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Friday, April 16, 2010

My First Trek: The Interplay of Culture and Cuisine

I lived in Nepal for five years, have done over 50 treks there, and organized hundreds of treks for thousands of our travelers there.  The seed for all of that was planted when I undertook my first trek there in 1972.  It was a formative life experience, to say the least, and many memories from that trek are indelibly imprinted in my soul.  One of the more amusing experiences relates to the meeting of two different cultures and cuisines.

The Annapurna Circuit was getting upwards of 100,000 trekkers annually by the mid-90s, but in 1972 I was one of only 600 or so trekkers on the trail.  In those days, there were very few trekking lodges along the trail, and many of them were informal to the point of not even having a sign board.  The ‘tea house trekking’ style of travel was a natural metamorphosis of foot travel in Nepal that had existed for centuries before foreigners ever showed up.  Virtually all Nepalis who traveled did so for trade or pilgrimage.  When a Nepali arrived in a village and was unable to reach the next village before dark, he could assume that he would be taken in by a local family, and provided with dinner, a choice spot by the fire to sleep, and a cup of tea in the morning.  The cost for such service was either a nominal sum, or simply stories from places up and down the trail that the hosts might never see in person.  When foreign trekkers began arriving in the 1960s, the same custom continued and evolved first into informal B&Bs and eventually trekkers’ lodges.


My third night on the trail I stayed at a home inhabited by a mother and her son, whom I estimated to be about five years old.  My Nepali was rudimentary at best, but included important dietary words like rice, curry, and tea.  On waking the next morning, the son came to my bedside and asked if I’d like a cup of tea.  I accepted his offer, and had my first experience of a Nepali favorite called ‘bed tea.’  To my surprise, he served me what’s commonly called Tibetan tea, which is made with rancid butter and salt.  The more common Nepali tea is brewed with milk and sugar.


After finishing my first ever cup of Tibetan tea, I got up and packed up my sleeping bag.  The mother then appeared from the family’s bedroom and asked me if I’d like a cup of tea.  I gladly accepted, and was now given a cup of the much more familiar Nepali tea.  The first sip had barely reached my stomach when I experienced what the source of a volcano must feel like.  The two teas agreed to disagree in my stomach, and I lurched for the door to avoid vomiting inside their kitchen.  The mother knew immediately what had happened and set about scolding her son for, I assume, having given me the wrong tea earlier or for not having told her he’d done so.  With limited Nepali language and hand gestures and facial expressions, I reassured the mother that everything was okay, I wasn’t sick or upset with them, and things immediately returned to normal.

I’ve since had countless other cross-cultural experiences in Nepal and elsewhere, and count them as some of the greatest treasures in my life.  I feel fortunate to have been able to introduce so many of our travelers, and their hosts, to similar experiences that help us to realize that understanding different cultures can bring richness and depth to our lives.  It’s still the primary reason that I continue my travels today.

~Steve Conlon
Above the Clouds

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