I take a seat on one of the wooden benches halfway up the three-tiered stadium-style seating in the auditorium outside of the monastery, watching as monks of all ages scurry around in preparation for the six-day festival which starts tomorrow. This is the largest Buddhist festival of the year in the region and takes place at exactly the same time every June-July. I try to envision 1,800 people crowding into the auditorium outside the 500-year-old monastery. Built in the 16th century by one of three brothers who all founded monasteries in the region, Pema Choling should be a World Heritage Site. The paint of ornate designs adorning every inch of wall, ceiling, and wooden supporting post is very thick, maybe a quarter-inch thick in many places. I wonder if this is because of the clumpy nature of butter-oil paint they use here, or if it’s simply the result of many – perhaps more than a hundred – layers of paint used to put a fresh face on the monastery from time to time.
A steady, deliberate and lyrical recital of the universal Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum wafts out of a pair of loudspeakers mounted on either side of the monastery doorway. Buddhist rosaries consist of 108 prayer beads and the devout will make their way round an entire rosary morning and night, pushing aside one bead for each recitation of “Om Mani Padme Hum.” The mantra has become a familiar and comforting sound; it’s especially beautiful when put to music.
Someone opens the door at the far end of the auditorium and I’m suddenly sitting in a wind tunnel; a high mountain breeze ruffles the curly wisps of hair threatening to fall out of my braid. The damp room becomes unbearably cold for me and I pick up, meandering into the kitchen to take refuge in front of the fire. Namchok, the cook, is crouched in front of the fire, blowing repeatedly, functioning as a human bellows. He stands up to split a long log into three pieces with a khukuri – a long, curved Nepali knife. Steadying the log with his foot which is covered only with cracking black plastic sandals, I wonder how the Sherpas seem to avoid injury when they fail to practice what a westerner would consider the most basic and mandatory safety precautions.
I like the kitchen. In the perpetual drizzle during this monsoon season everything is damp, including all of my clothes folded neatly in my room, and I seem to have caught the “Khumbu cough.” I come here to warm my outsides as I stand in front of the fire, my clothes drying against my body and melting the goosebumps underneath, while I warm my insides with a steaming mug of black tea.
Today five additional cooks have arrived and installed themselves in the kitchen to help feed the monastery population which quadruples during festival weeks. It’s a warm and lively place, but the normal kitchen crowd – both older and younger monks – is conspicuously absent. I wonder if, for once, they’re too busy to lounge around with almost nothing to do, or if they were warned not to clutter the kitchen at such a high-volume time. I’m happy and relieved that no one’s asked me to leave.
In a society which seems so highly stratified, my status remains fluid, somewhat of a mystery, and an invisible all-access pass seems to hang about my neck. I often marvel at my ability to go anywhere and do practically anything I please, despite being an outsider and despite being a woman. I’m treated with respect everywhere: I’m ushered in to eat with the monks – something I only recently realized is quite unusual and a privilege; I move between buildings and groups of people, observing what they’re doing and how they’re doing it – even taking photos; and I’m politely offered a steaming cup of tea wherever I go. Nothing seems to be off limits for me. Of course I’m always conscientious, respectfully curious, and lend an interested ear whenever a Sherpa wants to speak, and I think this goes a long way. I’ve learned enough Nepali-Sherpa to hold only a basic conversation, but even such limited ability has earned me quite a few instant friends.
Though initially I attracted a lot of attention, it’s been nice to fade into the background as the people get used to the little blonde white girl hanging around. I wander from balcony to auditorium to upper kitchen to lower kitchen, to upper monastery to lower monastery, making the rounds and exploring the many exotic new activities to be observed.
While I sit in the kitchen typing away, no less than five curious Sherpas sidle up to sit down next to me and inspect my laptop. Some can read elementary English and think I am a journalist. One of these is Pasang Genzi, assistant to his uncle, the festival sponsor, and a sort of fix-everything guy. Eight-year-old Ula comes up and becomes a permanent fixture at my side. Despite his learning disabilities, he recognizes my cursor as the letter “I” saying, “this I.”
“Good job, Ula! The letter ‘I’!” I applaud him. “Ke chha?” I ask – “How are you?”
The Sherpa man sitting at my other side tells me that Ula doesn’t understand normal language, “but if you give him a mobile he’ll dance every time.” Sherpas keep their music collection (usually limited to a handful of songs) on cell phones – no iPods and no laptops. I turn on some music for Ula, failing to find any suitable “disco” music – as they call dance music – among my Coldplay collections. After a few minutes Namchok chases the boys out of the kitchen. So apparently a no-kids-in-the-kitchen-during-festival rule has been enacted.
It’s only 10:30 am, but two big pots of potatoes are boiling on the stove in an incredible amount of curry. I’m sometimes rather indifferent to the food here, but often enjoy it when I can taste it. I think they drown everything in chili and curry sauce to escape the blandness of their almost exclusively rice diet. There’s something called Sherpa chili – which 12-year-old Pasang Tendi delighted in making us try our first day – a green plant with lots of stems and little pea-sized pods at the ends which look and feel like small capers. I couldn’t tell you how it tastes, however, because upon biting into one of these pods a numb feeling quickly crawls up your tongue, into your gums and lips. Those nasty little Sherpa chilis leave you tingly and unable to taste anything for a good twenty minutes. Sherpa people especially like to eat them with dal bhat and other dishes in the form of aachar – pickled. I find even the smell of this homemade death pickle especially repulsive and can’t figure out their appeal. They may call me “Shirah Sherpa” for the way I conquer a rocky mountainside, but this is where I draw the line...they won’t ever catch me snacking on Sherpa chili.
Luckily, I don’t think the Sherpa chilis will make much of an appearance this week; there is so much delicious food during the festival! Everything we eat at the monastery, both on a regular basis and during festivals, is brought as a donation from community members. Over the past two days of preparation, and even in the few days leading up to these, loads of vegetables, grains, eggs, cookies, and everything else imaginable has come trickling in on the backs of men and women who’ve come to visit, participate, or work during the festival. A stocky Sherpa woman walks in, a red plastic bucket filled with cauliflower and lettuce in hand – both certainly home grown in her own garden. The woman wears a flowered short-sleeve blouse under a traditional Sherpa dress in maroon, and has a beautiful matching apron of horizontal stripes in brilliant colors tied around her waste. This is an indispensable part of the Sherpa woman’s costume. On her head, a red bandana and on her feet, black socks inside of red leather sandals. She has a gold loop earring in both ears and a bracelet of clear diamond-shaped glass beads around her right hand. She takes a seat on the bench a few feet down from me, visibly tired from her foot journey. It’s often hard to tell the age of Sherpa women because they tend to be very small-boned, shy, and develop slowly through their teens; but once they reach child-bearing age they work hard and age quickly. This woman’s eyes are dark brown hazel and almond shaped – typical Tibetan features. She has a cute button nose protruding from her otherwise flat face, and a wide smile as one of the cooks hands her a cup of juice. Every traveler receives a cup of orange powder-mix Tang juice and then as much milk tea as they can drink. Though the Sherpa people have little, they are generous and share everything; Buddhist philosophy teaches them that there is no real happiness in this life, but by being generous and kind they may foster good karma that will facilitate their rebirth. Therefore they gladly give of their earthly possessions and labor for the lives they believe are ahead for them.
Donating to and serving at festivals like Dumzi is part of building good karma. The monks are not expected to pray for nothing; villagers pay the monks to pray for good weather, good harvest, good luck, and protection from evil spirits. Dumzi is the most important of annual festivals. For four days the monks will chant, praying to push away the bad spirits, demons, and wrathful gods. The fifth day is filled with dancing; the “lama dance” is a representation of the gods and a reenactment of their interactions. On the final day of Dumzi, a new set of prayers will welcome everything good to this region and the Sherpas’ lives. The mountains are blessed, the sky, the earth, the rain, the rivers, etc. Today is only Day 1.