Lower Solukhumbu, Nepal 2016August 19, 2016
I travelled home with Tenzing Sherpa to his village in Dumbul, in Lower Solokhumbu, Nepal, a region just south of the Mt. Everest. The trekking season was almost over, and the monsoon rains began, as I arrived in early June, 2016. It took 5 days travel northeast of Kathmandu, mostly by jeep, then on foot, into this remote place where Sherpa families terrace farm potatoes, corn, rice and herbs. I started out with my Sherpa and host, Tenzing, whom I met on a previous trek on the Ghorepani Trek, just weeks before the major earthquakes in April/May, 2015. He invited me for a home stay to attend a special house blessing for the recent home repairs due to earthquake damage. House blessings are performed biannually, February and June, based on the moon phase (full moon), to prevent illness, promote peace and happiness in the local community. Local Buddhist monks visit the home, chant for hours from prayer books with the sounds of cymbals and drum, gee blessings, and offerings of food, drink and incense.
We met our two porters, one also named Tenzing Sherpa (Mr. "T") and Juskumar Tamang, in Salleri, sleeping in local teahouses along the way. After traversing terraced farms, crossing long bridges over valleys and rivers, I climbed 3 mountains with steep inclines, passing hand-carved mani prayer walls, and clocked over 30 miles of trek, reaching heights of 2,295 meters (7,530 feet). It rained every day during monsoon season, with soggy ground and slippery rocks, the Himalayan mountain views hidden by heavy clouds and mist. I entered the village late in the afternoon, in a shroud of rain, completely drenched, legs shaking. And I was surrounded by corn stalks.
The Sherpa in this mountain farming community settled here in the early 1800s, still sustaining 300 plus villagers. The Sherpa were nomadic people who first settled in the Solukhumbu District (Khumbu), Nepal, then gradually moved westward along salt trade routes. Sherpas are highly regarded as elite mountaineers and experts in their local area. They were immeasurably valuable to early explorers of the Himalayan region, serving as guides at the extreme altitudes of the peaks and passes in the region, particularly for expeditions to climb Mount Everest. Today, the term is often used by foreigners to refer to almost any guide, climbing supporter hired for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas, regardless of their ethnicity. Sherpas are renowned in the international climbing and mountaineering community for their hardiness, expertise, and experience at very high altitudes. It has been speculated that a part of the Sherpas' climbing ability is the result of a genetic adaptation to living in high altitudes. Some of these adaptations include unique hemoglobin-binding capacity and doubled nitric oxide production. All Sherpas have the same sir name, "Sherpa," but are not necessarily related. They are also given a second name by the local monk at their naming ceremony. So not to confuse my two Tenzings', I called the older one Mr. "T."
My host Sherpa family live in a traditional two floor Sherpa style home covered in dung plaster, painted blue and white windows, outdoor outhouses, that overlook their cornfields above and below. Their home is situated mid-village, located where a lake once was, leaving its only trace at the "Snake Place," where water constantly flows. Stories involving the nāgas (snake gods) are still very much a part of contemporary cultural traditions in Nepal. Nāgas are considered nature spirits and the protectors of springs, wells and rivers. They bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to bring disasters such as floods and drought. The middle fields are surrounded by a collection of stone walls and a watchtower stone structure containing a prayer wheel, all built by hand by Tenzing's grandfather. The inside was dimly lit by window light, sparsely decorated, with open shelves displaying beautiful hand-beaten Sherpa copper pots. Their family is of Tibetan decent, practicing Tibetan Buddhism, mixed with a little mystical shaman folklore. A chote, or God place, with brass vessels, a hand-painted image of the Dhali Lama, adorned with silk panels, and a large prayer wheel (mani wheel), sat center stage in the living area. Wood bench tables and sofa/beds surrounded the tibetan rug, worn from daily prayer, puja. The kitchen was simple as well, with open shelves and wood-burning fireplace, recently rebuilt with a new chimney. The previous years of burning wood, incense, and cedar hung in the air and on the wood shelving. It was like stepping back in another place, another time.
The Sherpa believe in numerous deities and demons that inhabit every mountain, cave, and forest. These have to be respected or appeased through ancient practices woven into the fabric of Buddhist ritual life. Many of the great Himalayan Mountains are considered sacred. The Sherpas call Mount Everest Chomolungma and respect it as the "Mother of the World." Mount Makalu is respected as the deity Shiva. Each clan reveres certain mountain peaks and their protective
deities. Tibetan mani stones walls surrounds Tenzing Sherpa's land with "Om Mani Padme Hum" carved on them. The syllable sounds, not words, have a powerful meaning in this sacred prayer. "Ma" helps perfect the practice of pure ethics, and "Ni" helps achieve perfection in the practice of tolerance and patience. In the Tibetan language, "Mani” means “jewel” or “infinite altruism.”
The mother, Furba Lamu Sherpa, age 56, married early at age of 12, has lived in this home for over 30 years, that her husband built from money earned from years of trekking in the Himalayans. "Fur," in Sherpa means "air", and "lamu" means "fresh." Her name suited her perfectly with the mountain breeze that blows in the afternoon mist. Her eldest daughter, Sonam Choti Sherpa, age 25, is an English school teacher, in the larger village, Sotang, a day's walk away. Tenzing Sherpa is the only son, age 21. He lives in Kathmandu, earning a living trekking to Everest Base Camp, Mt. Kalish in Tibet, and the Annapurna mountain circuit, since the age of 14. Chhimee Sherpa, the youngest daughter, age 17, just completed the 10th grade in yet another village, living in hostel, and spends her only time off helping her mom in the Dimbul village home. Their father, Keepa Sherpa, was age 50 when he tragically died in 2009, in an avalanche on Tumari Mountain, fell while securing the route, 5 others died with him. This family's situation, along with the repercussions of the 2015 massive earthquakes, has left them separated and struggling. Regardless of their personal trials, they are wealthy with gracious smiles and open hands.
First time guests are given white scarves for welcome peace, that are later left tied to tree branches when leaving the village. I believe I am one of a few Americans to visit this village, and certainly the first Texan! My blonde hair, blue-green eyes, and loud mouth with a certain detectable English twang, were the oddities in the room, and my simple body struggled managing the lower tables and sofas. But my reception was warm and friendly, with plenty of milk tea, potatoes, and homemade Sherpa tea, a salty combo of rice alcohol, milk and tea. Village visitors daily brought milk, eggs, mushrooms, yak cheese, cauliflower, bananas, fresh local herbs, homemade alcohol, and the daily news or gossip, shared over milk tea, or orange drink (similar to Tang) constantly topped off by Chhimee, in a typical Nepal-style tea thermos, with her hand out.
Cows and water buffalo are the ultimate recycling machines in the region, and the most prized possession. With dhoko baskets woven by mom, the family fill them twice daily with fresh cut grass by hand, for the two cows and one water buffalo. Tenzing purchased the water buffalo for his mom with his first paycheck from trekking Mt. Everest base camp at the age of 14, $250. She is now pregnant, not producing milk, as well as one of the cows, both due is four months.
Everyone is related but not related… Auntie, uncle, didi (sister), cousin, monk, grandmother… But not really.
Furmula Sherpa poses for her portrait in front of her recently rebuilt home after 2015 earthquake damage in Dimbul, Lower Solokhumbu, Nepal. I took this shot upon my arrival in her village. She motioned me to get my camera, and led me into the fields along this fern-edged path. She is a proud Sherpa woman, living alone on this farm, wanting her picture in front of the house, sickle in hand. I managed capture my first moment alone with her, and the mist of the mountain mist rolling into the cornfields; the magic of the snake place.