Vail Daily column: A cultural trek through the Himalayas
Ryan Summerlin January 5, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the last of four articles about local Habitat for Humanity volunteers’ recent trip to Nepal.
EAGLE COUNTY – For 12 Vail residents and two friends from Tennessee, our Habitat Build was over. A sense of pride showed on our faces knowing that we’d spent five days of intense physical labor helping to build a safe and affordable home for a deserving Nepalese family. We then boarded a small airplane (with 18 seats), leaving Kathmandu and setting our sights to the Solukhumbu region of Nepal for a rigorous cultural trek.
The Solukhumbu is the lower, less-traveled region below Mount Everest. It is an agricultural region, with terraced hills deep in the heart of Sherpa country. We were treated to our first views of the spectacular Himalayan Mountains as we flew to the village of Phaplu, northeast of Kathmandu. After landing on a short, dirt runway, we were greeted by Karma Sherpa. Karma Sherpa is the founder of The Small World organization. The Small World is a nonprofit with the mission to make the world smaller by improving the socio-economic standard of underserved communities of rural Nepal. They strive to empower local communities, and women in particular.
Karma Sherpa grew up in this region and is the first in his family to graduate from college. He leads several treks each year and has such an infectious smile that you immediately just smile back. We would soon come to learn, as we spent the next six days with the Sherpas and porters of The Small World, in this peaceful region of Nepal, trekking village to village, village to mountain top, mountain top to monastery, that same smile would be a natural daily occurrence on all of our faces.
After being fueled by a delicious vegetarian lunch, we began to prepare our day packs as we watched the porters begin to load up our sleeping tents, sleeping mattress, kitchen tents, dining tents, toilet tents, kitchen equipment and our individual baggage. They would set out on the trek each day carrying approximately 80-120 pounds of gear on their backs, walking in sandals (or Crocs), always passing us, while we hike with our day packs. It is an interesting observation that we are a society that emphasizes health and fitness. We pay large amounts of money each month for gym memberships, personal trainers, the latest and best high-tech equipment, clothing and shoes, vitamins and supplements, and yet these porters have more endurance and more strength than most of us. And they do it with a smile on their face!
Our trek on Day 1 took us from the village of Phaplu to the village of Junebesi. We hiked through the valley of the Dudh Kunda River with crystal clear air, colorful prayer flags fluttering from rooftops and high hills, past a farmer tilling his land with his oxen and wooden hand-made plow. The next day, we awoke to a bowl of hot water to wash and coffee or tea being served at our tent. This would be a daily ritual followed by a fresh, hot-cooked breakfast. On Day 2, we headed to the Thupten Choling Monastery, home of the 34th reincarnation Lama, His Holiness Trulshik Rinpoche. We learned that His Holiness had recently passed and we were allowed to view the ceremony that the monks and lamas perform every day until his reincarnate is found. As we entered this Buddhist temple, to the sounds of monks chanting, drums beating, horns blowing and cymbals banging, the intense colors on the walls and the robes of the monks, the sun beaming through high windows with streams of silk fabric catching the sunlight, the moment overwhelmed me and I began to cry. It was such an emotional experience, almost surreal as I realized that I was viewing such a spectacle of Buddhist worship. It was a peaceful, safe feeling, and I wished I could stay for a very long time.
As we continued on Day 3 of our trek, we were treated to a delicious lunch of fresh steamed pumpkin, sauteed spinach-type greens, potatoes and hot biscuits that were filled with a carrot, apple and curry filling. We had to remind ourselves that all of our meals were being prepared outdoors by very talented cooks. After lunch, we found our hike leading us off the trail and as we bushwhack on a trail used only by local villagers. We came to understand how truly special this experience is. We were now hiking in a dense forest of piney trees that were covered with beautiful green moss. Green moss was everywhere – on the floor of the forest, on the trunks of the trees and covering all the branches. We were climbing to Sing-Sare Dada (3,200 meters), the top of the mountain where we would spend the night. In the early morning, we climbed another 600 feet with hopes to get our first view of Mt. Everest. The sun shone upon us and the clouds parted as we were treated to a spectacular view of Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and the Sacred Mountain (to the northwest). It is truly difficult to describe the beauty, the immense height and the majesty of these mountains. The Sherpas allowed us all the time we needed to savor this incredible sight. It was not easy to leave this quiet spot of solitude and jaw-dropping beauty.
‘Morning has broken’
On Day 4 we hiked down and eventually into another long climb up to the Taksindu Monastery. Here we would spend the night in a courtyard below the monastery. I awakened the next morning, Day 5, to absolute quiet, with monks chanting in the distance, and a soft flute playing. The Sacred Mountain was showing its presence through parting clouds and I could hear Cat Stevens singing in my head “Morning has broken.” In the temple at Taksindu, we witnessed a pooja, a ceremony for peace and prosperity of all living creatures. We were allowed time with a lama. We asked him questions regarding the Buddhist religion, and I began to understand why it takes a lifetime to become so spiritually enlightened.
The final day of our trek was a lot of downhill back into the village of Phaplu. Knees were put to the test and hiking poles were shared. That night, we shared a celebration of dancing, singing, music and laughter with our Sherpas and all of our porters to thank them for their incredibly hard work. Village children joined in and the evening became bittersweet as we knew tomorrow morning we would have to say goodbye to these special people that had now become like family to us. In the morning, we found ourselves walking together as a group, with our Sherpas, for the last time down to the airstrip where our journey began. As the noise of the helicopter echoed through the valley, I was flooded with such strong emotions that I began to cry. I was approached by Rahm, and as he placed a Khata around my neck, he told me this moment is not a goodbye, but rather a continuation until we meet again. As I was hugging my friends goodbye with joy in my voice and tears in my eyes, I was realizing how blessed I had been to be on this journey. I had fulfilled my personal 40-year desire to trek in Nepal, to see the Himalayas, to experience a Buddhist monastery and to learn from the Nepalese people their sense of compassion to all humans. And I got to do it with the most amazing group of Vail Habitat for Humanity volunteers that all gave ourselves to build a home for some of these amazing people. I will treasure the experience forever!
Teresa Shay is an owner of Finis Boni in Edwards and was traveling with her husband, Denny.