Portering in the Nepal Himalaya is deadly serious business. It involves enormous toil for little gain; it brings on premature aging. It is among the most primitive uses of human physiology — the hauling of loads for long distances on sheer “manpower”.
In Nepal, the porters are the subsistence farmers, men and women mired in extreme and general rural poverty. In a country where underemployment is endemic, the Himalayan peasants have few means of earning cash other than by bearing wickerwork baskets up and down mountain trails: oil and salt for the village merchant, pipes and tin roofing for development projects, firewood for hill markets, fodder for cattle, provisions for trekking parties and mountaineering gear for expeditions.
Farmers from isolated corners of the country also make annual treks down to the nearest roadhead to buy the year’s supply of salt, calico and cooking oil.
The porter (a bhartya or dhakray) balances the basket (doko or dhakra) on the back and uses a strap across the forehead, a narnio, to take most of the weight. The strain on the headband forces the porter to lean forward and down while taking a climb, breathing in steady, deep rhythms. The calf muscles are tense, the hands on the temples to steady the nand() , and the feet bare. Porters often have flat feet. Their soles are thicker than a shoe’s and as insensitive to the touch.
A grown man carries baskets that weigh 85kgs or more. Able-bodied western mountaineers have found it impossible even to stand upright and steady with a doko that a five-foot Rai or Tamang hillman has been carrying all day. It is partly a question of technique and partly a question of not having a choice.
Everest summitteer Edmund Hillary recalls with wonder a porter who was keeping pace with him on a trail between the east Nepal hamlets of Junbesi and Takshindu. ”When we stopped for lunch, I saw he was carrying two bags of cement, all of one hundred kilograms. His body-weight must have been about 65 or 70kgs.”
The tortuous steps up the steep, often dangerous trails are interrupted by short breathers, when the porter slips a thick wooden cane, called taken, under the basket. The porter then leans back to make a tripod out of his legs and the cane. The balancing act is difficult to maintain for long.
If the trail is in prosperous country, there will be a chautara with a rock platform to place the basket on, a peepul tree that whispers in the slightest breeze to provide shade, and a diverted stream nearby for a quick drink. But the stop cannot last too long, and before the body has had time to cool off, it is time to heave the load and push off for the high pass.
Descending the other side is much more difficult, as any hillmin knows. The technique perfected on the Himalayan trails is to keep the thigh muscles tense but flexible, to take quick short steps, slipping easily from one boulder to the next. Heavy footfalls, such as with heavy climbing boots, would ruin a bhariya’s knees in no time.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1967 recommended 55kg as the limit for loads being “manually transported” by an adult male worker. But existing rules allow men to carry loads ranging from 45kg in East Germany to 56kg in Mexico and 90kg in Bangladesh. In India, dock-workers have a limit of 100kg. But unlike the dock-worker, who heaves loads intermittently, a Nepali porter labours for hours at a time for days on end. (While researching this article, we could not locate a specific medical report on what years of hauling can do to the peasant’s backbone or general physique.)
Diet during these long excursions consists of sattu, powdered maize or grain. At lunch break, porters bring out their ubiquitous battered aluminium pans, add water to the sattu from a nearby stream and consume the paste with the aid of red pepper and salt. This is the time for some conversation with other toilers on the trail. Even as part of a group, portering is a very lonely pursuit. While on the road, the constant heavy breathing does not allow the peasant to sing, hum or converse. Nights on the trail are spent under a coarse homespun.
The pinnacle ‘of portering is to be a climbing partner to the sahebs who need help in getting to the top of Himalayan peaks. Sherpas have had a virtual monopoly over this end of the trade, although other hill tribes are finally making inroads. Lately, Sherpas have begun to leave the actual portering to others as they run trekking agencies and lodges and work as sardars and high altitude guides.
Local merchants in central Nepal pay a porter NRs60 a day to carry a 80kg load of provisions. In the tourists’ staging point of Pokhara, trekking agencies might pay as .little as NRs50 daily, while individual tourists pay anywhere from NRs80 to NRs I00. In the Arun valley of East Nepal, still out of bounds to tourists, the average is NRs.40 a day. Off season, the prices come down all over.
Nepal’s development efforts have focused on building highways to link population centers. Roads have helped bring the mountainous country together by improving communications. The transport of bulk goods is much easier and the national economy has benefitted immensely.
For the micro-economy of the hill villages, however, highways have been at best a mixed blessing. Very often, income that was spread fairly widely among mountain porters — all of them poor without distinctions of race, tribe or ethnicity — has now to be shared with urban businessmen who run buses, trucks and jeeps.
Porters do use the highways, but mostly to walk on the smooth tarmac. Even the cheapest bus fares can be too expensive for some of them. In the end, portering too is a ‘socio-economic indicator” — a manifestation of the material poverty of the hill society.
“The more simple the life, the poorer you are, the bigger the load you will carry,” says Edmund Hillary. “I believe that portering will decline with economic progress in the hills. It is such a hard life.”
A Lonely Death on Thorung La
By Padam Singh Ghaley
On 10 April, 1986, l was leading .a trekker’s party in central Nepal from Manang over the Thorang La (5330 metres) and down to Muktinath. We had just crossed the pass when a little to the side of the trail we noticed a black and blue sleeping bag spread out on the snow. A closer look showed that the lightweight sleeping bag was but a death shroud for a young porter. Scattered around were the contents of his doko: onions, potatoes, trekking food and utensils. It seemed that he had fallen victim to frostbite and altitude sickness and died a lonely death, far from the lowland hills where he obviously belonged.
My investigations showed that the dead man was from the village of Khanchok, on the Pokhara-Dumre road. He had been hired by a trekking party of an American couple, led by a sardar from a prominent trekking agency in Kathmandu.
As a mountain guide, I am concerned with the poor treatment often meted out to hill porters by some parties. While most tourists and trek organisers are quite decent, a few take advantage of the extreme poverty of our mountain peasants to take them to the limits of their endurance and capacity with little or no equipment, poor diet, and no support when they need help.
To retain and develop further the trekking trade, which forms an increasingly important part of our national economy, we must regulate and monitor it so that our image is not tarnished, neither in the eyes of foreigners nor in those of our rural compatriots.
I remember a 1984 article in the Rising Nepal in which a Bavarian climber was quoted saying that in his trip, “We didn’t suffer any losses, just one porter was killed.” The title of that article was, “No Losses: Just the Death of a Porter”. It seems as if nothing has changed.
Padam Singh Ghaley has been climbing and leading treks in Nepal for more than a decade.
When Mike Cheney died early in the new year, a few months short of his 60th birthday, the hill people lost a true friend. He had come from afar and stayed, not for the money or the glamour, but because of his attachment to the people of the mountains. After leaving the British Army in 1957, Mike managed tea estates in Darjeeling and later helped to found the tea industry of Nepal. In 1967, he joined the trekking trade and stayed on as a thoughtful keeper of conscience. The best tribute is do recall some of his words, excerpted here from the book Bikas-Binas.
“At present, cases of death or injuries of porters, on treks especially, are ‘hushed up’ and kept quiet. Complaints and reports are largely ignored. No enquiries are held as to why people died and how such deaths could be prevented in the future. Everybody just wants to forget — publicity would be bad for tourism. We in Nepal must work very hard at improving ‘manskills’. There is one very good, if unorthodox way of doing this. This is by shaming those reponsible for bad management resulting in maiming or death of those in their care. Just by making public the names or individuals and organisations responsible, without any other action, will quickly lead to big improvements.” (Himalaya Conference, Munich, 1983)
“Every winter there are reports of porters carrying goods for trekkers dying because they did not have good, warm clothing. Porters increasingly tend to wear western style clothes — thin nylon shirts,cotton shorts or thin cotton trousers, and fancy but thin nylon jackets from Hong Kong. Daura and sutuwal, your own type of clothing, is the best and warmest dress for working in the winter. So do not give it up because people in the towns who work in offices do not wear it — be proud to be Tamang, or Gurung or Rai, dressed in your own way. There are many things we need to learn from foreigners and for which we need help from foreigners. But to learn these things we don’t have to change ourselves. In the villages of Nepal, we do things differently, and better.” (Radio Nepal Tourism Programme, 1984)
Pictures by Kevin Bubriski