Saturday, March 17, 2012
Nepal: Country on a Ridge
“Her name is Lenin.” He smiled proudly, pointing at the youngest girl in the photo.
“How do you spell th-…” I trail off, realizing mid-way through that this is a stupid question to ask a Nepali villager who told me 5 minutes ago that he was illiterate and had never been in a classroom before.
“…You mean like, Bolshevik, Russian Communist, 1917 October Revolution? That Lenin?”
“I think so. A week after she was born she got sick so we had to take her to the Maoist hospital in Dhunche (the nearest town, a full days walk away since there are no roads).” Dorjee explained. “They asked her name and we said she didn’t have one yet, so the doctor asked if he could name her and we said OK.”
“And the doctor picked Lenin?”
“Well, I think that’s a great name for your youngest daughter.” I say, biting my cheek so hard my eyes start to water and handing him back the photo.
I had staggered up to the front door of Dorjee’s guesthouse about 2 hours before he showed me this family photo. A Korean tourist had taken the picture and then sent a copy back to him.
At first he had seemed a little apprehensive of this exhausted, unshaven foreigner hiking so late and by himself. I don’t blame him; I wasn’t looking my best. And I don’t think my ragged “Namaste!,” which sounded more like a death rattle than a greeting, helped my case much either.
This being my tenth day of trekking in Langtang National Park, I had decided that I should really push it and try to get to a village 25km away. Starting that morning I had descended 7,200ft over 16km down a valley, then turned off onto switchbacks that climbed up 3,100ft over 5km. It was steep.
The sun was starting to set when I came upon Dorjee’s guesthouse. I decided that, as the size of my blisters were now about equal to that of my ego, it was time to call it a day.
Despite my appearance he had taken pity on me and showed me to a room, and after lying down for a few minutes and throwing some water on my face, I felt human enough to go down and try for a second impression.
As we sit on the old utilitarian wooden bench outside the kitchen, Dorjee carefully places the family photo back into a cellophane sleeve. We watch the pink and gold light of the setting sun fade from the western Himalayan slopes across the steep, glacial valley from where we sit. He sighs.
He tells me that it is his dream that his three children do what he couldn’t and receive an education. Things are going well for now and he can just afford tuition costs, he says. But the local school only goes up to Class 10 and, after that, he will have to send his kids to Kathmandu if he wants them to finish their schooling and he doesn’t know how he can y get the money to do that.
As we retreat from the evening cool into the cramped, smoky kitchen where his wife is cooking our dinner of rice, potatoes and dhal, he sighs again, “What to do? Our guesthouse is off the main trail and not many people stop here.” Through the window I watch the last rays of sunlight vanish from the top of the ridge.
In many ways modern Nepal mirrors that rugged Himalayan ridge. Geographically is sits perched atop a chain of mountains that comprises 8 of the 10 world’s highest peaks, sandwiched between two rising economic superpowers. To the north is the assertive, authoritarian juggernaut of China; the country that gave birth to the Maoist ideology espoused by Nepal’s ruling political party and the greatest economic success story in human history. Below Nepal to the south lies the bureaucratic, lumbering, but quickly accelerating, democratic subcontinent of India; the birthplace of both of Nepal’s major religions and its biggest trading partner. Indians and Nepalis don’t even need visas to live or work in each other’s countries.
Both China and India seem to be competing in a charm and development offensive in Nepal, with each country trying to outdo the other in number of roads and hydropower plants that they build for the Nepalis. Never mind that they insist on purchasing so much of the power generated by Nepal’s rivers that residents of Kathmandu regularly go without power for up to 16 hours a day (I don’t know of any other national capital that can boast that). Or that, strategically, many of the roads that India and China build look like little more than invasion corridors aimed at each others northern and southern borders. Nepal is in a precarious position.
True, Nepalis are, for the moment, benefiting from this competition. But with lower than 50% literacy and having 85% of its 30 million people making less than $2 a day, there is little that Nepal can do but play nice and hope the world’s only 2 population billionaires do the same.
Economically, Nepal also seems to run along a ridge. Tourism is the single biggest contributor to Nepal’s GDP and, with the vast majority of travelers coming to Nepal to trek among its peaks, its mountains are the backbone of this economy. With the areas that serve these trekkers functioning as the nerve centers that supply the capital that keeps much of the rest of the country functioning.
This ridge starts in Kathmandu. The capital city has the only international airport in the country as well as the tourist ghetto Thamel; a packed, haphazard collection of alleyways that boasts 2,500 tourism-related businesses within just 5 square kilometers. This is the base camp from which nearly all tourist set out. From Kathmandu, the ridge traverses from east to west to reach several high points; Everest Base Camp, the Annapurna circuit and Langtang.
Together these 3 trekking areas make up 90% of the treks done in Nepal, and within these areas I would guess that at least 70% of the trekkers stay at the handful of villages and guesthouses mentioned as suggested waypoints in guide books like Lonely Planet.
This gives a whole new meaning to the old real estate saying that the 3 things that matter most are location, location and location. It puts the very small number of Nepalis with either enough money, or, and more often, with ancestral land rights, in a very good position. And it leaves a lot of less fortunate villagers, like Dorjee, left trying to battle uphill, through their shadow.
The concentrated floods of foreign cash that these areas produce have also created interesting localized and cyclical economies, which are based around these villages. They are micro-economies that, like side trails or day hikes, may deviate slightly from the ridge or trail, but always end up joining back up with the main route.
Take the village of Langtang for example. It is the largest of around half a dozen communities that lie along the main Langtang trail. A trail that leads up a gorgeous alpine valley to the base of its 21,000ft namesake, along with a score of cirques and glacial moraines, all of which are walled in by a ring of jagged, snow-covered peaks.
The village itself is made up of maybe 50 homes, at least 20 of which are guesthouses. Everyone, almost without exception, who lives there and doesn’t own or work in a guesthouse is either a farmer, a Yak herder or a porter. The farmers and Yak herders sell their produce and dairy products to the guesthouses, who then substantially mark up the prices and then sell them on to the tourists. The porters, trudging up the steep, rocky trails- their 100-130lbs loads of everything from rice to toilet paper tied into bamboo baskets and held up with a nylon strap pushed across their forehead- follow the same formula.
Different paths can, and often do, come up and join this monetary ridge. They come in the form of the guides and baggage porters form other regions who come to toil under these tourist’s brand name and brand new, over-priced and over-stuffed bags. To toil while the trekkers themselves huff and puff under their half-full day packs and complain that they can’t understand why they are getting altitude sickness when they are only drinking a liter and a half of water a day while hiking at 10,000+ft- “I just don’t know why I should drink if I don’t feel thirsty…”
These guides and porters send their money back to the bereaved families and communities that they left behind. The communities that are not lucky enough to have these soaring peaks right outside their back doors.
Like any ridge ours is a narrow one; it can’t fit everyone. The supply of guides and porters already outstrips the demand for their services, leaving few options for those not lucky enough to get and keep a good foothold.
Many of those that can’t break into this tight market, like Da Rinji Sherpa -a Nepali man with a high pitched voice whom I met on a train out of Varanasi- roll down the slope and end up working in the resource-rich states of the Persian Gulf.
Da Rinji makes good money. Money that he earns working as a truck driver at the Shell oil refinery in Qatar that he is able to send back to his wife and children. But he can only return home for 4 months every 2 years, and his income falls well short of the $60 a day his friends get for guiding treks.
Through the cloud of these reflections an epiphany strikes, snapping my attention back to the present-
“iPhone and camera cases!”
“What?” Asks Dorjee.
“iPhone and camera cases.” I repeat. “That’s what you should sell.”
It was obvious that he needed more money if he was going to educate his kids, but even if I had that kind of money that I could give him, I don’t believe that the dependency and sense of inferiority such gift creates are usually beneficial in the long run. And how do you know your money is actually going to the school?
So I had been staring at the stove that we were all huddled around, trying to force my fatigue-addled brain to think of some untapped economic niche he could fill.
“Ya!” I say excitedly, “ Think about it, everyone, including your wife, sells yak wool mittens, scarfs and hats; the market is completely saturated though, no one person really makes any money on them. But what does almost every tourist that comes here have? A digital camera and probably either an iPhone or an iPod! And I haven’t seen anyone selling little woven cases for them. A guy from Finland I was hiking with for a few days even had a lady make one specially for him. Seriously, if you make some little Tibetan design out of the wool, like one of the 8 auspicious symbols, and put a sign up that says ‘Tibetan Yak wool iPhone cases’ people would eat that shit up!”
“What’s an iPhone?”
I jump up, run upstairs and grab the iPod Touch out of my bag that my friend Myra gave to me before the trip. In another 5 minutes I have taught an illiterate Nepali villager how to use a touch screen mp3 player. Guess there is a reason Apple is the most valuable company on earth.
“See? All you would have to do is make a little pocket that something about twice this size will fit into and put a sign up. Just try making 10 of them and see how they do. I bet tourists will love ‘em!”
“Uh-huh, that’s a good idea…” Though he is a bit preoccupied with switching through the equalizer settings on the Kanye West song he just started playing, Dorjee seems to agree.
Before I leave the next morning Dorjee mentions to me that he wants Lenin to learn Chinese. I have him write his address down and promise to send him a Mandarin phrase book when I get back to Kathmandu if he promises to have his friend email me and tell me how the iPhone cases work out. He agrees, and his wife shyly comes up and hands me one of the red and black bracelets she makes; a token of my contribution to the economic future of Nepal.
As I walk up away from the guesthouse and up the trail I realize that the ridge across the valley looks a lot closer to Dorjee’s than it did last night.