Notes from Nepal: a Trek, a Reticent Guide, and a Lesson Learned.
It was only the third day and I was ready to quit. Trekking the Annapurna Circuit had lived up to the hype. Each mountainous bend unfurled to lush terraced rice fields, gnarled and foggy thickets and, of course, the unbelievable expanse of the Himalayas. In late August, Nepal becomes increasingly dry, which marks the start of hiking season. Yet less welcome surprises were wearing me down, chief among them were bed leeches and a reticent guide.
If actions speak louder than words, Shiva might well have been screaming. He maintained his distance and affirmed it was intentional when he shot back scant glances to see if Michael, my traveling companion, and I were keeping pace. It was only on short breaks after near vertical climbs that we had the chance to ask about the trail. If he answered, his responses mirrored our breath – sharp and quick.
Just moments past our last incline of the day, we were walking into dusk. After seven hours, Ulleri, our start for the day, was ten miles behind and 6,430 feet below us. My stomach’s empty churn was keenly aware of that fact – it eagerly anticipated dal bhat.
Dal bhat is a Nepalese plant-based fuel made of lentils and rice that provides the carbs, protein, and fiber a climber needs in strenuous environments. This dish has its roots in the Himalayas and is basically the food option in teahouses. Spicy lentils are so near and dear to trekkers’ hearts that trail difficulty is measured in servings of dal bhat. A 5 dal bhat day is most arduous.
As we waited for our 2 dal bhats each, I noticed Shiva, cross-legged on a bench, with his shoulder angled slightly away from me. In hopes of engaging him, I asked if he’d like to eat with us, or just simply to join us to talk and get to know each other. He uneasily shifted his knees up and down and remained affixed to his phone, unable to join or look me in the eyes. I wasn’t offended, but confused. As I walked back up the stairs to the deck alone, I began rethinking everything I’d said during the day. But our conversation had been minimal, so I wrote it off as something cultural – maybe I wasn’t supposed to mingle with the guide?
The next day we broke for Ghorepani just after sunrise. I was still slightly bothered by the night before, but I ultimately decided this was not the time to be so inward – a rare act for me. Proud of my choice to focus on tangible surroundings as opposed to the intangible, potentially more delicate feelings, I forgot the minor torment, and turned my attention to the awe-inspiring landscape.
As I moved away from our guide’s unease, my attention was lifted to the rising ochre rays that radiated across Annapurna South’s peak. It reminded me why I chose this trek: every day the views get better. The calm that I absorbed from those magnificent jagged rocks thawed my annoyance, and helped me forget our guide’s cold demeanor.
We plodded over 4,000 feet of Nepali flat, a term implying the terrain has hills but isn’t considered to have a daunting elevation gain, and reached the next teahouse around 1pm. Though it was early, the moody skies convinced us we would hit inclement weather, so we took the afternoon to rest.
I was frustrated with Shiva, and cranky from the wet, chilly air that sunk into my bones. When I got to the room, I made a beeline for the comforter. As I pressed my hands into the blanket, they squished into the mildewed mess. And when I unfurled the mossy cotton to soak in some soggy warmth, it splattered out a red-spotted leech, waving a floppy hello. Though my letdown remained internal, I wasted no time jettisoning the stowaway and shuffling back downstairs to escape my damp digs and sulk more over dal bhat.
The only warmth in the room emanated from a large metal saucer holding hot coals. I sat as close as possible without risking burning my clothes, and nudged lentil-soaked rice across my tin plate. My memories of the day were overrun by my melancholy for Shiva.
It’s just that Shiva’s dislike for Michael and me was baffling. We’d given him no reason to resolutely issue us the cold shoulder. I didn’t complain when we pattered over landslides, gingerly stepped on a pockmarked bridge lain over unnerving, pinballing waves. We were even a day ahead of schedule, which gave Shiva plenty of time away from us.
There was also this moment on the trail when we caught up to two young porters. They carried nearly 100 pounds of rice, yet managed to juggle live chickens in white plastic tote bags that had tiny beaks and feet poking out.
The young carriers held the portable coops with thin fingers and lean, sinewy forearms. Shiva greeted them warmly; he gently patted them on the back and squeezed one of their necks. If I’d seen a picture of only the three men’s limbs, I’d assume they were of different generations within the same family. His incredibly warm exchange with some Nepalese strangers left me a little hurt. Then his hostile body language had me suppose Shiva didn’t like us just because, a maddening yet unchallengeable excuse.
We met Tanya, a Ukrainian mathematician and fellow trekker with fringe bangs, at our stop for the night. Michael and Tanya pulled me out of my inner pep talk to play cards. Tanya was so eager to teach us Durak, a card game better known as Idiot, but through her excitement and broken English something was lost in translation. So with every card thrown, I was more confused and less distracted from my considerations to not finish the trek.
“Do you want to learn a Nepalese game?” I’d heard that voice only a couple times in the past three days, so I didn’t want to get my hopes up in case it was our near-mute guide. To my intrigue, when I looked up I watched Shiva anticipating a response from me, or anyone, at the table. I’d been so preoccupied masking my deserter tendencies that I’d paid little mind to him sitting just a bench away, detached from his phone.
He rolled up his short sleeve; his two-toned skin was a badge of the amount of time spent outside. Then he began small, smooth loops to deal the cards, and simultaneously explained the rules. I caught the name of the game, Dumbal, but was so stunned he was talking and within ten feet of me, that I barely comprehended the objective. As I gazed on, I saw Shiva’s slow smile stretch across his face, it was intentional, like he was considering your words before answering or not. And his responses were never rude, unpolished and choppy maybe, but commendable for someone who’d learned English purely on treks. And round after round I watched Shiva’s cards fall in subtle, but overt ways, and I started to understand not only Dumbal, but Shiva, too.
The next night I was determined to find out more about Shiva. Ignoring his previous social cues, Michael and I plopped down alongside him and offered a glass of raksi, a fiery grain alcohol made from rice or millet usually produced at home, something I heard him mention he liked. Raksi is normally reserved for celebrations, but sharing a drink with Shiva and not simply in his vicinity, seemed as good a ceremony as any.
At first his words were slow and deliberate, but with every sip he gained momentum. His hands remained clasped and on the table as he spoke of his childhood village near Everest base camp. His hand only left the other when he flicked it to the side, gesturing to the Himalayas that have always been his backyard. Shiva left the village, but kept close to his mountains and started work as a porter. Suddenly his warm exchange with the young carriers made sense – he knew their struggles well.
Shiva’s small, yet muscular frame shrunk slightly when he spoke of his parents, avid agriculturalists and devout Hindus from the Brahmin caste, the highest in the caste system. Notably Brahmins are not allowed to socialize with anyone outside of their caste, leading Shiva to spend much of his time alone in the mountains. And his sheepish gaze up from his hunched position told me that his religious and isolated background gifted him a reserved nature, something he claimed to be working against.
Caution left his easy, straight smile when he spoke of his generation, the new generation as he called it. They were shedding caste rules and adopting a more lenient path. He lifted his glass and pointed it toward us, sloshing the liquid just over the side, and emphasized that he clearly drank and often socialized with the non-Brahmin class. Not to mention he gave his son and daughter the choice to practice Hinduism, which was unheard of in Nepal just fifteen years ago. As the raksi sunk in, the chill in my bones finally dissipated. And as I looked at Shiva, I just couldn’t help but be blown away by his desire to change his culture’s customs, and I was ashamed at how stuck I was in mine. Shiva gently set his glass on the table, careful not to make a sound, and peered behind him at the few village lights embedded in the mountains.
It’s easy to assume the worst when confronted with something different. Often a sign of hostility means the exact opposite. Since the trek, I’ve been confronted with many cultural norms. Yet instead of my previous knee-jerk reaction to condemn something foreign, I’ve tried to melt into new cultures, forming new aspects of my behavior. I admire that Shiva is creating a new path for himself and his family daily and, though I was ready to label his demeanor offensive, I didn’t realize how easy it is to confuse social discomfort for dislike.
Since the trek, Michael and I have stayed in touch with Shiva. Our raksi-laden night dissolved our barriers and gave way to a friendship and new perspectives that I will never take for granted. Also, we still play Dumbal.