Learning Nepali: One Step at a Time
[Darphuni wasn’t one for smiling for the camera – but he loved seeing his face on the screen afterwards!]
While walking I try to strike up a conversation with our 17-year-old porter, Darphuni (to whom I truly apologise, I’m sure that is spelt wrong). I ask: ‘Are you learning English?’ He smiles with no answer. Obviously not so much. When I slip a little on the rocks, he (despite the 30 kgs on his back) deftly rushes to place a hand under my arm. I answer with a Nepali thank you, ‘dunyabat’, which we Aussies trained ourselves to remember by shooting out ‘down your but’ as quickly as we could. He responds with a smile and a correction: ‘DOUNyoubat’. I repeat and am corrected a couple more times until he says ‘tank you.’ ‘Thank you’ I reply and we begin the game again.
Next he teaches me correct pronunciation of ‘namaste’ (hello and goodbye) and ‘purla’ (water), which I still can’t say without throwing him into a fit of the giggles. Yet there are many things we don’t need a verbal language for. One example of this is the dog, who having followed us for at least an hour, upon reaching the suspension bridge crossing over a 50m high gully and galloping rapids, took some very long disparaging looks and decided it wasn’t for him (I must admit those bridges weren’t my cup of ginger tea either).
I am particularly keen to try and communicate with Darphuni because I can see his fate. Our guide, who has perfect English, tells me that he is in grade 8. If Darphuni can manage to finish high school to grade 12 he will be able to pick up more English, or perhaps even progress to tertiary education. English is the key to progressing in the tourist trade, which is the number one industry of the Himalaya area by far. If Darphuni can master English he can hope to progress from portering to being a guide, hotel manager or perhaps shopkeeper. If Darphuni is not able to get his English up to speed he is likely to spend many more days walking up and down these hills carrying planks of wood, barrels of gas and cartons of beer, among other things, for local businesses who pay per kilo of the weight he carries. It is literally back-breaking work. The number of older, more tired men (and some women) carrying supplies on the track, compared to the younger, faster porters is easily two to one.
There is no minimum age limit, no minimum wage and no concept of working conditions for a porter. While walking on the track it is not uncommon to pass children (boys and girls) as young as ten loaded up with merchandise (usually accompanied by what looks like parents). Boys such as Darphuni need to work to give the money back to their families, and I am sure that they know the difficulties of balancing this necessity against that of staying in school, and improving their prospects better than anybody.
As a tourist I am not thrilled with my role in this exploitative industry. But what is the alternative? Without the porters help many travellers, (members of my own party included) would simply not make the trip to Nepal, spending their valuable dollars for development elsewhere. The porters’ role ferrying backpacks (paid per day – meaning tourists’ rest days are also paid) certainly seems easier than their older counterparts’ role lugging cargo (paid per kilo – meaning there is no possibility of payment while resting).
So what is the answer? In the last 200 years Nepal has struggled to keep a stable government for more than several years – warring between monarchies, socialist and capitalist governments – with the only constant being total civil unrest. If this were to settle than working conditions might be imposed in many industries, including tourism and portering, so that teenagers would have to stay in school and minimum wages be employed. Until then it is up to us as responsible tourists to make sure that our hard earned dollars are spent for positive development in places like Nepal. If we choose to use someone like porters we can choose to ensure that they are treated fairly, paid well, given decent breaks and fair working conditions. This is easier said than done and probably much more idealistic than realistic at this stage, but we have to remember that our demands drive the market – so if we ask for it, it will happen.
Darphuni came with us to Lukla airport, where we gave him a toy koala and one of our beanies. While we were waiting for the clouds to clear over the runway we pointed at the planes and asked him if he had ever been to Katmandu. No. We told him one day he will go to Katmandu. One day he will go to Australia. He looked as if the clouds on his face had cleared enough for the entire fleet of Buddha Airways to land there. An hour later, stuck in Katmandu traffic, it hit home that Darphuni – at age 17 – has never seen a car.