Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Hospitality the Sherpa Way

In the Khumbu Valley of Nepal, God is most generous in his beauty. After a night of rain, I awoke to crystal bright skies and stepped outside my cubicle to the warmth of a morning sun. Then I look 360 degrees around me and realized I was in the most beautiful place in the world surrounded by rugged, snow cast peaks. To one direction Mt. Everest beckoned its frozen hand as strong winds blew snow powder off its summit. With the early sun, cracks and crevices of closer mountains like Alma Dablam and Contega made dramatic scenarios. Of course there were no climbers this morning because no one can summit Everest until after May 10th, by order of the Nepali government and China.
But there is more to Pangboche than just this incredible landscape. There is a generosity among its people living a simple, almost peasant style life, that I’ve not found anywhere else. It’s here that you put aside the need for Western conveniences, and let yourself become part of a tremendous Sherpa spirit.

After a leisurely breakfast at a table outside in the sun, for this is an acclimatization day, we set out for one of the most important destinations of this pilgrimage: to visit Geshi Lama, a friend of Jim’s, most of the major climbers, and the Sherpas. People who believe in the spirit of Mt. Everest, visit the Lama to seek out the most auspicious day for climbing, summitting or something simple like where to hang the prayer flags I’ve brought from the children of Memphis and Nashville. It was a short uphill hike to his gompa. Our group was Jim Williams, my guide; Nima Tashi, Jim’s Sherpa guide and long time friend; Karen, Matt and myself. Outside of the monastery, beside the views and the perfectly put together stone walls that define this valley, was yak dung drying on a huge canvas spread. Since wood cannot be sold for fuel, the yak dung is dried and burned for fire and heat.

As we entered the dark room lit only by numerous windows and decorated with Buddhist art and thousands of photos of climber friends of the Lama, we sat down to await audience. We each carried with us a goldenish white silk scarf with some rupees folded in a corner to present to Geshi Lama as we are greeted. When my time came after Jim’s, I placed the scarf in his hands, my rupees dropped on the floor, I picked it up and he took the scarf, blessed it then placed it over my neck and pulled my head to his - bumping heads is a sign of respect. Then we all sat down along the benches lined with carpet for comfort and listened to Jim catch up with his friend Geshi Lama, mostly telling him how well his grandson was doing at an university in the United States. The translator was Tashi, the Lama’s beautiful daughter who runs the lodge where we are staying. She is young and full of spirit and copies her father’s sense of humor.

After much conversation, Jim explained to Geshi Lama that I had brought a gift for him - the prayer beads made by Suzanne Hensley, which he took out of the velvet bag and smiled greatly with pleasure. We took lots of photos as we then showed him one by one the many prayer flags which I hope to hang at significant places related to Mt. Everest. He looked at each one and seemed touched by the effort of the children. Then he suggested to Jim where we should put the flags and said he would be glad to fly some of them at his monastery, the oldest in the Khumbu, after we had carried them with us to the base camp area.

We were offered a Rikikur for lunch, a potato pancake spread with yak butter and to be dipped in very spicy hot sauce. The Lama ate first and then we followed. In addition a small glass cup of Johnnie Walker Red Label was poured for each of us. I don’t drink alcohol but had to at least touch it to my mouth for respect. On the lip of the little cup was a smudge of sampa, a grain powder for good luck. As my companions began to drink their cups, Tashi was waiting to re-fill their cups. It is all in the spirit of abundance, blessing and hospitality that never ends here.

After lunch, Jim presented the Lama with much needed new shoes, and he proudly tried them on, after blessing them, and walked around. Tennis shoes were brought for Tashi and her mother and son. Then I received special blessings and a protection prayer to hang in a pouch around my neck in a ceremony along with a Sherpa who had just arrived for protective prayer and for the Lama’s naming a day and time for him to summit Mt. Everest with his large group of Westerners. Rice was thrown with each prayer, incense was burning, and Geshi Lama created little packets of prayer tied in string - and put in a small baggie for safety - for each of us. Geishi Lama also prayed for my strength to complete this pilgrimage then reported that Buddha has blessed my journey and that I will accomplish that which I want. Then he and his wife and his daughter each placed huge golden silk scarves around my neck (so I had four total), and then presented me with a small carpet also tied in one of the scarves. It was generosity beyond the norm, and the feeling of such welcome was unique.

With much laughing and prayer, it was time to go. Tashi would descend with us, everyone having finished their meals and been blessed with a neckful of golden scarves. Before we departed, another Sherpa friend of Jim’s arrived for blessing and discernment. He told Jim that at Base Camp the police were not allowing any laptops, cell phones, video cameras or satellite systems because of the problems with Tibet protestors. We at least would not be carrying our equipment to Base Camp, as we spend the night in Gorek Shep, the nearest village. Since we are not a member of an expedition group, we would not be welcomed to use the facilities and space in Base Camp.

The afternoon I relaxed with very peculiar shower (the hot water was not so hot), then sitting in the very warm sun, having recharged all our gear using the electricity at our friend Sherpa Nima Tashi’s home, we bundled up and walked again to Nima’s house where we were greeted by his beautiful wife, Ang Fura, who flashes a gold tooth when she smiles. She was building a fire (with yak dung) in their pot bellied stove in a new dining room for a future lodge. Warmth was the biggest welcome here. The heart of Nima and his Ang Fura has no limit. All our guides and Sherpas (four total) joined us for dinner cooked by Jeta, Nima and his wife. First we had tea or hot lemon in water. Then Jim, Karen and Brad were served a rice beer, a milky looking substance made by Nima from fermented rice. As soon as some sips were taken, the cup was filled again. Shay, Shay, they say. Drink, drink. These aren’t rounds, it’s continual refills.

The meal was enormous - from potato salad to momo (potstickers) to chicken curry and spicy tomato soup. In Pangboche, they farm potatoes so most of the meal is based on that food. But tonight rice was being served by the mountainfulls for the curry. I have never seen so much rice put on a plate. And then the Sherpas, small and thin as they are from carrying huge loads up these mountains, came back for seconds. Meanwhile there were second, third, fourth helping of everything until the food ran out. After the desert of canned mango in syrup, a sake like rice drink was served and served and served until everyone was about to fall asleep.. There was such a feeling of friendship and satisfaction that it’s hard to describe. And when Tashi and Jeta helped me back up the cobblely road to the lodge - in

the dark - Jim leading slowly, I felt a warmth from the inside, as well as from the outside.

Photos: Snow blowing off Mt. Everest; Tashi Sherpa, daughter of Geshi Lama; First blessing by Geshi Lama; Geshi Lama with prayer flags; Geshi Lama and the pancake lunch; Nima Tashe and Geishi Lama sorting flags; The well blessed group; the dinner party for our crew.

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