of their hands, while we partake of a warm pot of home-brewed rice wine that tastes more like kerosene than sake. "Here, take this," says Kharkhar, refilling my eight-ounce glass. "Raksi gives good power. It's mountain medicine."
"Don't drink too much or your basket tips," Gopal cautions, drunk.
We wait wait wait, drink drink drink. Porters always eat last, and by the time the Chinese are done forking à la carte, I'm tipsy and famished. We haven't eaten in eight hours. When our turn finally comes, I scarf as much as the guys: two cups of watery lentils, three handfuls of curried vegetables, and 64 metric tons of rice, all of which is consumed with piggish glee. It's enough to make the requisite "daal bhaat baby" in my belly. Out of nowhere, Kharkhar says, "In Nepal, the mountains and the roads and the government and the hotels are always the same. Only the people change. We are glad to have you."
The next morning, it's the sober Chinese who look hungover. Dragging ass worse than ever, they stretch four miles through a strafed rhododendron forest into an all-day affair. Even worse, the basest local etiquette escapes them: They pass to the right of Buddhist chortens, point, fail to receive tea and meals with two hands, haggle over the price of set-rate hotels, encourage begging by giving children pens and candy, touch Nepalis on the head, and flaunt their wealth. Prada, concerned that Hari might develop dry skin, gives him a pressurized blast in the face with an Evian mister that cost more than he will earn all day carrying it. He smiles through a cringe.
I, for my part, should increase the weight in my dhoko-naamlo, but my neck says, No, that can wait.
When we arrive at Tadapani, it's covered in three feet of new snow. Kharkhar, Gopal, Hari, and I grab a seat with the dozens of other porters trying to warm their soggy sneakers and socks at an outdoor fire. Soon Shiva shows up, literally dragging a sobbing Red Jacket through the stinging fog. He has short-roped her all afternoon.
Prada approaches us: "Excuse me, Hari."
Hari swivels around. She knows my name?
It turns out Red Jacket is "sick" with a headache, and Prada would like Hari to carry her tomorrow. How this would work is hard to picture (anti-gravity belt?), and Hari demurs as best he can. But Prada has anticipated this.
"I have a rope for you to ..." She makes the motion of tying a sling.
"We can try," Hari says, and sits back down after she leaves. The porters resume their conversation nothing but a crazy client and I ask Hari, "Could you really carry her?"
"No, I don't think so," he says.
KHARKHAR SEEMS happy as we set off the next morning down what looks like a cliff-face sluiceway. "Oh, it's slippery, sir. Yup, definitely slippery. I think we need to walk over here, sir," he rattles on jovially.
"Sir? What happened to 'little brother?'" I ask.
Kharkhar swears the change was unintentional.
My lips about to bleed from sunburn, I buy a tin of balm with three miles and some 1,500 feet upvalley remaining. The shopkeeper smiles and asks whether, instead of doing the legitimate work of portering, I'm carrying a basket of oranges to all the girls in the mountains. "You're a pretty girl," Kharkhar teases as I spread the goop on like lipstick.
"Ohhh, Gopal brother," I say, "give me one of your bags."
With the additional 20 pounds, some 45 total, I can't lift my basket from a sitting position. Ten minutes later, I have an ice cream headache that will last all day, and five minutes after that, slipping and sliding every third step, I'm not sure I can go on.
"Ohhh, Gopal brother, stop for a quick rest?"
"Just there," he utters from behind, "over that little hill."
I have yet to see him refuse a rest.
We slowly ascend 40 40! more minutes without stopping, the naamlo piano wire threatening to slice my cranium in two. My calves are punched, popped, and when we finally rest, icy sweat slathers my back. Gopal and Kharkhar haven't even doffed their fleeces.
I get up first. All right, boys, I think, I'm going! But of course they're right on my heels. I try to hold some of the weight with my arms, and do for a while, but, cocked at such an acute angle, my elbows feel like they're going to explode. I'm tempted to lean forward and tuck my head, in hopes that the basket will rest on my back, but this only crimps my esophagus and leads to asthmatic wheezing. With each step I grow not sullen, not whiny, but downright angry. We catch two of the Chinese. When they don't notice I'm carrying their stuff, I want to yell, "Hey, I'm carrying your goddamn electric toothbrushes!"
A couple of minutes from lunch, we pass a group of porters coming the other direction, and, far from the jokey cries of village children and lazy men, they are silent. Stunned silent, I like to think.
"He's ours," Gopal says, and while he's still joking they've got the rich white guy carrying their loads! I can also tell they're proud. And this makes me proud.
Not that I fancy myself anything other than a crazy tourist who has made some good friends. I could probably train to carry heavy loads like them, could learn how to suffer well by suffering often, but by then, there's no way I'd still be cracking penis jokes. I'd be bitter. Shivering through the night, waiting for a late meal, huffing up the trail, pandering to spoiled clients the indignity would drive me nuts. Just to be a good dude while acting as a human mule requires some sort of nobility of spirit that I'm not sure I possess.
AT 5:30 P.M. on our last day, dusk falling, we reach the trail end to discover that there's another transportation strike on. The Chinese find taxis willing to cross the picket lines and take them back to the big city for at least five times the normal price, but there's no space for the rest of us, and the Chinese don't offer to pay for another. Instead, they give Shiva an extra dollar or so for each porter for lodging, thank him profusely, and hand over $120.87 to the taxi drivers with their shit-eating grins. They have just paid more than Kharkhar's yearly rent to reach hot showers tonight.
But wait, maybe the tips were good.
"So, how were they?" I ask.
"Two hundred fifty rupees," Kharkhar says the equivalent of $3.78.
I don't get it. Two hundred fifty rupees per person per day?
"Two hundred fifty rupees per person total."
"It's good? It's not good?" Kharkhar asks, genuinely curious.
"It's terrible!" I yell in English, my Nepali momentarily gone.
"Sometimes 1,000, sometimes one, sometimes none," he says. "You never know."
"That's terrible!" I scream again, throwing my hands toward the ground.
He looks at me, unflustered, and says something so ingrained he can speak the words in English: "It's our duty."