Photo: author

What It Took to Get This Photograph

by Michael Bittner Feb 20, 2014

This is a photograph I snapped near the top of a Himalayan pass traversing the Parvati-Pin valleys in northern India, on my first travels to the country in 2009. The altitude of this crossing was a pretty humble 15,000 feet.

I worked as a porter for a French trekking guide based in the village of Vashisht, Manali, Himachal Pradesh, and was paid 200 rupees ($4) per day to carry about 45 kilos (90-some pounds) of equipment, including kerosene stoves and camping gear, to serve a group of four Canadian tourists. We trekked 10 days, crossing from a temperate mountain region into a very dry and desolate area where many Tibetan refugees have made their homes. It was much like crossing the Cascades on foot, only to be met by even more enormous mountains on the other side.

I cooked for four people at the end each day. Really nice meals. I only ate rice and lentils with my Nepalese friends who had been hired as porters for this trek and invited me as a 10th member of the laboring team to haul supplies. That was their difficult livelihood — working for a couple dollars a day to carry the supplies that provided for the recreation of guests who paid over $500 to temporarily enjoy themselves and the scenery. The profits mostly went to the trek guide, a French woman who didn’t do anything but walk straight ahead and bark out orders at the beginning and end of each day. Her passion for pushing everyone enabled all of us to be the first to cross the pass that year.

The experience, only 10 days, was the most difficult I have ever embarked on in my life. It was driven by a kind of empathetic need to identify with the Nepalese laborers I sat with every day in the village. I wanted to understand their perspective of life as migrants living away from their homes and families. The Indian rupee is strong to the Nepali rupee, like the dollar is strong compared to the peso, inviting foreigners to come across the border to work and send the earnings back home to their villages.

I would be paid and treated just as if I were a Nepali man. Same pay, same food, same tent.

I originally wanted to just sport a pair of the straps I saw them use to haul loads up and down the village, but was told it was no job for me. I kept insisting — sitting with them each morning drinking chai and smoking bidis — and studied as much Hindi as I could cram in order to communicate deeper and deeper thoughts to them. Eventually, I moved in with a couple Nepali fellows. They were sharing a small living area in Dhungri village. I call it a living area because there was no kitchen, no bathroom, no electricity. It was just a stone-walled room where blankets were spread along the floor and men slept against one another like matchsticks. The kerosene stove would be lit and the whole room would fill with smoke before getting hot enough to put the bowl of rice down onto.

I guess in first-world terms, I was smack dab in the middle of “developing-nation” poverty. Whatever that means. I didn’t actively notice that about them, though, and they didn’t seem to notice that I was any different from them. Their humble nature drew me to them. Their happiness despite their conditions of living. Their invisibility as hard-working people amidst a foreign, predominant culture in an overrun tourist haven. They decided to take care of me. I became their student. It reminds me of the quote from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath:

If you’re in trouble or hurt or need — go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help — the only ones.

A few days after I began living with these men, one of their cousins, living in the village a few kilometers down the road, came over and heard about my quest. He was a Nepali man that could speak a little bit of English. We spoke in two languages to communicate any single idea. It was an awesome, patient process. He told me that a trekking party would be going out in a few days and invited me to work with them as a “coolie” — a porter. He told me what the journey would entail — 10 days of arduous trekking over an unfathomably rugged but scenic landscape — and that I would be paid and treated just as if I were a Nepali man. Same pay, same food, same tent.

I got my stuff together and prepared to embark into the tallest mountains in the world.

Upon leaving, I was quickly humbled. Carrying this much weight as a person who was only 19 years old at this point over such a long distance quickly felt impossible. Every step forward up the steep terrain was a very conscious process. I was totally unprepared for how daunting these mountains were. I was tall and lanky — the Nepali were short and stout. Built for the mountains.

I came to notice quickly how certain privileges operated in society. After all, the end of the day brought rest to the well-funded tourists who were seeking a challenge for the fun of it. For me, my responsibility after a long day of hauling gear entailed setting the tourists’ tents up for them, cooking their delicious meals, and then cleaning up before going to bed. There was never a moment to rest for me, or for the Nepalese men who labored unflinchingly in their service the entire trip. At night, each of the guests would sleep comfortably in their own tent that we carried for them. I would go to the one tent that housed all 10 of us laborers to eat a plain dish of rice and spiced lentils before sleeping.

I still had a definite privilege, of course. I had signed up and volunteered for suffering. I did not have to make $4 a day to survive.

Still, I really started to identify with the Nepali workers, especially when the guide started to treat me like I was something lower than a paying customer…something like “them.” I felt sorry for how much they had to sacrifice and endure while others were able to live with so much pleasure and comfort, only because they had more paper in their pockets. I questioned them about their living conditions, their families, their children, their way of life. I quickly started to resent the guests. The whole day they were well ahead of us on their own private tour, while the rest of us lagged behind carrying the gravity of their luggage. It was a humiliating experience. An experience that these men had to go through year after year after year, without ever getting to know those whom they served.

I thought I was going to die. Probably the first time I had intimately felt that impending doom dawn upon me.

The worst moments were toward the end of the trip, crossing a glacier. The guide had packed snowshoes and safety equipment for the paying customers only. The Nepalese men, being poor, and I, being foolish, had come all this way to the top of the Himalayan range either wearing chappals — sandals — or rubber mukluks. At this point, one slip on the glacier would send one careening off the face of the mountain, in some places thousands of feet down to the valley floor. I thought I was going to die. Probably the first time I had intimately felt that impending doom dawn upon me. No way to say goodbye to family or anybody up there.

The photo at the top of this article is actually just after I made it to a safe place where I no longer felt endangered. A kind of, “Thank you. I am going to remember everything this trip has taught me forever” moment. I remember at this moment — a boy no older than I — started to cry because of the pressure that had been put on us all to make this happen, the first ones crossing the pass that season. It was dangerous, and without the proper equipment the top was especially precarious. Often, step after step, we would break through the snow and ice, with a 100 pounds on our backs, and be stuck up to our necks unable to get out without assistance. It was frustrating and exhausting. We were all running, literally, on will.

I shook with weakness. It took every last breath out of me and every last tear out of another. A strong kid, no less. Of course, none of this was witnessed by those who were comparably amongst the wealthiest young travelers on this planet. A microcosm of the world we live in. Suffering, exploitation, and violence gets outsourced, silenced, and hidden so civilized society can continue to live unabated in fantasy-land. “What a marvelous trip!” they would exclaim.

No less, the view from the top of the world, seeing into central Asia and Tibet, was one of the most majestic sights and beautiful feelings I have ever had. We had done it together and only with each others’ encouragement and help. We smoked a few bidis before descending into Spiti Valley. But before I left I stood there hugging those men under the prayer flags.

Discover Matador