I just finished watching the third episode of Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days travel documentary (thanks to my friend, Jason, for sharing it 🙂 ). It was called ‘Ancient Mariners’. The enjoyment I derived from it was extraordinary. Watching a travel documentary, by and large, creates a nice fantasy in me to see the place as well. But that particular episode taught me, or rather emphasized, a concept that I have already known: the human factor involved in virtually every trip we undertake. It is just as important as appreciating the physical significance of a place. The local people whom we bump into on the way and have brief, if not deep, conversations with; the local people who serve us with warmth and sincerity; the fellow travelers whom we meet en route; and of course, if you are not traveling solo, your very own travel companion. I took great pleasure in the small, simple conversations that Michael had with the crew on his dhow journey from Jeddah to Bombay. The episode simply brought back sweet memories shared with the people I was fortunate enough to encounter on my journey to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal.
There were small villages dotting the trekking route. They were good places to meet down-to-earth Khumbu villagers who seemed happy and content with what life had to offer them. The sight of little kids with rosy red cheeks took my heart away.
In Namche, school kids in their uniforms were running uphill ahead of us to get to school. Some looked quite hesitant as they ran past us. I had a chance to talk to some. It was amazing that they had a quite good mastery of English. While that linguistic ability of theirs allowed us to understand each other, I certainly hoped they would never neglect the language of their roots. I asked one what her favorite subject was and she said English; I asked another what he would be learning that day and he answered mathematics. Ah I wish I could learn more about their simple lives. Those conversations were one of the best ‘human’ souvenirs I brought home, and still cherish.
I have been in certain places where I felt hesitant to greet in the local language (mainly due to fear of causing an offense). In the Khumbu region, I did not pause to greet the local villagers with ‘Namaste’ as I knew they would always respond in kind. They did, and they did it with big smiles on their battered but beautiful faces! Pineapple is the symbol of hospitality. I would say the villagers in the Khumbu region had the sweetest pineapples 🙂 Having some glimpses into their livelihoods, I learned silently that life was not all that easy for them. But for me, they were the richest people in non-material sense, and I was very lucky to be shown that richness.
Then there were our beloved guides and porters. Without them, I honestly think the trip would have been quite impossible for me. I have this predisposition to think that service providers may be just wearing a mask when they ‘serve’ us; that there is only one thing in their minds: a fat tip from walking-dollar-sign tourists. This tendency has, to some extent, created a wall between them and me. The amazing thing about our guides and porters was that they did not make me feel that way. Well, I am sure they expected some tips at the end of their service. However, I could feel so much genuine care, warmth, and great hospitality from them. When we fell sick, they were our (traditional) doctors; when we were tired, they provided entertainment (music on the phone; cards; jokes; small talks); when we were discouraged, they became the driver that pushed us forward; when physical exhaustion took its toll on us, they extended a great helping help (like carrying our backpacks); when we got injured and could not walk, they would carry us on their backs!!! When we had questions, they became our walking encyclopedia. They just played a great variety of roles. I was one of the slow ones in the group, but I knew I was not the last because Passon, our guide-in-the-making, always walked right behind us, making sure no one was left behind. Sometimes he walked side-by-side in an understanding silence.
With the vast knowledge they had of the Khumbu region, they were some of the greatest teachers I have ever had. They enhanced the educational or learning aspect of my experience, thus making the trip significantly more meaningful. Some of the information extended beyond what was typically covered in guidebooks. It made a whole lot difference when I made the effort to get to know our guides and porters by learning about their lives, families, interests and dreams. There was really no need to talk about BIG things. Knowing them as more than my service providers, they became more of a ‘person’ to me, if not friends. Just like what Michael Palin did, I jotted down the full names of all of our guides and porters (with Jason’s help). Years from now, I would want to look back and see their faces in my mind, with names.
The last night before flying back to Kathmandu was memorable when we shared meals with all of our guides and porters. I was sharing a table with the porters. They did not speak much English but that was totally fine. A few words were exchanged, but the greatest asset traded was sincere smile and mutual respect. Then there was the emotional parting in the following morning. Usually I do not feel stirred when saying goodbye to my service providers. But that morning, at Lukla airport, I could not help but get a little teary-eyed when we hugged each other and said our goodbyes. Well, I guess I have come to regard them as more than just service providers.
My fellow trekkers also added to the wonder of my EBC journey. We started the trek as complete strangers, and ended it as friends. I still remember on the very first day, during a briefing, we were all sitting at different corners of the Pilgrim Hotel’s rather-small lobby. I caught a glimpse of each of them and silently wondered about where they were from, what they did for a living, their trekking experiences, and so on. Days passed, and that stranger-feeling gradually faded away. They were probably the people who could understand me the most should I need to relive the EBC memories, as we had shared the same goal, the same dream, the same passion….and pain (to varying degrees).
If I were to assess my own personality, I would say I am inclined toward the quiet, introvert type, who needs time and space on her own. If someone like me could enjoy meeting people and having conversations during the EBC trek, that certainly would have meant something. The human-related experiences I gained are definitely no-nonsense, and have probably helped me discover myself more. They were the icing on the cake :-).
Prior to the trip, Nepal was a faceless nation for me. Now, it is not, as it has the faces of some of the Khumbu villagers I met, of my guides and porters, and of my fellow trekkers.