The next morning we set off for the last leg of our Annapurna trek: The short, four-hour trek to Jomson, which is the major hub in the region and boasts an airport, hospital and other resources. We had made it over three-fourth of the Annapurna Circuit trek (there were about six more days of walking if you wanted to complete the entire circuit making 19 days total). We were ready to be done, though.
The walk was probably the most uninteresting one of the trek. It was brown, rocky and barren without the unbelievable mountain sites you normally see. We followed a huge river valley, one foot in front of the other, walking at a good speed as we had an extra motivation to arrive quickly to Jomson. Hari, our unbelievably, magical, “can make anything happen”, guide had called ahead to Jomson airport and had confirmed there was one more flight out that morning to Pokhara. Pokhara….just the sound of it brought images of breathtaking mountain views, gourmet food, much wanted shopping and fun! It represented the finish line, the celebration, and heaven.
A funny thing happened along the way. In front of us, we approached a party of three walkers and noticed a monk, dressed in his long, flowing maroon robe. He was doing some sort of a pilgrimage to the next monastery. The sight of him in his magical robe, walking so effortlessly in sandals, made me smile. I waited behind our group and took some photos of him. As I started to pass him along the trail, I noticed he was wearing a white knit hat that said USA on it. I had to laugh. Again, what are the odds? A Buddhist monk walking the Annapurna trail in his American hat!
As we neared Jomson, my nerves were driving me crazy. I wanted to make that plane yet I didn’t. Hari had promised hot, delicious meals (other than our standard Dal Bhat, the national food of Nepal), lots of beer and fun. Wouldn’t that be better than spending yet another night without a western toilet? We walked and walked, as fast as we could, and noticed the wind begin to pick up. Wind is one of the main reasons why flights are unpredictable in mountainous Nepal. They fly small (14-person) planes, relatively low throughout the valleys (10,000 feet!) so it can be quite dangerous. The flight was the one and only thing I had been nervous about my entire time in Nepal (well, besides making it over the pass). I had read in Lonely Planet and researched on the web that airline safety is not Nepal’s forte. I’ve flown a lot in my life but I do not like small planes. So I was very anxious about it.
Four hours later, we arrived in Jomson and literally walked right up to the airport with our packs on. It was a strange feeling, walking right to the airport. But security was still tight. In fact, it was surprisingly tight. There were a few military guys waiting outside holding their big, intimidating guns to make sure no one who wasn’t wanted got through. To our dismay, the last plane just left. The winds were too strong so the airport closed. It was only one o’clock.
We headed back to our “hotel” (it was actually a hotel and not a teahouse…a sign of civilization) which was directly across the street from the airport. The afternoon was spent resting, reading, and an early happy hour of jacks and Tubourg with our friends Hari and Chrring. It was also a special night because it was gratuity night. Guides and Porters are paid a small stipend for their work however the big reward for their services is the tip. We wanted to make sure they were well-paid for their incredible service, loyalty and help. Yet we also didn’t want it to feel awkward given the difference in monetary standards between what is a good tip in America and Nepal. As I mentioned earlier, most Nepali people survive on less than $2/day so we had to be sensitive about this imbalance. Before we left for the trek, we had asked Rajan, the owner of the trekking company, what is standard and opted to give them the standard plus a little more. As a Westerner, you often find yourself in an uncomfortable situation in which you desperately want to give them everything you’ve got, to help them succeed and build their lives, but you know you can’t. You hope that the memories of the time you shared together and your friendship is a better gift than just the money. But you also are well aware that the money helps tremendously to gain a better future for themselves and the next generation.
Here are some shots along the way.
Here it is! The walk with a Monk:
And here is Chrring, 22 years old, strong, happy and smiling still (word has it that he is taking English lessons in Kathmandu and hopefully will be promoted to a guide):
The town of Jomson. Traditional houses.
Our hotel with the airport across the street:
A much too common site in Nepal. Cow eating garbage:
Need I say more?