Where rupees aren't everything

Her hiking-boots cost more than most Nepalese earn, but Sue Gaisford soon realised that guilt was misplaced
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The Independent Travel

We rounded a corner straight into an ambush. Across the track ahead, six impressively grubby little children were strung out holding hands, refusing to let us pass. True, they were tiny and they were laughing, but they knew exactly what they were after. "Sweets! School-pens! Rupees!" As it happened, following advice, we had arrived in Nepal with all these things, but we had begun to realise our mistake. And started to worry that we might be doing more harm than good.

We rounded a corner straight into an ambush. Across the track ahead, six impressively grubby little children were strung out holding hands, refusing to let us pass. True, they were tiny and they were laughing, but they knew exactly what they were after. "Sweets! School-pens! Rupees!" As it happened, following advice, we had arrived in Nepal with all these things, but we had begun to realise our mistake. And started to worry that we might be doing more harm than good.

The previous day, we had hit on a better solution. We'd been climbing steadily since early morning, the sun increasingly warm on our backs. At first, the Modi river had kept us company, tumbling boisterously along the valley floor beside us, but by now it had dwindled to little more than a strip of silent, glittering tinsel far below. Its chortling music had gradually been replaced by a bewilderingly complex chorus of birdsong, the intricate, unfamiliar melodies dancing on the fresh mountain air. A flock of gaudy parakeets chattered from a lofty stand of bamboo.

Apart from the occasional distant shout of a ploughman cursing his recalcitrant oxen, there was no other sound, save the virtually imperceptible hum of the spring, going about its business. Trees, upon which dangled the tiny, starry, white flowers of wild jasmine, hung over the track, filling the still air with an unmistakable and heavily stupefying perfume. Scratching their jagged white outline against the sky, the sheer and inhospitable faces of the Annapurna range of mountains seemed both alarmingly close and, when you lowered the field-glasses, reassuringly distant and inaccessible to mere mortals.

Coming up past the shoulder of a hill, we found ourselves at the gate of the Shree Laxmi Primary School. The pupils who had been larking about in the dusty playground a moment ago began clustering eagerly against the wall, inspecting us with curiosity. We, or at least I, felt like Gulliver. We were too tall, northern and winter-white for this fragile, delicate landscape. And we were, uncomfortably, too rich. We had spent more on our sturdy hiking-boots than these children's parents could earn in months.

The school had a box in the corner of the playground, and a visitors' book. You write your name and the amount you want to give and you tuck the relevant notes into the piggy-bank. It seemed a sensible, unembarrassing solution to one of Nepal's most perplexing challenges. In one sense, the idea of helping people who seem to have more than their fair share of happiness seems presumptuous. In another, the contrast between our profligacy and their frugality was too stark to be ignored.

We had met, the day before, three young men carrying rolls of corrugated iron three times their height up the mountain on their backs. Attached to broad bands around their foreheads, they were too heavy for any of us even to lift: they were going up to the village of Ghandruk at 7,500ft, to become the roof of a new house. The boys were paid the equivalent of £3 a day for this Herculean task. We were tempted to buy them lunch, or at least a drink, but were warned that the price of this refreshment might be docked from their pay.

Similarly disturbing was the sight of our own porters carrying our baggage for us. It's certain that we'd have got nowhere carrying it for ourselves - and indeed, the men were very glad of the work - yet we knew that in Britain, their day's wages would have bought scarcely half an hour's labour. However you rationalised it, however often you told yourself that money wasn't the only criterion, it didn't seem right.

What did seem right was to visit another school and distribute our pens, via the headmaster; and to go to a health centre and give them vitamins. The sweets I gave to our guide, to do with as he thought best.

We also tried to do our best to ensure that we were not depriving the mountain kingdom of essential resources. The excellent Annapurna Conservation Area Project offers frequent reminders along the trail as to how trekkers should behave. We obeyed them to the letter: we bought trekking permits, we stayed in lodges, where fires were fuelled not by scarce firewood but by "logs" made of corn husks; we left no litter to deface the landscape; we happily and gratefully ate the local food.

I wished that I'd brought photos of home to show to some of the people with whom we chatted, who were so interested in the world we came from, but we did find other serendipitous ways of making friends. One was simply having fun. The chap who had organised our trek had been a major in the Gurkhas: he brought balloons and frisbees, which never failed to delight the children we met. And my husband had noticed a set of Pass the Pigs in his drawer when he fished out our passports and brought it along. It's a simple game of chance, but it united everyone - cooks, porters, lodge-owners, trekkers, guides - night after night, in raucous glee: we left it with our porter Gopal Gurung.

Serendipity rules in these mountains. Some of us developed an inexplicable taste for the local hooch, a liqueur made of millet called raksi (which smells like old stables). One hot noon, miles from anywhere, we came across a beautiful woman in a lean-to, brewing the filthy potion. Elegant in her red sari, and about six months pregnant, she crouched over her cauldrons. Ten minutes later, she was laughing as we continued along the trail carrying a gallon of the stuff in a plastic engine-oil container with a spent corn-cob for a stopper.

"Nepal is here to change you," the slogan had said. "It is not for you to change Nepal." Indeed.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting there: The lowest fares and best connections to Kathmandu are usually with Qatar Airways (020-7896 3636, www.qatarairways.com) via Doha. Other options include Pakistan International via Karachi and Emirates via Dubai. Expect to pay around £500 return. Trailfinders (020-7938 3939, www.trailfinders.co.uk) has September flights with Gulf Air via Abu Dhabi for £450.

Travel advice: The Foreign Office has softened its advice about Nepal since a ceasefire was signed between the government and the Maoist insurgents. "Indications are that the ceasefire is holding," it says. Prior to the ceasefire, some trekkers, including those on the Annapurna circuit, had been robbed.

The FCO says an unofficial curfew is in force - "Bars tend to close well before midnight" - and says visitors should not travel at night.

Organised treks: many firms, based both in Britain and within Nepal, run walking holidays. UK operators include Himalayan Kingdoms (01453 844400, www.himalayankingdoms.com, Dragoman (01728 861133, www.dragoman.co.uk), Exodus (020-8675 5550, www.exodus.co.uk) and Explore (01252 319448, www.exploreworldwide.com).

Red tape: Visas are required by all British passport holders. A one-month visa can be obtained upon arrival in exchange for a passport-sized photograph and US$35.

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