Karen Custer Thurston
Haunting Eyes: An Unusual Encounter In Nepal
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Have you ever been haunted by a momentary meeting with a stranger on your travels that seems to linger with you for years afterwards? Come away with me to a village nestled in the highlands of Nepal for an unforgettable encounter....
The handsome Nepali woman appears to be about 60 years old but I imagine she is nearer 40. She stands and awaits my approach, facing me on a dirt path in this stark and remote village. She is clothed in the iconic Tibetan style dark dress with striped apron, turquoise earrings, coral and turquoise necklaces draping her bodice. The necklaces represent her dowry as well as ornamentation. Bound in black cloth, her dark hair falls in two long braids over her strong shoulders.
Her clothing is extremely soiled, very typical of country people who have little access to precious water. Her handsome face is high boned and darkly stained, having cooked and stayed warm over wood fires all her life.
She stands, very still, in the middle of the path I am walking. She unflinchingly eyes me as I steadily approach her on the Annapurna Circuit track, which runs through the middle of her village at 10,000 feet altitude. Her look is unwavering and focused. As a tourist in her country of northern Nepal, and far from any town with roads and traffic, I am certain of what she wants. She wants something from me that I cannot give.
I am, unmistakably, a foreigner. I do not look Nepali. I am fair skinned and my eyes are blue. My hair is brown and curly. This is winter when very few trekkers try this particular route. My exterior frame backpack also identifies me as a trekker. I am, as well, dressed in clothing that would be expensive for the average Nepali. $450 hiking boots, a $250 Gortex rain jacket, a sun hat, and a pair of sunglasses.
My hired porter, Tagu, is always ahead of me and generally out of sight. He might have already spoken with this stalwart matriarch. He might have already told her I am an American. Trekkers and their porters are interesting news in villages along the Annapurna.
As I approach her, I reckon that she owns a local hostel for trekkers. Her guests will eat her homemade tsampa or potatoes or carrot soup by candle and firelight. She will have prepared this food over a very smoky wood fire. The ceiling above the fire will be completely blackened as is the skin on her hands and face.
She is handsome and she is proud. I know what she wants from me and I am extremely uneasy as I near her. I am not able to do what she wants and I feel embarrassed and churlish, knowing I will not make her happy.
She wants me to stay overnight in her guest house in this village. Renting rooms and selling meals to trekkers is how she makes her living in this remote area.
The majority of Nepalis live at poverty level like this woman. I realize that my guest house fee will be a huge help to her and her family but it is not time for me to stop. It is too early by several hours for me to stop for the night. I am trekking the Annapurna and I will be walking between 12 and 20 days depending on my speed and where I stop for the night. I am trying to walk further on this day so I won’t use up too many days of my time on this particular adventure.
Although I am in the early days of my trek, I’m learning to choose a hostel based on word of mouth or how clean it looks or how tired I am. No owner was out in the path. I just kept walking through villages.
I’ve not had to face down the actual owner. Until now. I don’t speak enough Nepali to explain any of this to this handsome woman who is asking for my trade.
I have this sinking feeling as I approach her. I say my Namaste with prayerful hands as she stares at me. I feel even worse as I step around her, since she isn’t budging. As I pass her, I look directly into her dark eyes and something unspoken passes between us. I’m not sure what she ‘said’ but I ‘said’ I am so sorry.
I do not look back at her but continue to walk on. Sensing her eyes on my back, I try to force my thoughts forward, thinking about how far I need to trek to find a guest house at the next village.
Quite often, when I catch the fragrance of wood smoke, my mind flashes back to that remote village in Nepal when I looked into the eyes of that dark-skinned woman.
I wonder how she is doing.
Copyright Karen Custer Thurston 2020
Photo Credits: Unsplash: Peter Thomas, Giusepe Mondi.