Saturday, November 21, 2015

Gendering the trekking trail

Insight, Travel Travel, Nov '15
By Paramita Banerjee

Kanchanjungha from Sandakphu
Photo credit: Rubina Sen
Even my worst enemies, whoever and wherever they are, would acknowledge that I don’t lack in taking risks. So, past 56 years of age, I decided to resume one of the hobbies I’d loved as a young person – trekking. A trek, by dictionary definition, is a long arduous journey and in India, it certainly involves the mountains. The higher the altitude, the more thrilling is the trek for most Indian trekkers I’ve known.

Perhaps naturally, no trek organiser would readily include anyone of my age, especially after a gap of almost 23 years. Not even when the trek organiser is a friend and a colleague in the social development sector that provides me my bread, butter and jam. I needed to prove my fitness. A 14-kilometre walk across a mountain forest, covering two villages and a viewing point was proof enough for me and I managed to persuade this friend into including me for a Sandakphu trek in May this year. This one is considered a beginners’ trek, after all, and ideal for someone well past her prime seeking to resume trekking after a long gap.

Early morning view of Kanchanjungha
from Sandakphu. Photo credit: Rubina Sen
Any physically demanding task should by convention have limited applicability for the ‘weaker’ sex, surely. But the Sandakphu trekking team consisted of six women and three men. One of the men was past 60, robbing me of the opportunity to be the senior most in the team. This team, therefore, was not a typical one with able-bodied hunks alone. Gender justice prevailed in all things apparent. It’s purely the obsessive compulsive disorder of this elderly queer feminist to be irked by the fact that all the women and the elderly man had their rucksacks carried by the porters, but the two men in their 40s carried their own rucksacks. Would it have increased the cost substantially if those two were also carried by porters? Well, I did ask, but the response was somewhat ambivalent.

An avalanche during the
Kumaon trek. Photo credit:
Mitali Sarkar
Interestingly enough, in a recently finished second trek that I was part of – from Urthing to Panchachuli base camp in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand – this same trait was repeated. The team was not the same, except for the trek organiser – the same friend mentioned above, one of the women in the Sandakphu group – a university teacher by profession, and myself. It was a tougher trek with a smaller group of six, but we women still dominated in terms of numbers – four of us with two men, one of them being the youngest at 30. We had mules carrying our rucksacks and all the cooking and camping equipment, but the men carried their rucksacks on their back throughout. I did not bother to ask why, assuming that the response would be as ambivalent as before. But the question remained in my head: Why was this differentiation necessary? Machismo, even if subsumed under a well-mannered veneer of declared adherence to the values of gender justice, must demonstrate itself in some show of physical strength, maybe?

Sandakphu is the highest peak in West Bengal, India and is located in the Darjeeling district. It is now reachable by jeep – but trekking is a different delight altogether. Apart from the breath-taking beauty of the Eastern Himalayas, where a riot of colours in the form of flowers greet you throughout, Sandakphu offers a view of four of the world’s highest peaks – Everest, Kanchanjungha, Lhotse and Makalu – at one go. We were lucky to get a full view of all four the morning after reaching Sandakphu as the sun rose, and even managed to get a glimpse of my lady love (yes, Kanchanjungha and I’ve had this deep connection since I was 10) in the glory of the dazzling full moon on Lord Buddha’s birthday. This was from Tonglu, where we spent our first trekking night in a trekker’s hut.

Photo credit: Nandini Nayak
The entire trek criss-crosses through Nepal and India, which got me thinking how beautiful the world would have been if all international borders were open like this. As the adjoining photo captures, there was a “Welcome to Nepal” signboard at the base of the steps that we had to climb at a point. Even as I huffed and puffed my way up, enjoying the scenic beauty of the area and inhaling the fresh mountain air, I could not help thinking about Bangladeshi boys languishing in government observation homes in different districts of West Bengal, as also in Delhi and Mumbai with the Foreigners Act, 1946 snapped upon them. A research assignment gave me the chance to interact with many of them, making me realise how so many of these boys were completely unaware of committing a crime by crossing an international border, till intercepted this side of the border and having a criminal charge labelled against them. The lopsided values of patriarchy allow all girls and women of Bangladeshi origin found to be illegally in India to be treated as victims of trafficking, but boys above the age of 10 are treated as illegal immigrants and tagged as offenders of the law.

Aconites - beautiful but poisonous
Photo credit: Rubina Sen
Two other unique features of the Sandakphu trek are Kalapokhri (literally, the black pond), where the water never freezes, and Bikhey Bhanjyang (literally, valley of poison), which gets its name from the poisonous aconite flowers that bloom there. Kalapokhri was our stop for the second night while we had tea at Bikhey Bhanjang en route to Sandakphu – our third and last day of the upward trek. The way down was a new one for me, though I’d trekked to Sandakphu thrice before in yesteryears. We walked through three forests – first rhododendrons, then bamboo and then an incredibly beautiful stretch of burnt pines – to reach the Gurdum village where we had our lunch.

White rhododendrons
Photo credit: Rubina Sen
The final stretch downwards to Srikhola was through a dense mountain forest where we finally needed to take out our raingear as we marched next to the river in heavy rain. We met children hopping happily back from school – they undertake a seven kilometre trek up and down every day to go to school and return. We also met women and men carrying heavy loads on their back – firewood, timber, grass for the cattle, sheep and goats – negotiating the slopes oh-so-easily while we balanced carefully with our trekking sticks to ensure that we didn’t roll down!

As I looked at these people, I wondered why women never worked as porters and guides to trekkers when they knew and negotiated the roads just as ably and carry almost the same amount of load as the men. It never ceases to surprise me, despite experiencing this throughout my life, how the same tasks become almost exclusively a male preserve the moment they are attached to income earning. Mending and sewing at home are women’s jobs, but men are not known to shy away from being tailors. It’s the homemaker’s responsibility to cook and serve food on the table for the family, but most known chefs are men. The problem, obviously, is not in the nature of the task at hand – it is in the deeply entrenched belief patterns that restrict women’s entry into economically productive activities. The mountains, unfortunately, are not an exception in this respect, though the female sex ratio in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal stands at 970 against the state’s overall average of 950 females per 1,000 males; and the female literacy rate at 73.33% is also higher than the state’s average of 70.54% (Census 2011).

The Kumaon trek in mid-October was very different in every sense. Panchachuli consists of five snow-capped Himalayan peaks at the eastern end of the Kumaon region in Uttarakhand. The heights range from 20,781 to 22,651 feet and an inner line permit is needed to trek here since it is close to the Indo-Tibetan border. Panchachuli (literally, five cooking hearths) is believed to derive its name from being the place where the five Pandava brothers cooked their last meal before proceeding on their final journey towards heaven – though four of them would need to spend some time in hell and Yudhisthira, the eldest, had a glimpse of it, before reaching the heavenly abode. The base camp, our final destination where we spent two nights as in Sandakphu, stands at 13,975 feet above sea level.

Author negotiating the trail
Photo credit: Arunavo Ghoshal 
Walking from Urthing to Nagling along the Dhauliganga river on the first day, we were exposed to the devastation of the landslide in 2013 – with hardly any visible improvement in these two years – though this side had not received any media attention at all. Walking was far more challenging in comparison to Sandakphu, but the rewards were equally exhilarating, if not more. This time, there were no trekkers’ huts to retire into – just igloo tents to crawl into with sleeping mats and sleeping bags and we were thankful for the snugness of four of us huddled into one tent meant for three as it snowed through the first night at base camp. West Bengal celebrated Durga Puja, the state’s largest socio-religious festival, while we – five among the six being true blue Bengalis – enjoyed the snow.

A makeshift bridge
Photo credit: Paramita Banerjee
The next morning was breathtaking, with the first rays of the sun lighting one Panchachuli peak after another while everything around us lay covered in a white sheath of flossy snow. Perhaps to reward us for being in Kumaon instead of pandal hopping in Kolkata, we also had the unforgettable experience of watching an avalanche from the comfortable distance of our campsite – though three of the team, two women and the younger man – were at the edge of the gorge where the snow fell some half an hour before.

Snowfall at night. Photo credit:
Paramita Banerjee
It was here that I realised for the first time that snowfall could be of two types. I thought it was raining as we approached the campsite, only to be made aware by the team leader that the pitter-patter was not from drops of rain, but tiny little globules of snow that hung on to my woollen jumper before I could get into my raingear. The snowfall at night was very different. Long, thin rod-like snow fell silently on the ground and immediately transformed into soft, flossy snow that lay like a carpet all around us till after 9 am the next morning, when the rays of the sun finally fell on the valley and the snow started to melt. I also learnt that an avalanche was preceded by a thunder-like sound that was short and fast. It was this sound that alerted me to a second avalanche on another peak, a shorter one than the first, as I sat in the valley where Camp 1 was set up by summiteers. There were snow peaks all around, with the difference that the Panchachuli peaks are famous and named. The peaks that lay on the other side were equally beautiful, but are unknown and unnamed. A fact that made me contemplative about factors that contribute to fame – whether of human beings, or of other natural things, whose fame is also decided by us only.

Camp 1 in the morning.
Photo credit: Paramita Banerjee

First rays of sun on one of the
Panchachuli peaks. Photo credit:
Paramita Banerjee
Since mid-October signifies the imminent onset of winter, there were no rhododendrons to greet us along the way. That is not to suggest, however, that the trail was dull and grey. In fact, the leaves in the maple, rhododendron and other non-evergreen trees had assumed fiery orange shades – fall colours as the Americans would say – the wonder of their brightness before drying up and falling to the ground in an unimaginable exuberance in the face of impending death. I couldn’t help wishing for myself the same arrogance when my time comes.

As I sat down for a smoke on my way down on the last day of the trek, two inebriated men accosted me – first for some alcohol, which I certainly wasn’t carrying; then for a couple of cigarettes, which I refused to part with; and finally to insist on guiding me down to Urthing, arguing that the rest of our group had already reached there. Not that it mattered, but I was secure in the knowledge that two of my group were behind me since one was walking really slow because of an old injury on her right foot playing up. My arguments against their offer had no effect on them whatsoever and it needed a group of three of the local women to arrive and scold them in sharp tones for the men to leave me to myself. I smiled wryly to myself as I resumed walking at the folly of my own once-held belief that silver strands saved a woman from unwanted attention from men. Maybe grey hair does contribute to diverting certain kind of attention, but some other form of the same unwanted interest takes its place. The feeling of dominance is so deeply socialised into an average male psyche that any woman anywhere in any situation can become an object of interest – the nature of it determined by what is topmost on a man’s mind at that point. In this case, it was obviously some goodies they wanted, if not in the form of alcohol and cigarettes, then in cash in lieu of a guiding service that I didn’t need. This in a region where villagers go down during winter, leaving their homes barely locked and acts of burglary of any kind are non-existent.

Panchachuli in its glorious splendour
Photo credit: Nandini Nayak
As I walked alone down a long stretch of rocky devastation, at times feeling just a little eerie to be the only human being for miles, it felt as if I was re-living my life’s journey – scary at times; always challenging; but the indomitable spirit inside never giving up. Solitude does get the better of me at times, but only for rare and fleeting moments. Freedom, my partner in the trek and in life, never fails to make me keep chin up and trudge along. So, my last thoughts as I climbed the last very-difficult-to-negotiate bit to reach the waiting car: The possibility of an all-woman trekking expedition where the porters, the guide, the cook, everyone would be of the ‘weaker’ sex. My joy was boundless when I heard the male leader of our group discuss the same idea with one of our team members, the only trained mountaineer in the group. I’ll be after her to collaborate on that possibility, I decided as I snuggled under the blanket in the Dharchula Kumaon Mandal Vikash Nigam tourist rest house on our last night in Uttarakhand.

Paramita Banerjee is a black coffee-loving, living-in-the-moment, do-it-yourself social activist and writer.

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