CHYAMTANG, Nepal – The natives placed thin ceremonial scarves called khata and strings of flowers around our necks, presented us cucumber, oranges, potatoes and soup.
They let us into their homes, allowed us to see a mind-blowing Bön Buddhist ceremony by a burning-stick-wielding woman and poured us tomba, their alcoholic “beer” made from millet mash.
Our Nepali guides and porters carried their body weight of our gear, prepared tasty meals and even baked cakes, pitched our tents and served us morning tea – all on the cheap.
They showed us a toughness and an openness that's hard to find in America. Yep, they did a lot for us. And it makes me wonder: Did we do enough for them?
That was the goal of the trek, after all: to aid the Karma and Jyamu Bhotia Foundation in its mission to create better educational opportunities for the children here. Karma and his wife, Jyamu, both grew up here, and through their education and determination were able to create a small chain of restaurants in the U.S. Since 2007, they've operated the Himalayan Kitchen on Main Avenue and 10th Street. Now, they want to give back. This was the foundation's first trip to Chyamtang, and the first time Karma Bhotia had been here in 25 years. (Jyamu stayed home and ran the business.)
Our group of 12 spent 11 days in the Chyamtang vicinity, three weeks on the trek overall. Things we did do:
Our “kids” – Durango High School senior Abi Moore, Animas High School junior Will Brako and recent Fort Lewis College grad Brian Phelps – were fantastic with the Nepali youths as well as our younger guides and porters. They read to the kids, or played games such as Frisbee and tag. Will does a mean handstand, Brian can climb anything, and Abi's young age belies her wisdom.
Fred Boshardt, a foundation board member, insisted on a trash pickup day at the Chyamtang school (grades one through five), an effort to get the kids thinking about waste disposal, a problem that will only grow with encroaching civilization.
Matt Kenna was our team's glue, not to mention music provider with his harmonica and ukulele, the latter of which he left for the kids.
Sean Owen, Phil Settles (Will's dad) and Jose Saldana were part of the video and photography team to document our trip. Saldana used his deafness as an advantage; he's as capable communicating with a Nepali as an American.
After Owen, Settles and Boshardt took a helicopter out (Settles, who stayed seven days in a Kathmandu hospital, and Owen left for medical reasons), eight of us taught one morning at the sixth- through 10th-grade school in Linggam, an hour-plus hike from Chyamtang.
Mike Silver's physics lesson was hopefully translated well by the Linggam 10th-grade teacher. Mike Schultz, my easygoing tentmate, and Will Brako taught cell structure. I tried to convince the ninth-graders and their teacher, Bidur Nath Dahal, to start a school newspaper that would explore the area's issues and social problems. Not sure exactly how my words were translated, but I also implored them to be persistent and demand answers from government officials – concepts that I hope don't get these kids into all kinds of trouble in a country without a First Amendment.
But most of all, I think, we were Bhotia's backbone. He could have come here by himself, but to bring his American friends, who were willing to join him just because they believed in the mission, was a powerful message.
We gave him some cachet, not to mention U.S. currency, which still speaks loudly.
On Nov. 2, we met with concerned citizens, seeking direction from them on how the foundation could best help. It's no stretch to say Karma Bhotia had been preparing for this meeting for years.
For the key part of the meeting, attended by 50 or 60 locals, we Coloradans weren't needed. Bhotia had some other heavy hitters with him: several of our guides from the area who have made good:
Shangbu Lhomi Bhote, a native of nearby Chepuwa whose grade-school teacher was Jyamu Bhotia. Shangbu served as mediator as three community groups – women, elder men and younger men – listed their priorities. He adeptly kept any animosity from spreading through this difficult process.
Puchhanga Pejawa Lhomi, from nearby Guthigumba, who has known Karma Bhotia since the 1990s. He credits Bhotia, who owned a Kathmandu-based trekking company until he left for the U.S., for all the opportunities he has received. In 2009, he climbed Mount Everest as a sherpa for a U.S. climber. In Nepal, an ascent of the world's highest mountain is a badge of honor and a door-opener for further guiding opportunities. Jyamu was also his teacher; he and Shangbu are childhood friends.
Pasang Bhote, a two-time Everest conqueror who grew up in Chyamtang. He is a member of the Nepal Mountaineering Association and was recently mentioned in National Geographic (“Sorrow on the Mountain,” November) for his support of better benefits for Everest sherpas.
When the process was over, the cacophony of community voices merged to set these priorities: Reconstruction of their collapsing school, recruiting a volunteer English teacher (both Moore and Phelps are considering), electricity (we brought a large solar panel, but it goes only so far), a grain-grinding machine(s), a day-care center and a playground/community building.
As our trek ended, I officially interviewed Bhotia and the three guides to see if they thought our journey had been a success.
“The villagers have lots of requests,” Shangbu said. “So many requests, and they have so many problems.” The progress made gave everyone confidence that because “we did this, we can do some other good things.”
Puchhanga, a lanky giant among the typically short Nepali, noted the difficulty of uniting the community, but said Bhotia did an excellent job of changing a fatalistic mindset that their lot in life is set.
“A big future is started this time,” said Puchhanga, who already has brought day care centers and toilets to the area. “This is a really good thing. It is very important.”
Pasang was excited that compromise had been achieved. And he hoped that Westerners' focus on waste disposal will be heeded. You need to look at where you throw out things, not focus entirely on consumption.
Karma Bhotia, who broke down in tears when he first saw his home village from the trail as we approached, talked late into the night several times with community members. Uniting the villagers was a constant theme; for instance, he wants the five (yes, five) mothers groups in Chyamtang to become one by the time he returns, hopefully in the spring. (“They promise. We will see.”)
And he harped on the trait of confidence, which education and experience can bring. Quit looking at a mirror, he told them.
“When you look in a mirror, you see yourself,” he said on the roof of the Tibet Guest House in the Thamel section of Kathmandu on the morning of our departure. “I would like to break this mirror and change to window. When you look through a window, you will see the world.”
So, did we do enough? We did what we could. The true answer, of course, will not be immediately apparent. It will take years, decades to make the real changes that will benefit the community and, in turn, its children.
It will take a commitment from the foundation, yes, but it will also take a commitment from a group of subsistence farmers who barely have enough time and energy to feed their families on a daily basis.
Talk about a tough row to hoe. But I do believe this: The effort has to start somewhere, and all of us were happy and proud to plant a few seeds.
Next week: Things about Nepal that made my jaw drop.