GUIDES & PORTERS
If you undertake a lodge trek, you can hire a porter to carry your gear or perhaps hire a guide to accompany you. A guide is not necessary in order to find your way, but if you are travelling without a companion, it’s a good idea to employ someone to travel with you. A guide can be invaluable if you have an accident or become ill, and traveling with a Nepali will give you a chance to learn more of the language and culture of Nepal. Your porter and/or guide will also stay in lodges, although porters will probably find their own, cheaper facilities in a local-style bhatti.
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An important consideration when you decide to trek with a guide or porters is that you place yourself in the role of an employer. This means that you may have to deal with personnel problems including medical care, clothing, insurance, strikes, requests for time off, salary increases and all the other aspects of being a boss. Be as thorough as you can when hiring people and make it clear from the beginning what the requirements and limitations are. After that, prepare yourself for some haggling – it’s almost impossible to protect against it.
On the Everest, Langtang and Annapurna treks everyone knows the routes so well that you do not need a guide to help you find the way. Still, a good guide will make your trek easier (and perhaps cheaper) by negotiating on your behalf for food and accommodation during the trek. Ideally, too, a guide will show you places of interest and short cuts you
might otherwise have overlooked. Guides can ask local people about trail conditions, find out which hotels are open, arid help you learn a bit of Nepali. In the late afternoon you can send your guide racing ahead to reserve a hotel room for you. There are, of course, poor guides who will do nothing but complicate everything throughout the trek arid make considerable money at your expense. If possible, hire a guide who can produce a trekking-guide certificate from the Hotel Management & Tourism Training Center.
If you travel with a Sherpa to Khumbu there is almost always the additional benefit of an invitation to the house of your guide. Part of this introduction to the Sherpa culture will probably involve you and your guide getting drunk as a result of Sherpa hospitality. In remote regions there are fewer ‘Hotel’ signs, so a traveler must find accommodation and food by asking from house to house. A guide can be indispensable in such situations.
Food for Your Guide
If you have a responsible guide, the easiest approach to providing food is to have your guide arrange everything and then pay the bill yourself in the morning. Sometimes the guide will leave you with a bill for several glasses of chhang (local beer), extra food and the losses at last night’s card party. In such cases, one solution is to agree on a daily rate for the guide’s subsistence. Each of you can then pay for your own food and accommodation separately. It should cost Rs 200 to 300 per day for a guide to live on a trek. If you add another Rs 50 for drinks and cigarettes, you are providing a generous allowance.
You can certainly hump all your gear yourself, but a porter can enrich your trip culturally and will make the walking more pleasant. Porters do not feel demeaned, and the salary you pay the porter will do far more good for everyone than spending that same money on pie and beer in a lodge. If you are crossing a high pass like Thorung La, you must take responsibility to ensure the porter is equipped for cold and snow, but otherwise having a porter is usually hassle- free. You should not feel any less self-reliant because you have hired a porter.
* A porter may be a member of any ethnic group. Many Rais, Tamangs and Magars pay virtually their entire lives on the paths serving as porters. They carry masses, not just for trekkers, however conjointly to bring provides to remote hill villages. Porters carry the hundreds on a trek and their job finishes once that load reaches a lodge or camp.On a camping trek it’s the sherpas, not porters, who set up tents and handle the camp chores.
While trekking with a single porter is usually easy, trying to manage a large team of porters without a guide is complicated because you must constantly be aware of where each porter is in order to protect your possessions. Even securing the services of people who have proven their reliability isn’t foolproof. There are stories of porters who had already carried loads on several treks disappearing on a subsequent trek with two duffel bags of gear. On camping treks the sirdar hires a porter leader (naike), who chases up and down the trail keeping track of the porters and coaxing them on to the day’s destination.
* While most porters are reliable, they usually have little education in the Western sense. They tend to be superstitious and are, like anyone, subject to fear, fatigue, uncertainty and ill health. Porters may decide they have gone far enough and want to return home, in which case they may just vanish.
Nepal’s structured society leads to people having very definite ideas about what jobs they will and will not do. If someone considers themselves a trekking guide, they ,will be reluctant to carry a porter load. Porters are often reluctant to do camp chores or other duties unless they have hopes of moving up in the pecking order. If a porter agrees to do extra work, guides may discourage or even prevent this to maintain their own status. The ideal porter-guide combination is a rare phenomenon, although it does exist. If you are lucky enough to find one, particularly an English-speaking person, you can properly get away with a single employee for a trek.
It’s not advisable to trek the hills of Nepal on your own, for reasons of safety and security. A travelling companion can be invaluable in case of accident, a twisted ankle or something more serious – such as a fall or onset of acute mountain sickness – to provide a helping hand or to call for help. The populated hills of Nepal remain one of the friendliest terrains in the world, yet the dangers of theft, and assault, do exist.
If you arrive alone in Nepal, it is a good idea to hire a guide-companion for the trek. There are several advantages to taking someone who is something other than a porter. Firstly, they can communicate better, and so you get a better perspective on Nepali society. There is more camaraderie and companionship, and the guide-companion gets to polish their foreign tongue. Secondly, the Nepali economy as a whole gains as thousands of young men and women are hired as individual trekking guides.
Those who prefer to walk the trails alone must remember that trekking is essentially a solitary exercise, even when trekking with a group. Other than the overly loquacious, trekkers walk alone with their thoughts, and of course the ever-changing scenery.
-Kanak Mani Dixit
Kanak Mani Dixit, who contributed this section, now understands the importance of trekking with a companion. He spent three days on a ledge over the Marsyangdi River in August 2000 when, trekking alone, he slipped off a trail and could not get out He was eventually rescued by his brother, who chartered a helicopter and retraced his route through villages until he spotted a familiar rucksack on the steep slopes below the trail.
Hiring Guides & Porters
You can hire guides through trekking companies, equipment shops or referrals from other trekkers. Trekking shops are more willing to help you if you offer a fee for their advice or hire equipment from them. Many trekking companies in both Kathmandu and Pokhara will arrange a guide or porter, although some will undertake only the entire arrangements for a trek.
If you hire a guide or porter through a trekking company, the company will charge you more than it pays the person it provides. This, obviously, is how the company survives. but if this concerns you, then you should try to hire someone directly. Many restaurants and hotels, particularly in the Thamel area of Kathmandu and in Pokhara, have bulletin boards. These often have messages from trekkers who are looking for trekking companions or are recommending a reliable guide or porter. Also check at the Kathmandu Environmental Education Program (KEEP), Himalayan Explorers Club (HEC) and Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) offices for referrals (see the Useful Organizations section, p 101).
You can often find out-of-work sherpas in trekking equipment shops or in tiny momo (dumpling) and rakshi (spirits) stalls in Asan and Jyatha. Hiring a guide directly is a hit-or-miss situation. You might find someone brilliant or you might have endless
problems. They will convince you of their ability by producing certificates and letters from past (always satisfied) customers. It is not likely you will hit upon someone whose sole purpose is to steal from you, but such people do exist. All embassies in Nepal suggest you either go through a known intermediary or check references carefully before you employ a guide.
October, November, March and April are very busy trekking months. A guide who does not have a job during these months maybe of questionable reliability. At other times, it is often possible to find excellent staff.
You can sometimes hire sherpas and porters at trek starting points like Lukla, Pokhara and Dhunche. Except during the busy season of October and early November you will probably be successful if you fly to Lukla or drive to Dhunche and try to arrange a trek without any advance preparations. There may be porters available in Jomsom, but it’s unlikely that you’ll find a guide.
A good trekking guide can arrange porters. Things will work much better if you tell the guide where you wish to trek and how much you are prepared to pay, after which you go off for a cup of tea to let the guide do all the negotiations on your behalf. On a long group trek, an experienced guide will lay off porters as the party eats through porter-loads of food, although this is not an issue if you are staying in lodges. Guides will also replace porters when they get nervous because they are too far from their homes.
It is difficult to suggest specific rates for wages for porters and guides. Political and social pressures in Nepal have resulted in occasional exorbitant demands for wages and benefits. Union organizers are working to improve the lot of trekking workers and are trying to establish minimum wages and other facilities. Many guides and porters, however, are operating at a subsistence level and will work for considerably less than the union scale. Consult KEEP, HRA, TAAN (see the Useful Organizations section, pi01) or a trekking company for the latest guidelines.
Road-building in the hills also pushes up porter wages while the construction passes through a village. Porters expect to buy their own food out of their wages, so you do not ordinarily have to carry food for them. However, unless you do provide food and shelter for porters, you will always have to camp near a village where they can buy food.
Tradition dictates that guides receive a lower salary than porters, usually Rs 150 to 250 a day, but they also receive accommodation and food. If you are staying at inns, you will be amazed how much your guide can eat and drink. Set a limit on the guide’s food bill before you set out, or pay a daily food allowance. You will need to increase the allowance at higher elevations, where food is more expensive.
Porter Clothing & Equipment
When you employ porters you must provide warm clothing and equipment for cold and snow. If you are going into snow, you must provide goggles, shoes, shelter and clothing — porters are not expendable. Also provide plastic sheets (available in Kathmandu) so porters can protect themselves and your baggage from rain.
In Khumbu, clothing is usually not a problem because you will probably hire Sherpas who have their own shoes and warm clothing (check with them to be sure). The place where most problems occur is Thorung La, the pass between Manang and Muktinath on the Around Annapurna trek. From whatever direction you approach the pass, the route starts in low tropical country and any porters you hire will probably be from these lowland regions. When you reach the snow, the ill-equipped lowland porters either quit and turn back, or continue foolishly without proper clothing or footwear, often resulting in frostbite, snow blindness, or even death. Porters are not usually available in Manang or Muktinath, so it is really worth the extra planning and expense to arrange porter equipment in Kathmandu (although occasionally such items are available in Manang) if you plan to use porters on this pass.
When you do provide equipment for porters, be sure to make it clear whether it is a loan or a gift. In reality it will be very hard to get back equipment that you have loaned unless you are very determined and thick-skinned. The porters and sherpas have special techniques to make you feel guilty and petty when you ask for the return of your equipment.
The rules for restricted areas prohibit the use of firewood for cooking, even by porters. Environmental groups encourage the use of stoves on all treks, whether in restricted areas or not. If you are on a camping trip with a team of porters, you will need to arrange stoves for them. This usually includes providing a cook to prepare porter food unless someone in the party is prepared to take on the role of permanent stove mechanic. As you plan the trek with your sirdar, pay special attention to how the preparation of porter food will be handled. Certain ethnic groups won’t eat food prepared by others and many porters can be unhappy about eating certain kinds of food, or food prepared in a particular way. Stoves are regarded as part of the group camping gear and it is not customary for porters to keep the stoves at the end of the trek. It’s easiest to avoid the issue entirely by camping near villages so that porters can eat in tea houses.