My adventure in the Himalayas was meant to start in Pokhara, a picturesque Nepalese town on the shores of a vast, clear lake at the foot of the Annapurna massif.
The surface of the lake, framed by purple water lilies, reflected the surrounding mountains, which were dominated by Machapuchare, a razor-sharp, 22,793 feet high peak. Permanently covered in snow, Machapuchare is revered by the locals as the home of the god Shiva.
While I was walking along the shores of Lake Phewa, mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape, a nearby hotel caught my eye with an advertisement: an invitation to ride mustang horses. It was pretty obvious that it had nothing to do with the Mustang horse breed that is so well known in America, but rather with the Mustang province in Nepal. Even so, they somehow convinced me to try a horseback ride along the lake. Although the breed of the horse I was supposed to ride had little bearing on my decision, the image the advertisement planted in my mind was, inevitably, that of a strong and fiery horse. Not that I knew much about horses, or that I wouldn’t be terribly afraid of high-spirited animals, but what was about to happen went utterly beyond my imagination.
The “mustang” ride started with an equestrian tableau like no other. A boy, not more than twelve years old, was proudly pulling by the reins a Rosinante, in the strictest sense of the word, stunted and skinny, with a light blanket in place of the saddle, and a rope around its neck to serve as bridle. In the hot dusty afternoon, the boy and the horse seemed so tired-out and half-starved that my heart swelled with pity instantly.
“Surely the horse won’t faint if I get on it?” I could hardly avoid asking the question, but the agent who sold me the trip insisted that I had no reason to worry. Besides, the boy was to accompany me and make sure everything went well. I quickly understood what his role was: the heat-dizzy old nag wouldn’t have moved in a million years if the boy hadn’t pulled her by the bridle.
I accepted, mainly out of curiosity. And my curiosity was not about the horse, but about the boy.
The so-called horse ride immediately turned into a Don Quixote- Sancho Panza scene featuring me and the boy: him on foot, leading the way and pulling the horse, and me riding behind, with my legs swaying left and right because the stairs were too short and impossible to adjust. It didn’t take long for that original Apache-style riding to bring my behind to a limit. As soon as I found a nice viewpoint by the lake, I dismounted and succumbed on the grass, firmly declaring my intention to end the ride.
The boy looked disappointed and tried hard to persuade me not to abandon the project. Since I really didn’t want to continue, I explained to him that I’d rather go back on foot, and thus offer the horse a well-deserved break.
We were to take the same way back, walking side by side. Since I had been spared from having to endure the torturous position atop the horse, my jaws unclenched, and I was finally able to make conversation.
I felt a lot of sympathy for the boy, so I tried to find out more about him. We made friends rather quickly and, although he was not outspoken at all, I got him to tell me a few things about his life. His timid answers made the whole episode switch, in just a few minutes, from comic to tragic.
The boy had no father, and his mother was crippled. He had two younger brothers, and they were all very poor. He worked from morning until night, taking care of the horse and offering rides to tourists. In return, the horse’s owner offered him food. Nothing more. The child was essentially working seven days a week only for food. If he was lucky enough to receive a tip from a customer, it would be the only money he could use to buy clothes, shoes, or medicine.
“But you don’t go to school?” I asked.
“We’re on vacation now,” he said, avoiding looking me in the eyes.
It was October, and I had big doubts that he was telling the truth. I feared that he simply could not afford to go to school because he had to work all the time. In addition to his job with the horse, he had to help his mother with the housework since she could not manage it all alone.
He didn’t try to impress me with details or flatter me in order to get a tip. On the contrary, I was the one pushing him to speak, and he answered hesitantly. That child without a childhood was touchingly serious and responsible for his age, and impeccably polite. Poorly dressed, skinny, and sad, he pulled by the reins a horse, no less skinny and sad, both of them miserable, overworked, and with no hope for a better life.
When I offered him all the cash I had in my pockets, the boy looked at me with astonished eyes, incapable of understanding the reason, given that I had shortened the ride in half. I would have liked to spend more time with him, but I thought I would be of more help if I said goodbye. Thanks to my early finish, he would have had a spare hour or so, to rest or to play, and maybe use the money I gave him to pamper himself with some ice cream. I was afraid, though, that he had to run to his mother instead, to help her at home, and that he would not dare to buy ice cream because there were too many other more important things that he and his brothers needed.
I knew that his case was not singular, that he was just one among many other children at least as unfortunate as him, and the feeling of helplessness paralyzed me. It was far from being the last time I would succumb to that feeling during my stay in Nepal.