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Alex Castillo – Baker City – Trekking in Nepal

“I decided to go trekking in Nepal in the early 1990s. I was in my 30s at that time and living in Seattle. I felt there was a lot of superficiality around me – fake people and fake things. I noticed how people behaved towards each other and it made me wonder whether the whole world was like that. I wanted to learn about the culture and living conditions in Nepal and see how people behaved towards one another and how they treated the land that they lived on.

When I arrived in Kathmandu my porter and I took a taxi to the beginning of the Langtang trail. The first day of hiking was pretty grueling. We didn’t go far, but it was very steep and we hiked from the afternoon to the late evening into darkness. We came upon a rustic lodge where a lot of people were staying and we all ate dinner together. The lodge owner made an announcement that he was going to wake everybody up at three in the morning because he wanted to show us something. I was tired and I didn’t want to wake up at three o’clock, but we all agreed. He woke us and we climbed to the top of the lodge. The sun was coming up and you could see the silhouettes of hundreds of mountain peaks. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It’s one of those instances where you can’t speak because your brain stops working and your thinking completely dissolves. It literally took my breath away. Later, I thought about how gracious he was to make the effort to wake us up and share that view.

I went on several treks including to the Annapurna Sanctuary and many times I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the Himalayas and felt unable to speak. I appreciated how people here cared for each other and looked after each other. When trekkers passed a rest stop, they would say, ‘There is a trekker 200 yards back.’ If the trekker didn’t show up in a short time, the porters would go out to look. They wanted to make sure that everyone was safe.

I encountered a lot of people who had smiles on their faces, even though they were very tired from their long climbs. They always stopped to rest and would greet you and get to know who you were and where you were from. There were a lot of French, Japanese, and German travelers. And a few Americans. Sometimes you would meet up with the same people in a little tea house. You could eat dal bhat, which is basically a lot of rice and a little bit of lentils, and it was always really good.

You could walk to any village, any hut, and knock on their door and they’d let you come in and sleep in their house. They’d feed you and you might just give them 100 rupees which wasn’t even $1 and they were happy with that amount. Tourism is really important for Nepal’s economy. It is a very poor country. The wealthy are very, very wealthy and the poor are very, very poor. In the Himalayas people are in survival mode all the time because of the climate and the economy. They work hard and do not have time for superficial things. In their homes there are cooking utensils, the cooking area, a dirt floor, and a sleeping area. And that is basically it. There are no supermarkets or corner stores or Starbucks high in the Himalayas. Life is very simple and the people are humble.

One day I came to a little village with terraced rice fields. There were a lot of Tibetan people living in Nepal because in 1959 they were exiled out of Tibet by China and they went into Nepal and India. They were not allowed to own land or a business so they were basically nomads. I saw a lady hoeing in her garden. I looked at her face and she was gorgeous. She was Tibetan, probably the same age I was, and there were a lot of kids running around and they were all hers. I asked her, ‘Can I eat and stay here?’ She said, ‘Yes, of course.’ She had other people staying in her tea house too. Usually trekkers are gone the next day, but I stayed for three days. I was enamored by her. I asked if I could stay longer, and she said, ‘Stay as long as you want.’

She told me she had a husband, but that in Tibet and Nepal, women who live in the Himalayas are allowed to have more than one husband. It is the custom and common law of the land. Most of their husbands work as porters or guides. They lead people around the Himalayas and they’re usually gone for a month or two or three. Her husband had just left on a major trek. She welcomed me into her bed.

I understood that I had to earn my keep and contribute to the household so I paid to stay in the tea house, worked in her field, collected vegetables, helped with her children, and kept her tea house clean. I ended up staying two months. I had no regrets. I didn’t want to go anywhere else. Then one day, she told me that her husband was probably going to come home any day. I told her, ‘Okay, I should probably go.’ It was a sad day for me, but she said, ‘No, you have to stay. You have to meet my husband.’ I was shocked, but I said, ‘Okay.’ Sure enough, her husband came home. He knew right away what was happening. He knew that I was sleeping with his wife and living there, yet he had absolutely no qualms about it. He wasn’t upset. He hugged his wife, kissed her. He slept with her that night and I slept in another place. The next day, I told him, ‘I should probably be going.’ I’ll never forget how he looked at me. He waved his finger at me and said, ‘No.’ He told me, ‘It is your turn to go and work and I will stay here with my wife.’ I didn’t understand until that moment that he expected me to continue to contribute economically to the household. He wanted me to go and be a guide or a porter and I agreed to do it. Since I didn’t know the area I worked as a porter. I worked for three months and overextended my visa. When I finally did get back, I gave the family the money that I had earned. I felt it was my duty and that it was expected of me. The husband said, ‘You can go now.’ He didn’t want me there anymore. I understood and so I made my way back to Kathmandu.

Unfortunately, I ended up getting Giardia and was really sick for three weeks. My porter took me up to his village right outside Kathmandu and I stayed until I got healthy enough to leave. I had already overextended my visa by six months and I was a little worried about it. When I went to the airport to rearrange my tickets, I showed my passport, and the clerk realized that I was well over the limit. The police put me in jail. It was a very corrupt system and they wanted to be paid. They started taking things from me – my backpack, my shoes, my camera, everything. I literally had just a tee shirt and shorts on, not even shoes. The first day, there were some Nepalese men drinking rice wine in the jail. They were quite drunk. When I walked in, they all stood up and just kept looking at me like, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You don’t belong in this jail.’ One of them was clenching his hands and walking directly towards me. He was ready to attack me. I noticed right away that I had to do something so I hit him hard and he was out when he hit the ground. After that day, nobody messed with me. They welcomed me in. And I was there for three months.

We lived together in an open dormitory. They don’t feed you in Nepalese jail so I lost a lot of weight. I didn’t have any money so I had to quickly develop friendships with the other men. There were a few that were very talkative and friendly. They were interested in who I was and what I was doing there. None of them held any resentment or anger towards me because they knew tourism was important to their country’s economy. They weren’t violent, most of them were in jail for minor offenses like urinating in the street or smoking marijuana. It was only a couple of times when they got drunk that some of them got a little out of hand. One of the guys said that his wife would come and bring me food every day and she did. I was very grateful to him and his wife because my time there would have been a lot worse without their help.

One day I noticed some of these Nepalese men were leaving and I started asking questions. ‘Why does he get to leave?’ My friend said it was because he bribed the guards so I realized that’s what I had to do. I contacted a friend in the United States and he sent me $100. That’s all he could afford, but it was enough to bribe the guards because $100 was a lot of money there. They let me out and I went to the airport, but the police also wanted money so I had to call my friend again and somehow he managed to scrape together another $100. I was very relieved when I was finally on my way back home.

Even though I had a rough time at the end, my trip to Nepal was well worth it. It is something I’ll always remember in a positive way. There were many kind people who helped me and I learned many things about the country and its culture. I learned to be more humble myself. I thought about my own country and the American people and I wondered if they would do the same things. If they had a beautiful sight for travelers to look at, would they share it? I was sure that they would and that made me feel good. Would they watch out for each other and help each other when times were tough? I knew some would because my friend had helped me when I needed money to get out of jail. Would Americans be friendly to foreign visitors? I knew there was racism in the US, but I also knew there were many kind people and I hoped that all Americans would be as friendly to travelers in our country as the people in Nepal were to me.”