Manaslu Trekking Story 2. Main Characters (in a structuralist approach)

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On the way to Tal: Lo (left) and Jaya (right)
Stories don't need heros: the opposite is an obvious truth, at least for me. Structuralism was a matter of generation in 1974, when I was born, like a genuine ammount of political violence, and denim salopettes. Structure generates functions, stories involve roles, but life nor fiction are monotonous nor boring, because both are dialectic: the way functions are performed changes the range of performing possibilities, how we decide to play a role changes the role, its meaning, contiguous roles, expectations, structural regions, and eventually the whole structure. It's the 'Antigones' effect' as described by Gyorgy Luckacs, that opened a completely different way to be a woman, a daughter, a citizen, a human being, disclosing an ethical possibilty now available for all.
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In my Manaslu story the main character is me, duplicated in my son, traveler(s) and author(s), not exactly overlapping but both afferent to the same alien cultural area. We have one main helper, our guide Jaya, duplicated in our porter Luck, aka Lo: same function apparently, but a very different interpretation.
Guide and a porter are from the same region: sematically, geographically and even ethnologically. Both Rai from the Solukhumbu, compared to a Chettri shop keeper from Kathmandu they share a world, and also some personal traits, maybe the result of the same education or family values. Normally a guide starts his career as a porter, and some porters aspire to be guides. Kids carrying loads for their families or for the village stores on the main trekking path to a big mountain base camp see big expeditions' porters passing carrying more interesting and better paid stuff, often accompained by interesting people wearing expensive technical clothes, taking pictures of their daily uninteresting surrounds and sometimes sharing chocolates. In many families there is at least one relative working in trekking or mountaineering - often away but seldom available to tell adventurous stories - and frequently memories of deaths in the mountains.
Image may contain: Luck Kumar Rai and Liveri Pinton, mountain, outdoor and natureA personal choice or a matter of need, a job in tourism moves away from the routine of the rural life, and in a gray area in between two worlds. Porter and guide are supposed to understand and even to share their clients' culture, that can be upsetting. Distance is at once denied and set in the 'European' concept of 'equality': travelers – us – consider guide and porter(s) as 'equal' for definition – 'all humans were born equal and free' the French revoloution 'Declaration of the Rights of the Human and Citizen' of 1789 recites, and we are risen in it – but that means we expect guide and porter(s) – them - to beahave 'the same', that is 'like me'. We naively universalise our culture as if it was the only one, and proudly gift our 'equality' as if there was just one way to express 'respect'.
Image may contain: Luck Kumar Rai, Jaya Rai, इलरिया प्रान्जिनि and Liveri Pinton, people smiling, people standing, mountain, outdoor and natureNepalis are utterly kind. Contiguity of cultural identities is a matter of fact here, and centuries of Hindu selfrepresentation as 'national religion' has nothing to do with the effective, brutal definitive suppression of divergent cultures in the European institution of 'national states'. In fact non Hindu cultures in Nepal found their place at the bottom of Hindu casts social system and there they survived almost unchanged, so that the 'identity question' is now emerging in Nepali post revolution politics as a social question, a question of equal access to power and resources. That means that Brahmans and Chettris monopolised the official narrative about what is 'Nepali', nevertheless other narratives are possible and effective, at a regional level and even in a world wide dimention, as – for example – Sherpas and Ghurkas are recognised as 'typically Nepali', and all the inhabitants of Nepal are proud of their national identity, beside their ethnical belonging.
Intercultural skills are necessary in Nepalis' daily life, because communities are geographically separated but have many social and economical contact. It isn't the European 'tollerance', resulted of centuries of fanatic religion war, nor a kind of 'cultural relativism', but the assumption of cultural pluralism as normal. Guide and porter go further, or may be closer. Closer to 'us', this peculiar culture representing itself as universal, as 'human' tout court, only able to deal with other cultures in the patronising scheme of 'historical progress' – by the way a concept totally alien to many other cultures.
My Italian trekking mates in the Annapurna, two years ago, were annoyed by the way porters responded to our 'equality' approach, that is refusing to share our 'space', in all the deepness of the word. 'Our space', that we considere 'the space', totally blind to any other possible 'space' or 'sharing', to any other organisation of the space in the order to share or to show benevolence, to any doubt and question about the adequacy of our approach in regard to their feeling and confort. One night eventually a girl from my group grasped it: "They are working. When I am working I don't mean to get friend with all my clients, and they don't expect me to. It would be stressing, I would feel it as an invasion of my private life." Another one objected: "They are working, but everyday we spend many hours together, so it's normal to get friends, to get unformal to each other. "
The fact is in our culture this is a normal expectation, and the guide knows that, in fact the guide usually responds adequately: he shares the table with his group, makes conversation, drinks a beer. And in my opinion it isn't just because he speaks better our language... Porters share their table, because they eat their dhal bhat - everyday twice a day – that is prepared after our meals, often very late, and then they want to sleep, because in Nepal normally people sleep when it's dark. They are tired. We are also tired, but we are in 'holiday', that in our culture includes playing guitars at night around a bonny fire, while in their culture is more about religious celebrations. The whole concept of 'fun' is culturally determined, in spite of the tendency of capitalism to globalise its 'entertainment industry'. Then there is the concept of 'respect', that in our culture is very much about 'equality' but in other cultures in the most about 'to aknowledge your place in a yerarchical system', without any implication about freedom or lack of it, so that 'respecting parents' or 'husband' is not necessarily an humiliating experience. Sum up, we tend to interpretate others' politeness as cold and unpolite, while others can find our 'equality' approach as offensive or invasive.
Jaya is not just my guide, it's my dear friend. The village where he was born is on the main trekking way to Everest base camp, so that foreigners passing by are frequent, and tourism an important resource. His family is a modest one, they own a small piece of land and few animals. He has got an elder brother and two younger sisters, his father is still alive, while his mother died when he was still a child. He's about 30 years old now and normally in Nepal people don't have a picture of them as a child, especially in the mountains, but he does: an American tourist took it during a travel and many years later came back, recognised the house, asked about the children and gave them a copy. It's almost incredible and Jaya shows it with a mixed feeling: three children poorly dressed, two girls and a boy, holding something in their small hands and looking up with their big eyes. Jaya is about five. He didn't change that much.
Not tall but strong, kindness in the eye, Jaya compensates his lack of selfconfidence with a lot of determination. He couldn't finish his school, at twelve started working as a porter and is now a professional trekking guide fluently speaking French and a good English. We got along well immediately in Langtang Vally trekking, I was unsupported so it was just Jaya and me, and we had the time to get close, daily improving the intercultural skills I was talking about. He let me get in 'their space', as far as I could, and I'm grateful because I learnt to define mine better. In the Manaslu story he had the hard duty to play a double role, because he is a real friend for me, but 'the guide' for my son. It didn't work always, but when it did, it was totally great.
We met Luck - aka Lo – at the bus station in Kathmandu and we parted way in Besisahar, from where we go to Pokhara. It was his first time as a porter and may be the last one, because he said he's a little sick and found it exhausting. We were fond of Lo! We loved his style. Tall and slim, looking more a Limbu than a Rai, his personal stuff was all in a small backpack he used to carry on his belly, and it included: two t-shirts, a longsleeves pullover, and a light downjacket. Reserved but not shy, he talks few but listens all, bursting sometimes in his typical laugh: "AH AH AH!" in a loud low tone of voice. About 24, he looks older, while Jaya still looks a kid. He liked us, but kept his distance, may be a little surprised by my familiarity with Jaya, preserving his role of helper and performing it classically. Still I think that in Lo's mind much more was going on...

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Manaslu Trekking Story 1. Monsoon: mist and mud

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Larke Pass: Jaya and me
"Monsoon" is the title of a Nepali bestseller, a love story of course, like the most of Nepali songs and movies. The rain season separates persons and places, distance grows an immaginary dimention where solitude feeds fantasy, routines are disrupted and time dilatatates.
In Nepal it incessantly rains almost all summer: floods and landslides cut the already precarious roads and bridges are very often destroyed. Goods transportation and travels are made complicated – or impossible – as bus and trucks get stuck in the mud on extemporary deviations.
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Our bus got stuck in the mud
Schools are closed, it's the off season for tourism and mountains remain hidden by low compact clouds. In winter monsoon brings snow and chilly weather, causing almost the same disruption in ordinary life: entire villages get abandoned and the population moves to lower altitude, many spend weeks in Kathmandu, but in my experience the summer rain has got a way bigger impact, and travelling in summer is no doubt a challange.
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Taking shoes off was the only option
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Spot the road!
Nervetheless Nepalis move all the time, by bus, motorbike or on foot, carrying all kind of stuff. No natural disaster stops them, as natural disasters are sadly normal, and basicly derubricated to 'inconveniences'. A large number of Nepalis can be described as 'seasonal nomadic', owning land and family home in the mountains but living in rented rooms in Kathmandu several months per year. Dry seasons and rain seasons dictate their activities: farming or tourism, building or temporary jobs in the Valley.
Students must be considered apart: they daily walk a long way to reach their local schools, that can be ran by the local administration, public or private (boarding schools). Primary schools are attended by the most of Nepali children, but local and public schools are often poor, while borading schools are expensive. Secondary schools are only present in relatively big towns, but good secondary schools and Universities, assuring high standards and the promise of a brigher future, are only in Kathmandu. That's why a quote of Kathmandu's seasonal residents are youths. They are priveleged sons and – sometimes - daughters of relatively rich families, or very talented students who erned a scholarship. Very rich families' students complete their education in India. Less fortunate youths move abroad to work – they are considered lucky by the many unemployed ones who remain – to India, Malaysia or to the Gulf countries, where they are merciless exploited. But that's another story.
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Manaslu shows up... a bit
Monsoon means that moving is complicated, that it will require a lot of time and an unpredictable outcome. At first Nepalis seem fatalist or resigned, but I learnt they are just amazingly resilient: shit happens even too often, it's about to respond, to go through in some way. Solidarity and collaboration are key. Like busy ants on an interrupted path, they work out an alternative and carry on.
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A 'clear' sky in the early morning
"We go checking for the bus" Jaya had said. "Checking what?" I was wondering seating on the back of his 'scouty', cautiosly hanging to him on the uneven road. August the 11h, monsoon almost over or losing its strenght, Kathmandu's air was almost breathable for the recent rain, several part of the country still flooded. "The road to Aarugath is interrupted. We take a bus to Gorkha and then another one. May be we have to walk."
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Mountains from Sama Gaon
We had to walk in fact: squeezed in a local bus, the only foreigners in the bunch, Nepali music on and all windws open, we safely traveled to Ghorka, then our bus driver boldly took a 'deviation' and after few hours we got stuck in the mud. A few times we all got off and collaborated in throwing big stones under the wheels, and it worked. Eventually the driver gave up and we headed on foot toward Aarugath, four hours away. Not a big deal for us, set for a long and demanding trekking, but there were families with babies, eldery people, women in elegant dresses and people carrying heavy boxes. Everyone collected their stuff and started walking in the mud as if it was perfectly normal. Only fews decided to stop there for the night.
4.30 am: climbing toward Larke Pass in the pouring rain
The heat had been suffocating all day so walking in the fading light of the sunset was almost a pleasure, and we got a reward: two hours away another bus was waiting, and it took us to Aarugath in time for dinner. "This alternative road is under construction by 30 years" the hotel owner told us.
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Few hours later on the galcier
Monsoon means months of daily pourring rain on a territory already exposed to floods and landslides due to deforestation, messy urbanisation and the lack of a regulated hydric system. Things are slowly improving, but so far tons of water and melted snow from the mountains pour out and swell countless streams, and they rush downhills in uncertain banks, cutting paths, destroying roads, tearing apart suspended bridges and forcing people to risky fording, overflowing finally when they reach the flat. It happens every year, it can't be said 'unespected', and still authorities at every levels fail to address the problem.
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Larke Peak in a natural mirror
People daily deal with monsoon's consequences, mostly unconcerned and wearing flip-flops. Manaslu Trekking is a circuit, you can start it from the Ghorka district or from the Annapurna region, and in any case you have to cross Larke Pass (5.106 m). Coming from Ghorka the climbing is longer but easier, while the descent is very steep, that's why we were in Aarugath, and normally we would had started walking in Machha Khola, but the road was interrupted so our trekking started directly in Aarugath.
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Almost in Larke Pass
Several times we had to take off our shoes to ford relatively deep and impetuous streams flooding the way, several times we had to walk on recent landslides. At the bottom of vertical slopes or dangerously licking our steps, the swollen river digging the valley, to cross and cross again, up on a long suspended bridge or down jumping from rock to rock or walking on a single plank. From Lapubesi to Jaagat the path was disrupted by the works for a larger road, built blasting the mountains and bulldozing the rest.
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YAY we did it!
That was the most demanding part of the trekking, because we had to climb and to descend continuously on hard terrain, gaining and losing altitude, in a scorching heat or in the rain. We never met other trekkers, but on this hellish 'road' every day a lot of Nepalis was going up and down carrying goods on their shoulders, leading mules, going to school, visiting home... In our technical clothing and boots we got regularly passed at double speed by people wearing flip-flops. It's their normality. They don't make a fuss.
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Mules coming from the other side
Monsoon almost over, as I said, it used to rain in the evening, since 6 pm to 6 am, intensely and without a break. At that time we were safe in a lodge, already sitting at the dinner table, and still the spectacle was a little disconcerting. The thunder roar of the river was the background sound of our days, the savage pourring rain on the metal sheet roof, the background sound of our nights, unless the rain found a way inside the room, like in Jaagat... fortunately far from our beds.
Jeep to Besisahar
The upper valley opens wider, green of pasture and corn fields, dotted of big villages and fresh forests. In Sama Gaon for the first – and last – time we spotted something of Manaslu mountain, its double top emerging from the white thick clouds. Persistent rain evaporation creates a misty atmosphere, mysterious and magical. Stupas and chortens, a long line of mules, a group of yaks rushing down a mountain slope... It's a secluded world.
Only once in the early morning I woke up to a relatively clear sky: mud and mules' shit, a decrepitous gate painted with big sharming eyes, the caravan ready to start with heavy loads and coloured caparisons; on the background, the rocky profile of the mountains, extremely close, high and covered of perennial snow. "Those are some big 7.000s" Jaya distractly said.
In the thin air of Larke Pass, we admired Larke Peak and the lower slopes of the glacier we were strenously climbing on, but the top of the mountains, Manaslu included, remained invisible beyond the clouds. Invisible avalanches exploded in the night in Dharmasala, the last unconfortable bivouac before the Pass, and again during the climb, loud like blasts, dragging rocks and stones down huge gorges. "Wellcome to Larke Pass" is written on a yellow banner "5106 m. Thank you for to vist Manaslu Conservatory Area". We look bold and thrilled in the picture: my son Liveri, Jaya, our porter Luck (Lo) and me. We were all quite tired and – Liveri and me - a little dozed due to the altitude. In the background, a compact gray fog and a few rocks.
Definitely monsoon season is not ideal for landscape photopgraphy!

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A White Page

Image may contain: इलरिया प्रान्जिनि, standingHonestly no, I have never gone through the embarrassing feeling called 'the writer's block', so I find a white page as beautiful and stimulating like as a tasty cake ready to be bitten. I have never written in draft. Still I believe that writing is a neverending practice, and the same story could be written in infinite beautiful ways. The point is - and it has always been - why am I writing? for whom? 
The answer has always been: because I love it! so... for myself. I confess a slightly autistic note here, but I'm happy to see someone actually read what I write. And I decided to write in English, that isn't my language, to be understood by a larger number of readers. In the end I care.
Cycling, mountaineering or travels... the subject of the story has always be a pretext. I firmly believe that novel is dead, and in the autonomous, indipendent value of written language: a text is a text is a text. When I forgot it, and wrote something useful - like a 'trekking itinerary' or a 'race summary' - afterwards I felt disconforted. For a while I found amusing the challenge of writing in a hurry: ten minutes after the finish of the race, one day after the end of the travel. It was amusing in fact. True art has always been a self imposed challenge against self imposed obstacles.
The hardest challenge is probably the lack of obstacles: plenty of time, a free form, a free subject.
Yeah... I'm being lazy. But laziness - even boredom - is the premiss of creation: you must feel eager and compelled to write something great. That's why I waited so long.
I'm back from Nepal since more or less one week, and I have been delightfully idle. I distractly checked my pictures - mostly on the phone as I fell and broke the lens of my costy camera- and put my papers in order: permit, tikets, diary. My memories are in order already. I wonder why the are so much in order. Not a thrill, not a tear... And yet we did remarkable things!
We spent one week in Kathmandu, completed the Manaslu Circuit trekking in twelve days, dilapidated money in Pokhara paragliding and eating by Moon Dancer every night. I saw the Manaslu closer but definitely cloudy. I crossed Larke Pass (5106 m) in five hours (from Dharmasala to Bhimtang) - for me an outstanding performance - I deepened in the magic of the Nepali culture. I felt at home.
Now I'm wondering how I'm going to tell this story, and I don't feel like to follow the usual path. I have some ideas here in my mind, let's see: let's play with words again...
Ah yep: I cut my hair short. And purple.

August 2018
6-7 Train to Rome. Flight to Doha. Flight to Kathmandu.
8 Kathandu: Durbar Square and Monkeys Temple with Jaya.
9 Kathmandu: Pashupatinath and Boudhanath with Jaya. Son rent a bike by Gravity Nepal and rode his way back from Patan to Thamel.
10 Patan Durbar Square with Jaya. Son went cycling with Shyam Limbu by Gravity Nepal.
11 Conference about "Marxism and Mundhum" with Geelu Ratos (Ganesh Kumar Rai) in Lalitpur.
12 Bus (...) to Arughat 
13 On foot to Lapubesi
14 On foot to Khorlabesi
15 On foot to Jagat: start of the Manaslu Circuit trekking
16 Dang
17 Ghap
18 Lho
19 Samagao
20 Samdo
21 Dharmasala: last bivouac before Larke Pass.
22 Bhimtang
23 Goa
24 Tal
25 Jeep to Besisahar and bus to Pokhara
26 Pokhara: World Peace Pagoda, Devi's Fall and Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave
27 Pokhara: Paragliding and International Museum of Mountain
28 Bus to Kathmndu
29 Kathmandu: gifts shopping
30 Flight to Doha. Flight to Rome.
31 Train to Civitavecchia. Train to Forte dei Marmi.