FOR MOST OF the journey, we drank Everest beer.
And although our porters were always glad to kick back the brews that those of us on the Adventure Center-organized trip bought them at each day’s end, it was Shyam, the stocky one who only brought one shirt for the entire trek, who suggested I try the rakshi.
A lukewarm rice wine somewhere between sake and ethanol, at a fifth of the price of Everest beers and five times more potent, rakshi is the undisputed drink of choice for Nepalese porters behind closed wooden doors.
For our porters, a clique of Nepalese twentysomethings fond of cards, volleyball, and cigarettes, English was a language spoken in words rather than sentences. Gruff laborers accustomed to hauling around a bunch of foreigners’ backpacks, they were unsurprisingly tough to get to get close to.
That was, until the rakshi.
My first cup of rakshi was poured in Sinuwa, a small village carved into a terraced mountainside where roosters provide the morning alarm. With a population that cannot exceed 200 people, it seemed like an average sized town for the Annapurna region.
Over that first cup in the Annapurna Sanctuary, I tried to break the ice with Amita, a chipmunk of of a sherpa (basically an assistant guide on the trek–sherpas are better paid, and shoulder more responsibility than the bag-scheppling, water-boiling porters).
“You have family Amita?” I inquired as the rakshi eased its way into my already oxygen-thin blood.
“Amita, I already told you, you can stop calling me sir.”
“Yes sir,” he smiled, watching us all take a pull.
“You must miss your family when you’re gone for two weeks at a time.”
“Do you ever wish you worked a different job, one that allowed you to be closer to your family?”
“Yes sir, I want to be driver in Kathmandu.”
“A taxi driver in Kathmandu?”
Beneath a blanket of stars stretched across the tallest peaks on the planet, I could not for the life of me imagine trading it all in for the smog-choked streets and head-pounding chaos of Kathmandu.
We discussed the fact I was married while I showed them pictures of my wife on the 17’’ laptop I had hand-carried to 14,000 feet and back. Another porter by the name of Wangchuk discussed how he was actually studying engineering at a public university in Kathmandu and worked as a porter to pay for his school. I learned that others work their family’s farm, and a sherpa named Suman is occasionally a cook for trekking expeditions in India. But soon enough, the rakshi was drained.
My second cup of rakshi happened after taking a nasty spill on the trail, and I was laid up at a teahouse with a bandaged quad and a view of Annapurna I poking 26,545 feet out of the clouds. We were supposed to wander around the big city of Chomrong (population 5,000), but my swollen leg rendered me unwilling to navigate the four hundred or so stairs that formed the road to get there.
So I was in the teahouse, about to order up another Everest when I heard a “tsk” accompanied by a come-hither gesture coming from my left. It was Shyam. As the rest of the group set off to rummage through shops full of yak wool belts, turquoise rings, and miniature sets of Tibetan prayer flags, Shyam and I hobbled in the other direction to a rusty corrugated tin shed in the middle of a field.
Inside, the dark air smelled of wet grain and chicken shit. Sunlight barely filtered through the narrow doorway, creating a nearly pitch-black setting while some of the boys gathered around a plastic table next to a lone propane burner staffed by a girl no older than 14. On the stove was a single pot of rakshi.
For most of the trek I had been curious about the Maoist insurrection which engulfed the central Asian country until 2006. Why I felt that an abandoned, dark building filled with a thin gray haze of rakshi steam was the place to bring this up–I don’t know–but at the time, it just felt right.
The violence, they said, spread everywhere. Fighting from Kathmandu to the countryside. I asked if there had been violence here in Annapurna, and with a nod to suggest the obvious I realized nowhere was immune. It was hard to imagine this surreal valley so full of smiles and “Namaste’s” being anything other than peaceful.
Kiran, a gaunt, University-aged student with a thin mustache informed me that he never experienced the fighting. When the movement started taking a violent turn, he somehow managed to flee the country and eventually wound up in a sweatshop in Malaysia making t-shirts.
I asked if there was any money to be made in Malaysia. He said there was not. I asked if he ever wanted to return to Malaysia. His response was a stare that cut through the dirt floor. Malaysia, at nearly 2000 miles away, is not exactly close to Nepal. I would find out later that he’s never been on an airplane. Like many of the other porters, he didn’t entirely grasp the concept of the sea.
The troubled times behind them, all of the boys in the makeshift dive bar agreed it was a time never worth repeating.
My third cup of rakshi was festive, to say the least. In the riverside town of Birethanti, a hub of commerce set on the muddy banks of the Modi Khola River, the trekking portion of the trip had finally come to a close.
To celebrate the milestone the boys treated us to an evening of traditional Nepalese dancing, which involved a great deal of hand-clapping, some heartfelt laughter, and copious quantities of rakshi.
After some time, most of the group eventually tapered off into the guesthouse. But the porter boys were determined to carry the rakshi pot deep into the night. It didn’t take long for Wangchuk to approach me about the first time he got laid.
“The first time I do the fuck,” he nervously giggled, “I think I like very much.”
“Him over there,” he whispered in a barely audible tone, pointing his finger at a Nepalese man in a bright yellow shirt, “he never do the fuck.” A wry smile spread across his face, a silent nod to some sort of secret, elite club we both belonged to.
A few moments later I was greeted by Shyam flashing his calloused hands in my face and counting on his fingers amidst grunts in Nepali.
“What’s he saying?” I asked one of the porters with a decent grasp of English.
“He tells you how many rupees it cost for hooker in Pokhara. He wants to know if you want one.”
The group as a whole argued the price and said he could never get it for that low. He said he knew a place that could.
Bursting out of his chair Shyam dove to the floor and started humping his way through the various positions he would employ the following evening with a hooker of his own. His rakshi-sculpted belly jiggled with each pelvic thrust, and we all erupted in laughter and disgust at the thought of actually watching Shyam have sex.
In Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea”, he waxes that while sharing tea with villagers in northeastern Pakistan, on “the first cup of tea you’re a stranger, the second cup a friend, and the third cup, you’re family.”
These comments struck a particular chord as we said goodbye to our Nepalese porters in the lakeside town of Pokhara. For 11 days our young porters had guided us along the narrow trails and endless steps of Nepal’s Annapurna Sanctuary during our Adventure Center expedition. Many of them carried our overstuffed black duffel bags two at a time. A thin ribbon of cloth strapped tightly round their forehead and old brown rope creating a web around the bags, the neck pain must have been immense.
After the rakshi was gone and goodbyes had been said, buses departed and planes took off, I hauled out the dusty, battered, altitude-sick laptop I’d carried with me to the base of one of the highest mountains in the world and began digging a pile of two weeks’ worth of emails.
Atop the email inbox: “Wangchuk has tagged a photo of you on Facebook.”
As it turned out, Wangchuk copied my profile picture and reposted it on his own wall. There was a short caption: “American brother.”
[Note: The author is a Matador Traveler-in-Residence participating in a partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center. During 2011/12, Adventure Center is sponsoring eight epic trips for MatadorU students and alumni.]