I hiked the Annapurna Trek in the Himalayas in Nepal a few weeks ago, and asked Lama, one of the Sherpas, about his perspective of money and what money means to him. He had the most interesting response: “money is a good servant but a bad teacher”.
While I was in Nepal, I felt like my entire world perspective was shifted — it was unlike any culture I have experienced. When I landed in Kathmandu, my senses were immediately inundated with intense foreign energy — the smells, the people, the colors, the cars, the smog. Crossing the street was like a game of Frogger; my heart was racing as quickly as all the vehicles were zooming by from all angles. My first instinct is to sprint and dodge the traffic to get to the other side, but the smarter strategy was to follow closely behind a local, who nonchalantly strolls across the street, ever so casually, looking straight ahead to make it to the other side.
We stayed at a nice hotel the first night, called Yak and Yetti. Apparently, this hotel is considered the Ritz Carlton of hotels in Nepal. We met up with our Sherpas (local Nepalese guides who led us through the Himalayas — Lama was one of them), outside of the hotel, because they refused to go inside the hotel since they felt uncomfortable with the level of luxury. This was the first true taste of classism that I had ever experienced. Within 24 hours of arriving in Nepal, I felt the disparity between us (the Western tourists) and them (the local Nepalese). It was a theme that would become more salient as the trip progressed.
We took jeeps from Kathmandu to the mountains (Westerners comfortably sat in the front & Sherpas jammed in the back) passing through little towns with buildings that were so dilapidated, they looked like they were going to collapse right in front of us. The roofs of many buildings were made of thin tin and held down with boulders. We continued up through the Himalayas via an extremely winding rocky dirt road — our wheels were literally skirting the edge of the mountain for most of the drive. I’d look out the window and see vast rice fields and waterfalls, painting a beautiful landscape that strongly contrasted the intense poverty stricken population. The intent of the trip was to do the Annapurna Trek, a 10-day adventure through the mountains, and the end goal was to reach the highest peak at the Annapurna Base Camp (est. 13,550 ft).
Once we arrived to the point where we ditched the jeeps and began to hike, the ‘porters’ (local Nepalese who carried our duffle bags while we hiked), grabbed our bags, attached them to their head strap, and went ahead of us to reach our final destination. Every morning at 6:30am we were required to have our bags packed so that the porters could pick them up and get a head start to beat us to the next location, so that our bags were put in our bedrooms when we arrived. Porters were of all ages, the youngest being around 25 and the oldest around 60. At first I felt uncomfortable with someone else carrying my belongings — I would awkwardly smile and thank the porters when I saw them carrying my bag, but I was surprised how quickly I became used to it.
Each day we hiked, we stopped at ‘tea houses’, which were little shacks on the side of the mountain that served tea and food. The tea was either lemon, chai, or green. Our lunches and dinners would consist of Dal Bhat, a classic Nepalese dish of chicken, rice, and soup, or Ramen. At first, I thought that the Ramen was homemade, an interesting hybrid of Asian-Indian culture, but then I saw the stacks of instant ramen packages lining the back walls of each tea house. Although the Sherpas didn’t work for the tea houses, they would take our orders & serve us our tea and food.
I came down with a nasty stomach virus while I was up in the mountains — fever, diarrhea, puking, the whole spread. I was hoping it was a 24-hour bug, so that I could continue with the group to ABC (Annapurna Base Camp), but it ended up lasting 5 days, and I was completely bed ridden. I never thought I would be binging Netflix in the Himalayas — literally “Netflix and chilling, because there was no heat and I was running a high fever. At one point, I completely broke down — mentally, I was at one of the lowest places I’ve ever been — I was in a very dark place. I was crying in my sleeping bag in the corner of the bed, feeling so pathetic and dirty because I didn’t shower for days since there was no hot water. One of the porters, her name was Basan, came into the room, saw me crying, and also started to cry — her empathy for me was tangible; I started to cry even more because she was crying with me. She came over and sat by my side on the bed, and wiped my tears with a window curtain that surely hadn’t been washed for decades. She repeated ‘no cry’ in broken English, through her tears, over and over again. It was one of the most touching moments of my life. We both finally calmed down, and I was too tired to hug her, so I looked her in the eye and thanked her with such sincerity, I think she started crying again when she left the room. Even though Basan and I couldn’t have more different backgrounds, life views, & money perceptions, we connected on the most basic human level of empathy. It was a truly precious moment I will remember for the rest of my life.
Once I got over the hump of liquids spewing out from all my orifices, I was able to keep solid foods like toast and crackers down. Lama would deliver food to me in my bed because I was too weak to go downstairs and eat in the tea house. Even though I had two extra beds in my room, he refused to sleep in the room because the Sherpas typically sleep on benches in the teahouse common area, never in the rooms. I later learned that at some tea houses, Sherpas were actually not allowed to sleep in the rooms. Basan ended up sleeping in my room, and I really appreciated the company; I could tell she was so grateful to be able to sleep in a bed, rather on a wooden bench with all the other Sherpa guys (Basan was the only female Nepalese in the group).
The group returned from ABC, and I learned that while the Westerners slept inside, the Sherpas and porters slept outside in a tent — it was snowing and hailing at 13,000 ft at ABC. Yet, they all were in high spirits. The last night on the mountain we broke into a dance party — the Sherpas taught us Nepalese dance moves and the Westerners taught them, for lack of better words, ‘white people dancing’. The connection through dance was powerful, and it truly united the Westerners and the Nepalese in our group. I had a similar feeling when Basan was wiping my tears with the curtain — we can all connect on basic human levels, whether it’s through happiness, sadness, and everything in between. However, money has an interesting way of getting in the middle of this and creating often negative superficial stratifications among humans that don’t need to exist.
Lama hit the nail on the head when he described his perception of money: “money is a good servant but a bad teacher”. There is a disparity between the “servant” and the “teacher” that can be clearly outlined especially in cultures that embrace classism. Although it’s not as obvious in developed countries, it definitely still exists. I’m so excited to continue exploring this concept via my travels and learning about the perception of money throughout all different cultures. Stay tuned!