Monday, October 25, 2004

seventh night of the trek

Today I write by the light of my headlamp, with the sound of the Nepalis playing guitar around the wood fire in the Kitchen, here at Tatopani. At 9:00PM, it's already past time for the trekkers to go to bed. Up until a few minutes ago, we were in the dining room talking with the other guests, but then one of the employees came in and was clearly closing up. Not until today, our seventh day, have we met the Maoists - more on that later.

Two days ago, we made it to ABC. At 4130 meters, it was our goal and our accomplishment. From 900 meters to 4130, with plenty of 500 meter down-the-valley-up-the-valley's in between. The night before getting to ABC, we stayed at Deurali, where I last wrote. At 3230 meters, we ascended 900 meters in the last day, exceeding the Lonely Planet's maximum per-day rate of 500 meters over 3000. The road from Deurali to ABC was surprisingly gradual. The whole day was above tree-line, but not a difficult grade. We made it to ABC around 2:00PM, with clouds surrounding us. Not until after lunch and right before dinner - spending time with Erica from Canada and the four Germans - did we see where we were. When the sun went down, the clouds cleared and we saw it all - 360 degrees of incredible mountains. Annapurna 1 at over 8000 meters, Macchupuchare, Annapurna South, and on. When we arrived, climbing up the 40 last steps that precede ABC, I said "I can't believe I ate the whole thing", and we went out to the ridge where the moraine lay below, covered in the small stones the glaciers had eroded, at the tombstone of a Russian mountaineer who died in 1997 on Annapurna. That view over the moraine was breathtaking itself - so expansive, it was completely humbling.

That evening, sleep was hard to get, and what happened around the dinner table is a little hazy. I learned cribbage, that I remember. At about 9:00PM, a Nepali guide asked us to go to bed. He said that with a full guest house, the porters and guides would sleep in the dining room, and they were about to go to bed. But it being the most important day of Dasain, when us foreigners left, the Nepalis celebrated into the night before finally going to sleep. Earlier, Shiva bought a small 250mL bottle of rum and asked us to celebrate with him. We obliged, and we had that good nepali rum made from local sugar cane with hot water. We gave Shiva a gift of our four snickers bars for the holiday - it was all we had to give. I think he may have saved them for his kids.

In the morning, we got up at 5:30 to see the sunrise over all the mountains. It was -10C before dawn but we put on all the clothes we had and went out to see it. Like the night before, when they were lit only by the almost-full moon, the mountains were amazing and cloudless, dwarfing us. We took breakfast and spoke to a Japanese man whose group was going on to 5700m, where they would make their own camps, over the moraine and up onto the mountain. Our ascent was done though, and it was well worth it. We said goodbye to Erica and the Germans who left at 8:00AM, and we ourselves went down at 9:00AM. Before that, around 7:30, I took a picture of the four Germans together in front of the "Annapurna Base Camp, 4130m" sign, mustering my entire knowledge of German, I counted "ein, svine, dri" - Ewan and I took photos of each other with his hand-held GPS, reading 4130m shortly after.

That day, yesterday, we descended 6000 ft., almost 2000m, to Bamboo. They said that "down is down, and that's easier than up", but going down is not a walk in the park. By the end of that long day, we arrived in Bamboo after 2 hours of rain - me finding that the pain in my left foot was a blister underneath my middle left toenail. I didn't know you could get a blister under a toe nail, but I'd never walked down 6000 feet in a day before, accelerating and abruptly halting the toes each step inside the boots.

That night in Bamboo, we were exhausted, but met at the guest house's dining room table a British and Canadian girl, as well as a couple from Amsterdam. Little had I expected to meet the most intrepid couple I'd ever known that night. This Dutch couple, maybe 50 years old, told us about how their trek had gone, and we asked more about what they do. She teaches Dutch to refugees, and he translates English literature into Dutch. They take concurrent sabbaticals every 5 years. This year, they've traveled to Nepal and will go on to Southeast Asia, for a total of 6 months. Their last sabbatical, they crossed the Atlantic in their 32 foot sailboat, just the 2 of them. They told us about the 28 days between the Canaries and the Caribbean, and how in the middle of the Atlantic, the choice presents itself between Rio, the Caribbean islands, or the eastern seaboard of America, each 5 degrees or so apart in heading. It's a world of choices in the middle of the ocean, each an adventure.

Then this morning, we left Bamboo at 8:00 for a long day of walking. We made it to Chomrong by 12:00 for lunch, right before which there was a walk down 500 meters to a river, only to have to ascend 500 meters immediately after. At 200m up on the ascending side, we took a break, only for me to sit down and hear my shorts rip. Great. A small tear I already had, maybe an inch, went the full vertical length of the shorts there. A little disheartened at that point, with the foreboding 300m left and not much energy left, we saw a 70-year-old local lady, about 4'8", passing us. Shiva had just the right solution. He walked to a nearby house and bought a cucumber from the woman who was outside there, and cut it into five for us. She also brought out a plate of bamboo pickled with mustard and soy beans. The cucumber was enormous - at least 4" in diameter and a foot long. We each had a piece - Shiva, Ewan, Nini, and I, and the 5th piece went to the group of 3 young children the woman had. It was delicious, and Shiva cut his part into 3 when two porters, carrying enormous hockey-sized bags for a French group, stopped.

Once in Chomrong, we sat down, exhausted, for lunch and it immediately began to rain. Good timing we thought, and enjoyed lunch, complete with a 250mL bottle of coke - the first we'd had since leaving for the trek. But it turned out to continue raining, and as we set out for the 2.5 hours to our goal, Tatopani, we had our raincoats in hand and had learned from some other trekkers at the restaurant that Maoists were collecting tolls, just 10 minutes further on the route we were taking. They described the head of this Maoists group as having thick round glasses, and wearing a black East-Asian style suit.

Knowing that the Maoists likely awaited us, we set out. Shortly after, I was walking with Ewan past a set of houses and shops. He remarked that the men ahead of us may be the Maoists, and I said "I don't thing so". They were dressed like any Nepali civilian and stood alongside the road. When we approached, they told us to stop in English and handed the two of us pamphlets. We would have passed, as no one was really blocking the road, but I looked left and saw the man who matched the guys' description, sitting behind a building. We stopped and knew these men were the Maoists. The pamphlet was on the evils of the monarchy and their financier, the United States. The men did not show any weapons, and seemed calm, like they'd done this for a long time - plenty of interactions without confrontation.

Nini and Shiva soon came up behind us. We, as a group, told Shiva in Pokharah before departing that we would pay the 1200 rupee fee (~USD17) that the Maoists usually asked. We read the pamphlet and the man with the glasses asked Nini to sit down and fill out the receipt they would give us - from a carbon-copy booklet of blank receipts. Shiva spoke to them in Nepali and everything was going fine. We stood there and spoke very little ourselves. Nini, with her British accent, did all of the speaking in English. I did not want to say I was American, even though other Americans I'd met along the way reported the Maoists did not associate them with the, in their eyes, imperialistic US government. Everything was fine, and we were charged 100 rupees per day per person, for a total of 900 per person - all noted on the receipt. We got the money out and handed it to Shiva, who handed it on to the man with glasses. But more people were coming by as we were paying, and these people started making trouble.

Two people without a guide, who I thought looked American, went by. The men reached out with their pamphlets but the couple pretended not to see. The Maoists shouted for them to stop and sit down, but they continued walking on. One Maoist reached out and grabbed the man of the couple and told him to stop, but the American shook him off and continued down the path. The Maoist threw a rock near him, as if to get his attention. The American continued on and didn't pay. This made the Maoists annoyed - an annoyance that would only be heightened to anger with the next people to come by: the French.

It was the same group of French people who we'd seen earlier and whose porters we had cucumber with. Wearing the kind of short shorts guidebooks tell you not to wear trekking in Nepal, the first two went by, with the same fake obliviousness of the Americans. One of the men in short shorts grabbed the hand of the Maoist who reached at his backpack to stop him. They continued past. But there were still at least six more in their group yet to pass.

The next two French people came by with the same attitude a minute later, but the French people's guide was with these next two. Whatever the Maoists said to the guide, he responded. He dropped the French people's large backpack he was carrying, left it with the Maoists, and went running after his clients to bring them back. The Maoists were angry at that point. Shiva later recounted that what the Maoists were saying amongst themselves involved a lot of swearing and talk about what they were going to do to the people who'd passed - they were talking about whether to throw a grenade. It turns out Shiva said he saw grenades on the one guy's belt. One of the French guys returned angry, grabbed the bag his guide had left, and marched away. Nini speaks French and told us the man was saying he didn't care what his guide wanted them to pay - he wasn't paying and he'd continue on with the extra bag without his guide. That guy couldn't have carried that bag and his own for 10 miles. These French guys will go home in a week, but their guide will continue to travel these same routes for years to make his living, and the Maoists will blame him for his clients not paying. Shiva told us the Maoists may hurt him, or want him to pay the money. The average annual income in Nepal is USD150.

We didn't stay to find out what happened with the French people - whether their guide left them to save his name or what. But I don't think the French people realized what they were putting in jeopardy. They had patches all over their backpacks bragging about all the places they'd been, but that day they were putting their guide and themselves in harm's way because of their obstinance.


Post a Comment

<< Home