After spending almost 48 hours in Sibuje, I was well rested and excited to start up the valley towards the high alpine environment. At the same time, it was difficult to leave the people from Karma’s home village behind. Despite the difficult lives they lead, they shone with happiness and warmth to all of us. In just a short time, I felt like I was welcomed in as family.
As we began our hike, which would be a relatively short 3 hours, we started traversing the gigantic ridge lines leading up the valley toward Mera Peak. About 30 minutes up the trail, we came to the village’s water wheel, which is used for grinding buckwheat into flour. When water is low and it can not operate, the villagers must grind it by hand. Karma showed us how to do it when we were eating lunch at Pasang’s house before our departure. It looks like back-breaking work!
Immediately after the water wheel, we had to climb a very steep trail that went up a slope that had been a recent landslide, and then go back down another steep trail right after. We were to experience this joy over and over again throughout the day, and most of the next. These trails were some of the steepest of the trip, and certainly some of the steepest I have ever hiked.
As we continued through the day, we walked through some amazing forests. We started seeing rhododendron trees blooming everywhere. Everyone was in high spirits, but the weather reflected a gloom that everyone seemed to be feeling about the tragedy on Everest. Karma was warm and immensely friendly, as always. Yet, it seemed he carried a sadness because of the avalanche on the world’s highest peak. Details were still coming in piece by piece, and there was some conflicting information. I think he also was missing Sibuje already. He does not get to come back as often as he likes, having to reside in Kathmandu to run his fledgling business. At every vantage point, he would stop and turn to gaze on his home village.
The end of the day brought us to a lone lodge situated in a steep valley. The group was really starting to bond, and people were acting silly as we started to experience the first light rain of the trek.
Kami and Christen started the fun off with some carefree mock kickboxing. Glen emerged from his room carrying quite the stylish umbrella. As if to show that style does not belay agility and functionality, he then quickly did a head flip over a bench. Remember kids, he is a professional guide. Do not attempt any dance moves or stunts demonstrated by Glen.
The morning on our full day in Sibuje was a delight. We learned much from some of the elders about the village, its people, history, and current challenges to daily life. After lunch, we were in for a special treat. Sibuje now has a primary school teacher, who teaches the village kids through grade 3. Although his salary from year to year is not guaranteed, as he is paid by a foreign NGO, not the Nepali government, he provides a tremendous resource to the children.
One of Karma’s Japanese friends bought school uniforms and donated them to Sibuje. We were invited to join a celebration all afternoon at the school, where Karma and Glen gave brief speeches about the Karma project before Karma gave the happy kids their new uniforms.
Upon walking into the playground, we were immediately greeted as special honored guests. The people of the village went well out of their way to show their gratitude for what the Karma Project is doing for their village. We were seated at a head table, and literally every family welcomed each of us with a traditional silk kata scarf. It was more than a little funny to watch all of us try to manage the huge mountains of scarves around our necks.
After we were all settled in with our kata scarves and tea (you can not sit down as a guest in Nepal without tea being readily offered and refilled), Karma and Glen spoke a bit to the village about the goals of the Karma Project. Seeing the gratitude of the people of Sibuje in this way was truly an unexpected treat. Something that started as one friend asking another for some help with his village has blossomed into a truly wonderful and impactful project.
Like everything they do, when Sherpa people welcome guests and say thanks, they spare no effort. After the ‘official’ part of the afternoon was over and speeches were made, we were all treated to some dancing. To begin, some of the school children took to the open space and danced to a popular Nepali song that Christen and I learned early on in the trek. The main words of the chorus are, “…slowly, slowly, slowly..” It became our mantra for the trek. Next, some of the adults demonstrated their dancing moves. We were even treated to a traditional Sherpa Dance, where four villagers (including one of our porters, Pasang) dressed in traditional clothing and chanted an almost haunting song.
After the talented dancers finished their displays, the rest of us were invited to join the fun. Several generations of people took part; no one was spared the embarrassment of showing just how badly they move across the dance floor. Glen even gave a few lessons in silliness, something for which he could easily receive an honorary doctorate. During the fun, I was never wanting for an assistant. It seems that Sibuje has several aspiring photographers/filmmakers.
At the end of the afternoon, the shared sense of friendship and family was impossible to ignore. We were all welcomed with open arms. However, the thing that was most heartening to see was how the kids of the village were already directly benefiting from the Karma Project. What started as Glen helping his friend Karma has now grown well beyond that relationship. People from all over the world have jumped in to help to make the lives of the people of Sibuje a little bit easier.
There are times when words are not enough to describe a scene. Thankfully, when Christen needed some local knowledge on how to manage her traditional welcome scarves given to her at celebration at the school, this woman was on the task. We are also in great debt to Glen for teaching us his secret high altitude dance moves…
The first part of the trek was behind us. After three days of strenuous hiking on steep trails, fighting travel fatigue, stomach cramps, and diarrhea, a rest day in Sibuje was very welcome. In fact, I could not imagine a more serene and picturesque village.
Life in Sibuje is simple in many ways; easy it is not. The 16 families in Sibuje must work very hard for everything they have. They build their own homes and grow their own food, preserving many of the farming techniques used for centuries. They cook over wood fires that also serve to heat their homes. The hillsides surrounding the village are dangerously thin of trees, a result of deforestation for firewood over the years. To help prevent future deadly landslides (Karma’s Aunt was killed 20 years ago by one while sleeping in her home), villagers must walk at least an hour each way to gather firewood. People (mostly kids) are constantly making the journey back and forth all year long so that they have enough wood come winter.
Despite the hard way of life, the people of Sibuje have a warmth, friendliness, and happiness I have never seen before. They value hard work, family, and a light-hearted silliness that leaps into form as dancing and joking with friends, family, and guests. I have never felt more quickly and wholeheartedly welcomed by strangers into their homes.
Life in the village also seems uncertain. In the last year, two families have left due to hard times. Karma took us in the morning to talk to two separate village elders to get their perspectives on the village and the challenges they face. They know that their way of life is threatened. To help, they seek some modern solutions while holding fast totheir culture and tradition as they can.
The first home we visited was the home of one of the oldest families. The husband was out in the hills tending to their cows. We spoke with the wife, Pemdigi Sherpa. When we asked her age, she said that she is in her 80’s. It is difficult for many Sherpa people to tell you their exact age. Because many do not have birth certificates (a trip to Kathmandu is required by the father of a newborn baby to get one), and they use a different calendar, much confusion can arise.
Pemdigi Sherpa is a wonderful old woman. She quickly welcomed our whole group into her home for tea while chatting casually about the helicopters flying overhead all morning (a rare sight in the village brought about that day by the sad events happening on Everest). She smiled warmly as she recalled the first time a small group of tourists came to Sibuje, more than 20 years ago. She said she came outside one day to find several tents on the nearby terraces. She and her family were a little shy at first, but became quick friends with the adventurous visitors from strange lands. Ever since, tourists have been welcomed into the village wholeheartedly, although infrequently. Since Sibuje is off the typical trekking routes by a couple days and has no lodges, it is visited by very few tourists. Nevertheless, locals love to meet people from the outside world and hear about their lives.
After having salt tea (a Sherpa mainstay) with Pemdigi, we walked through some more pristine fields and climbed some very steep (of course) hills to get to the home of Dorje Sherpa. Dorje is a man of approximately 65-70 years with a serious demeanor that can turn into a childlike laughter at the drop of a hat.
Dorje has done fairly well for himself and family. With that said, he spoke of many of the challenges echoed by everyone in the village. Water. It is a common refrain I have heard from people in the mountains close to the sources and from people all over Kathmandu valley. Access to fresh, clean water for crops and drinking is becoming a major problem. Sibuje gets its water, like many Himalayan villages, from a nearby stream. Unfortunately, during many parts of the year, the stream dries up – either because the source is frozen in winter, or because the fall and spring seasons are too dry. The summer months bring the monsoons. Once a welcome restoration of the moisture needed for farming, the recent intensity of monsoons has resulted in too much water and landslides.
In addition to water, Sibuje is in need of electricity so that their kids can study at night. Sanitation systems are non-existent. The villagers are frequently getting sick from bacteria, and a way to more efficiently heat and keep their homes warm is needed. Infrastructure is not the only shortcoming. In order to help raise needed revenue for the village, many of the younger generation seek education so that they can work in the tourism industry when not working in the families fields. However, to get an education past third grade and to learn English, as absolutely necessary to succeed in tourism, kids must be sent away to a village half a day’s hike away to live with a host family. The expense is far more than most locals can afford.
Later in the day, we attended the local primary school, which teaches through grade 3. The teacher is funded by a foreign NGO, and his salary is sadly not guaranteed for next year. Regardless, Karma and the rest of us were invited to a celebration. A generous Japanese friend of Karma’s donated school uniforms for the kids, so everyone was in high spirits. The next post will highlight that wonderful afternoon when Karma got to bring them the uniforms!
Day three started with a disconcerting rumble in my stomach, but I was starting to feel a little better. It seemed that the Cipro was starting to work its magic. I enjoyed the brisk morning by setting up my camera to take some video notes, and Christen basked in the warmth of her first hot bucket shower of the trip. When you have no plumbing, you get creative in the mountains.
The day began with a short 30-minute hike that was surprisingly difficult. Ah, yes… Everything is uphill in the Himalaya. We had early morning tea and biscuits at an overlook at the monastery where Karma’s uncle is the Lama. We could not go inside because of a flurry of construction work. Some Japanese businessmen had donated $100,000 for the renovation of this picturesque and remote Buddhist monastery.
After spending the better part of an hour at the Monastery, it was up the trail again. Thankfully, we did not have quite as much vertical gain/loss that day. As we were rounding a steep ridge, I marveled at the sheer depth of the valleys. It seemed that the mountains (still called ‘hills’ at this point by the Sherpas) rose almost completely straight up out of the rushing river thousands of feet below.
Along the distant ‘hills’, I could make out tiny little houses and row upon row of immaculate terraces hewn out of the steep hillsides. With no roads into this area, the only way is to go on foot. I marveled at the strength and ingenuity of the people who lived in these little villages dotting the landscape.
In the mid afternoon, we came around a corner to see a spread-out cluster of little homes and bamboo cow sheds cascading down the mountainside. On one border, a sheer cliff hugged the trail. We were finally in Sibuje, Karma’s home village, and it was even more beautiful than I could have imagined.
On the second night in Sibuje, some of us opted for sleeping on the lawn, under the clear sky, far from any light pollution. It meant a gentle awakening as the sun began the day from behind the mountains. Breakfast was served picnic style on a tarp on the lawn. So far from everything and 8,000 feet above the sea, it felt like a morning just for us.
Then, a phone call for Karma came. The day changed. That feeling stopped.
As the information came, in spurts and through language barriers, all feelings stopped.
An avalanche on Everest. Only Sherpas on the mountain there. Not Sherpas. Porters. Guides. Staff. Not all staff are Sherpas. Only staff on the mountain there. No tourists. No clients. Clients were lower down the mountain waiting to summit later. Probably 100 local staff up there during the avalanche. Seven of those are from here in Sibuje. Not sure of the death count. 12? 20? 16? No names yet. Biggest mountaineering disaster in history. Worst case math done in the head. Seven less incomes in this village would be devastating.
This morning has now become-
What we were doing when Everest fell…
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After a few days of hiking, Luke says to me (referring to our porters), “I think you are earning their respect.” As I am out of breath constantly and stop us often to catch it, I cannot see how this can possibly be true, but Luke says, “Yes, but they can see how hard this is for you and I have not once heard you complain and these have been full days of hard hiking. You just stop to catch your breath and, with a determined look on your face, you keep going. It’s impressive.”
I thought back through the last few days. He is right. I am not complaining, not even quietly inside my own head. It seems that my mind has dismissed the usefulness of complaining in lieu of just concentrating on the doing. A much more efficient use of brain power than before the trip when it would fill moments of silence with, “I have to hike a mountain.”
That does not make this easy, but I am still smiling. Laughing, actually, because I get silly when I am tired, and hiking makes me tired. I was very grateful to arrive in Karma’s home village of Sibuje where we were stopping for a couple days. (Although, “rest day” in the hiking world has little to do with rest, I have found. You still hike. You just return to sleep in the same place. Feeling a little tricked on that misnomer. Harrumph.)
We stayed in the home of Karma’s parents and attended a ceremony at the little, one teacher, through 3rd grade, school that they have, to celebrate the donation of school uniforms. This meant an all day affair, including endless cups of tea, being adorned repeatedly with scarves, and ending with an impromptu dance party. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. The day was getting a little long for me.) Luckily, I got to spend the day behind one of Luke’s fancy fancy cameras, so I was completely content.
It is always the people who have the least that seem to give the most, and they just gave and gave to us. Warm, welcoming, affectionate people, who easily partake in my silly side. My kind of people.
Bits from the letters ~
“I’m a bit jealous of all the adventure – I can’t even get away to go to the grocery store by myself, and when I do, I have the guilt to hurry up and get home (guilt I put on myself of course).”
“Christen, enjoy it.
I can’t say it enough,
Appreciate the journey,
because you make an impact.”
“Frequently people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are very demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action.
-Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Nobel Peace Prize winner
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Now that the team has just finished their trek through Karma Sherpa’s home region in the Himalaya, we wanted to introduce everyone to you.
Karma – Sirdar (Head Guide). Karma is a co-founder of the Karma Project. He was always quick to offer a warm smile, sudden dance move, and velvety “Good morning, breakfast is ready.” that drew even the most weary trekker out of their cozy sleeping bag. He was also the most ticklish member of the trekking party.
Glen – American mountaineering guide. Glen is Karma’s good friend and a co-founder of the Karma Project. Sure to be future host of “Poop Talk with Glen”, he made certain to assess each team member’s health status during evening meals by ascertaining the nature of their bathroom visits.
Luke – Producer/Director. He is a long time photographer, first time filmmaker. Luke is as graceful as a gunslinger with a tripod, but clumsy as a toddler on his feet. Luke hopes that if “Poop Talk with Glen” does not flush out, he can convince our fearless North American leader to recreate the 70’s TV show “Guy on a Buffalo” as “Glen on a Yak”.
Christen – Art Director. Christen thrives on meeting new and diverse people. She discovered the psychic nature of her tummy on the trek, which always lead her accurately to each day’s destination. One would be quick to say she is the reincarnation of Pooh Bear, had Jack Kerouac not already designated Pooh Bear as God.
Matt – Matt is a Canadian who actually does not play hockey. His back country and mountaineering prowess is matched only by his infectious smile and affinity for living as far away as he can from the 9-5 grind. He also knows how to properly use the letter “O”. He is a man who braved the coleslaw and lived to tell about it, consequences be damned.
Andrew – Andrew is the Yin to Matt’s Yang. He is a machine on the trail and atop the glacier. His graphic stick figure art would be right at home on many of the racier temples in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. Just when you begin to suspect he does not speak, he stuns your funny bone with a one-liner uppercut.
Rose – Rose is the Buddha of French Canadians. The only thing more impressive than her wisdom beyond her youthful appearance is her incomparable toughness. She can warm your heart, open your mind, and out trek anyone, even while suffering from days of traveller’s sickness. She is a purveyor of the wit and wisdom found on the pages of the literary masterpiece, “The Ascent of Rum Doodle.”
Becky – Becky possesses a potent combination of a deep and loving respect for geology with a keen set of wilderness skills. Her dry sense of humor and laser like focus provided a counter balance to the group’s generally silly antics. She is perfectly suited to high altitude trekking. As elevation was gained, so was her strength and humor.