|On the way to Tal: Lo (left) and Jaya (right)|
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.
A 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'.
Nepalis 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...
Would you like to travel with us? have a look to Jaya's fb page:
Would you like to travel with us? have a look to Jaya's fb page: