dispatches aperture poste restante etcetera

From the Ground Up
By Evelyn - 7 Feb, 2000

Page 2 of 3

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Sometime later the group of Bengalis we'd passed on our way up arrived at Shikhar and filled up the room, anxious to get around the makeshift heater. Ingeniously, they'd used a retired jeep hub sealed at one end, and stood an old paint can with the top and bottom removed on the coals to serve as a radiator. Heat-seekers crowded around it holding out their hands as though praying to the Fire God. Nila told us later that 90% of the trekkers that come through are from Calcutta, which though a world away, is oddly in the same state of West Bengal as these mountain villages. We'd heard from others that the mountain locals don't care much for them—at least when they come in large groups without a moment's silence among them. With this group, we began to see why.

The room filled up further as a constant flow of jeep drivers and a few other Indian trekkers stopped in. We sat and watched the Gurung women work seeminglessly around the crowd. Grandma fed the fire, the sisters chopped vegetables and cooked, feeding all their guests noodle soup and chai. Nila continuously shoveled glowing red wood bits, hot as coals, from the stove and refilled heaters.

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Noticing no men in the family, we inquired and were told that Nila's brother was busy running their cardomom farm down in Maneybhajhang, and a brother-in-law was away on business. The sky began to dim and Nila lit oil lamps to light the room. In the corner was a car battery hooked up to an aged black-and-white TV—the only electricity in the house was reserved for the nightly Nepali soap opera.

A boy smaller than he is young emerged behind the crowd of guests. Coming in from the cold, his cheeks were perhaps brighter red than usual, and he wore blue rubber galoshes that coincidentally matched his raincoat. He squatted down by the fire and let out a visible sigh—a steamy breath of a long day streaming into the chilly air. At 11 years old, he was the little man of the house; not much bothered to socialize with the guests, just passing another day tending to the animals and ready for a late lunch of chapatis and alu (potato) sauce. Nila told us the kids were on winter break. Instead of being in school a half hour hike down the hill, they were around the house to help out. "We teach them when they are young how to run the farm. That way when they are older, have had schooling and choose what they want to do, they can always come back to this." That's what Nila did.

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The fog never cleared the rest of that day, nor the next. The thermostat outside the house read minus seven. There seemed little point in moving on toward Sandakphu, as no views would be had. On day 2, we decided instead to walk to the next village, Jaubari, a mere 2.5 kilometers away which involved 'exiting' Nepal, 're-entering' and 'exiting' India, and again 're-entering Nepal. Snow covered the ground, outlined the trees and dressed the Tibetan mani walls along the way. We came across a short concrete pillar, presumbably a border marker, however silly they were. In sharp contrast to some of India's other borders—with Pakistan (the single open crossing with India over which we came three months earlier) and with China (actually Tibet, which is in effect non-existent since neither side recognizes the other's claim)—this fluid frontier area with Nepal seemed uncharacteristically ill-defined and relaxed. Here, the villages that spilled over the Himalayan foothills on either side of the 'border' were one continuous community inhabited by people who shared a cultural and ethnic background.

As Tumling is on the main trekker route, the Gurungs have done well for themselves. In the early 90's, trekkers began coming and would often ask to pay for a night's rest in the family's home, which back then was a single shack. The family lived off the cows and goats they raised and whatever surplus of vegetables grown in summer that they could sell. Eventually Nila was encouraged by a guest to turn the place into a real trekker's lodge. Shikhar lodge is now into its eighth year of existence. Years of savings enabled them to expand the lodge to include a dining area, dorm rooms, and a separate building with private rooms. Work done over three years cost them 200,000 rupees ($5,000). A steady flow of visitors during peak season (Apr-May; Oct-Nov) brings in a substantial increase to their traditional income. During peak season, the number of trekkers that stop over in Tumling doubles the village population of 45; the Shikhar Lodge alone accomodates 35. "When it gets really busy, people are sleeping on this floor," Nila told us, pointing around the kitchen. I tried to imagine all the people and activity in the room times five—a veritable trekkers' hut.




From the Ground Up

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