Some Awkward Steps Along the Himalayan Trail

The high point of my recent travels in Nepal was a five day trek I did in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. The third day of the trek was particularly memorable, both for beautiful scenery and for an extremely awkward social interaction.

I’ll probably do at least one more post about this trek but another reason I decided to write about this day first is because when I selected the best photos from this particular part of the trek I felt they were fairly representative of the trek experience – the mountain and forest scenery, the trail, the mountain villages you pass through, accommodation, food etc.

On the trek I did (Ghorepani-Poon Hill trek) and many other popular Himalayan treks you sleep at guesthouses in small villages along the route (though camping is more common on treks to more remote parts of the Himalayas). As you’ll see in the photos below these guesthouses are really simple accommodations –  the rooms typically have nothing but two or three very narrow beds, each with a thin mattress and a coarse blanket. Power outages were common and in one village electricity was available only in the evening. Bathrooms and showers are shared. Simple hot meals and the warm camaraderie of fellow trekkers is available in a communal dining room. In these guesthouses a power socket in your room and reliable hot showers count as luxuries. What these establishments lack in material comforts they make up for in the warmth of the Nepali families who run them and the friendliness of the travelers you tend to meet there – the global tribe of people who spend their vacations and gap periods trekking the Himalayas. The impression of this city slicker after this first multi-day trek – outdoorsy types tend to be really nice people!

Tadapani, the village I stayed at on the third day of the trek, was primitive even compared to the simple villages you normally stay at on this trek and I enquired at three different guest houses before I found one with my one indispensable amenity –  a power socket in the guest rooms. I can live without WiFi and even hot showers but photography is a big part of my travel and I needed to charge my camera, a backup battery and my phone every night and I didn’t feel like leaving all this gear in the common room to charge overnight.

In a village with mostly primitive wood or stone buildings the guest house I chose was recently constructed and looked new and modern in comparison. Not only did it have a power socket in the room but, like the building, the mattress and blankets were newer and cleaner. The guest house sign even promised “hot & cold showers”. Woo hoo!! This was the Himalayan equivalent of a room at the Hyatt and I checked in immediately, silently hoping showers of the hot variety were still available.

Shortly after arriving though I noticed the teenage boy (probably around 14 years old) from the family who ran the guest house was acting peculiarly around me and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. He found some reason to engage me every time I left my room. How was my room? Would I like to put in an order for dinner? Where was I from? How old was I? Can we connect on Facebook? It took me a long time to figure out what was going on but when I answered his question about my age (48) and he responded with “you look so young and handsome!”, the reality of the situation was  finally staring me in the face – this teenage boy had a crush on me.

I think I was so slow to figure it out because of the extreme incongruity of the situation. Where to start? I was in the Himalayas for the beautiful scenery, not looking for love, even of an appropriate variety. I was a paying guest for just one night of this family run guesthouse. I’m straight and more than three times this boy’s age. And most importantly, of course, for the purposes of sexual consent this is a child.

In another sense though all this explanation isn’t completely necessary. This felt like nothing more than an innocent adolescent crush and there was no sense that this boy was looking for anything more than to hang out. Every. Single. Moment. As the adult in the interaction though I think that handling this appropriately was my responsibility. Even if this had been a teenage girl, there is absolutely no chance that I’m going to step over any lines, but I can be socially awkward even in far less challenging circumstances and I found this situation really difficult. It was hard to extricate myself from the situation in a way that didn’t hurt his feelings.

It’s probably clear from the progressive, secular and modern orientation of my writing that I hope this young Nepali boy is fully accepted – no, embraced – by his family, community and society and I hope the same for LGBT people everywhere. I was surprised and delighted when the United States Supreme Court, after one outrageous, right-wing decision after another, endorsed the right to marry for all people, regardless of sexual orientation. More generally, I think the world would be a better place if everyone could do this one simple thing – embrace the diversity of our planet and respect people who are different from themselves.

As a practical matter though this boy was a major pain in the ass! He followed me around whenever I left my room, always with some contrived reason to engage me. On a couple occasions I opened my door to find him waiting for me right outside it. In the few short hours between arrival at the guest house and an early bed time, I had things I needed to do – washing my hiking clothes and getting them up to dry by the wood stove in the dining room, backing up the day’s photos to my phone, taking a shower before the always-limited hot water disappeared and having dinner with some other trekkers I’d met.

I think that I was polite but clear that I didn’t have a lot of time to talk with him but he wasn’t picking up the clues and always appeared at my side as soon as I left my room. To extricate myself I usually told him I wanted to keep moving because I was cold. (This also happened to be true – at the higher altitudes reached on this trek it was just above freezing at night and in the early morning. While I’d brought only a small day pack my clothing was generally adequate, but it was uncomfortable to stand around outside during the coldest parts of the day). Finally, to avoid more interaction with the boy, I ate dinner that night and breakfast the next morning at another guest house, where I knew a few other trekkers.

In the morning, as I packed up my things, I felt relieved that I’d navigated the situation, if not gracefully, at least without any major problems and that it would soon be behind me. Unfortunately, when I went to check out and pay for the room, the situation came to a head. The adult family member I approached (perhaps the boy’s uncle) told me that guests were expected to eat both dinner and breakfast at the guest house and that I needed to pay a “fine” of 2,000 rupees (about $20 USD) because I’d eaten my meals elsewhere. Given the reason I’d chosen to eat at the other guest house I was exasperated by the demand that I pay a fine (with its obvious punitive connotation) and by the scolding tone of the uncle. Also, while $20 is a small amount of money it’s about double what one solo trekker would spend on two meals at a guesthouse (and the rooms themselves generally cost only $3 USD/night).

I deeply wanted to avoid embarrassing the teenage boy, who was also there when I went to check out, so I avoided the real reason I had eaten at another guest house. I told the uncle that I knew it was customary to eat at the same guesthouse where you stay, but I hadn’t been informed in person or in writing that it was obligatory and that I would pay only for the room. He seemed willing to compromise on the amount of the fine but wasn’t willing to drop it altogether. With the trivial amount of money involved I could have just paid it but given the reason I’d eaten elsewhere it seemed completely unjust to be scolded and penalized for not eating my meals there.

Finally, when the uncle wouldn’t drop his demand, I told him the real reason I’d eaten elsewhere. I made no mention of the boy’s sexual orientation (which is of course not the problem here) or the uncomfortable type of attention he was giving me. I was bending over backwards here not to make the boy feel embarrassed so I just told the uncle that he followed me around and I didn’t have any privacy when I was outside my room. But once I let this out it was clear that the uncle knew exactly what I was talking about – from his body language and expression there was an unmistakable impression that the boy had done this sort of thing before, with other male guests at the lodge. The uncle and the boy both hung their heads sheepishly and told me I didn’t need to explain any more. They would drop their demand that I pay a fine.

As I walked down the trail away from the village, I of course felt relieved to have this situation behind me, but I wasn’t giving myself any pats on the back for the way I handled it. In the end I’d had to tell the adult relative about the boy’s behavior, which probably caused some embarrassment for both of them. I didn’t want to be gouged for my completely reasonable decision to eat my meals elsewhere but embarrassing this boy or his family was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do. As thoughts about this difficult situation jumped around in my head I even thought of the unspeakably tragic cases of gay young people in conservative areas of the United States killing themselves because they were bullied by their peers and worried if I’d inadvertently caused the young boy that sort of shame.

I think this is one of the endless situations where regular meditation is invaluable. More and more, when crazy or just unhelpful thoughts pops into my head, I’m able to pause, take some deep breaths and think over the situation more calmly. Rather than being overwhelmed by a river of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, I’m able to step outside the torrent and look at the situation with a sense of awareness and perspective. When I’d finally let out why I didn’t eat at the guesthouse, the uncle and the boy looked embarrassed but the feeling was relatively mild and innocent, like that of catching a child with his hands in the cookie jar (again!), and nothing more ominous. I took another deep breath and, laying this entire awkward episode to rest, enjoyed the day hiking another beautiful stretch of the trek.

Here are the best photos from that day on the trail.

Note on photos: The photo of the inside of a guest house room is not my own. Here and in general, unless otherwise noted, all photos are my own. 

View of the Annapurna mountains from Poon Hill
Early morning view of the Annapurna mountains from Tadapani village
The trek reached a maximum altitude of 3,200 m at Poon Hill and this is the day we began our descent
Prayer flags along the trail

A simple shrine and rest stop at a view point along the trail
The stone piles that fill this dry creek bed were a complete mystery and another opportunity to feel grateful to be alive in the age of Google when even the most arcane piece of knowledge is just a few key strokes away. When I returned to regular internet access I googled “memorial stone piles Nepal” and quickly discovered that they are called cairns” and created to express a wish or hope.

(Above two photos) Guesthouses along the trail.
I forgot to take any photos from inside the rooms. Here’s a photo of a typical Himalayan guesthouse room that I found on the internet.

(Above three photos) The kitchens in the guesthouses are quite primitive but the menu (which is the same across the entire Annapurna region) is surprisingly elaborate. Here are two pages from the 6-8 page menu.
The food on the trek far exceeded my modest expectations. This is daal baht (lentil curry), a popular Nepali dish. In general, Nepali cuisine was quite similar to Indian, though a lot less spicy.
A family member washing dishes outside the kitchen
Tadapani village, where I stayed on the day I write about in this post. In the foreground you can see goods sold by Tibetans to raise money for the many Tibetan refugees who live in Nepal. The relatively modern yellow building in the background is the guesthouse where I stayed.

(Above two photos) A simple store in the village catering to trekkers.
From what I saw in the villages I stayed in on this trek wood is the only fuel for both cooking and heating

(Above two photos) Other than low altitude villages at the very beginning and end of these treks there are no roads and supplies are brought in by pack mules.







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