As I wrote a recent post about trekking on Stewart Island, I mentioned my old boots, which brought up memories of the time I had worn them trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas, over twenty years earlier! That got me thinking of that month in Nepal. It was my first journey to a country far from home; a country where I would be the foreigner speaking a different tongue. I had dreamed of such a journey since childhood. As an adult, I wished to challenge my status quo, and when the opportunity presented itself to visit this eastern kingdom, I knew I couldn’t turn it down.
I was joining three New Zealand women, Diane, Annie and Gill (strangers until we met at Auckland airport), to walk in the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal. Diane (the leader) introduced us to her husband John, who was also travelling to Kathmandu to attend a Edmund Hillary Trust Foundation meeting. Lucky for us, we stayed in Kathmandu for a couple of days before setting off, and had dinner one evening with Sir Edmund Hillary. Alas, I don’t have an image of me with Sir Ed, just one of me buying a prayer wheel for a friend. So already you might understand why this trip was so special.
Although I felt most intrepid embarking on this journey, I became very well aware early on that my comfort and enjoyment was made possible by the Sherpas and other Nepalese who guided us, carried our gear, and fed us. We got to know many of these people, and I feel privileged to have known them. Also joining us at Kathmandu was the daughter-in-law-to-be of our guide, Fordje, and through her I was to experience just how different my life was from this young Sherpa woman’s.
Sometime later, following this experience, I wrote a travel story for a university assignment, focussing on a particular aspect of my Nepal trip.
Gill, Annie, Diane and I are dumped off at Jiri, where the road peters out and vehicles are supplanted by foot traffic. It is a mud-encrusted, frontier town and we congregate beside the bus, contemplating this “Gateway to Khumbu” and Everest. Two men in Nehru caps and narrow trousers, who loll against a rusty drum smoking, cast us long suspicious gazes, while three bare-footed boys just stare. Looking at, and being looked at, becomes a salient feature of our Himalayan experience, one which becomes synonymous with Buddha’s gaze; for his disembodied eyes haunt us from every stupa and gompa along the way.
We are watching sirdar F’dorje directing the kitchen crew, as they stack the mountain of paraphernalia that we are taking on our twenty-nine day trek, when F’dorje turns to face us. With legs astride, head cocked and huge grin slashing his weather-beaten face, he looks every bit the Joker.
The 18 year-old bride-to-be of F’dorje’s son, joins us. Yungen moves elegantly in traditional dress (a crossover top with striped wool apron) despite her six month baby bump. Her dark hair is pulled back and shows a smooth round face. Annie tucks an arm through hers, as if she’s her own daughter, for she knows that in contrast to Western ideals, Yungen is expected to prove her fertility before marriage, have a husband arranged for her, and share a house with the husband’s mother.
We walk, always looking out for Yungen, who never once slows us up, or complains. Buddha watches us read Om mani padmē Hum as we pass engraved marne slabs at the village approaches. Passing on the left ensures good fortune so Diane tells us, so of course we do, to comply with the culture. The air is laden with the soft mumbling of mantra, the ting of cymbals, the flapping of prayer flags and incense which wafts up one’s nostrils. But for every red-robed lama who sweeps down from a monastery, we learn there is a woman who waits for him, and on him, be it a mother or sister at home, or a whole bunch of nuns.
Because of Diane’s knowledge of the region, we get to meet a venerable monk who lives hundreds of feet up a mountain, in a damp but startlingly interesting cave. The approach is steep, and hazardous, as shale covers the track.
“Been over heaps worse back home,” Diane shouts. “Just walk faster than usual, shove the sides of your feet into the shale and DON”T lean out!” “Shit,” says Annie, though I’m the one afraid of heights.
Gill, who is used to chasing sheep around a farm, bounds across the slip like a Border collie and quickly joins Diane and F’dorje on more stable ground. F’dorje has that grin on again and does a semaphore thing with his arms before moving further up the track to Yungen, and disappearing. “Shit,” I repeat, and charge after Annie, trying not to envisage our vertiginous plunge to the gorge below. As the track re-emerges we hear the high-pitched sound of women talking.
The voices belong to two shaven-headed ahne, who have Gill and Diane in tow, and Annie and I stumble into step behind them. The nuns bow reverently when we reach the lama’s door, then with supplicating deference to their beloved, and repeated “namastes” to us, they scuffle back to the monks who are waiting below.
The white house with its red and yellow trim resembles a letterbox sat on by an elephant, squeezed under a massive moss-encrusted overhang, in an impressive rock face. A bamboo pole with white prayer flag sways at the door.
We enter, necks crooked, hands folded. “Namaste,” we bleat into the freezing air. We can’t take our eyes off the red-coated man with a yak blanket around his shoulders and he can’t take his eyes off us. He is almost motionless, apart from those round brown eyes which dart from face to face and back again. His nose is slightly hooked, lips pouting, and his grey moustache and beard are frayed, like string. The gold of his cap (with fur ear flaps) matches the gold in the fading religious frescoes which cover the walls around him. I smile, reach for the gifts of ink and pens I have brought and place them on the candle-clad table between us. Annie, Gill and Diane give paper, paints and pencils in turn. I think he’s pleased, for creases appear in his cheeks.
“Didn’t you bring photos of your art?” Annie whispers, and I reach for the envelope in my jacket. I watch as he examines my abstract landscapes, more intently than a surgeon would a patient, and then he flings back his head, lets out a whoop any boy would be proud of, and laughs and laughs and laughs. “Do you suppose he likes them?” I ask Diane. “It’s cheered him up if nothing else,” she says, “and that’s got to be a good thing.” I try to tell him I like his work by saying lemenok and pointing at the wall. He smiles, but the effect is spoiled by a horrible rattling cough, which comes deep from his lungs and rolls on for a lifetime.
The cough earns the nickname ‘The Kunde Cough’, after finding everyone who lives there has one. Kunde lies in a valley at 13,000 feet, with houses that merge into dry barren land. Huge boulders become hunkered-down yaks at close range and the only discernable colour in this mist-coated landscape is the white of Buddha’s eyes ever staring.
F’dorje’s wife shows us her timber-tiled house (which Yungen will soon call home). There is one main room, with a kitchen annex; mud walls butt mud floors and long wooden benches line the perimeter of the ‘lounge’. Tibetan rugs smother the benches at night, where we top and tail like fat caterpillars in our green Everest bags. I could reach out and touch the husband and wife, who lie on a plinth alongside.
I doze fitfully under the smoke-blackened ceiling thinking of Yungen – further down the caterpillar line – and of her tying my hair every morning. “You look like me now,” she’d say, tucking the scarf into place, before stepping back a little and smiling. Cows moo beneath the floor and I have an urgent need to pee. I find the missing board over which I must crouch but forget to keep my head down as I stand. The crack of bone on beam is something I never get used to but I kick leaves down the hole nevertheless.
The reality of Yungen’s future hits like a water bomb a few days later. When we reach Gokyo Lake I have altitude problems and must stay behind (with my ‘one-man’ tent), while the others continue climbing to 17,881 feet. I sit in a teahouse watching a Sherpa woman stirring potato soup, a baby’s crib hung on her back from a band around her forehead. Under a blanket – like an untouched picnic – sleeps an eighteen-month-old child. I am transfixed, do sums in my head, recalling the weight of babies in my arms. That morning around five she would have dug those potatoes herself and carried the water in from a well. There is no sign of a husband, or man, save the Swiss trekker who sits beside me.
I look out to the amphitheatre of snow-capped mountains and think again of Yungen, who will spend her days hauling water, tending animals, or kitchen fires, dig potatoes in hard dry soil and carry babies strapped to her back. Her husband, a guide like his father, will only stop home if he passes by. I place my palms together.
Namaste Yungen, and all waiting women, may your God go with you.
Khumbu Region in Everest foothills
Stupa Buddhist dome-shaped temple
Gompa Local Buddhist church
Marne (Prayer) Walls
Om mani padmē Hum Om Jewel in The Lotus (Buddha) Hum
Mantra Chanted Prayer
Namaste Greeting – May your God go with you
Tea House Private Lodgings