CHYAMTANG, Nepal – The blood oozed down my leg, darkening my sock. I'd slipped on a slick rock and banged my shin, leaving a 2-inch-long gash and the promise of a nice bruise.
As our group took a break, I rolled up my already-stained pant leg and dabbed toilet paper on the cut. That's when Karma Bhotia's uncle, who had led us on this side trip, noticed and sprang into action.
Goba Jyamyang Bhotia, a Chyamtang native and resident, glanced around hurriedly, pulled up some grass here, some leaves there, maybe some berries, and started rubbing them together and squeezing. As the olive-green liquid began to run from his unwashed hands, he let it drip onto my wound.
I didn't know what to expect, and he couldn't speak my language. Would the cut instantly heal? Maybe my leg would turn black and fall off in a couple days?
This trip halfway around the globe, to this remote area of northeastern Nepal, was about helping tiny villages on the cusp of huge change. Our group of 12 Southwest Coloradans came at the behest of Karma Bhotia, who grew up in Chyamtang, now lives in Durango and wants to help his native area adapt to the 21st century. But it was also about cultural exchange: us learning from them. If this near stranger thought that putting green juice on my leg was the cure, then how could I refuse?
Mind-blowing things like this happened almost daily in Nepal. Here is a smattering of what I saw during a monthlong trip that rocked my world:
A different scale
During pre-trip conversations, Karma Bhotia talked of carrying 175-pound (80-kilogram) loads during his time as a porter and mountain guide. I nodded but silently assumed he didn't quite understand the metric conversion or was exaggerating.
Turns out, it was me who didn't understand. What I saw in Nepal was porters – some of them women – carrying ridiculous loads beyond my scale of comprehension: wide loads of metal roofing and lumber, tall loads in their dokas (wicker baskets), big loads of grain. They start when they're age 4 by hoisting a younger sibling on their back, and the loads grow from there.
Bhotia was matter-of-fact in Nepal when I exclaimed my amazement. “It is a difficult life,” he said.
The 25-hour bus ride
When a map shows a “main highway,” I picture four lanes with traffic moving smoothly at 60 mph.
Low visibility grounded our plane from Tumlingtar back to Kathmandu, leaving us a choice: Gamble and hope the fog would lift, or take a long bus ride (an estimated 400 miles), a gamble of another sort. We chose bus and left Tumlingtar at about 8:30 p.m., traveling through the night on a bumpy road.
When we reached the “main highway” in Itahari, two things happened: Daybreak arrived, and I got a prime seat for seeing the road ahead. OK, three things: My definition of “main highway” changed.
Highway H01, from an American perspective, is just a trail with patches of asphalt that vehicles share with everything that moves: pedestrians, bicycles, pigs, buses, rickshaws, goats, motor scooters, oxen, trucks, monkeys and the very rare passenger car.
The trip was very entertaining, in an “I-hope-we-survive-this” kind of way. To pass anything, our driver would pull out into the oncoming lane, and squeeze back into our ill-defined lane just as another truck or bus bore down on us. The most important accessory of any Nepali vehicle, I learned, is the horn.
No fine line
Several of us made a two-day round trip from Chyamtang north to the Nepal-Tibet (China) border, where towns face each other across a river.
Standing in Nepal, in the village of Kimathangka, you're surrounded by stone-walled houses with basically no government-provided utilities. Looking across at Drenthang, in Tibet, you see a road and electric lines that appeared in 2007. In Kimathangka, you hope your solar panel keeps your light on for a couple hours. In Drenthang, you turn a switch to light up a room or watch TV, and enjoy all the material goods that large trucks deliver via road.
But the road is coming to Nepal. It's already creeping up the hillside from the river toward Kimathangka. And it's coming, too, from the south. It ends now in Num, Nepal. But a planned billion-dollar hydropower project below Num – an Indian company signed a deal with Nepal's government in late November – brings the promise of hundreds of workers, a much-improved road and huge, staggering change to the area.
Jumping for boots
At the end of our trek, as is common on expeditions, we Durangoans rifled through our belongings and made a pile to give away to our Nepali porters and guides. Each item was assigned a number, and the Nepalis then drew randomly for their prize.
I had a couple of reasons for giving away my relatively new hiking boots, and to be honest, they weren't both philanthropic. Sure, I thought it would be nice. But also, my duffel bag wasn't surviving the trip very well, and I worried that the extra weight of the boots would shred the duffel.
Turned out the boots were the grand prize, and the suspense grew as each contestant drew, hoping to soon be wearing Scarpas.
When Mikmar realized he'd won, he didn't just smile and claim his prize. He literally jumped 2 feet into the air.
As good as I felt for Mikmar, and as much as that reaction made me realize I'd done a good thing, it also underlined the wealth disparity between our two countries. I certainly didn't leap sky-high when I left the store after purchasing those boots or even when I received my paycheck to afford them.
I brought back some stuff from Nepal – gifts, a drum, a better duffel bag. But there's one thing that I hope never to lose from this monthlong journey: a heaping helping of humility.
[email protected] This is the third and final in a series of columns about Nepal. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.