Maya Sherpa Project Presentation
Probably everyone in this room has either been to Nepal, or has a desire to go there. And why not? Nepal is home to the Himalayas and 8 of the10 highest peaks in the world. It not only has Mt. Everest as the crown jewel in the mountain range, but some say it is where the mythical Shangri-La exists.
There are also stories of caves with meditating yogis, thundering rivers born of glaciers, and rhododrenden forests with pink and red blooms towering 50 feet overhead. It is, indeed, a region of unparalleled beauty and stunning vistas.
Those photos were all taken in the Khumbu, the region of Mt. Everest. Nepal was closed to the world until 1950, but it of course is now a popular destination for adventure travelers. In the background is Cho Oyo, the sixth- highest mountain in the world at 26,906 feet.
Not only are there the mountaineering feats of summiting these peaks, but for the more average (but fit!) tourist, the most popular way to see this region is on trek. Dawa Sherpa is a sirdar for a well-known trekking company, based right here in Fort Collins: Peak to Peak Travel. Many of us here have been with him to this part of the world, which he calls home.
The Himalayas are indeed a magical place. The mountains are higher – and steeper – than imagined and the trails are not at all what we have come to expect and love here in Colorado.
Rougher, steeper and less maintained, they are also shared with other trekkers, lines of porters and yak trains.
Dawa calls it the “human highway,” an apt description for a region that has no vehicular transportation whatsoever. If you want to get yourself, your goods or your family to another place, you – and everyone – goes on foot.
Up and down, up and down, with no thought to a 2,000 foot descent, followed by an 2,000 foot ascent! Distances from one village to another are spoken of in terms of time, not miles or kilometers. We even learned that there is “Sherpa time” and then “our” time, which is how long it would take for Americans to get to the next village.
However, it is important to note that there are many places in the Kumbu where you can be the only human on the highway. Dawa loves to include these in his treks, so we can experience the vastness and beauty in solitude.
The Khumbu villages are amazing in and of themselves. Most are at altitudes of 11,000 feet and above. Built in rocky pastures or on virtual plunging hillsides, the buildings are made of stone as are their “fences.” These stone walls keep the yaks out of the fields, which grow a rather small variety of crops, including potatoes and buck wheat. The Sherpa diet is augmented with rice and lentils, brought up to the Khumbu from the relatively verdant land to the south, called the Solu. Together these two areas are called the Solu-Khumbu and is home to most Sherpas.
We, in the West, use “Sherpa” to mean a porter; it’s a noun for the person who carries loads up in these high mountains. But, the origin of “Sherpa” is actually Tibetan, meaning “people from the East.”
It was these people who, 500 years ago, migrated from Tibet to the Khumbu region , now part of Nepal. These “people of the east” are actually a distinct ethnic group; they and their language are related to Tibetan, but they have their own culture and skills. It just happened that one of their skills is to carry loads at high altitude, which they did for centuries, as merchants trading between Tibet and India, having to go across their homeland, the Himalayas. It also happened that – when Edmond Hillary and the other earliest mountaineers wanted to climb these highest peaks – the Sherpas were the only indigenous group living in this unchartered country. So, beginning in 1953, the Sherpas became both the guides and porters for these Westerners.
What began as a business partnership quickly developed into respect and an endearing fondness. You see, the Sherpas aren’t just world-class climbers, they also are world-class people. They have a way of seeing – and living life – with qualities that many in the world aspire to: open-heartedness, compassion, warmth, wisdom and all with a sense of humor.
Eric Shipton, a distinguished British mountaineer, wrote:
“The temperament and character of the Sherpas . . . have won them a large place in the hearts of the Western travelers. Their most enduring characteristic is their extraordinary gaiety of spirit.”
And, it is this same “gaity of spirit” that has coined another phrase about the Khumbu and the Sherpas who live there: “Travelers come for the mountains, but come back for the people.” How true!
But Sherpas don’t always live in the Khumbu; many live in Kathmandu or have emigrated to other countries, such as Dawa. The vast majority, however, has stayed in the Himalayas, but most live in the relatively temperate Solu region. This area is still in the mountains, but at a lower level. These villages, rarely visited by Westerners, are not only remote, but more primitive. In Mera, Dawa’s home village, life resembles the way it was lived before Nepal was opened to tourism.
Since the majority of tourists go to the Khumbu (or other high altitude mountainous regions, like Annapurna), the foundation dollars go there as well. The Hillary Institute, the American Himalayan Foundation and other similar foundations have been instrumental in bringing some basic necessities to this part of Nepal: schools, hospitals, bridges and water systems have all served to improve the life of the average Sherpa.
But this is not true for villages like Mera. Life in Dawa’s home a bit easier now with running water and electricity, mostly supplied by money earned from villagers who have left to work elsewhere. But other amenities are few, and there is still very little opportunity to make a living in the village itself.
Consequently most of the young people are leaving. However, they are leaving without an education or skills. And, those who stay behind are increasingly isolated and at risk, as education and health care opportunities are very limited or non-existent.
This is what the Maya Sherpa Project is all about: giving the Sherpas in these outlying villages assistance. This non-profit organization was set up to uphold and help sustain the traditions and cultures of the Sherpa communities, by offering support.
The focus on support is with education, health care and environmental issues
However, its mission is not only to engage peoples in learning about, and upholding, the traditions and culture of the Sherpas in Nepal, but also to create an exchange of cultural resources. To this end, the MSP strives to introduce the Western culture to the many and precious gifts and wisdom of the Sherpas of the Solukhumbu: their openheartedness, determination, compassion, and gaiety of spirit. We believe this will go a long way in cultivating well-being for all.
Our first “service trek” was last May. Six Americans from Fort Collins and Steamboat Springs spent a week in Mera, working on our first projects. These initial projects were centered around the Monastery and we actually stayed there for the week, while also meeting and engaging in activities with the local villagers as well.
These included secular education for the monks, health care assessment and planning, tree reforestation and addressing erosion and other environmental concerns.
It was an eye-opening time for everyone – Americans and Sherpas alike – and the true mission of the MSP was realized: cultural exchange. Perhaps the most rewarding part of the service trek was the individual and personal expansion that every one of the Americans had while staying at the Monastery.
We all arrived wet and exhausted in this remote village with no running water, no heat, limited electricity and hard beds. A short week later, we all left with feelings of respect and wonder, accomplishment and gratitude, delight and sheer joy! We had also made new friends and came to understand more about what we actually all have in common than what our differences are. We gave an education, and we received the same.
So, perhaps you can understand why I go to Nepal over and over now. And also why I wanted to help create and manage a foundation for the Sherpas. They have come into my life and found a very special place in my heart. They are, in short, some of my dearest friends, and I hope they become yours as well.