Deep in a dry stream bed, a dust-covered worker is chipping at stones which he then expertly pieces together to create the foundations for a bridge that he and others are constructing in Bukha, a Gurung village in the Annapurna region. There are 10 of us assisting, visitors from Australia and the USA, who have joined this World Expeditions (WE) project, hoping to contribute something whilst enjoying the delights of Himalayan trekking and life in a Nepali village.
Machappuchhare provided inspiring company for
the World Expedition team
The villagers, hired with WE funds, do much of the work, including the planning and expert stonemasonry. We foreigners are the amateurs, hauling, digging, carrying rocks and mixing concrete. The school teachers, who come during breaks to observe our efforts, show that they have excavated and cut stone before, whilst the children are barely able to attend classes, so thrilled are they with the distraction.
A few of us are asked to teach. I have the unenviable experience of trying to convey something useful about ‘Patriotism’, an impenetrable poem by Walter Scott, which, to my astonishment, is on the class 10 syllabus. I have an easier time with a textbook lesson on Australia, ‘Explorers and Strange Animals’.
We have trekked for seven days, from just outside Pokhara, through a peaceful land in perfect winter weather. I have had the good fortune of two previous treks in Nepal, one a decade ago, the other a few months earlier in Langtang, but I have never been in this area. One of our members, Jamie, has just completed a World Expeditions school project at Ramche in Langtang; he is like a mountain goat, bounding ahead with the porters and organising games of footy with the trekking crew and village children long before the rest of us arrive at camp each afternoon. The others have not been in Nepal before.
Our walk has taken us through beautifully varied worlds: tiny terraces of millet and recently harvested rice, orchid-festooned forests of ancient trees, their reptilian limbs lost in wandering mists, and butterfly and bird-filled gardens. On steep stone stairways, ascending or falling for an eternity, a regular traffic of horses, mules and their drivers dashes by in a racket of bells and shouts, laughing school kids skip upwards for miles (past us lumbering foreigners) and farmers, mostly women, amble by with staggering loads of grass and other fodder. Just everyday hill country comings and goings. And, piloting us, with slight geometric shifts, is the indomitable Machhapuchhare (6,997 m), the ‘Fishtail.’
One morning at 4.30, we struggle into the cold and darkness to climb Poon Hill (3,210 m). At the summit, we join about 200 other trekkers and wait in shivering clusters for sunrise. ‘No eternal reward will forgive us for wasting the dawn!’ (Jim Morrison) – a sentiment that came to me as the first light touched the highest peaks before rapidly advancing to illuminate a splendid prospect, more majesty than I had ever seen – Dhaulagiri I (8,167 m), Tarke Kang (7,193 m), Niligiri (6,940 m), Annapurna South (7,219 m) and Annapurna I (8,091 m). When we descended to Ghorepani for breakfast, I taunted those of my colleagues who had stubbornly slept through the dawn call with the Morrison lyric.
An early morning view of Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna range from
As we progress towards Bukha, leaving the busy Annapurna route and descending on local trails, we enter territory almost untouched by the changes of only a few kilometres away. We arrive at the village, and that afternoon, walk through terraces and past farmhouses to the school. There we are welcomed with ceremony, speeches, and song, over 400 children seated on the ground, amused and restless in their endearingly ragged clothes. We are presented with golden garlands, cream scarves and red tikkas; musicians play drums and horns, and men old and young erupt into dance. Hundreds from the surrounding area have emerged to greet us. Then we are shown the creek where the bridge is to be built and work begins immediately.
One of my colleagues, Lyn, had undertaken a project trek in Peru, and, impressed with the quality of World Expeditions and the way they care for the porters and the environment, chose this activity in Nepal. Her husband, Bert, admitting that he “did it tough” in the first few days on trails for which his outdoor life in Australia had not prepared him, finds the project work an absolute “highlight”.
“As the bridge progresses,” he adds, “we can see something tangible, and, what’s more, we’re doing it with and for incredible people.”
Robin, who is rarely out of the deep excavation, says, “This is the greatest reward, seeing and working with those who’ll benefit.” He has also found the Nepali crew wonderful to be with, and appreciates the fact that his fellow trekkers “are people who are here because they want to learn from others as well as from their surroundings.”
Eli was attracted because she wanted to go to the Himalayas, intrigued by Bhutan’s ‘happiness index’; since she intended to do some project work, she chose Nepal. “It’s been amazing, with the welcome at the school absolutely overwhelming. It’s been tough, but I came for the challenge.”
The youngest in the party are Jess and Dan, in their early twenties and well travelled. Bouncing from labouring in the pit to classrooms and playgrounds, they buzz with enthusiasm for the children, our team, the villagers, the scenery and even we older companions.
Australians Jamie and Robin in the creek-bed excavation assist Nepali
workers with stonework and preparation of construction support
Peter is an experienced builder. In the first few days, he is dismayed by the lack of paper plans, but as he works with the locals, his respect grows. “You’d seldom see people working as hard in Australia, and considering that they have no power and the simplest of tools, it’s remarkable what they can do!”
I talk to members of our crew and find all of them delighted to have work that takes them to beautiful places all over Nepal, and which brings them into contact with foreigners. The trekkers are unanimous in their praise for the staff and remark that they seem always cheerful. Also, the medical training of Rajat Roy, the leader, and the Sherpas under him, is evident to those who fall ill.
The greatest praise is reserved for the two cooks, Chittra and Bahkta, both highly experienced, and training a clutch of kitchen boys. The meals they produce from their camp kitchen are incredible and would put many metropolitan chefs in the shade. And both are farmers, like many WE staff, returning home in the monsoon season. The porters, of all ages, mostly come from remote districts, and earn the admiration of everyone; it’s not just their endurance, but their wanting to be part of the party, even with their limited English. They lie about like tiger cubs when we arrive at our destination each afternoon, but when there is a chance to play football with the children and trekkers, or when the villagers assemble for a dance, they are into it.
On our last night in Bukha, we are being entertained to dance, music and a glass or two of raksi (millet-based liquor). From the darkness beyond the pale lamplight, a phantom dredged in white dust appears. Dancing in and out of the shadows and light in weaving, sinuous movements, he might be Hanuman the Monkey God; but he is the stone cutter, fuelled by a little raksi, come to bid us farewell.
Outside the circle of flickering light, I watch the swelling moon illuminate the Annapurnas. Far away in the valley, the contours of terraces and the huddle of old stone villages through which we have trekked, create an immemorial vista, perfectly etched by moonshine and shadow.
A version of this story was published in ‘The Australian’ on February 20, 2010 and has been reproduced with permission.
Murray Laurence is a writer and teacher and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org