Remember the Porters

By: Mr. Small

They were lean men. They had the build of marathoners, and the strength of weightlifters. Veins undulated across their forearms and calves; sinews stretched across the folds of their knees and down their Achilles; their feet were calloused from years going up and down a mountain in bare feet or flip-flops. By the time we’d ascended from sun-stroked savannah through humid jungle, breezy pine-forest, and frigid tundra, on our way to the volcano’s rim, I was swaddled in long underwear, shirt, sweater, base layer fleece, waterproof shell with hood, tuque, Gore-Tex gloves, scarf, and two layers of socks. They wore shorts and t-shirts. While we, carrying only packs of clothes, hauled ourselves up the mountain, they jogged ahead with half a man’s weight of food, bottled water, and climbing equipment balanced across their backs on bamboo poles. They didn’t so much descend as bound down the mountain in controlled falls, while we gingerly–our knees shot from the relentless pounding on volcanic rock, our calves quivering to find purchase on the gravelly surface–lowered ourselves from ledge to ledge.

They were the porters of Lombok.

Did I mention they could cook? Some of the best meals I had in two months on vacation were prepared in a single wok over a fire of knotty pine branches. They could take a pineapple, and with only a machete and pocket knife, carve it into stars and tulips. They could turn four ingredients–rice, eggs, beans, and local vegetables–into a different lick-your-plate meal every sitting.

When it came time for a few hardy souls to climb to the summit of the volcano–from the rim, a thousand metres up a fluid incline of pebbles upon which every step triggered an avalanche–it wasn’t the guide who went. It was one of the porters. No doubt they would rather have been guides themselves. The guide was one of us–he didn’t cook; he didn’t carry food or equipment; he didn’t wear flip flops or go barefoot. He did speak English.

At the last rest stop before we went our separate ways, the climbers convened to decide what was on all our minds: “How should we remember the porters?”

At the start of the climb, I’d had mixed feelings about having human beings as our mules, but by this time I was convinced of their necessity, at least to my own triumph at climbing a mountain of cinder and ash, up from the swelter of equatorial beach resorts to a windswept heath too cold for hell and nylon tents. So foul and fair I day I have not seen.

One of the climbers suggested we buy them Marlboroughs. The porters smoked the local brand of Indonesian clove cigarettes–Kreteks–and had been pleased when our guide shared his imports with them. The health nut in me was pleased when another climber asked where exactly we were going to get four cartons of cigarettes on a volcano.

We settled on cash. Only how much?

We might have known had we come to the foot of the volcano and booked the climb there. When, however, I am planning a vacation and have a limited time in a particular place to accomplish a singular goal, my instinct is to go with international tour companies based in places like Australia or Canada, where the laws provide at least the hope of protection against scams, and where there is no fear of arriving only to find every porter and guide booked.

One of the climbers had been studying Indonesian in Bali the past year, and suggested we each contribute 100,000 rupiah to divide among the four porters. With six climbers, that would mean 150,000 rupiah (about $15) each. This, the climber believed, was a very good tip for three days’ work.

So after the group photo–climbers, porters, guide, and arms across shoulders–this student of Indonesian, the only among us who could speak the language, presented the money on all our behalf.

Tourism brings money to local economies. The beach resorts, the D&Gs and KFCs, the airports, the taxis, even the international tour companies, are staffed with locals. If the tourist industry hadn’t turned a crack along the spine of Indonesia into a product, the volcano would be just another pain in the neck for this poor country, not an industry employing porters, guides, park wardens, and volcanologists. The guide told us that after the Bali bombings in the early 2000s, the locals feared the tourists would never come back.

The porters took the money with one hand, and smoked with the other. One of them scratched the bottom of his foot. The Swoosh on my shoes said made in Jakarta.