On the Massif
His paces proceed at a solid andante. Not for apathy, but for freedom from hurriedness altogether. With each step, his shoes sag deeply to the arches, his gray polo shirt dampens from the exertion. For him, the trail is well-worn, every turn and step recorded in memory past a network of friendly faces along the way.
“Namaste. Are you well?” He greets, holding another’s hand in his for a long, easing pause. His dark eyes peer from under his canvas cap, searching to make sure the other is okay behind their smile. This same, calm ease continues as he pushes step on step up a mountain, as rainclouds threaten, and even as dinner delays past 9pm. All is well with friends along the route, in the Annapurna mountains he calls home.
Purna shares his name, which means “perfect” or “complete”, with these peaks through which he treks. The Himalayan Annapurna massif includes one peak over 8,000 metres, 13 over 7,000 metres, and another 16 peaks surpassing 6,000 metres. This breathtaking range extends 55 kilometres, forming the first and largest conservation area in Nepal.
At a break, Purna stands humble in the face of Annapurna 2, whose glacial faces tower above clouds and mists as if suspended in the heavens. The mountains, magnificent as they are, provide a constant recalibration of “greatness” and “power” for the people who live between them. Purna grew up with an instinctive sense of community with others who can survive in such a place.
When he’s not on the trail, Purna lives in his village 20 kilometres north of Pokhara in north-central Nepal. A rocky, bumpy road connects this cluster of houses deep in the mountains with the country’s second largest city. Purna is a farmer most of the year and a trekking guide during the peak tourist season, working to support his sons. His oldest, 21, is in his last year of a four-year pharmacy degree, which keeps him studying until 3am each day. His younger son is 17, and he wants to go into hotel management when he finishes high school.
Like son, like father. Purna’s eldest smiles shyly to strangers, and sits quietly and calmly with those he knows. Both father and son bow slightly when they say hello, shy eyes quickly making contact and then darting away. But, though their demeanors match their dispositions couldn’t be more different. Like most young people, Purna’s eldest wouldn’t dream of living in the village. He studies in Pokhara, where he can explore, meet friends, eat different foods and find new video games.
“They love the city, I don’t know why,” Purna says with a small smile, shaking his head. “I think maybe they don’t like the village because they don’t like village work. For me, I like this place,” he motions with his hand to hundreds of green terraces and the white, craggy halo above, “this peace area.”
In Purna’s village, the daily tasks of life continue as they have for decades. Villagers wear heavy wool cloaks and hand-woven bamboo hats to shield from the rain as they work in the fields. Traditional tools, like bamboo baskets tightly woven to crossings and firm knots, make farm work possible.
Like all Nepalis, village identity is closely intertwined with cultural and ethnic identity. Purna belongs to the Brahmin caste, but he is quick to explain that his family belongs to the mid-level. He makes clear that he is “not of the same kind of people” who hold powerful leadership positions in Nepal.
In each new village, Purna first describes the people: “This is Ghandruk. It’s just across the valley, but people here are different. They are Gurung. Their faces are round, flatter, and their eyes are large and come out of the face more.” He gestures with his knuckles protruding from either side of his nose, from his own eyes. Everyone is acutely aware of the differences dividing two villages a half-day’s walk apart.
At the end of a long day on the trail, Purna sits down with cell phone in hand. Ever since an American tourist showed him how to watch movies on his phone, he’s become obsessed with downloading films to an app so he can watch later without Internet connection. This task keeps him happy and excited, along with calling his sister who lives with her husband in New Delhi.
As the sun sets down the southwestern valley and the clouds wrap tightly from all directions, Purna is drawn by the pull of the newest film—something to enthrall his mind and heart while his guests remain enthralled by his home.