is a twelve year old Nepalese girl from Pokhara. A city that most tourists flock to for its idyllic landscapes, trekking and relaxing lifestyle. Few venture onto local transport, fewer still know of the mini buses that head into the crazy hectic local part of the city. This is where Talika works with her family on a seasonal trade. Not for tourists, nor farmland. But, as a miner on the river Seti.
The river cuts through Pokhara and for most of the year it’s a fast flowing part of everyday life. I visited it in January when the mountain streams up high become frozen in sub zero conditions. It’s a time when the river slows and shrinks to become a meandering stream through the center of a small valley. It’s then that whole families move into this part of the town. It's also when school children use the traversable stream as a short cut to school. Something Talika must forgo at this time of year. Instead she works, like many more, on a 12x12 foot squared off area on the dried up river bed. Surrounded by gravel, silt and stone. Her whole family is there. Her father uses a shovel to dig the loose topsoil against a wire mess grid her grandfather holds firm. The larger stones bouncing off as the loose sand filters through. Her uncle and aunt then scoop the sand up into a pile, while her cousins separate the larger pebbles. They’ve already sold the larger rocks.
It’s a scene replicated all around the valley. From above it’s like a scene from an ancient slavery film. Hundreds of tiny figures moving around in thin lines from family plots along the valley and up the steep rough embankments to the rough road above. Each person carrying a yellow concrete bag filled to the brim. The bags weigh a staggering 70 kilos. Far more than the body weight of the people carrying them. Beside them is another family doing exactly the same thing. My guide strikes up a conversation with a middle aged man who smiles for my camera. The smile was for something else though. The man wants to know if I will adopt his son and give him an education. The question came out of nowhere. A man willing to give up his child to a stranger so his son can have a better life.
The man goes back to work as my guide relates to him that I am just a tourist, and not interested. It’s the silence that gets to me now. The whole valley is silent. No one talks as they work. Whole families toil away in silence. That has me as unsettled as the question I had just been asked.
I followed Talika and her mother as they helped each other load the heavy sacks onto their backs. A harness strap attached to their foreheads bears the brunt of the weight. A traditional method for carrying heavy items. Talika’s small frame didn’t flinch for a second along the valley towards the steep embankment. Then wearing no more than rubber sandals she began the crumbling assent. Like so many others before her, you can see the strain on her face. It’s not just about falling. It’s about losing the families 11 Rupee earnings. It was about not falling for fear of hurting the person behind you. It was about necessitating pride and survival.
High in the blue sky above a low droning sound causes me to look up and nearly lose my own footing. A small twin engine plane passes low enough to see shapes in the windows. We were under the Kathmandu to Pokhara flight path. I wondered as I watched the plane bank left if they could see the little yellow sacks moving around down below. And then I wondered if the people below knew of the tourists onboard.
It took about thirty minutes to climb up the embankment. At the top Talika stops with her mother for a rest. As she leans against a wall a handful of sand pours from her bag. A mistake. Fearful it won’t make the weight the buyers will pay for. Her mother strains to remove her own harness and scoops up her daughter’s sand and places it back in the yellow sack. They move on.
They finally come to a yard filled with full yellow sacks. They can now drop their heavy loads and stand straight once more. It’s here I can ask my bashful questions about their lives. My Nepalese guide translates and I learn Talika doesn’t go to school at this time of year. But something gets lost in translation and her mother begins to return my questions.
My guide is hesitant to answer. Under pressure he finally tells me what Talika’s mother is asking. She wants to know if I will pay for time with her daughter. Talika stares at me with lost eyes and I wonder if it was the first time her mother had made such an offer. I wonder if she understands. I shake my head sorrowfully and wave goodbye. They return my wave with polite smiles; as another plane passes overhead.
For more on India, check out my Nepal travel guide