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Clint's Manaslu traders research sojourn
Just how rough can village living be? Clint tells us!
© Clint Rogers, 2004
Clint is a good friend of ours and has been researching in Nepal for many years now.
Here is an insight as to why we camp.
I'm back in Kathmandu after a good autumn season in the mountains. Now that I've showered, shaved, and eaten pizza, it's time to complete my social re-entry ritual with a dispatch to friends and family. I hope it finds you happy and healthy.
When I was last in touch by email in August, I wrote that I'd be spending the next few months "trying to persuade wizened old traders to allow me to accompany their yak caravans and stick my nose into their business." I have to admit I was feeling a bit apprehensive at the time about starting up a new research project in an area of Nepal that I wasn't terribly familiar with. But luckily, finding traders and yak caravans in the place I went to turned out to be about as easy as finding liberals and granola in Berkeley. The village I picked for my research on cross-border trade between Nepal and Tibet sits on a major caravan route just a few hours walk from the border. When they weren't harvesting barley or digging potatoes, you could count on the people from this village being off with their yaks carrying trade goods across the frontier. Never mind that that means walking for days across snow-bound mountain passes. The people from this village eat 17,000-foot passes for breakfast. And every last one of them can tell you the price of tea in China, as well as every thing else they've traded across the border in the last 40 years. To top it off, the patriarch of the village, a single-toothed grandpa with a quick smile, invited me to come stay in his house. I was in heaven. Or so I thought...
I didn't realize how dirty one could get living in a village at 13,000 feet, where it never gets warm enough to feel like taking a bath or washing your clothes. For two and a half months, my face and hands were the only body parts that touched water, and I never changed (let alone washed) my clothes. I needed to wear every single piece of clothing I had for 24 hours a day just to try to stay warm. Fortunately my new neighbors, most of whom bathe just once a year and never cut their hair, seemed perfectly accustomed to dandruff, not even once dusting off my lapel and handing me a bottle of Head and Shoulders like in the TV ad (it's safe to say they've never seen that ad).
In hindsight, the dandruff really wasn't so bad. I mean it was nothing compared to the lice. Until you've had your body riddled by lice (the big ones they grow in Asia) and your clothes infested with countless lice eggs, I say you just don't know the true meaning of nasty. Unless, that is, you've witnessed the passing of a 50-foot tapeworm (by the guy whose house I was staying and taking my meals in) or suffered from the version of giardiasis (an intestinal illness) I picked up in the village. Brought on by filth-loving protozoa apparently festering in the dirty environs, I was treated to the granddaddy of all stomach aches, the epitome of agony, unlike anything I had ever been through. I was bed-ridden, writhing in pain for days, using my hands to press the sulfurous gases from my bloated stomach for hours on end as the walls spun around me. Really awful.
Lucky for me, I had brought my own medicine, because I soon learned that medical treatment in the village entails cutting off a chicken's head and drinking the fresh blood. If that doesn't work right away (which it never seems to), then the monks are called in to make a fantastic 3-headed dragon sculpture (with beady eyes, forked tongues, the works) out of barley flour while chanting ancient Tibetan mantras. At the end, the 3-headed dragon is cut to pieces and cast out of the village to exorcise the bad spirits responsible for causing the illness. I swear I'm not making any of this up.
The best part about getting over the stomach ordeal, besides not being forced to drink chicken blood, was getting to partake again in the local delicacies. I am completely convinced that this village grows the world's most delicious potatoes, which they prepare by boiling to perfection in a broth of melted yak butter, Tibetan rock salt, and a spice called zhimbu that they pick wild in Tibet. And then, just to make you think you've really reached nirvana, they dip these melt-in-your-mouth potatoes in fresh yak milk curd. Ahhhhh.
The daily staple in the village (i.e. the food that I ate morning, afternoon, and evening) is barley flour mixed in a cup of salt-butter tea. You knead the moistened flour into a dough with your fingers and add an extra lump of yak butter to make it really tasty. They call the stuff tsampa (pronounced "sahm-pa"), a name which I've now added to my list of favorite foods right alongside burritos, pizza, and my mom's chocolate-chip cookies.
Yak meat is eaten with gusto by all when available, but as killing is strictly frowned upon by Buddhist precepts and I was the only heathen non-practitioner in a village of devout Buddhists, it became standard practice for hungry households to call upon me to do the actual dirty work. The first time I reluctantly agreed to this duty (in the name of research), the yak in question, which had an injured leg and thus could be slaughtered without bringing too much bad karma down upon its slayer, made things relatively easy for me by dying quickly and quietly. But when I was pressed to kill a second animal just a few days later, it turned into a nightmare. To everyone's amazement and horror, the damned thing just refused to die. There I was beating its skull repeatedly with a huge sledgehammer, and it just kept looking at me sadly with those big brown eyes. Even after I'd slit the beast's throat in desperation to put a quicker end to its suffering, the poor thing still wouldn't die. It had to be the most drawn out, agonizing death of all time. Right up there with Jesus on the cross and that cat my brother put in the freezer when we were kids. I don't think I've ever felt worse in my life than on The Day The Yak Wouldn't Die. The villagers will be lighting butter lamps in the local monastery for years to make up for all the bad karma we accumulated on that day.
I think the worst karma of all though is in store for the loser teacher who played hooky from the local school for the entire year of 2004, just as he did in 2003, in 2002, and every other year in memory. Because this place is so darn cold and remote, the lowlander who takes a salary from the Nepal government to run the little one-room schoolhouse never bothers to show up in the village. With no teacher, the little kids just run wild all day, causing as much havoc as they can. And boy are they the naughtiest little punks, throwing rocks at everything and pilfering whatever they can get their grimy little hands on. I'd take lice over those kids any day.
One of the more endearing qualities of life in the village is the sheer simplicity of things. For example, each house is comprised of just a single room where the entire family gathers around the open-fire hearth to keep warm, eat, and sleep. Surrounded by such simplicity at all times, it didn't dawn on me that there wasn't a single chair or table in any of the houses of the village. It wasn't until I had left the village and was halfway through my week-long walk back to Kathmandu, when I got down to a place where they actually had tables and chairs, that it occurred to me that I hadn't sat in a chair or eaten at a table for months. In the village everyone just sits cross-legged on the floor all the time, eating and drinking from bowls and cups that are set on the floor as well. The cross-legged sitting was something I got used to quickly, although even after a couple months I could still only stand it for about 45 minutes at a time before my knees started to ache.
But I could easily find excuses to get out and stretch my legs. There were always plenty of villagers to chat with, crops to harvest, and trading trips to go on. And there were also ample opportunities to explore the nearby mountains and appreciate the incredible scenery. Not only is the village located within spitting distance of the world's 8th highest peak (well over 26,000 feet), it is also surrounded by four high mountain passes connecting the area with adjacent regions in Tibet and Nepal. A mountain lover's dream come true.
And so I'm looking forward to returning to the village in the spring to continue my research. In the meantime, I'm trying to decide where to spend the winter - some place where living is cheap and there's sufficient electricity to charge a laptop. I've got the makings of a story about a Himalayan trading village to start working on...