“Sorry for picking the rhododendron, fellas. Truce, please?”
I whispered my apology to the heavens and snuggled into the outcrop of Hinku Cave, a protective nook 3,000 meters and five days into Nepal’s notorious Annapurna Base Camp hike. In typical mountain fashion, the morning sky promised cerulean vistas and caressing breezes. Now, ominous clouds veiled all but mere meters in front of my nose, and I was shivering in my woolly layers.
I pondered my options. Deurali, my night’s accommodation, perched on the next mountain pass. Thanks to my plastic gown, I didn’t fear getting wet. But I was bit apprehensive about tottering on a sheer ravine with my hefty backpack. And traversing a slippery glacier in dense clouds was not on today’s bucket list.
So, short of renting a mountain goat, I was stuck here for now.
I should be dismayed, but despite the sour turn in my pristine trekking weather, I was loving every minute of my Nepalese adventure. The land of smiles offered scenery that hugged my soul and local personalities that warmed my heart with their delicious, welcoming nature. Nepal was an addictive travel destination, one that I wanted to experience to the fullest. However unexpected, this sudden storm allowed me to truly appreciate all of Nepal’s temperaments, and I was soon relaxing into the rain’s melodic embrace.
Crack! The interlude was interrupted as three porters broke through my cloud fortress.
“Namaste. Tapaai laai kasto chha?” Hello. How are you? That was the extent of my Nepali so I added an extra-wattage smile for good measure.
The boys immediately dropped their overloaded dokos and began an enthusiastic banter, “Namaste! Lamo samaya…”
I didn’t understand a word. Instead, I offered another grin and made space on the narrow floor of my shelter. Introductions followed, and Brakesh, Raji and Prem were soon settled in the cave to wait out the storm with me.
While the tempest writhed and wormed her way through the ravine, I pulled chocolate bars from my backpack and accidentally dropped my beautiful rhododendron on the wet earth. After rescuing my delicate souvenir, I joked that the rain gods were punishing me for picking one of their sacred mountain blossoms.
“Yes, rhododendrons bring good luck for hikers. Maybe not for you,” laughed Brakesh in near flawless English.
The boys patted my shoulder and assured me that I was not to blame for the turbulent forces of nature. Then, over sips of raksi, a sake-like booze made from fermented millet, we shared stories of our families, lives, and adventures.
Prem, who at twenty was the trio’s oldest, began portering with his father several years ago. He pressed a photo of his young son into my hand and professed that they will work Annapurna’s trails together one day. It was his wish that they become respected and honored porters among their peers.
Raji carried engineering textbooks in his backpack and hoped to move to Kathmandu, or perhaps Delhi, one day. He yearned for a college education and craved knowledge about a world outside of Nepal.
Brakesh, who loved American pop culture, wanted to know everything about Katy Perry, Obama, and Hollywood’s TomKat gossip. I passed on my dog-eared copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and he grasped my hand in sincere gratitude.
As our conversations melted into the evening, I was struck by the affection these boys expressed for their lifestyles along Annapurna’s trails. To an outsider, a porter’s life of labor was sometimes considered unjust or cruel; however, the porter’s bond of brotherhood and respect for the mountain was an enduring legacy.
The rain eventually passed, and we walked together towards Deurali. By the time we arrived, there were no available beds. Instead, I was given a heavy yak-hair blanket and offered space with the porters on the kitchen floor. The boys arranged my hiking boots near the stove’s dying embers and insisted that I sleep closest to the warm hearth.
Restful dreams came quickly.
My new friends rose early and were gone before I woke. As I savored a mug of ginger tea, I relished that life’s turn of events often lead to remarkable encounters. I would probably never see my endearing friends again, but their unique characters had left a lasting impression in my heart and had inspired a return to Nepal someday, perhaps even to this very spot along the Annapurna trail. Like the boys, I felt the mountain calling to me, asking to be understood and explored. It’s an exciting feeling.
As I reached to assemble my gear, I noticed a fresh rhododendron tucked into my laces. A hastily written note promised, “better luck today!”
I laughed and secured the lucky blossom to my pack.
“Dhanyabad, boys.” Thank you.
About the Author: Since fleeing Chicago’s marketing scene and exchanging her high heels for hiking boots, Ashley Cultra has traveled, volunteered, and worked her way around the globe, including a seven month sail through the South Pacific. When she’s not traipsing through mountain vistas, Ashley dreams of publishing her first book and plans her next adventure.
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