Friends in high places - trekking and teaching geography in Nepal
Whilst trekking Kev Reynolds meets some identical twins and reflects on what a small world it really is, even when you are as far from Kent as Nepal. Illustrations by Clare Crooke.
On the return leg of one of my Himalayan treks I sat with a group of porters in the yak pasture where our cook was preparing lunch. Over the weeks of our journey across the mountains, I had come to think of them less as porters than individual members of a team to whom I owed so much. After all, the success of our expedition relied almost entirely on their support. For without their ability to act as human juggernauts on our behalf, we would not have even left the road-head. But with loads I could barely raise from the ground, these skinny-legged porters with flip-flops on their feet, carried on their backs all the food and equipment essential to our everyday existence, the loads held together with thick string and supported by a headband, or namlo, tight against the forehead. Day after day they padded their way over bare-earth paths, snowfields and glaciers (better shod then), while we spoilt Westerners shouldered little more than day sacks containing extra warm clothing and a water bottle. Although we’d shared every step of the way, they spent frosted nights wrapped in rough blankets while I and my fellow trekkers burrowed in down-filled sleeping bags. And of course, while our journeys may have been identical, they and we laboured over the high mountain passes for very different reasons - we through choice; they because it was the only way they knew to earn a living.
Despite these differences, despite our different backgrounds and cultures, and despite the fact that we shared not a single word of common language, I’d found a way to bridge the gaps and to communicate with a few of them in the simplest terms.
Take the twins, for example. In twenty-odd expeditions they were the only twin porters –identical twins at that – I’d had the privilege of a sharing the trails with. Their names were unpronounceable to me, but as Kirken (my Sherpa Mr Fixit) referred to them as Xerox I and II, that had become my method of identifying one from the other - Xerox II had two front teeth missing after he’d pitched forward onto a rock when he’d lost his balance. Apart from that discrepancy, they were like two peas in a pod who spoke with the same tone and inflection, used the same gestures, and shared the same humour.
They laughed a lot, did Xerox I and II. No doubt they laughed at me and my friends, for whom they’d probably given appropriate nicknames. If so, there’d have been nothing malicious in that, for they exuded a companionable warmth that made friendship easy. When building a relationship with someone from a different culture, it’s usually necessary to do most of the work, not to make just the first move, but the first dozen or so moves towards bridging the gap. Not so with Xerox I and II. Unique among those with whom I’d journeyed in the past, they were already standing on the bridge ready to greet me and my friends as we approached.
As I say, we were sitting in a yak pasture while our cook was preparing lunch. It was pleasantly warm now, but I chose the shade of a crumbling herder’s hut in preference to the bright sunlight. Xerox I nudged my leg and from the intonation of his voice, I realised he was asking a question. Using pantomime gestures he repeated his question which I took to be: ‘Where is your home?’
‘England,’ I told him. ‘Near London.’
He looked puzzled as Xerox II gestured: ‘Where’s that?’
I thought for a moment, then stood up and made a small mark on the wall of the hut. ‘This is your home,’ I told them. ‘Kathmandu here; your home just there.’
Then I walked my fingers westward along the wall. ‘Nepal ends here. This is India.’ I gestured more big mountains as the fingers moved on. ‘India finish. Now Pakistan. More big mountains. Karakorum, K2 – nearly big as Everest.’
My fingers walked to the end of the wall and turned onto the north side. ‘This is Afghanistan, Hindu Kush.’ Grinning, the twins followed closely as the fingers continued their journey. ‘Now Iran; different country.’
The twins were joined by two or three other porters as we travelled across Asia and arrived in Turkey. ‘Istanbul,’ I said, and made another small mark on the wall. ‘Some part Asia, other part is Europe with just a bridge between the two. Europe,’ I repeated. ‘Lots of countries,’ and as I reeled them off, so my fingers walked to the end of the wall and turned onto the hut’s eastern side. ‘Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia. The Alps – more mountains and glaciers….’
By now most of the porters had joined us. Inquisitive, with brows furrowed in concentration, they were enjoying the geography lesson that was really just a game, a way of consolidating obscure friendships, of communicating, sharing, breaking down any remaining barriers.
Stepping over the border between Austria and France we turned onto the south side of the hut for the home straight. ‘When we’ve crossed France,’ I told them, ‘we run out of land. Now only water – the English Channel.’
It struck me then, that none of these porters would have experienced an expanse of water greater than a mountain lake. Mostly uneducated, how could they imagine the rise and fall of tides, the rush and suck of waves on a beach? Could they envisage ships that carried hundreds of passengers, cars and trucks ploughing their way through sea from one country to another? The English Channel might be beyond their comprehension, so I took the easy option, made wave-like movements with my hand, then landed at Dover.
‘Kent!’ I told them. ‘England. No big mountains but green hills and meadows with cows and sheep. This,’ I said, ‘is where I live.’ And I made a mark on the wall right next to the one I’d made earlier to indicate the village that was their home.
‘Well, what d’you know,’ I said in triumph – ‘we’re neighbours!’
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