Yes, mules. A reasonably new addition to the landscape of Eastern Nepal, mules first came from India to work the trails around the Annapurnas. Or so I was told. The construction of roads in the region rendered their services obsolete, and they were transferred to Eastern Nepal, where growing demand for supplies and their faster delivery to Kari Khola, Lukla and Namche Bazaar made them a part of everyday life on the trail.
OK. that’s all very well, but there are very obvious problems with this. From my direct observation as a trekker, walking the monsoon trail below Lukla entails wallowing in mud on destroyed paths. Plus of course stomping through mulas latrines, as the dear mules all pee in the same spot, right on the trail of course, and let me tell you, if you have never inhaled mule piss smell, you ‘ve never been to Odour Hell.
We are not talking about the odd mule here. When we walked down from Lukla to Lura, near Salleri, district headquarters and now end of the road serving the Solu Khumbu area, in one day Dawa Tamang, my delightful porter and guide, and I had to duck hundreds, and I mean many hundreds of pack animals. I was there for only a few days. The locals have to live with it, every day of their life.
Mulas carry staples that don’t break, such as rice and flour. They, and their wild looking, rough acting, gumboots wearing handlers ( think gold and flower printed gumboots made in China) leave Salleri early each morning, five days out of the week. They have three camps on the way to Namche. It takes them two days to walk back down, then they do it all again. I won’t get into the obvious animal welfare issue. Anyone out there interested, they can take it on, do your internet search and join a group.
So how does that ‘mulas effect’ affect the local people, beside the very damaged trails already mentionned? Portering used to be a traditional means of income for cash poor families. Porters are still there. They carry goods that would be damaged on mules back, that makes sense. Except that now, without fail, these human beasts of burden carry 85 to 100 kilos on their backs, staggering the entire way to Namche ( for example) in five to six days, with two days back down to the start. At one hundred rupees per kilo carried, that makes it 8500 rupees, or one hundred Australian dollars for 8 days work. Minus expenses, which are at least 500 rupees a day, on average. You do the math. O, and by the way, one 500ml can of beer from Lukla up is 500 rupees…
It is no wonder that porters jostle for jobs working for trekking and climbing companies, where they are paid 500 rupees per day to carry a maximum of 30 kilos. They also get 400 or 450 rupees for their daily food expenses. The porters still have to manage their earnings. It is very tempting to spend money in a touristy region where consumerism and commerce are prevalent, the urge to spend exacerbated by a general atmosphere of happy holidays. My 20 YO porter was not immune to it. The poor bloke kept asking for advances on his salary, and ended up spending most of his earnings on whatever lured a 20 YO from below Lukla.
I’d never employed a personal porter before, and only found out about portering life by talking with porters below Lukla, where people take the time to say Namaste to the very few Whities travelling the gigantic and sweaty landscape of forever ups and downs. Porter Santosh’s story not only made me feel terribly guilty about not managing his payments better, but also highlighted the fact that companies who provide food to porters * * instead of a daily food rupee allowance, are really looking after their folks. The porters get paid at the end of their contract, and if this seems like a big brother approach, at least it ensures they bring mullah home to the family. They of course complain that the wages should be higher, and they went up, from 150 rupees a few years back, to, as I already mentionned, around 500 rupees a day. Thank you to the power of unions, which sprouted all over the place after ‘the Conflict’, and a more leftist government.
I was told that 400 rupees is not enough to sustain even a frugal man in Sherpa country, where prices are inflated by ever growing demand. ‘Well, why do they do it?’ The tips from Western clients are good, they said. So now we have a trekking porter on a 6 days trip carrying 30 kgs max and being fed, making 3000 rupees plus an average tip of 2500 rupees per porter – there is a sliding scale to tips being shared, with porters at the bottom getting 2500 rupees average and trek leaders getting around 7000 rupees-
After learning all that, I decided to pay Dawa what he thought would be a reasonable wage, or 700 rupees a day. Plus all food expenses as we were travelling together, and a private room as well ( less than $2 a night). Plus a day wages and a bit to cover his travelling from home to Lukla, where we started our walk, or 3000 rupees for 3 days work and one day travel. That made us both happy, and we cheered the world at Takshindu Monastery over a pint of chang, the night before we arrived at our destination..
Takshindu Monastery, doing the Kora. Dawa Tamang, porter, farmer, husband, father, brother from Lura.
There you go. Reflections on the underbelly of that stunningly beautiful, spic and span Khumbu of our high altitude dreams…. Everything has a price, and the problem here is, that a lot of people who do not benefit pay for it…
* I mean mules of course, but years of guiding Aconcagua in South America has for ever coloured my words and language choices
* * not to mention cold weather gear, insurance etc ..