“Shei, shei, shei!” It’s the national cry of the Sherpani: “Eat, eat, eat!!”
Sapana just returned from her farewell breakfast with Luptin, the bearded monk who hosted us at saano gumba during the festival. She walks into our room and empties her pockets, removing handfuls of chapati – flat, round, thick, and filling Tibetan bread.
“I just couldn’t eat it all!” she cries, “but I didn’t want to waste it.” She packs the chapati into a plastic bag for an afternoon snack and turns to show me the immense feast Luptin prepared her for breakfast: Chapati filled with veggie omelette, served quesadilla style with a yak cheese and red chili sauce, a hard boiled egg, a huge bowl of boiled carrots and bok choi and a glass mug of bottomless black apple tea. It looked genuinely delicious, and once again my heart was melted by the incredible generosity of a people who have nothing, yet give continuously of their very best. Cheese and eggs are such a luxury here! Even vegetables demand a special occasion in order to make an appearance.
During the week we slept at saano gumba, Luptin brought us a thermos of hot water every night before bed. If we seemed awake he insisted we follow him up to his small room above the monastery to sit on the floor together and share mugs of instant vita-drink that tasted like milky oatmeal and a tin of butter cookies. After a half hour spent looking through the Chinese photo book of his Tibetan homeland and the various postcards and photos of Natur Rimpoche and other Buddhist leaders and incarnations, he’d send us back to our rooms laden with fresh tea bags and a box of unopened chocolate covered wafer cookies.
Though 60-year-old Luptin speaks no more than 20 words of English, we communicate effectively through smiles and gestures. I’ve come to learn that silence is not awkward for Nepalis, especially during meal time, as they believe talking while eating is not good for digestion. I enjoy the peaceful quiet of tea times with Luptin and the awareness that it brings out in me as my tongue stops and my other senses become more acute. But I also enjoy the fun challenge of communicating with him. We learn that he is a devoted servant to Zatur Rimpoche (brother of Natur Rimpoche, who is currently residing at saano gumba) because Luptin’s teacher – the one who raised him in the monastery – was the former Zatur Rimpoche. After Zatur’s death, it was Luptin’s responsibility to find the reincarnation of Zatur Rimpoche, and then raise the boy. After the current Zatur Rimpoche was recognized as a reincarnation of a high lama, his two brothers were also recognized as incarnations: Datur Rimpoche and Natur Rimpoche. We’re told that this is very rare for so many siblings to be recognized as incarnations; this is perhaps the only family with three boys in such high positions.
Luptin conveys that Natur Rimpoche has been traveling in Russia, Europe, and America. He cannot accompany, however, because he doesn’t have a passport. Putting together the pieces of his life puzzle, we surmise that Luptin is a Tibetan refugee and without documents; a citizen of no land. I look to his laughing eyes, dancing as always, and I wonder what pain, what stories lie in his past. I understand how the Buddhist teachings of non-attachment and ideal of freeing oneself from desire help the Tibetan people cope with their political and physically impoverished circumstances. Of the many peoples I’ve encountered throughout my travels, the Tibetans and Sherpa are among the poorest in material possessions yet among the richest in spirit. I leave Luptin’s room with my belly full, my mind joyful, my heart humbled, and my spirit renewed. I snuggle into my sleeping bag and smile myself to sleep; I marvel at how sometimes the most meaningful communication takes place in spite of a language barrier. Through the sharing of his food, Luptin reaches out, ministers to us and shares much more.
For Buddhists, “to prepare food for others is equal to preparing food for a shrine. If you feed others, you honor them.”* To feed is to nurture; to satisfy another’s hunger is to show compassion; to promote compassion is to build karma; to acquire good karma is to ensure rebirth into a higher realm of samsara and brings one nearer to enlightenment. During Dumzi, I told an old trekking guide that I was interested in the overlap of Sherpa culture and Buddhist culture. “They are one and the same,” Dorje told me, drawing his two index fingers together as if to illustrate their synonymie. No wonder Sherpa people insist on feeding you till you can’t quite possibly handle another bite. Though filling up on the carb-centric Sherpa diet might not honor your digestive system, it does honor your soul.
Following my three day fast due to food poisoning (or rather, water poisoning resulting from an improperly washed cup), Sapana and I were both lacking in appetite and asked for very small lunch portions as Pasang ladled dal into our bowls. Though we lifted our hands palms up as if to cover our bowls – the polite way to refuse food or drink – and serenaded him with a chorus of “tuche, tuche, tuche” – no thankyou! – he stopped just briefly and then poured in a little more. We gave him a look of joking disdain, as if to say, “Come on, we don’t want to waste it!”
He snickered, “It’s the rule, we have to give twice.” Sherpa protocol demands two scoops of food be put on a plate (I demand two small scoops) and for alcohol or ceremonial drink, the one pouring the drink will not leave until the recipient of the cup first chugs at least half of the full cup, takes a big gulp after is it refilled, and again one more after it is filled a third time. All the while, the Sherpani with the pitcher hovers with one palm under the mug, tipping it steeply to ensure the drinker drinks. I’ve gently but steadfastly refused all alcohol except one cup of chhang (Sherpa millet wine, which I forced myself to drink for the full cultural experience) so as to avoid alcohol poisoning, or even worse, drowning at the hands of an eager and generous Sherpani with a pitcher.
* An excerpt from “I Taste Fire, Earth, Rain: Elements of a Life with a Sherpa” by Caryl Sherpa.