10.27.2007

Trekking: Con

Innocent abroad: A tourist with a funny hat and camera, at the start of the trek.

As I indicated in the previous post, I have mixed feelings about trekking, specifically trekking with guides and porters. I went to Nepal as part of a four person group (there was supposed to be a fifth person, but there was cancellation at the last minute for medical reasons). To support this group, we had two guides, three porters as well as Ongyel, the trek organizer: Quite the cavalcade to support four people.

The guides: Kumar (with two packs -- one person relied on him to carry her daypack for the whole trip) and and Lakpa. We were guided well, and very well fed along the way.

Our guides -- particularly Lakpa, who directed the operation -- were excellent and Nepal is a very poor country and while I pretty much felt safe there it is also politically unstable; in the past Maoist guerrillas have issued their own "trekking permits" and have extorted money from trekkers. Banditry is also not entirely unheard of, and as a tourist may be carrying the equivalent of a year's earnings in Nepal, some degree of caution is warranted. Lakpa's experience and knowledge of the route was extremely helpful in making for a safe and relatively hassle-free journey. The guides (both of whom had cooking experience) also made sure we were very well fed -- I expected to lose weight on the trip, and despite walking for twelve straight days, didn't lose a pound.

The group's porters with their loads. There is not much incentive to be pack efficiently when someone carries your gear for you.

Our gear was carried by three porters meaning all we had with us on a daily basis were the contents of our daypacks. Of course, having porters meant that there was no incentive to pack particularly efficiently, especially with three porters for a group of four people. Even though this picture makes it look like the porters struggled under a huge burden it was my understanding that they thought the trip was very easy, almost like a working vacation, and wished it had lasted longer, and they were a pretty happy crew.

The downside of all this support was that we kind of traveled in a cocoon and didn't have to think much for ourselves and also didn't have a lot of direct interaction with Nepalis. I have some backpacking experience and now that I have done something like this I think that I am very capable of planning what to take and carrying everything I need on my back. I met a young couple from the Czech Republic at one of our stops and they were doing about 20 days of trekking without guides or porters, only carrying what they needed.

The other downside to trekking was that the Annapurna circuit is definitely not a 'hidden gem': It's pretty crowded with Western (and increasingly, Chinese) tourists. The airports were jammed with easily identifiable tourists speaking a variety of languages (mostly English, German, or Hebrew). While trekking, English was pretty widely understood and the area relies on the tourist economy. There were lots of places to buy jewelry, singing bowls, textiles etc. "I give you good price" was the refrain from all the shopkeepers.

I particularly remember October 11th (my birthday); we were in a lodge in Jomsom preparing to fly to Pokara. There was a group of young Israelis ensconced in lobby, talking loudly amongst themselves and smoking. One of the group had a harmonica which he could not play but lack of skill did not keep him from trying... Wanting to get away from the bad harmonica playing (and my roommate was napping in our room) I retreated to the restaurant, where I encountered a group of Germans (more cigarettes, ugh) with a large Rottweiler (!) on a chain collar who wanted to sit at the table we had reserved for our group -- it was the last night of the trek, so we planned to have everyone (including the porters) all dine together. I was very surly to the Germans (who brings a large dog into a restaurant?) and they found a place to sit away from our table.

Given that it was my first time doing something like this I did appreciate the level of support (and let me be clear, Lakpa and Kumar were really excellent and had a very professional approach to 'guiding') but I know that if I was to do something like this again I would look to be more self-reliant and in less of a cocoon. It would have forced me to be more adaptable and to learn more about the local culture.

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