A little taste of the book:
Pheriche is far above the tree line, in a broad, deep, rocky bowl; a wide spot that was carved by an ancient glacier which has long since vanished. The ground is layered in peat and smooth granite with rivulets that cut through both. Here the yak-dung fire smoke is thick, and the camaraderie is plentiful. “Oh, there you are, Erika!” A father and son from England who are also trekking to Base Camp have followed our group after hearing us in Deboche last night. “We’re glad we’ve found you!”
“Hello fellas! Wow, great foggy hike today, eh? How did you know where we would be?”
“We followed the music! It was so much fun last night,” the father says sipping his tea with a satisfied grin.
The rest of our group trickles off the path and finds us looking out the window at them as they arrive. AC takes a seat next to me after engaging the lodge owner in a brief chat. With a strong, purposeful handshake, AC nods proudly and pats his shoulder in acknowledgement. As proud as Westerners are of their summit successes, the locals here get the chance to summit Everest as well, and also wear the badge of completion proudly. “The owner of this lodge is Nima Sherpa. He is an Everest summiter, too…” AC relays to me energetically, pointing at the flag on the wall. It commemorates his climb and is signed by the late Everest summiter, Rob Hall. Nima is young, perhaps in his 20’s and stands proud and quite tall compared to most locals I have seen. He is nearly AC’s height of six feet. That’s formidable for Sherpa, who are generally wiry and compact. I wonder if Nima is as proud of AC for his completion of the Seven Summits as AC is of Nima.
Nima’s sister enters the common room and hands her young baby over to him behind the counter. He is collecting rupees for charging cell phones, and still beaming from his chat with AC. She hefts a cut-off old kerosene jug and settles in the center of the room. Pulling the heavy iron lid off the stove, she tosses in a few twigs and sticks from the jug, then one by one, loads the hollow cylinder with dessert plate-sized disks of yak dung. When it is full, she pours kerosene over the top and lights the bundle inside. The warmth is slow to come, but will last for hours.
The cooks bring in dinner for us from the trekking kitchen out back. After a few meals, I begin to really wonder what it is about the meals I have experienced here that appeals to me so much. Tonight the Nepalis in our group receive a traditional meal of buckwheat dough and curried chicken. The Americans are served something more accessible, more familiar to our regular tastes. Though I enjoy the sausages and fried potatoes thoroughly, I spend the whole meal watching and inquiring about the interesting food that the Nepalis get to eat. A large lump of raw, dark buckwheat dough sits in the middle of each tin plate. It is topped with quickly melting yak butter. Next to the plate sits a bowl of curried soup with chunks of bone-in chicken. It is a deep earthy orange color. The dynamic social meal that unfolds is striking and novel for me to watch. Pemba puts down the plates and bowls, but not silverware. I take photos and ask questions about the ingredients. One by one, they grab a small hunk of the dough and pat it, flatten or roll it in their hands, then use it to scoop up a dripping bit of curried chicken. Next they quickly dip in yak butter or add more hot sauce or ‘dalla pickle’ which is about the spiciest thing I found in Nepal. Then the whole handful goes gracefully into the mouth. The process in this meal is very much like watching kids play with clay. There is ritual in the physical enjoyment of eating this meal. They are carrying on in lively bubbling conversation as they pat and shape the dough for each bite. It is a completely engaging social meal and I am absorbed in the ceremony of it all. I can’t help but want to try some. Mingma obliges, warning me that the curry is too hot for me, but gives me a small bit of the dough. It’s rich and earthy and hearty, like uncooked whole grain bread dough. The yak butter adds to the deep flavors. As I sit savoring the small bite, I’m wondering how they eat dough and dripping butter and soup with only hands and not get it all over the place. It would be running down my elbows, chin and shirt at the very least!
The curries are delectable. Masala, red and green chilies and lots of spicy foods really fend off the cold weather. But the specific items aside, there is something else different here. Food rituals in Nepal are exactly that, rituals. There are no short cuts, no trinket food, and except for a seemingly endless heap of rice and dal, no excess. Food is not presented as casually is it is back home, or as whimsically. I ponder the differences between my dinners here and the ones I prepare back home. Culture can be an interesting barrier, but food universally brings people together. I watch the locals in the villages and the way they interact with their food. If there is meat involved, then most likely, one of the people at the table knew the animal it came from. Perhaps they raised it or walked it home from market before it was a meal. Food is personal and intimate and it’s an involved but welcome process in the daily life here, from what I see.
It is courtesy to only enter a home or kitchen if you have been invited. We are lucky to have so many Sherpas traveling with us, and been invited graciously in so often in many of the villages. For the first time, I wonder how different this trek would be if it was a standard trekking tour. I am fully aware when I am being treated like a tourist. It happens, even with all the locals in our group, but more frequently I am treated like a friend of the locals. The times I am treated that way, along with the rest of the group, the graciousness is overwhelming.
The cook’s helpers gather our empty dishes into a large silver bowl and disappear to wash them in the near freezing water outside. The lady of the lodge checks the fire and looks over the guests in the common room before returning to her baby. As evening wears on, we trickle into the common room cuddling ever closer to the pot-belly stove for warmth and conversation. Occasionally the fire inside meets a yak patty that still has moisture in it, and the whole stove will hiccup and sneeze a cloud of smoke out every hole and seam, dousing us in dark, richly fragrant clouds of dung dust that slowly rise to the ceiling of the lodge and disperse. This time AC is far enough from the stove he can retreat to a far corner and spare himself from most of the foul-smelling cloud. I’m not so lucky.