Gokul Adhikari is constantly at war with his poverty. Every year, he works as daily wage labourer for 10 months at local farms in his village in Nuwakot and ends up spending all his earnings during Dasai. He is then forced to live in Kathmandu during autumn, working as a trekking porter, hoping to earn enough for his family till the next farm season. What he ends up with is meagre savings and severe back pains.
"It's the same every year, maybe I should give up working as a bhariya," says the 26-year-old who has been coming to the capital every trekking season since he was 14. He recalls how he nearly died on a recent trek when he missed his footing on a slippery incline in upper Dolpa. "After going through all those difficulties, I have never once heard the trekkers say thank you," rues Adhikari.
His story is not new to the porters loitering at Sorakhute, south of Thamel, where they wait for trekking guides to hire them. Their going rate hasn't changed in years-between Rs 200-250 a day-because the porters can't afford to bargain and competition is fierce. Adhikari estimates there must be 20,000 porters just in Kathmandu.
"We have to agree to the wage, there is no choice" says Kamal Nath Bhatta from Dhading. Bhatta finished his SLC exam but couldn't find a job or afford to continue with his education. He became a porter. "The trekking agencies are selfish, they are not concerned about our welfare," he says. After each trek, Bhatta returns with barely Rs 2,000 in savings from a month of work. Porters have to buy their own food and find places to stay, spending a minimum of 150 a day.
Hom Nath Bhatta, a 45-year-old porter from Nuwakot, returned from Everest Base Camp just before Dasai. "I have never felt more dejected and exploited," he told us. When he reached Gorakshep, his group of porters were not even allowed to enter the hotel until they paid Rs 200 for lodging, Rs 200 for a plate of rice and another Rs 100 for tea-much more than their daily wage. Tips from the guests were their last hope but the cooks and trekking guides didn't let them get close to the tourists. "Our own Nepali brothers treated us like untouchables, it hurt our feelings," says Bhatta who later heard that tourists had paid Rs 18,000 to the guides to distribute among porters. They never saw any of that money.
Shyam Magar is determined to earn the respect of trekking guides. The 40-year-old is among the few who agrees to go to high altitude areas. Besides luggage, he also carries tents, cooking utensils and stoves. "The guides think we never get tired and angry, but we are human too." says Magar who deserted the trekking group in the middle of Dolpa when a guide scolded him for walking too slowly. "We are poor people and they have only contempt for us but we have our dignity."
Not every porter can afford to argue with the guides. "We cannot speak the tourists\' language and they hardly know what's going on," says Ram Prasad Dhamala from Rasuwa. When Dhamala ends up with a cheap trekking group which doesn't hire cooks, he doubles up in the kitchen. "After all that, all I get is a handshake from these tourists."
Most guides prefer to hire porters from Kathmandu. They are cheaper and docile, unlike locals from trekking areas who charge five to six times more and don't tolerate rudeness. Porters say guides cheat them even on the weight they carry, often increasing their loads by 20kg with no extra pay.
Hom Nath Bhatta thinks the welfare of porters should be shared by others: "Human rights organisations should speak up for us. I don't know if they are ignorant of our problems or just indifferent." Adhikari is trying to start a porter's union but most of his friends are unenthusiastic. "Although a union would address many of our problems, we are scattered around the country and we meet here only during Dasai," says Adhikari.
This time, on the Annapurna trail, he is planning to meet some porter friends in Pokhara to find out how they managed to set up their union. "It's time to speak for ourselves. This kind of exploitation can't go on forever."