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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

How to Let a Boy Carry Your Luggage: Confessions of a Self-Sufficient Traveler

Cassady and Lisa above Dri on the final day of the trek.

Whether or not you can locate Nepal on a map, you are probably aware of a common stereotype about the Nepali people: They are excellent climbers, having helped many a foreign hiker to reach the difficult summits of the Himalaya. In truth, Nepalis are so much more than skilled climbers – they are generous, patient, kind, remarkably hospitable, and some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. These qualities must be genuine, because without batting an eyelash, they put up with the antics of a picky vegetarian, a donkey rights activist, an inquisitive student of Buddhism, a coffee snob, a budding linguist with an obnoxiously limited Nepali vocabulary, and a stubborn girl with a bum knee and an ibuprofen dependency who wants to carry her own bags. At altitude. In the desert. In July. Did I mention all of these aggravating traits are mine?

This summer, with a little help from Above the Clouds, I had the opportunity to visit Nepal for the first time. (I say first, because it certainly won’t be the last). We spent nine sun-drenched days trekking through Mustang (as in the Forbidden Kingdom, not the horse variety). As an outdoorsy girl, I lept at the opportunity to fend for myself in an unfamiliar land: pitching tents, going days without showering, carrying my food on my back, relying only on my dust-covered Keens to get me from Point A to Point B. I did end up doing quite a bit of walking, and I didn’t shower for quite a while – not entirely out of the ordinary – but I certainly wasn’t fending for myself.

As soon as we landed in Kathmandu, everything was handled like a well-oiled beast of burden. My duffel was whisked away by a strapping young man before I could even drag it off the carousel. From then on, it was out of my hands. Literally. My bag was carried long distances by donkeys, short distances by burly Nepali boys, and was waiting for me in my tent at each destination. Come to think of it, I didn’t lift that bag again until I headed into US Customs two weeks later. At first it felt a bit odd to have donkeys carrying my stuff for me (I can take care of myself!), and every time they passed us on the trail I felt a little bit guilty, but as I quickly remembered on my sleepy walk through the Newark airport – it was a really heavy bag.

Not to belittle our triumphs in trekking. I did wake up at sunrise and hike for kilometers every day. In fact, I was responsible for carrying enough water and energy-filled snacks to get me through half a day of trekking, and enough SPF to shield an albino caveperson. Wait, did I mention that I was awoken in my tent every morning by one of the previously mentioned strapping young men saying, in rehearsed English, “Good morning! Coffee please?” To be sure, instant Nescafe is no fresh-ground fair trade organic Sumatran dark roast, but hey, if somebody’s making it for me and handing it to me while I’m still in my sleeping bag, “Good morning! Coffee please!” As I sipped my artificially flavored coffee product (which I must admit, grew on me), I was provided with a basin of warm “washing water” to carry out whatever morning routine to which I was accustomed – a completely unforeseen luxury on the trail, albeit slightly fancier than my wash-and-wear style necessitates, even at home amid the opulence of indoor plumbing. Once we were washed up and dressed for the day (i.e., threw on the same clothes for the fourth day in a row), it was breakfast time. Somehow I’ve made it through several paragraphs already without talking about the food. Sacrilege.

Cassady exiting Mustang via Helicopter after her first trek.

I’m a self-proclaimed picky eater, which is exacerbated by the fact that I don’t eat meat. On the trail, I expected to be forcing down frighteningly unfamiliar dishes due to sheer caloric debt. I could not have been more wrong. I looked forward to every single meal with the same enthusiasm with which I looked forward to the gorgeous Mustang sunset. I don’t think they put anything in front of me that I did not devour instantly. Now this is where I was completely blown away – our cooks carried over a week’s worth of tasty, tasty food on their backs! The kitchen supplies, food, and other various campsite essentials were carried in Dokos, (woven baskets commonly used in Nepal to carry heavy loads – see, vocab word). Not only did they carry unquestionably more weight than we did, but they walked much faster (in sandals, of course), and had our tents pitched and water to rinse the dust off and tea and meals waiting for us when we finally strolled up, hours later. This concierge and table service took a few days of getting used to, but it made my experience in Nepal that much more memorable. At the end of the day, Clif Bars and dried mangoes can only get you so far.

At first, the self-sufficient traveler in me felt a little spoiled and lazy – all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other, and let the highly capable staff take care of the rest. Yes. Staff. We embarked on our trek with no less than a guide, assistant guide, cook, three assistant cooks/porters, seven donkeys and a horseman. It was a veritable diaspora. Part of me wanted to go against the grain: help set up the tents, clean up after the meals, pull a little more weight. In my past travels I’ve successfully navigated the busy markets of Bali, jumped out of multiple airplanes, mastered driving on the left side of the road, and been on the Jersey Turnpike during rush hour. I was clearly qualified to help pitch a tent. Mostly, I just wanted to be slightly more functional than I was as the Pallid-American-Girl-Who-Eats-Everything-And-Has-An-Attitude-About-The-Rights-Of-Pack-Animals. This is simply the way it’s done in Nepal – no matter how hard I tried or wanted to help out, it just wasn’t necessary. After a few days of difficult hikes, the afternoon tea, ready-made campsites, and exquisite meals were just what I needed to recharge for the next day. Since it was only temporary, I figured it was best to just go with the flow and turn off my Self-Sufficient-Traveler-Mode. I decided to sit back, enjoy the scenery, and let the people of Nepal share their beautiful country (and their Nescafe) with me.

Now that I am home, and forced to fend for myself, I have since switched back to real coffee. I am, however, taking applications for a personal chef. Must specialize in Nepali cuisine, and be able to accommodate a picky vegetarian.


~Cassady Thomas
(If you enjoyed reading this, please check out Cassady's Blog - it's a great read!)

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Cassady and Dorchi, our guide, ending the trek in style!

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