October 22, 2015
“One hour more, straight up,” shouted our guide, the real-life superhero known as Ang Dendi Sherpa, indicating with a straight- upwardly hand gesture the pitch of the last bit of “trail” (I use quotations because describing the route as a trail is extremely charitable) to his native Hill Village.
Dendi had explained hours earlier as we negotiated narrow jungle ledge trails across vertigo-inducing hillsides that Hill Village is not a trekkers destination. The teahouses, lodges, and shops found along the major trekking routes throughout Nepal’s Solukhumbu region are not found here, and only locals walk these dizzying, beautiful trails.
We started noticing the leeches shortly before Dendi announced the ass-busting, lung-bursting home stretch. Team members were pulling them from their socks two and three at a time. Rinsing the blood out of their socks, my companions seemed utterly unamused by my excitement at the prospect of attracting and documenting my first-ever leech bite. About halfway up the final, quad-pulverizing ascent I felt a sting in the back of my right calf and spun around, beaming at the two bewildered young Sherpa girls behind me: “My first leech! Who’s got a camera?? Wait, I do!” I snapped a quick leech leg selfie, flicked the bloodsucker off into the brush, and continued up the path feeling like a bona-fide hiker.
We were headed for Hill to offer some earthquake relief work rebuilding their small schoolhouse. As we topped the ridge, a group of schoolchildren from the village, uniformed in light blue shirts and navy pants, appeared on the steeply terraced hillside, prancing about excitedly with the effortless grace and artful abandon of mountain goats. Sherpas are world-renowned climbers, and I could fill an entire post with the seemingly superhuman feats of strength and footwork I have seen them perform on treacherous Himalayan trails. But for the moment, let me set another scene:
At the top of that gluteus-maximizing hill, in front of the schoolhouse, appeared a vision reminiscent to me of the beautiful, impossible mirages that torment men dying of thirst in the Sahara: beside a flower bedecked welcome arch stood a group of the village elders at a table covered with large bottles of beer. As we approached, the men would hand over a full cup, urge you to chug it on the spot, then fill it for the next trekker. Hint: this is foreshadowing.
On the other side of the arch all the schoolchildren lined up to drape our necks with ceremonial scarves (khata) and garlands of marigolds. We were each obliged to line up numerous times so no child would be deprived of the chance to properly welcome someone. Speeches in English were attempted, thanking us for the help we had come to offer, and then the adults lined up to perform the welcome dance for us.
Let me make this clear: Sherpas are awesome. Their warmth, merriment, ancient traditions, and peerless hospitality made for one of the peak cultural experiences of my life. In Hill there are no businesses, no cars, and no electricity, so folks tend to be sociable; a more welcoming welcome I have never received.
As far as I could see, the Sherpa welcome dance looks a lot like the Hokey Pokey, except you drink a whole lot of homemade rice/millet beer (Ch’ang) and rice/millet wine (rakshi), and every once in a while everybody stomps their feet and emphatically chants something that sounds like “Shoosh Shoosh shoosh.”
Sherpas are so much fun to dance and drink with, and they spend so much time doing those things, that it’s a wonder we ever got down to work, but over 3 or 4 days we managed to tear down the damaged schoolhouse so the village can begin work on a new one this month. About 5 minutes into our meeting on how to safely remove the dangerously unstable stone, wood, and tin structure, the Sherpas interrupted to call a meeting of their own, which consisted of the ceremonial consumption of more ch’ang and rakshi and the bestowing of more khata. Here’s the thing: when a Sherpa starts pouring ch’ang and rakshi, he doesn’t stop until ain’t no more ch’ang and rakshi. The Sherpas would fill our cups and continue to stand in front of us with the pitcher, often actually tipping our cups into our mouths while warmly murmering, “che, che” (“drink, drink”). Refills are manditory, and because the cups are never allowed to fully empty, you never can determine how many you’ve emptied. As those of you who know that merry-making is my Achilles heel will have guessed by now, this proved to be my literal downfall.
One evening after dinner I began singing and playing my mandolin and a wild, merry dance party broke out. Eventually my performance gave way to Sherpa folk songs and even wilder dancing; my memory fades out on whirling around as Sherpas literally dumped glasses of rakshi into my mouth.
The accounts given by my comrades of my nocturnal adventures suggest that I fell down a steep stone staircase in a tipsy attempt to reach the outhouse in pitch darkness, which tidily explains why I awoke with my right kneecap so badly contused that I could barely walk unaided. I wondered if this time, this vivid and ludicrous episode in a lifetime of vivid and ludicrous misadventures, I’d managed finally to drop the hammer on myself. To be crippled in a land so remote and impossibly steep that walking is the only possible mode of evacuation was a morbid prospect. Our Sherpa guides and porters had informed us that the next day’s route was very old and disused and very bad, a steep, narrow, treacherous route through the jungle. When a Sherpa tells you a trail is very bad, you can bet it’s as hairy as a yeti’s arse.
I’ll spare you the melodrama: the bum knee held to the trail, which provided us with adventure stories I’ll be happy to tell you over a beer some evening. No rakshi, please.
On the way out of Hill, less than 10 minutes into the journey, we were summoned to “tea breaks” in several homes, where we were served glasses of morning rakshi (this is typical of tea breaks in Hill), the glass rims dusted with Champa, barley powder, a blessing of good fortune. In the last village we visited before entering the jungle, we were told we were the first white people ever to visit, the first they had ever seen.
Ah, they filled my cup, warmed my heart, blew my mind, those Sherpas of Hill.