“Slowly, slowly,” our guide says as we leave lunch behind, and step back on to the trail.
He doesn’t tell us this, but we still have 1,000 meters of vertical to gain today. On Day 1 of our trek. Of course, if he’d told us this—and if we understood what it entailed—we probably would have turned around and hailed the nearest taxi back to Pokhara.
Our guide was a pro though. He knew all he had to say was “slowly, slowly.” We didn’t need to know the struggles that lay ahead of us, We could overcome them, but if we spent too much time thinking about their magnitude, we would surely convince ourselves that it was impossible.
We left our peaceful lunch spot behind, and continued through the cobblestone streets of a small village. Street, I should say, since there was really only one main thoroughfare—if you could even call it that. Small trekking lodges and homes lined the path, but there was little else to the settlement than that. Little else that we could discern, at least, as we walked slowly, slowly, through the town.
Soon enough, we were back in the rolling hills and empty spaces, surrounded by nothing but wilderness and the occasional farmer. Civilization didn’t penetrate too far, here in the Annapurna Conservation Area.
One finds it hard to imagine ever “civilizing” these mountains. They are too large, too severe, too holy to ever be thoroughly colonized. But one only has to look to the Alps to see the influence of money on mountains. Those magnificent European mountains, reduced to a playground for the rich.
It occurs to me that by dropping hundreds of dollars to trek in the Himalayas, I am no better than the European nouveau-riche at apres-ski in the Alps. I am rich here, and I am playing among people who will never have my opportunities.
According to the World Bank, Nepal’s Gross National Income for 2015 was $730 US Dollars—an average which is no doubt skewed by the high-earners and rich politicians which are despised by so many of the common people. I easily spent that much money while I was in the country for three weeks. I didn’t even think twice about it. It was almost nothing to me.
There’s always more money to be made.
This attitude of mine had driven Holly crazy. Although our families were equally well off, her Midwestern background had left her a little more grounded than I was ever capable of being. Money, in many ways, always felt like her end goal; for me, money was always a means to an end. Our fundamental disagreements on this topic divided us further and further, until, in the end, there was nothing between us.
Trekking through a place like rural Nepal definitely recasts your perception of money.
“Do these people make a lot of money off the trekkers?” I asked our guide as we passed by a small farm. Laundry fluttered in the breeze, and a few children played on the grass, waving at us.
“The owners of the teahouses get rich,” he said. “Everyone else who lives here, very poor.”
I turned the idea of money over and over in my mind as we trekked through the next hour. I came to Asia because I felt unfulfilled at home, I felt like there must be something else out there. People here in Nepal felt the same things, but they had a lot more physical and financial justification for wanting to emigrate. The need to feed their family, to make enough to afford mobile and freedom, were what drove Nepali to move to Qatar, the UAE, and the USA. Their needs were a lot more urgent; their desires, fueled by things much more immediate than ennui.
I wondered if Nepali ever broke up with their girlfriends over money. Probably not. But I bet they did break up over lies. That was a painful line of thinking.
Luckily, some physical pain would soon present itself to distract from the emotional pain.
As we trekked on, we encountered the first suspension bridge of our journey. These narrow, cabled bridges are common in the trekking regions, spanning huge valleys, sometimes hundreds of feet off the ground. They need to be taken single-file, and shake ominously as you cross. A passionate rock climber and hiker, I am no stranger to heights. These bridges still gave me vertigo, and I rarely wanted to linger.
At this first bridge, we had to stop and wait, as a farmer was herding his train of mules across the rickety structure. The mules looked just as unsure as I felt, but with a little encouragement from their minder, they all made it across safely.
Us trekkers weren’t as surefooted as the mules, and we hemmed and hawed on the edge of the bridge.
“Is it safe?” the Malaysian asked.
“Very safe,” our guide assured. As if to prove his point, he ventured out a meter or two and jumped up and down. The bridge shook a little, but that was all. “Come on,” he gestured at us.
With our guide forging ahead, we had little choice but to follow. In the middle of the bridge, I paused and looked down. I felt a wave of nausea rise through my stomach, and quickly thought better of that. I looked up and hurried off the bridge.
The guide indicated that we should take a rest on a stone bench. I sat and watched the Malaysian cross the bridge. He took it slow. My heart was still beating a little faster than I liked. In my opinion, he could take as long as he liked crossing that damn bridge. In the end, another group of trekkers came up behind him, and he came across the gorge to join us on the bench. We all took a drink from our water bottles.
“Now,” our guide said, “we climb.” He pointed to a steep set of stone stairs that began almost right where the bridge ended. They went up as far as the eye could see.
“How much further?” we asked.
“How many more steps?”
It was going to be a long day.