Nepali Times
Maoists in Manaslu


Sherpa who had worked on a trek with me had come to my hotel for his salary, and unwisely, I had paid him in view of the hotel staff. After he had gone, one of them had approached me; "Why do you give this man money? He is a dirty peasant. I am educated, give me some money also." It is hard to explain to someone when logic goes that way.

I tried to explain to the hotel staff that the Sherpa worked hard to make a living, but it was clear he simply saw me giving away what to him was a vast sum of money.

That was 15 years ago. In October, our trekking group was held up by Maoists in the stunningly beautiful Manaslu trekking circuit. The rebels told us we would not be allowed to proceed unless we paid a 'war tax' of $100. In conversation, the young man was forthright, telling us the money was being used to equip his comrades for their struggle. Around us villagers were in the middle of their own struggle: harvesting millet and down the hill we could see children in the school playground, their struggle for education about to begin for the day. Like most Nepali children, they got up early to finish their tasks on the farm before walking uphill to school.

It was obvious that none of the money we were forced to donate would go to local education, agriculture or health care. It was obvious that, unlike what Mao Zedong taught, they were not interested in the people of this mountain village above the Budi Gandaki. This man sat in his office, well fed, healthy, waiting for the next group of trekkers to take money from. We paid, of course. We had come from around the world to see Nepal mountain peoples and $100 was not a lot of money.

While all this was going on, our Sherpa crew sweated up the hill, unloaded and started to prepare lunch. Two seven-year-olds on their way home stopped and watch their countrymen work while I try to reason with the comrade who wants our money. The children walk past just as I am handing over the wad of $100 notes. They see a foreigner give another of their countrymen-the city man who sits at the entrance of the village and does nothing-a fortune in rupees.

After 20 years of wandering across the Nepal Himalaya, I am convinced that the Manaslu region is the most beautiful trek in the country. You look at the yellow signs painted on the rocks as you enter the villages: they tell you how much it costs to pave the streets and put in the clean communal toilets. Sometimes up to $1,000 per village. Each sign says how much the local Mothers' Group contributed, occasionally up to 70 percent.

The people of Nepal do not want charity, they do not want handouts. Like anyone, they want to lead a dignified, meaningful life in their villages. To work, to follow the cycle of the seasons and their various faiths. The Maoists are behaving in the same way as the hotel clerk did with me in Kathmandu 20 years ago. They are setting the wrong example by robbing tourists in full view of the future of Nepal, its children. This is incredible shortsightedness if they are truly interested in their country's biggest asset: its people.

Joel Schone has been trekking in the Himalaya for the last 20 years.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)