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Travel and World Culture   
  Photo: Jason Maehl
 Photo: Jason Maehl

Nepal: Befriending Budhathum
By Kalvis Jaunarajs

Within a few hours of flying over massive, snowcapped mountains, and landing in the lush–post monsoon–Katmandu Valley, I was sitting in an office at my guesthouse, discussing trekking options with the owner of a local agency.  For the past three weeks the majority of my time had been spent in cities throughout Thailand and Cambodia, and I was starved for nature.  The trekking I had done during the past seven months of my travels was all in preparation for this; having reached Nepal, it was time to hike the Himalayas.  We worked out the details over a warm cup of sweet, milky tea, and the decision was made final: my sixteen-day trek would begin the morning after next. 

I had chosen a two-part trip, with the second portion leading up to the Annapurna Base Camp–the starting point for mountaineers aiming to summit the tenth-highest peak in the world.  It was, however, the first part of the trip that sold me: a route connecting remote, mountain villages scattered throughout the Ganesh Himal Range.  I would sleep in a tent, eat with local families, and walk along trails that were carved into earth by the repeated footsteps of villagers often carrying large loads on their backs as their only means of importing goods.   I was told that most people weren’t interested in this trek as it was overshadowed by famous peaks like Everest; I thought it was perfect. 

The following evening, after a day spent gathering and sorting gear, the time came to meet my guide.  I thought about it the entire day and was nervous about meeting him. I was traveling alone without the company of any other Westerners, and for the next two weeks he would be my lone companion. He would be my only source of local knowledge; he would be my navigator, translator, and provider. 

With an infectious smile, he introduced himself as Amir and immediately put me at ease.  He was a 38-year-old Nepalese man, who had worked as a trekking guide for the past 15 years. His stature was small, but his wiry frame was perfect for walking long distances in the hills.

With a topographical map laid out on a table, I asked him to show me the route.  I watched him struggle, scanning the entire page as if lost.  He laughed upon orienting himself and explained that he grew up in this area and had walked these trails countless times without a map.  We left the next morning without a hitch.

We had walked for most of the day, and I was exhausted.  I sat by candle light at a wooden table listening to Amir talk in Nepali with two local men.  The smooth, red, mud walls of the building were barely visible through the darkness. We all sipped on cheap, watery whisky and gnawed on questionable parts of a chicken, whose death I had witnessed earlier in the evening.
After the whisky was gone and smudges of green-curry-sauce were all that remained in our bowls, Amir asked if I was interested in making a detour to his village, Budhathum, a place I had been asking him about all day.  It would put us three days behind schedule; but I did not have to be anywhere, and without hesitation I agreed.  Amir told me it had been two years since his last visit, and I was glad to be at least partially responsible for his homecoming.

On the afternoon that we arrived in Budhathum, smiles spread across the faces of people as they saw Amir unexpectedly walk past.  After making a number of stops to chat with friends, we made our way to his house.  It was a small, one-story dwelling that looked similar to the rest of the buildings in the village.  The walls were made of stacked stones that were sealed with red mud.  Air flowed freely through the boxy holes that served as windows, which were barely large enough for a head to fit through, Dried grass made up a sloped roof, which extended past the exterior walls and hung over a pair of skinny cows that rhythmically chewed.  A modest plot of dirt made up the courtyard, and was neatly surrounded by a knee-high stone wall. 

Both of Amir’s parents were in the yard when we arrived, and for the next half-hour I witnessed an improvised family reunion.  Word of Amir’s arrival quickly spread through the village.  Sitting on the stonewall in the corner of the courtyard, I watched as the area became packed with daughters, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles, all grinning from ear to ear.

After the initial excitement died down, the focus shifted towards me.  Amir told me that the last time he had come through two years ago was also the last time the village had seen a Westerner.  A crowd of children slowly developed a safe distance away from me.  Without saying a word, they all stared, wide-eyed, like I was an exotic animal in a zoo. 

I glanced over and counted twelve of them.  I picked a target; she was a small girl about three years old who was leaning over the heads of her friends in the back row; and I locked into her gaze.  We held eye contact for a good ten seconds, and then I smiled the widest, goofiest grin that I could make, tilted my head sideways, and rapidly moved my eyebrows up and down.  She was now laughing with delight, and it was echoed by a few other children.  I knew I was on to something.  For the next hour I traded goofy looks with every one of the children, and before long, all I had to do was look at them suspiciously for a moment to make them laugh.

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