Friday, March 7, 2008

Shambu Gurung

Last year around this time, I was planning for another foray into the Himalayas. Hoping that my old porter and friend Shambu would be game for more trekking, I e-mailed the trekking agency where he worked. Here's the response:

Sorry to tell you that Shambu Gurung who live at Pokhara and was working with us (Mandala trek) is dead 4 years before by heart attac in mid night in his house at Pokhara near airport. Please you can contact us at address below (mandala Trek) if you need more information .

This sucked. I'm not one to get melodramatic, or reflect on the afterlife, but it would be nice to immortalize the guy a here goes...

We met 20 years ago in Pokhara, Nepal. I was looking for a porter, and he happened to be around, dragging a cheap cigarette. He was 19 at the time. That means he was about 35 at his death.

So we did the Annapurna circuit. It took about a month. Shortly into the trek, he pointed out his village...wayyyy up one of those terraced hills. There was nothing there for tourists, and the village was slowly withering away cuz the young people preferred life in Pokhara city. But those were his roots...a "gurung" somewhere between the city and the deep Himalayas.

His English was good, and he enjoyed talking philosophy. He didn't seem to hold any special respect for the Tibetan Lamas, or formal religion, but he was impressed with the spiritual attainment of his bosses at Mandala Trekking....he said, "you can feel it".

Along the trail, we befriended a number of folks. Most casual trekkers have about the same pace, so you wind up seeing them in the guest houses night after night. Mostly, there were the Japanese...nice people, all of them. One was named "Shingo Awaji". There was a European couple whose travels paralleled ours for a week or so. They would have loud sex at late hours. At one point, Shambu pounded on the "wall" (if it could be called that) and I muttered some epithet about Germans. The response: "veee are not Germans, veee are Austrians". One wonders how their bodies were entangled at that exact moment.

There was a nutty, marijuana-smoking woman on one of the stops, babbling away in English, French, and German. I decided to sleep in a little hut outside the guest house, and Shambu got pissed at me for that. But why?'s not like there were dangerous animals or humans at that particular, isolated place.

That woman claimed she was going to climb the Annapurnas solo. We never saw her on the trail again...speculating on her whereabouts became a running joke for us.

At the Thorong-La pass, he got altitude sickness, so I carried the backpack. He didn't protest at the time, but I never let him, the professional porter, forget it. Still, we got in a game of gin-rummy at the top of that pass (we played gin rummy constantly).

When we made it to the guest house, there were two Tibetans having a heated discussion. It was all in Tibetan, with the exception of an occasional "sense" or "nonsense". Shambu explained they were debating the meanings of these English words. It was hilarious, actually, if you can imagine the setting.

At some point, he got married. It was a bit odd...she was maybe 8 years older, of different caste, and with a child via some previous relationship. I'm not sure what the real story was there. He alluded to another woman he impregnated along that trail (in Manang, perhaps), so maybe he has a child.

I returned to Nepal in 1995. I wanted to go to Everest with him, but he had some kind of hangup with Sherpas, and never ventured into that region. So he hooked me up with his friend "Issing". Issing was an excellent porter, though his lack of English and his traditional ways meant that there wasn't much communication.

After Everest, we did a short trek to the Annapurna sanctuary. There's no need to speak of the wonders of trekking in the can read that elsewhere. But it was good to experience that stuff with a guy like Shambu. It was his job, of course, but there's no doubt he understood that he lived in a special place, and there were facets of his life that were charmed.

We also went to Lumpini, where the Buddha was born, with his wife. His father and brother lived in that area, renting wood that was used for concrete forms. It was actually a decent living. His family somewhat disapproved of his low-status job, so I loaned him a big wad of rupees, and we played "high-stakes" rummy with the whole family looking on aghast.

Of course, I only saw a small piece of his life. He mentioned his friends/customers in Taiwan fondly. He also mentioned one situation (near Manaslu, I think) where he worked all night to free up a snowy trail for his clients...he repeated that story a number of must have been a big deal. I mention all this on the off-chance that one of these folks stumble across this blog.

I had thought that we would meet every 10 years or so. We'd be 75 years old, drinking rakshi, and talking about whatever. We might even hobble into the mountains for a short trek...I never considered that it might work out differently.


I wrote the above in April of 2007. Upon arriving in Nepal in May, it was pointed out to me that it's not entirely implausible that Shyambu is alive and well, and his former bosses were lying about his death. He did speak about quitting the agency and starting his own, in which case his employers may have "disowned" him. There would be some potential financial incentive in fibbing about his death, as I might then be inclined to pay Shyambu's former agency for trekking services.

Most likely, he's dead. But there's a bit of a mystery now, and perhaps I can look into it on my next visit.

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