Saturday, April 10, 2010

You Get What You Pay For (In a Good Way)

After researching a number of different outfitters, I decided to go with Mountain Travel Sobek (MTS), which is a California-based company that has been around forty years. They were on the higher side from a price standpoint but this was one trip I didn’t want to skimp a little on price and risk that impacting our enjoyment of the trip. As is the case with most things in life, we absolutely got what we paid for. Everything about the trip, and in particular the professionalism and organization of Sanjeev Chhetri, our lead guide was beyond what either Lindsay or I had expected. He always provided enough information so we knew what was going on but not so much that it caused unnecessary concern. In addition to Sanjeev, there were 21 additional members of his staff. And yes, I find it equally pathetic that it takes 22 people to support a group of 6 paying customers; however, regardless of the group size, Sanjeev said that it’s fairly standard to have somewhere between a 3:1 to 4:1 ratio so I felt a little better about that (even if I was carrying around a light day pack while they were strapping huge loads to their backs up and down the same terrain I was straining to complete). The 21 consisted of the following people and/or jobs (titles are basically how Sanjeev referred to them throughout the trip and names are provided for those that we interacted with frequently):
  • 1 Sardir (Kuldhoj) – He was Sanjeev’s right hand and handled all of the monetary transactions throughout the trek (he was also adept at spotting sidelights on the trail, including both monkeys and marijuana).
  • 1 Cook (Deepak) – We rarely saw Deepak and he would barely acknowledge us when passing on the trail. He was basically the rock star of the group and everyone knew it. Regardless, the man kept everyone (as in all 28 of us) healthy and fed for 10 straight days, ensuring that none of the guests would lose any weight even when trekking for five to seven hours a day. He showed a soft spot when he purchased a puppy in a village on the second to last day to take home to his children.
  • 1 Lead Sherpa (Norbu) – He kept a close eye on Lindsay on the trail (which I appreciated) and lead many of our hikes. He was also firmly entrenched in the belief that Kuldhoj cheated at cards.
  • 1 Lead Kitchen Steward (Rinzi) – I don’t think this was Rinzi’s official title but he worked his ass off for 10 straight days so I’m promoting him; he faithfully brought tea and washing water to the tents each morning and was the primary “face” of the kitchen staff whenever we were in the dining tent which doubled as the social center at camp; even when we had a big party the last night to celebrate the successful completion of the trek he didn't stop working, ensuring everyone had a full glass regardless if they were a customer or part of the staff
  • 2 Sherpa Guys – Sanjeev used the term “Sherpa” to describe the guys that hiked with us, though I don’t believe they were all ethnically sherpas; in fact, it’s likely that none of them were.
  • 3 Kitchen Boys – These guys supported Rinzi in his quest to make sure our plates and glasses were always full.
  • 12 Porters – We didn’t see much of the porters; they’d saunter into camp each morning at around 7:30 am, help get any final items packaged and take their load. Presumably, they’d drop their load off each afternoon, set up camp (though it’s possible that the non-porters that weren’t with us on a given day performed that task; I honestly have no idea), and show back up the next morning to repeat.
Sanjeev orchestrated the logistics for the entire staff nearly entirely behind the scenes.  After about the second night it became obvious that we weren’t just getting the best camping spots in the villages based on dumb luck; Sanjeev knew exactly how many other groups were in the area and where they were at on their trips which enabled him to know when he needed to send a runner to procure a site for the night (most of the places didn’t have phones so he utilized a runner system that can be likened to the manner in which information traveled in the olden days). In addition, he knew how much time the kitchen staff might need to set up and cook for lunch or in the evening; he adeptly organized the day’s trekking and stops around that schedule. While there were days where we seemed to stop inordinately long at places, it’s tough to complain when you’re being “forced” to stop and enjoy a beautiful Himalayan view with a tea or beer in hand and a tin of Pringles (yes, Pringles…they’re both the unofficial snack food of the Annapurna Sanctuary and quite delicious) to share amongst the group. With respect to Sanjeev and the staff, Lindsay correctly observed that they did all of the worrying for us from well behind the scenes which only added to our enjoyment of the trip. Based on my experience, I would absolutely recommend MT Sobek ( if anyone ever wants to do this type of trip (not to sound like a commercial, but I’m already checking out other options in the region, though they have trips worldwide).

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