CHETRI DAI - SHERPA BAA
A Little Background:
While on the Pitzer College Experience in Nepal program, participants live in two different households; one in a village near the city of Kathmandu, the other in the village of Simigaun, near the Rolwaling Valley in the eastern part of the country. Students lived with the Kathmandu families on and off for about three months and in the mountain village for just over one month. The living styles, conditions, and culture between the two settings is in many respects, radically different, even though for the most part students stay in both cases, as I did, with families whose main livelihood is subsistence farming.
The Bhondari family lives in the village of Simaltar, about one-and-a-half miles from the stupa at Bodhinath. Members of the Chetri caste, the family consists of an older mother and father (aama, ba ) both, by my guess, in their late fifties, a son (dai ) in his mid 30's, two daughter's-in-law (bouju ): the wife of the son, in her early 30's, and the younger, in her late 20's, who is the wife of the younger son whom I never saw. Each of the two young women had three children who ranged in age from eleven to six (one Bai- younger brother, and five bahini - younger sister). In total, the household comprised eleven individuals, as the younger son had not lived at home for some time. When one takes field trips to Chitwan National Park, Pokhara, and the Spring Break into account, I spent a total of about nine weeks living with the Bhondari family.
In the Sherpa village of Simigaun, I lived in the family of Surjy Bahadur. The family consisted of a father (Surjy) and mother (again Ba, Aama ) both between forty-five and fifty years of age and two small boys, aged eleven and seven (and again bai ). There was another son, in his mid- twenties, who worked in India, and whom I never met. The program session in Simigaun lasted for just over four weeks, and including the trek I undertook after classes ended and time spent in Simigaun after returning, I was about seven weeks with my Sherpa father, five in contact with the other family members.
In my experience in Nepal, I felt that the two individuals whom I grew to know best were my older brother, Acti, in the Kathmandu family, and my father, Surjy, in Simigaun.
The cultural makeup of the area in and around the Kathmandu Valley is drastically different from that of more outlying areas of the country. Kathmandu's position as a political and cultural center predates its role as the capital of modern united Nepal. Before the unification of the country by Prem Narayan Shaw in the late 1700's, the Kathmandu Valley was in fact, Nepal. Travelers from other areas within the modern borders would refer to "going to Nepal" when on their way to the Valley. Even today, many peoples from the hills and mountains are heard to refer to the area in the same manner.
The Kathmandu Valley is the largest area of relatively flat terrain north of the Terai. The Valley was a crossroads on the north/south trading routes between India, Tibet and China for centuries. Since the unification of the country by the Shah's in the late 1700's, however, the area has lost that importance. The strategy of the conquering Ghorka princes was to blockade the valley and economically strangle the reigning Malla's into submission. This was a time consuming but effective means of taking political control, but it had the adverse effect of destroying the usefulness of the valley as a trade route. Merchants had to find other paths for transporting goods, and the eventual British route through Sikkim took prominence over the Nepalese route in the years of the siege and those that followed. Kathmandu never quite recovered its former position as a prominent place of cultural and material exchange
The isolationist policies of the Rana regimes of the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries did not help reverse this. New ideas and technologies (i.e. automobiles) were, if allowed into the country at all, reserved for members of the noble family. Although the Rana's did implement some positive social reforms, such as the abolition of slavery and the "sati" practice of forcing widows to accompany their husbands into the funeral pyre, the period was not a time of cultural or economic growth for the country.
When King Tribhuvan took power in the 1950's, the country rapidly began to open to the outside world. From the late 50's and early 60's on, foreign aid, foreign products and foreign ideas began to pour into the country. The early sixties also marked the beginning of the tourist trade in Nepal, when many people came in search of the spirituality of the east . The influx of dollars and travelers had a great impact on the Valley in all respects. Developments projects began, often colossal and completely inappropriate to the needs of the nation as a whole. Money was concentrated around Kathmandu, and often embezzled by corrupt officials. The city began to expand physically as modern buildings sprang up and people emigrating from the hills constructed homes.
Politically the post 1950's has also been a time of great transition. With the fall of the Rana's there was a brief period of attempted democratic reforms that eventually deteriorated into the Panchyat system and the absolute power of the King. But the seeds of western democratic ideals had been sowed, and although the kings held supreme control for the next twenty years, the people would not remain complacent as they had in the past. But it has been only within the last few years that something approximating a true democratic process appeared in the country, when the king was forced to adapt a parliamentary constitution in 1990 after a series of large scale protests. Today the people are very excited about the say they have in the determination of their leaders, but a real grasp of the workings of a democracy and the responsibilities involved has yet to be achieved. Already people have grown impatient with the governments they selected: their complaint that the government has not provided jobs or adequate real development, particularly in the hill regions.
The opening of the country has had drastic effects in economic situation and consciousness. Tourists bring with them expensive Western clothing and electronics. They make alien comfort and service demands. Satellite TV is now readily available throughout the area, bringing with it the cultural forces of global news sources like CNN, and cultural news sources like MTV. The improvement of paved roads between Kathmandu and India to the south and China to the north has lead to an ever increasing stream of consumer goods coming into the country. Nepalese in the Kathmandu Valley have been thrust very quickly into the consumption oriented modern world. As happens in so many developing nations, Nepalese see what's out there, want it, and can't afford it.
My Kathmandu family had hosted five students before me. I was the first male student to live with them. Before I even knew that they were going to host me, I had heard some interesting things about Acti. Hillary, the intern on our program, had lived with them two years before. Evidently, Acti had been difficult for women to live with. From what I heard, there were a number of occasions when he had made passes at or sexual suggestions to his American bahini's. Supposedly he even claimed to have slept with some. The term, "sleazy" (in English) was used when referring to him. I'm pretty sure that my placement in the family had something to do with being large and male. This and hearing that he worked for the Home Ministry, the agency that ran, or runs, the secret police, did not at first cast him in a very favorable light. I was also told he would try to get me to take him out and spend all my money on beer for him and whichever friends happened to be around.
Initially (and to a lesser extent at the close of the program) I always had a little trouble while with my Simaltar family when I asked myself the question of just how involved I was in their family life, how important I was to them; and they to me, and, along the same lines, how close we were. This may sound redundant, but it is not, for a number of reasons. First, involvement in family life: with our heavy daytime schedule of classes, and the fact that many Sundays were spent away touring Kathmandu or just taking a break from the stresses of what is, more or less, a twenty-four hour schedule, the only real time spent in family interactions was in the morning, early evening, and Saturdays. Mornings were usually occupied with getting up, getting breakfast, and getting off to school by eight. As the others did not eat breakfast, but rather had their first meal later in the morning, I took my meal alone, although usually it was in the company of one of my two bouju 's. Evenings were when then family was all together, and dinner always included everybody. Then conversation was a little more lively. Just before normal bedtime at 9:30 the chickens had to be feed and watered. Here I was an active participant. I enthusiastically volunteered to help out early on in my stay, and after a period of trial and error my family decided I was competent enough to draw water from the well for washing and watering, and to carry the feed and water up the stairs to the chicken coops.
I enjoyed doing this with my older brother, for we usually had good (by my standards) conversation. He was always willing to answer questions (usually along the lines of tyo ke ho ? and kina tyo garnuhunchha ?) and quite accepting and patient with my weak language skills. I did not notice any of the cocky arrogance that I had thought I might after his initial description, although he did have a sly smile that I wasn't quite sure of at the beginning. At one point or another I saw that smile on every Nepali, however, and its just their bemused/amused expression. As it turned out, if I had not heard any of the rumors of Acti's improper conduct before meeting him, they never would have crossed my mind. I don't know how I expected him to act, but after hearing that he had supposedly claimed to have slept with American students, it seemed possible that he might at one point have brought up something to that effect while in conversation. And he never once tried to get me to pay for him to get drunk. In fact, I never even heard him mention alcohol.
Krisna, the other brother in the family, whom I never met, seems to have a reputation as something of the village stud in Simaltar. While I was living with the Bhondaris, they received a letter from him. When Laxsmi, the oldest of the young generation, read the letter, kaanji bouju (younger daughter-in-law) did not seem pleased. From what I gather, he rarely writes and hasn't appeared in Simaltar in at least a year. He has a job in the south of Nepal working for the government and seems to prefer it there, perhaps due to the proximity to India. It is easy to understand why his wife might be a little embittered, as she is left to raise their three children. I do not know if he sends money.
This relates, I believe, to the behavior and reputation of Acti. His brother is free, in a certain way. He lives on his own and seems to be a bit of a playboy. Much of this, of course, is based on hear-say and snippets of conversations, both from inside and outside the family, and I really cannot say how true it is. But real or not, his reputation in Simaltar is strong, and perhaps Acti wishes he could be more like that, and perhaps thinks he should try or at least talk big. His problem is that he is the male "breadwinner" for the family. Baa is without question the head of the family, and aama is certainly influential (debates about whether or not the father or mother is in control of a household I leave for other people and other papers), but they are both growing older, and cannot work as hard. Baa also suffers from diabetes's. Acti works at an office as well as doing the heavy labor around the farm, so where he finds time for liaisons, I do not know.
Work around the house, that I witnessed, included feeding and tending the livestock (chickens and bise - water buffalo), collecting and selling the eggs produced by the several hundred chickens, and the care of the recently planted fruit orchard that occupied a small plot next to the house. Acti also cut the firewood, mended broken fences and tools, cleared brush and bamboo and other similar farm oriented jobs. I was not around for planting, or a harvest, but I am sure he was involved in these activities as well, Women do a great deal of this labor, but as I was not generally home during the day, I was unable to see them at work. When I asked them what they did during the day, I was told they washed clothes, cooked and fed the animals. They never really expanded on that description, no matter how many times I asked.
The Bhondaris were, by Nepali standards, firmly middle class. There was a great deal going on while I was there that lead me to believe that there was a conscious effort to move beyond even that. Just before the group left for Simigaun, the family spent over 20,000 Rupees (about $450.00) to build an addition to the house for more chickens. This was no small expenditure. By the time I returned it was completed, although the chickens had not been moved in yet. A great deal of the construction was performed by Acti. Before I left, he and I spent a full day digging out the foundation site. It seemed to me as if he was in charge of the project, and that it was his inspiration.
The new orchard, consisting of oranges, apples, and plums also appeared to be one of Acti's undertakings. He told me about the trees while we were watering them one day. They were relatively young, at most two years, and it would be quite some time before they would bear fruit, and decades before they reached their potential. Acti seemed to know what he was doing with regards to their care (the apple and plum trees seemed well suited to the environment, although how the orange will fair in the long run I don't know), and he stated that his plan was to at first keep the fruit for the family's personal consumption, then sell the surplus as the yield increased. With the increased number of chickens and egg production made possible by the new addition, the Bhondari's seemed well on their way to becoming something more than subsistence farmers.
In a surprising number of ways, Acti seemed to fit the profile of what many of the intellectuals and officials saw as the model Nepali. In a number of lectures, people expresses the hope that Nepali farmers would diversify their crops away from strict subsistence towards more cash oriented crops, like fruit. They pointed out that the extreme differences in elevation in Nepal created environments where nearly everything could be grown, albeit not in huge quantities. I believe that the Bhondaris managed to grow the bulk of the food they needed (rice, potatoes, corn etc....) and that they decided to devote a bit of their land to expanding the salable goods they could produce (the new chicken coop occupied a once-used field).
One incident with my brother stands out in my memory. It was early on in our family stay, around the beginning of March. We were out in one of the fields fixing a fence. We needed a knife and I ran back inside to get one of the khukuri 's I had recently purchased. After finishing our task my brother commented that he was going to walk down the road to a small pasal, or store, where he knew people and often sold his eggs. I asked if I could come along, and he hesitated for a moment, then smiled and said sure. I had been to this store and met these people once before and the experience had not been altogether positive. That time had been a few days after my arrival in Simaltar, and my Nepali was very, very weak. A crowd playing carom was sitting in front of the store, and while my brother sold his eggs I looked at the people. But quickly enough I was the one who was the center of attention and a large crowd gathered when a drunk older man began to speak to me. I still don't know exactly what he was saying, but there was a lot of laughter and it was very uncomfortable. It seemed plain that I was the butt of some joke. I ignored it as best I could, smiled, and tried to say what I could, somewhat hoping that my brother would tell the guy to shut up or something. But he was standing at the periphery of the crowd smiling, and didn't leap to my defense. Perhaps I was overreacting to the situation, I observed later that Nepalese laugh "at" each other quite a bit. At the time, however, I didn't think it was at all funny.
My brother knew that I had been very uncomfortable. As we were about to depart from the field to go back to this pasal, I commented that I needed to go put away my knife. My brother said not to worry about it, take it. Nepali people like it when foreigners wear khukuris. I was a little incredulous, and asked if he was sure of that. He smiled and said yes, sure. But just as we were about to set off he turned and said, no you'd better not go. It confused me as to why he would invite me along and then decide at the last moment that I shouldn't go. My speculation of the time was that he thought it might be funny to take me back and see what reaction a khukuri equipped bideshi ( foreigner) would receive. Then he thought better of it, taking into account the fact that I probably would not have enjoyed myself. Initially I was annoyed at this, thinking that it showed a lack of acceptance as another human being (that I stilled occupied "alien" classification), but in the long run I think that instance was the beginning of a stronger relationship. We never became really close, but there was a respect that developed, in part I believe due to my willingness to perform dirty Nepali kaam (work), and also because he was starting to understand a new way of relating to a foreigner, different from the way he had interacted before.
The Bhondaris are Chetris and fairly devote Hindus. Acti seemed to be the least interested in religion. I saw every other member of the family perform various acts of puja at one time or another, but never my dai. He was not ignorant of Hinduism or local beliefs; many of my direct questions about the religion were directed to him, and he knew the answers. For example, once I saw my baa performing what a ritual act of some kind before dinner. He was pulling the "sacred thread" that all upper caste Hindu men wear, around his neck, dipping water on his fingers tips, and chanting. He repeated a similiar pattern several times before starting his meal. I later asked Acti what baa had been doing, and he explained that a man had died the day before at the large tree that gave Simaltar its name. The act baa performed had something to do with helping along the deceased soul, making sure it did not linger here next to the Bhondari property. Although he seemed to know the practice, Acti seemed the least devote. Perhaps, however, his position in the family was not one in which he would be involved in such activities.
Acti was born and raised in a period of great change for Nepal. If my estimate is correct, his birthday falls somewhere between 1955 and 1960. Growing up in the Kathmandu Valley, he was witness to the great changes that took place when Nepal entered "the modern world." The incredible rate of change and the conservatism of Hinduism have created many adjustment problems for Nepalese, particularly those of the younger generations. Which course to follow, and how to thread the thin line between the influences of family and the world around you. It appears as if Krisna has decided to pursue a more modern path: essentially dissociating himself from the family, eschewing marriage, and leading a highly individualistic lifestyle. Acti is treading the line. He admires and desires the things that modernization (for what its worth) have to offer, but is tied in very deeply with the older way of life evident in his family. He attempts to implement the new when he can; the diversification of crops for example, but still remains within what is essentially the traditional lifestyle. As stated before, I don't believe his faith is as great as the rest of the family, but he recognizes the importance of it, and the importance of a proper blend between the old and the new.
In retrospect, my impression of Acti has mellowed considerably since I left Nepal; whether this is the result of having reached a distance where nostalgia is starting to set in, or a coherent perspective is being reached, I cannot truly say. I must admit I was rather eager to escape the what felt like confining clutches of my family at the end. My impression at the time was that the Bhondari's were a little greedy, and really only viewed me as an extra means of income. There is some truth to this, the money paid in room and board was good, but I think I was a little paranoid at the time. When I asked Acti what sort of gift might be useful ( I had only given small items to the children at that point, and felt like giving something to the family as a whole), Acti said "An electric fan, for Baa. It gets awfully hot sometimes." Perhaps I was judging to quickly.
The Sherpas have had intense contact with foreigners due to their role as guides and porters on mountaineering expeditions. Their contact dates back to a bit before the actual opening of the country, as there were a few exceptions of the Rana's no-foreigners rules for summit attempts. This interaction has been quite different, however, from that of most of Nepalese other peoples.
For one thing, the type of foreigner with whom the Sherpas have had to interact has been limited by the fact that those involved in trekking and mountaineering were, at least at the outset, of a different sort than the typical tourist. Even the least exerting treks are not what most tourist go abroad in search of, so the foreigners in the mountains were generally of the hardy, adventurous sort, more flexible in strange situations and able to deal with discomfort. Thus the Sherpas were not, at least early on, exposed to the demanding and often flagrantly ostentatious type of traveler that one sees so often in Kathmandu. This somewhat different exposure has helped the Sherpas to maintain a balance and a respect for their own way of life even in the face of the ever-increasing number of foreign trekkers who invade their homeland ever fall and spring.
The Sherpa people as a whole were also incredibly lucky to have Edmund Hillary as, in a sense, their foreign patron. Hillary's efforts in Solu-Khumbu, Rolwaling and other Sherpa regions are in part responsible for the Sherpa's status as one of Nepal's most prosperous ethnic groups, economically that is. After reaching the summit of Everest with Tensing Sherpa in the 50's, Hillary has devoted a great part of his time and energy towards bringing schools, health clinics, and other facilities to the high mountain people. Development has thereby come to the Sherpas sooner than most other areas outside of the Kathmandu Valley. This is not to say that Sherpa regions are "developed" - that is not the case. Most places still lack electricity and running water. But a more highly educated and healthy populace will be better to deal with these amenities in the long term (maintenance, appropriateness of the project when it arrives) than those who are uneducated and sick.
There are those who would contend that, for these same reasons, the Sherpas have not been exposed to positive development. Friends who have traveled in the Solu-Khumbu region have reported that the influx of foreigners and foreign dollars has nearly obliterated the earlier culture: that many of the attributes the Sherpas were so admired for; their openness and generosity for example, have disappeared, to be replaced by greed and selfishness There has also been a great shift in the economic structure as well. The Sherpas living closer to Everest, historically poorer as they dwelt on the agriculturally inferior higher land, are now better off than their lower dwelling neighbors, which leads to a great change, both materially and socially, in the interactions between the two groups.
The Simigaun/Rolwaling area Sherpas, are, I believe, quite different from their Solu-Khumbu kin. I might even argue in fact, that the Simigaun villagers, even after years of involvement with the Pithier Program staff and students, are closer to the "real" Sherpa than the other groups. However, this is impossible to really say, as I never spent any time in Sherpa communities outside of the Rolwaling area. One could tell, however, quite a bit of a difference between the Simigaun residents and those from Beding/Na. The residents of the Rolwaling have done well by trekking. They enjoy a fairly high standard of living. The houses were brightly painted and many were quite new. When we were in the area I say at least five new homes under construction, although there was speculation that they might be intended as lodges. The men in the village often wore new Western clothes. The villagers were able to have a Dutch geologist come to Beding to offer suggestions on how to stabilize the river banks against a feared flood. The villagers did not pay for the Dutch man to come out, but the village has a high enough profile that it caught the attention of a European development agency, who funded the trip.
There is an inherent initial difference in the relationship between student and family in Simigaun. The water project, which has been going on since the mid-eighties is greatly appreciated by the villagers. According to Mike, the Sherpas would lodge the students for free, even though they might not really be able to afford it. Students are perceived as guests rather than lodgers. To a certain extent, however, this status is somewhat undeserved, as the people who do most of the work on the drinking water system are the villagers themselves, and its not as if every student is an important part of the engineering team.
One also enters Simigaun with at least a moderate proficiency in Nepali, so it is easier to immediately set about getting to know people. This is also helped by the fact that for the Sherpas Nepali is a second language, which means they usually speak a little slower and dont use obscure words.
The Bahadurs lived on the eastern end of the village, in a small cluster of houses that also included the home of Surjys older brother. The house consisted of a single large living and sleeping area, with a small storage room in the back behind the fire pit and an attic above that I believe was also used for storage but the family scarcely ever entered. In the rear an extension section from the main water pipe provided water for the house.
I got along well with my new Baa almost immediately. I had a pack of Camel Cigarettes with me and thought that perhaps sharing a smoke with him would be a good way to "break the ice." We sat around the fire and smoked, (this was after Aama and the two boys had gone to bed), not really saying much, looking into the fire. I was a little nervous about this lack of talk at first, but as it turns out, Surjy was, while not necessarily a "man of few words," appreciative of the occasional silence.
This was fine as far as I was concerned. One of the most stressful elements of the program is the pressure to talk. This is good most of the time; how can one learn the language without speaking? but sometimes one just doesnt feel like saying anything, and its very nice to be in a situation where your not forced to babble away strictly for the sake of producing noise. Somewhat ironically, conversations in these stress free environments are usually a lot better than when the talk goes on nonstop.
Surjy is from all appearances one of the older residents of Simigaun. He is a man still vigorous and capable but definitely approaching middle age, late forties to early fifties by my guess. Although I do not believe that he held any specific position in the village, as an older man his age and experience would be respected. The only individual I can think of from the village who appeared much older was his brother, who appeared to have been in his late fifties or early sixties. Although he didnt really seem to wield much active authority, Surjy was in the position to ask questions about activities during work on the water project and while involved in endeavors such as hauling fire-wood or construction materials, was certainly not one of the directed, but rather he and the other older men would go directly to what needed to be done while the younger folks shouted at each other and knocked things down.
The wheat harvest was taking place just as we arrived in Simigaun. For the next few weeks a great deal of the families time and energy was devoted to bringing in the gahun. The fields are still the primary determining factor in Simigaun, although outside pressures such as the increase in tourist activity and the need for outside income are becoming increasingly significant. In the mountains however, the balance between enough and not enough is tenuous. This is not to say that the subsistence farming residents of Kathmandu have a much easier time, but the resources of the valley are somewhat better than the slopes of a ridge.
There seems to be a less rigid division of labor amongst the Sherpas than in the people of Kathmandu. Every activity I saw one sex engaged in I saw the other perform as well. When firewood or wood for a new roof was needed, then women were hauling just as large loads as the men. My father cooked well over half the time, in fact he was a better cook than my aama! He really enjoyed it, and was always curious as to what I thought of different items (when we had them). He was particularly proud of his noodle concoction, that was so spicy I nearly passed out the first time I tried it. He was also very fond of chaang and rhaksi , the local beer and liquor, respectively. I think he drank a little more than aama would have liked (she did not drink at all), but then I have never known any people to drink as much as the Sherpas, so I don't think she was too worried about him becoming alcoholic. Most nights after a meal Surjy would look at me and say "Chaang kaane bichaar chha ?" (loosely: "Thinking of drinking beer?"), which was the perfect activity before hitting the hay at the late hour of 9:30.
One of the most surprising things about Simigaun were the political views of the people. From lectures I had been lead to believe that typically outer districts and small villages were supporters of the Nepali Congress Party, while the cities are pro Marxist/Leninist. In Simigaun, however, the majority of those asked were in favor of the M.L.P., and distrustful of Nepali Congress. They were also anti-monarchy, on several occasions I recall overhearing remarks suggesting the Kings culpability in the nations woes.
I noticed among many people a great enthusiasm for the newly established electoral system. Although it did seem that voters didnt really make individual decisions, rather, they decided by a village consensus, the lengths people went to cast their ballots at election day were extreme, to say the least. The second day out from Simigaun on our trek to Na after the program ended, my father tells me that the next day we wont be walking to far because he needs to go vote and be able to catch up with us. Vote? Where was he going to vote? We were camped at 13,500 feet, just below the Dalung La pass. He was gone the next morning before I got up, but that afternoon at about 4:30, as we admired Gauri Shankar across the chasm, he trotted into camp, having gone to a village a few ridges south of Simigaun. All told, he must have done at least forty miles and at least 7,000 feet down and 7,000 feet up. And he wasnt even really tired looking when he got into camp. Would any American voter do that (let alone be able too)?
Trekkers have made little impact, thus far, on Simigaun. There are no lodges to speak of. Most trekkers who do spend the night camp out at the monastery on the top of the ridge, and usually they are passing through quickly enroute to the Rolwaling Valley or the Trashi Labtsa pass. The Sherpas who have benefited from the tourists have been those in Rolwaling. who do not share an especially high opinion amongst the residents Simigaun, portraying them as essentially somewhat greedy and untrustworthy. The two communities get along well enough: certainly there is no trouble in traveling between the two.
The material wealth that many of the inhabitants of Na and Beding seem to possess has created some jealousy among the younger residents of Simigaun, but the older generation appeared fairly unimpressed. Surjy, for one, was never very interested in any of the strange articles that I carried (my Walkman, etc....). The Bahadurs had an operating radio, and Surjy didn't seem to think that anything larger or more elaborate was necessary.; He was interested in more practical technology. Flashlights were valued, Surjy was quite good at fixing errant ones. When we were working on the water project, Surjy was always asking Mike about what was being done. This arouse I think from a desire to see the project done right, as well as curiosity about just what was going on in the system. He was also enthusiastic about the next possible phase of the Simigaun development project: installing a small-scale hydroelectric generator and bringing power to the village.
The Buddhism practiced by the Sherpas of Simigaun is a stark contrast to the sometimes heavy-handed and superstitious Hinduism of the Valley. Obvious scenes of worship or religious activity were not frequent. My Sherpa baa did have a standing in town as an assistant lama. He along with several other members of the community, has had some training and read some of the basic texts. Once he administered a rite or reading of some kind at our home, burning incense and chanting from a text. I am not sure what was going on, but the affair was quite low-key (and culminated in drinking chaang, which I sometimes think plays a far more important role in Sherpa life than any religious belief). Other than that, there was very little evidence that I saw of active worship. It appears to me that the nature of Lamaist Buddhism as practiced amongst villagers like those in Simigaun is fairly personal, or so integrated into the mental framework of the people that it often escapes notice. A great deal of freedom is permitted, and there are not a great many rituals and ceremonies that need to be performed to remain in good religious standing.
Surjy is a pleasant natured, friendly man; kind, hard-working, and very fond of his chaang and rhaksi . The rigors of life in the mountains are apparent in the amount of time devoted to subsistence pursuits. The relatively gentle introduction that Simigaun villagers have had to Westerners has prevented many of the destructive elements that often come with contact from creating a situation detrimental to the material and cultural well being of the people. Surjy, while being quite informed (he listens to the news every night, he knew about the LA riots before I did), seems to be quite comfortable with his way of life and in no rapid desire to change. Certainly pressures and frustrations abound in the Sherpa mode of life, but they do everywhere. I believe that in Surjy's case, the fact that his developmental years took place before a great deal of contact with the outside world, but that it appeared soon after his adulthood, has made him better able to cope with the changing face of even village Nepal, and at the same time maintain his cultural character.
To a certain extent I am still questioning how "close" I became, or ever could become, with the individuals I lived and interacted with in the five months I spent in Nepal. There is no doubt that I had a "cultural experience." In the two-month period it has taken me to write this paper, however, I have found my feelings have changed significantly. My impressions of my Nepali dai, for example, have become sharper, more focused, and more positive than when I first sat down to type. My visualization of my Sherpa baa, on the other hand, has become a little more fuzzy. Things dont stand out the way they once seemed to. My lecture notes have become more significant, and my journal entries, copious as they are, have receded somewhat. When I look at my journal, I find that I remember most of what I wrote and it stands on its own, but to a certain extent has fewer implications than I'd like. The academic notes, many often written in great haste, now display broader applications from a distanced perspective.
To be honest, I don't quite know how the essay question posed can ever be effectively answered. Perhaps after living amongst a people for years a notion might emerge of the full range of the social, cultural, religious, economic, political, personal, environmental factors that go into creating an individual, but many of us have trouble with that in our own homes. Patterns do certainly emerge, but when one writes about people that one cares about, sometimes the qualifications never seem to end. As stated before, I'm not quite sure how "close" I really came to either of these men, as I don't really have a good idea of what being close would entail in those situations. That does not mean however, that I did not care for them a great deal. The reputation that preceeds the Nepali people is not unprecedented, and I for one, will never forget the people I knew there.