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  • The young porters begin with the supply loads: rice, water bottles, cigarettes, Coca Cola. Their grandfathers once walked these trails to bring vital supplies to their isolated villages, but there's so much trade in the mountains these days that a load could take you anywhere. If he's ambitious, a porter'll get a job carrying bags for tourists, learn a little English, become a guide. Guides make $10 or $20 a day; porters $5 or $10 when servicing tourists, less when carrying supplies. They make a little extra money here and there from hotel owners when they direct tourists with recommendations.

    For Sherpas, speaking English is a Marketable Skill.

    Some women carry supplies too, the result of recent cultural change and the demand for porters resulting from the growing tourist market, but most porters are men. Boys, actually. Stout, skinny boys who'll become stout, skinny men. It takes two Sherpas seated on each other's shoulders to look a Dutch tourist in the eye, and that's if they can build up the confidence.

    Porters and guides wait to meet the tourists where the buses reach the end of the road. Smart guides have connections back to Kathmandu and work on behalf of the travel agencies down in Thamel, the tourist neighbourhood in the capital, where the Israeli restaurant sits across the street from the burger joint and the strip clubs flash neon figures on the red brick temples hidden in the alleyways. Foreigners roll joints as they lick hummus off their fingers; the figures in neon are curvaceous, not stout, skinny. The shapes inside don't reflect the lights outside. Why do tourists feel most comfortable where the morals are low? It's an uncomfortable question, with uncomfortable answers.

    In the mountains, the boulders and prayer flags declare the sacred Tibetan Buddhist mantra, "Om Mani Padme Hum". It's said that the Buddha's entire teaching can be summarized in these six syllables. The characters are everywhere, repeated infinitely: an ancestry of education carved into the land to ensure it'll never forget. As if it could ever forget. In Thamel, the mantra blares from stereos in the tourist shops. Curious foreigners inquire about the translation: it's "Hail the Jewel of the Lotus", which hardly makes comprehension easier. The path to enlightenment is to stop following the path to enlightenment. And, maybe, to buy a poster of the Rooftop of the World.

    The mantra's curvaceous characters flap on colourful flags that fly from every Himalayan pinnacle. The winds carry the prayers in all directions - west to the hills peopled by rural, revolutionary Maoists, south to the overpopulated Gangetic Plain, east to the deforested tea plantations, north across the high passes to the Chinese-occupied Tibetan plateau. Bluewhiteredgreenyellow: the five elements circulated endlessly.

    Om Mani Padme Hum.

    The prayer flags attach to long lines that string taut out over the abyss.
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