On the 10th day of trekking, we ate lunch with Tenzing’s mother-in-law’s sister and had the opportunity to see how a real Sherpa woman lives.
The two-story house catered to functionality. The walls consisted of carefully stacked rock for the inner walls and wood for the exterior walls. Hay covered the first floor, and yak dung, smashed into small circles to use in the fires, rose in a neat floor-to-ceiling stack in one corner. Wood for the fire, precisely chopped and organized, filled one entire wall. She used this floor to store necessities for the entire year, including the family yak in winter.
A steep wooden staircase lead to the upper floor, which resembled an efficiency unit – it was open and housed everything a family would need to call this one-room house a home. One wall held the wood-fired stove and kitchen area. Two walls contained open shelves from floor to ceiling that stored everything from cooking supplies and food to toiletries, clothes, and blankets. The fourth wall had windows and wide benches with tables in front of them. The benches, used as seats for the tables during the day, became the family beds for sleeping at night.
The bathroom, of course, was outside. It consisted of four wooden walls with a covering on top, built out from a hillside. The floor had round branches, each about two inches thick, laying side-by-side, except for a one-foot gap in the middle. Below the gap, piles of hay and leaves awaited whatever may be falling between the gap in the branches.
We took our turns in the toilet before going into the house for lunch. Once inside, we sat on benches along the windowed wall, watching hot tea steam before us on the little tables. We drank in the warmth and waited to eat the amazing food that this tiny lady, always smiling, prepared for us.
The first course was a traditional meal of potato pancakes with fresh yak butter and spicy yak cheese. It was amazingly delicious and fresh. The potatoes grew in the garden across from the house and the butter and cheese came from her yak. For the second course, she made dahl baht – a lentil soup eaten over rice. Every tea house on our trek offered it, but this dahl baht tasted better than any we had previously. We ate as much as our bellies allowed, and then thanked her enthusiastically and left to continue our journey back to Lukla.
Before arriving to her house, we asked Tenzing her name and for a while, he couldn’t remember. Of course, we thought it odd, but then he explained that in both Nepali and Sherpa culture, they never use people’s names -in Nepali it’s actually rude. They call each other by their relationship. So when meeting someone for the first time, they guess if they’re older or younger and call them uncle, aunt, older brother, older sister, younger brother, or younger sister. It makes sense. If you’re Sherpa, you are family.
Every Sherpa’s last name is Sherpa. Like the yak wool gloves I purchased to keep my hands warm, the families are tightly knit. The Sherpa people stay connected no matter where they are in the world. Tenzing’s sister studied and trained with the family that owns the Sherpa House in Golden, CO, (my current home) before opening her own restaurant, The Himalayan Kitchen, in Vermont. It’s amazing to me that they can stay so intertwined over such long distances. It is a lesson to me in my travels.