By Ashley Lodato
Not long ago I read an article about the Himalayan porters who ferry huge loads up mountains for the mountaineering tourist industry. These porters, who are often compared to the Kikuyu women in Kenya for their similarly large loads, carry on average 90 percent of their body weight, often up to 125 percent of their weight, and — in a few cases — as much as 175 percent of their body weight.
A recent study of these Nepalese porters was expected to prove that, like the Kikuyu, the porters altered their gait in subtle ways to conserve energy while walking, thus leaving more energy for bearing large burdens. But, contrary to predictions, the study showed nothing particularly special about the porters’ stride. They simply carried more than anyone would expect would be possible, and they carried such loads day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation (you get the point).
Unlike the Kikuyu women, who use a gait modified to maximize efficiency in order to transport heavy loads over long distances, Nepalese porters walk just like everyone else. But like the Kikuyu, who learn to carry heavy loads on their heads as children, the Nepalese porters are largely trained from birth to carry loads that would eventually break down even the strongest Westerner.
So is there a secret to the Nepalese porters’ seemingly impossible feats of strength and endurance? Apparently not really. There are just two identifiable factors. First, the ability to carry gigantic loads may not quite be in the Nepali porters’ genes (yet), but it’s certainly in their upbringing. The things we learn and do at home are the things we know and continue to do, usually unthinkingly, throughout life. If those things challenge us without breaking us, they make us stronger. We adapt physically and psychologically to the work we’re expected to perform.
Second, when traveling with loads, the porters take their time, walk slowly, and take frequent breaks. This sounds like great advice — a philosophy that many of us might do well to adopt, especially in today’s fast-paced society.
But many Americans are so far removed from a life of physical labor that when we hear “take frequent breaks,” we use that motto to indulge ourselves. We hear “stop, take a load off, smell the roses,” while the Nepali porters hear “rest only until you feel like you can pick up the load again.” No wonder some of the hardest jobs in America have such high turnover; most of us are not conditioned to that kind of work.
What does this have to do with Winthrop? Almost nothing. (It was a slow local gossip week for me.) But I think it could be a metaphoric reminder to those around us who are carrying heavy burdens — whether perpetually or just for a while — that the trick is to just keep doing it, one foot in front of the other, moving slowly, resting frequently. To paraphrase Bob Marley, who is quite likely as disconnected from Nepali porters as we are, “you don’t know how strong you are until being strong is your only option.”