Portoculture

by Andrew Stein

Portoculture (n.) – the study of guides and porters who trek through Nepal (etymology: derived by combining the words porter and culture, the term portoculture was not in use until 2011).

Scenario 1: Food/Drink Service

At each of the lodges, all food orders were placed with the trekkers’ respective guides and porters, the order was then relayed to the kitchen, eventually the food was given to the guide, and finally the meal was delivered to the trekker by the guide. This same relay system also occurred when it came time to pay. Although it seems inefficient, this is part of the service structure that has been set up over a long period of time, and it was how I operated with Subash probably about 90 to 95% of the time.

Scenario 2: Card Games

Many days, trekkers and their guides arrive early to their destination and are faced with the task of passing the time. Domal and Dalmara (I probably butchered the spelling here) are two card games that the Nepali guides taught me over several afternoons of looking for ways to stay busy. One afternoon, I learned a third card game and when I indicated that I was ready to play, the guide told me that they were gambling. I asked how they were gambling if no money was changing hands and no one was recording the results of the games. He responded vaguely by saying that they were keeping track in their heads. I waited a little longer to see what happens, and eventually he won a hand, so I asked him how much money that earned him. He avoided my question. Then I realized by gambling he meant try to take the silly foreigner’s money. To let him know that I caught on without saying so directly, later in the evening, I asked how much he won or lost. He said that he had broken even. I just smiled.

The next day, the same guide ended up at our lodge again, and this time I had started a game of cards with my own deck. We were playing Domal and not for money. He indicated that he wanted to gamble again. I made him spell out the rules very carefully. We bet 5 rupees on each game, and by the end of the hour, I was up 65 rupees (almost 1 USD). Gambling did make the game more exciting (probably because I was winning), and made the afternoon go very quickly.

Scenario 3: Dal Bhat

Dal Bhat is a meal consisting of rice, lentil soup, curry, and vegetables. I ate many throughout my trek because it was the only dish that kept coming until I was full. Bottomless Dal Bhat can fill up anyone. This was also the meal that the guides would eat at least two and sometimes three times a day. It was identical to what we ate, except they always used their right hand to eat, and eating curry, rice, and soup with a hand is an impressive feat.

Scenario 4: Guide to Guide Loyalty

The guides are very loyal to each other and to “the business.” As I was making friends along the trail, one morning Subash turned to me and asked if we talked about “the business.” I had an idea to what he was referring, but acted otherwise and said no and asked him what the business was. He was referring to the business of trekking operators, their costs, their programs, and their perks. He then proceeded to say that the guides are angered when we talk of such things. I wanted to tell him that when you have over 100 businesses offering almost identical services, it is hard not to price compare in a capitalistic society, but I just nodded and said thanks for letting me know.

Another example of guide to guide loyalty occurred one evening when I was talking to a guide who had previously worked with the owner of my trekking operator. He was describing treks off the beaten path, seeing another part of Nepali culture, and walking paths that were just opening up to the public. When I asked for his email and contact information for the next time I visit Nepal, he refused to give it to me. He explained I should talk to my current trekking operator and ask for him. I told him I understood his concerns and that we could exchange contact information as friends and that I would not tell anyone we had done so. The next morning he reluctantly gave me his information.