One of the good things about travelling alone, if travelling alone ever is good, is that you get to set your own pace. The other good thing is that you become more congenial, more affable. When you are with people you know one does not make efforts to know people; strangers remain strangers. If you are in a group all you might ask people you meet on the way is: “Is this the way to …?” or “How far is … from here?” You approach people not because you want to, but, because you need to.
On the other hand, by traveling alone as a stranger on the trail you might be mistaken for something other than an innocent trekker.
Certainly, while trekking alone, you get to invest more time on strangers. If I get a chance to talk to a stranger on a trip, I always try to narrow down my interest to his individual level. That always helps me remember that person. It also gets rid of that universally loathsome term, ‘stranger’.
People don’t remain strangers for long if they walk together on a trip. And you hardly notice the change. After a few minutes of walking alone I felt the need to confirm whether I was on the right path. I saw a man up ahead on the climb. I shouted and asked which road I needed to take to get to Kuri, my destination. He shouted back to continue on the same road. In a few minutes, I caught up with him. The man was on his way to a nearby monastery where he worked, to attend a sermon by the resident Rinpoche. I was carrying a backpack and the man had a long prayer rosary. We must have looked like teacher and disciple, on our way to the Right Path.
We parted where the road forked. He went down to the monastery after directing me to keep on the other road, to follow the electric poles on to Kuri.
What I wasn’t told was those poles would be all I would see on my way. There comes a stage in every endeavor taken on singly when the very thing that made you take it on (like the feeling that you went for, which others drew away from) loses its charm. Then you begin cursing yourself for having thought that you were going to get something out of it. I was in that stage when I saw the first human after leaving the monastery trail. I wanted to walk on past. And I did.
I walked past a porter, a boy in his teens. I had passed him at the base of a small but steep climb. After a few steps I stopped and waited for him. “How much longer to Kuri?”, I began as he was abreast. He said it was a considerable way away. “Are you heading there too?”, was my second and more important question. The answer was what I wanted to hear. He wouldn’t slow down, not even when he answered. The load on his back told me that he couldn’t, that momentum was crucial while climbing with a load on your back. I let him take the lead.
After a while, he asked me to lead. The tone was modest, bordering on guilt – the guilt of knowing he would slow me down if he led, and the modesty in disregarding that even if he did, it was only because he was carrying 50 kilos of rice. Seeing his sweat-drenched brow I offered him water. He declined explaining that it was impossible to drink with the load. I offered help. He thought better of it. “There’s a Sherpa’s house up ahead. I’ll drink there”, he said, reading my concern.
After we had drunk from the Sherpa’s house I asked him his name. His name was Gyan Bahadur. His family lived in a village further away from where we were heading. He had dropped out of school and was a porter by profession. I didn’t ask him, but I couldn’t believe he had chosen to be a porter. In the villages, it doesn’t matter what one can do. What matters more is what there is to do. Gyan was good at what he did.
Gradually, we developed an understanding, one that does not grow by talking voluminously, but, which forms between people just by doing something together. True, I was not carrying 50 kilos on my back and he was not there for fun. But we were walking together. Occasionally, I would abandon the trail, emerge ahead of Gyan and wait for him. At times, I would lose the trail altogether, find my way back by locating the poles, and Gyan would be waiting for me.
We rested for the second time in a clearing at the base of another climb. There were a couple of stone-houses with their doors wide open. “The inhabitants have moved away it seems”, I said to Gyan. He told me they had gone down to the monastery. I inquired how much longer it was to Kuri. Gyan pointed to a black hill in front of us and said it was immediately beyond it. The hill was close. Sensing my eagerness, Gyan told me I need not wait for him. He would meet me at Kuri.
The hill seemed climbable and reasoning it would offer a splendid view of the mountains I set off. Nearing the hill I realized climbing it wasn’t possible; an adjacent and smaller hill had a wide ridge running down to the path, however. It was a safer and easier hill to climb. A little ahead on the path two women were resting (or so it seemed). Knowing that Kuri was beyond that hill, I started the climb, leaving the path and the women on it.
The view from the top was good. I kept an eye on the path, too, hoping to see Gyan, but he was nowhere in sight. I descended thinking he had gone on ahead. A strong wind had started and the sweat on my t-shirt was adding to the cold. I changed it and went downhill into Kuri.
Kuri was hardly the thriving village I had pictured it to be. It was with a few houses huddled together into a settlement a little valley. Through the middle was a stony pathway. A black, gaunt hill stood in the background. The shrine of the Kalinchowk deity was on the top of that hill.
Almost every house on both sides of the pathway was locked. In front of the only one with an open door was a boy chopping wood. The house showed promise of shelter. As I was talking to the boy, a woman came out. She asked me where I had come from. When I told her, she asked why. I told her that too and then she inquired if I was alone. I said yes. Apparently my answer surprised her, for she asked me again, several times. Once I playfully tried to put her off by saying that I had come with a friend whom I had eaten on the way. She was not amused. But my trousers, which could be unzipped and made into shorts seemed very funny to her. She thought I was wearing shorts over trousers and that made her laugh. Finally, after her interrogation, she asked me to come in.
I stayed outside to watch the sun go down. The woman, whom I now knew was the landlady, took this delay for hesitation and came out again and bade me in. I finally entered the house, for I did not want her to have to come out again.
The house was dark inside. A fire was burning in a corner with some people sitting around it. These privileged seats by the fire were for the women, with one seat for men. Men took turns for that seat. I was shown to the dining-table. Opposite me, some people sat huddled in a bed, with quilts drawn up. Someone from there asked me where I had come from. I said from Kathmandu. He said he was from there, too. I could see faces only when the fire was bright (each time the pot on it was lifted); when it was dark, I talked in the direction of silhouettes.
One of the women sitting by the fire starting saying something in the local dialect. The landlady translated for those of us who did not understand. The woman spoke of a thief she and her mother had encountered en route to Kuri. The women had seen a man carrying a staff come running down a hill slope. Too frightened to flee, they just stood there, waiting to be attacked. Strangely, the thief went his own way.
While the rest of us were thinking about the mysterious thief, the landlady was thinking, Sherlock Holmishly: “Son, did you happen to climb a hill on your way here?”, asked the landlady. I said I had and that I had left the path to climb a hill but had descended to the path again. I had been carrying a staff to aid me during the walk. She had seen it in my hands when she first met me outside. She asked the still-terrified women what the thief had been wearing. They could not remember the color, but that it was a t-shirt. The landlady looked at me. I was wearing a jacket. The metamorphosis of the t-shirt into a jacket left her puzzled. I rescued Holmes just as her concerns were shifting towards dinner. I described my change of clothing on the hill. I showed her the sweat-drenched t-shirt, from a distance. That was enough to put out the pipe for the night, so to speak. The landlady put an end to the speculation of the benign thief by declaring that I had been mistaken for a thief. Fits of laughter filled the crowded room. Even the ‘victims that were not robbed’ could not help letting out an embarrassed laughter.
When Gyan walked in, the subject of the thief rose again. Gyan revealed to the women I had accompanied him for most of the way. That convinced the two women. To ease the shame I felt, I did what I’d done earlier—I laughed.
While we were talking more people came into the house. It was like a barracks where soldiers were coming back from a patrol of their assigned areas; everyone had an experience to share. The last to arrive were three men. On the way, they had met a man, an inhabitant of Kuri. When asked about the scratches on him, he told them he was fleeing from a thief. He hadn’t seen the thief himself but had heard about him from two women. Hiding his money somewhere in the forest he was heading for town. Howls of laughter filled the room again. Then the three new arrivals were introduced to the “thief”.
After these, the last of the travelers came in and settled down and the room gradually warmed up, the way all rooms in winter, filled with people do, without one’s knowing whether it is the people or the fire that makes the it warm.
Suddenly, everyone under the roof found something to do. Consequently, smaller groups formed; the women sat around the fire to cook, a few men sat at the table to drink, others listened to the radio. But, whenever talk of the man fleeing the thief came up everybody laughed. An old woman’s memory was ignited by that man’s cowardice. She regaled us with an incidence when a woman from her village had mounted a bear that entered her house, to prevent it from attacking her children. If the drinks hadn’t run out all the men would have drunk to the courage of the brave woman.
The man from Kathmandu told me he had come to fulfill a promise. As a child he had visited the deity’s shrine and vowed to return. This time he had a child of his own. He asked me if I would go to the shrine with him in the morning. I said I would.
It was a great assembly of people; village folks, city dwellers, pilgrims, trekker (aka the ‘thief that did not steal’) and ‘victims that were never robbed’) and the great adjudicator herself, the matriarch, at least while we were in her house and she was cooking for us.
After dinner, the day’s walk and the thought of next day’s, got us all into bed early.
In the morning we set off on a short but arduous climb to the shrine. On our return, as we neared the house where we had slept, ‘the man who kept his promises’ made yet another one. He swore an oath never to return to Kuri. He told me he hadn’t slept well due to the cold.
By the time we returned from the temple, most of the other visitors had left. Gyan had gone with the two women. Two others were getting ready to leave. I got my bag from the room, paid the landlady, thanked her and said goodbye.
When I look back on that trip and recall that evening in the smoke-and-people-filled house, I begin to believe that you don’t have to be a thief to get something from people. Sometimes, you get much more just by being mistaken for one, listening to the banter, and paying careful attention to the consequences