When I climbed my first mountain this past November, we hired a guide. Our trek was fairly short, and everything we had fit into a normal size backpack, so there was no need for a porter to carry all our stuff. We didn't even bring sleeping bags, because our guide, Tan, assured us he would set us up with plush blankets at every teahouse stop (which he did). He, and my partner, held my hand at various times to help me keep pace with the two of then. I dripped sweat after making my way up the steepest incline I ever climbed. “Why aren't you sweating,” I asked Tan.
“I'm a mountain boy. This is nothing.”
We shared stories. He was baffled that I, as an old woman at 27, did not have family and kids on my mind. I was baffled by how he worked his way up the career ladder as a trekking guide in Nepal so quickly. He told me,” It's because I practice my English and French. At home, at school, on the radio. I listen and pick up on English very good.”
He wore a blue sports shirt, simple hiking shoes, and a sports pant. He'd make phone calls when he had reception to his wife, a student, who I saw one time; she waved to us from her balcony when Tan ran up to say hi on our way back to the hotel.
As I sat on my ass, watching the other climbers pass me during one of my gazillion breaks, I noticed porters in flip flops scurrying along slippery trails with 40 kilos on their back. They rushed to their destinations, needing to arrive there prior to the person whose luggage they hauled. “I did that only twice, because I could speak English. Third time I was guide.”
This was his eleventh trek this tourist season, and not his first year. He had done the Annapurna trek, but never made it up to Everest. He wore flip flops on his first gig as a porter. With that money, he bought shoes. Now he spends money on his wife, as she finishes her studies at the university in history, and they try to get pregnant.
He's quite aware of how much he benefits from his additional language skills, commenting on how he's seen several of these porters tens of times on these treks. They often get sick or hurt, not equipped with the same clothing and equipment as the tourist they porter for. When tourists get sick or hurt, they are often airlifted out of there. The Nepali do not. They can't afford the $10,000 minimum fee, nor have a credit card to cover it, nor the insurance. They'll have to find their own way back alone, sick, or hurt. As tourist, we often forget to see and to listen to the ones who care for us while we're on our trek.
Sixteen Nepali mountaineers were killed last Friday, April 18. Rumors of compensation have started at $660 and up. National Geographic clarified those rumors today in an article that “Compensation for the families of the dead Sherpas was raised this year, from 400,000 rupees ($4,000 U.S.) to 1 million ($10,300 U.S.). Most of the families will use this money, and more, to pay for a funeral, or puja (a Hindu word for devotion). Elaborate pujas, with many lamas paid to pray for the soul of the deceased, are a sign of status in Nepali culture.”
Whatever the amount of money is, mountaineering practices in Nepal have little incentive to change. Tourist season has a few weeks left until next season which begins in September/October. Till then, families will do what they have always done: they will get by on what little they have until they can get a little more.
Now, here's a picture of Tan going above his duty and pushing my partner on a Nepali style swing.