Among the Sherpas

by Michael Falcone

At the foot of Mount Gaurishankar in the Himalayas, a traveler seeking a place to meditate soon finds himself becoming part of village life.

After six months living with solitary yogis in the mountains of Uttarakhand, my Indian tourist visa was set to expire, and my money was nearly gone. The mountains of Uttarakhand would soon be buried in ice and snow for several months. However, I felt my meditation practice and study of yoga was not yet over, and I was desperate to keep my travels going, so I set my sights on Nepal. I knew I would be unable to afford even the most modest of ‘teahouse treks,’ or even an ashram style meditation retreat. However, something inside convinced me that in the lands where ‘the guest is God,’ I would be able to find shelter for the entire winter. So, I booked the cheapest flight I could find from Delhi to Kathmandu, took a bus to Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, and headed straight for a guiding agency—any guiding agency. Of course, guiding agencies in Thamel are a dime a dozen, and I ducked into the first one I saw.

“Hello,” I said, quite nervous.

“Hello, what can we do for you?” The man behind the desk wore a leather jacket and reminded me of Al Pacino from Scarface. Not a particularly trustworthy look.

“Um, I am looking for an unused hut, or even a nice, big, cozy cave, or something where I could spend the winter,” I said, feeling ridiculous.

“You are interested in meditation?”

“Yes, yes,” I said, nearly in disbelief that this man would understand so quickly.

“Let me ask a couple of my guides and get back to you.” He pulled a topographical map from a drawer and unfolded it on the desk. “They are from here, in the Khumbu, and one is from this area, in the Gaurishankar Conservation area.”

I looked where he was pointing in the Gaurishankar conservation area, and right away it looked perfect. No major towns nearby, only some small villages, rivers, and forests.

“I will give my guides a call today. Why don’t you come back tomorrow,” the man said.

“Okay, thank you so, so much,” I said, scarcely believing my luck.

And just 24 hours later, in the same office, I would meet Myla, a Sherpa guide, and begin planning my stay at his ancestral home near the foot of the sacred, imposing, and beautiful Mount Gaurishankar.

Myla and I were soon walking the narrow side streets in the local market areas of Thamel, where I bought a pressure cooker, kettle, frying pan, and other odds and ends to cook with. As for food, Myla assured me that while his childhood village is small, I would be able to buy all manner of staple foods there—rice, dal, and flour.

With most necessities purchased, we decided to wait one extra day in case I thought of something else I would need, but aside from that, within just a few days I was set to depart for a winter home in the foothills of the Nepalese Himalayas.

When we first arrived, I was skeptical of the situation to say the least.

“What do you think…positive?” Myla asks me.

“Oh, yes,” I said, though I was truly unsure. “By the way, we never talked about a price for the house.”

“Now, no money. The house is not finished. Maybe next year I charge. Maybe I finish the house, people see you stay here, and one day it will become a business for me,” he told me.

Indeed, the house was a mere skeleton. Like so many village homes in rural Nepal, it had been destroyed by the earthquake a few years before and was still in the process of being rebuilt. It had no front door. The outhouse with a squat-style toilet was little more than a pile of broken stone. The kitchen area was a separate structure that had miraculously survived, one wall being earthen terrace, one half-caved-in stone, one simply old boards, and the fourth a woven bamboo mat. I surveyed the situation and busied my mind with the possibility of ‘teahouse treks’ instead.

Fortunately, I decided to stay. In my first few days roughing it in the home, I watched as the local carpenter planed, chiseled, and notched boards for my front door. I watched him and a helper use cement to patch a pile of broken stone into a functional toilet and bathing area. And I was still to learn how many other blessings this small village in the Rolwaling Valley would have in store for me.

For one thing, my surroundings were breathtaking. Myla’s house holds a privileged spot on the mountain, about a thirty-minute hike from the village center, nestled at the foot of soaring stone bluffs, atop which I would soon spend countless hours watching eagles circle above. The front door faced directly up a large creek into pristine jungle. And in this area, I had only two close neighbors, Myla’s brother and his brother’s wife, so I could count on plenty of peace and quiet.

The little known Rolwaling Valley trek begins a two-hour hike through the jungle to the north, at the foot of the sacred and imposing Mount Gaurishankar. Somehow this trek has stayed little known despite the fact that the whole area was scouted by the British as an initial approach route to Mount Everest. So while the next village has some guesthouses and benefits from tourism, Myla’s village does not. During five months in the village, I would only see and be a daylong guide to two European tourists.

As it happened, I had arrived in the village right around Thanksgiving, which coincided with a local village celebration as well. Less than a week into my stay, I was an honored guest at a big ritual under a sacred tree across the mountain, at the top of the terraced landscape. Myla’s brother turned out to be the village poojari, or holy man. He took his place on a woven mat; youngsters bowed their heads to him, and he offered blessings with a hand to the forehead. Other villagers kneaded well-cooked rice into ziggurat like sculptures, decorated them with butter and treats, and placed them around the space in ancient nooks in the rock. Others prepared incense, and still others placed banana leaves with offerings of marigolds. White silk scarves hung tied from the branches of the tree. I did not understand the significance of any of it, but I sat transfixed, taking it all in. Women I came to think of as service professionals made rounds with kettles and thermoses, serving endless rounds of black tea, salt tea, and butter tea.

A month passed unbelievably quickly, and I got into a groove. There was plenty of wood on the ground in the surrounding jungle, which I chopped down to size with an old, Sherpa style khukri. In the mornings, I kneaded my own dough for Indian-style chapatti and fried potatoes over a small rocket stove Myla’s brother loaned me. His wife routinely brought me fresh milk from their cows in homemade wooden jugs with expertly crafted plugs. I had plenty of fresh vegetables, as I could scarcely walk by a neighbors house without being offered white radish, vine grown Nepali vegetables, and vegetable greens.

All worry had gone, and I was able to focus on meditation. If my mind was disturbed, there were plenty of local trails into the jungle lined with huge rhododendrons and creeks to explore that were full of birdsong. In fact, the whole area is a bird watcher’s dream; I could scarcely come up with the names of some of their colors. There were falcons to watch, facing into the wind, unmoving in the sky, and then dropping to the ground as if in an elevator.

Within the month I felt like a member of the village. The nearest neighbors across the creek ran a small shop out of one room of their home, but every time I had made the trek, I had purchased nothing. Despite my being a foreigner, they showed no interest in selling me anything. Normally, I was simply invited into the kitchen area and served either a rice and vegetable stir fry, or perhaps whole potatoes baked in the smoldering coals of an open fire with spicy chutney.

December 21st arrived, the winter solstice, and I was again invited to a huge, dusk ‘til dawn celebration. The crisp night was lit by dozens of fires, different groups of villagers huddled around each. The local shaman drummed and danced up and down the terraces the whole of the night. Some of the younger villagers had set up a large speaker, blaring Nepali songs and dancing around in a circle, in their own unique style.

The new year would open on a slightly sadder note. A neighbor to the north, an old woman and matriarch of the village passed away one morning. The news traveled quickly and the trail just behind my house was alive as people streamed from across the mountain to what would be an all day and night vigil full of prayer and ritual for this woman. It wasn’t long before I was invited to join. Local lamas and holy men brought prayer books and instruments to perform funeral rites. I was eagerly ushered into the crowded house to be part of the vigil.

The next day, the woman’s body was placed carefully in a litter made of bamboo poles and carried by four men across the mountainside to an ancient place where the bodies of the deceased are placed on a pyre and burned.

After one month, four more days of rites and prayer would follow at the village temple, when family from Kathmandu and other places would be able to come and pay respects. To all of this, I was invited and honored to be a part.

As winter slowly turned to spring and the weather began to warm, Myla’s brother and wife prepared to move to a spot further up the mountain where fodder for their goats and cows would be more plentiful. So, to earn my keep for all the fresh milk, potatoes, and greens, on moving day I loaded a basket, strapped it across my forehead in the Nepali style, and followed them slowly up narrow mountain trails. These ‘home away from home’ camps were now scattered all over the mountainside. They are ingeniously constructed and quite cozy, walled with tightly woven bamboo mats, covered with large tarps, and floored with hay with a central cooking space squared off with logs.

As for me, I now had almost a whole side of the mountain to myself. The rhododendrons were in full bloom. I had never once wanted for fresh food, and I no longer worried that I ever would for the rest of my stay, no matter how much distance might lay between me and my neighbors. Every so often, I would make the trek to the village center where the main village shop was to replenish my staple foods of rice, dal, and flour. And then I was simply able to enjoy peace.

I had entered Nepal on a ninety day tourist visa; I traveled to Kathmandu once to renew it. In any given year in Nepal, you are allowed to stay a maximum of 150 days as a tourist. As I packed to leave and return to India in late April, having spent about five months living in this small Sherpa village, I realized I was literally leaving home. I thought back to one celebration to which I had been invited, where an English-speaking woman half-joked that I might marry her niece. I smiled and thought it might certainly be possible to spend my life here, under different circumstances.

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