Letters From Bharat: Sherpa

Keep in mind that I am only 5'7''.
Keep in mind that I am only 5’7”.

I’ve got something most Americans don’t have. I have a friend who is a Sherpa. Or was anyway.

Passang trained at the Himalayan Mountain Institute, climbing up cliffs and running up mountains with a heavy back pack. He has been on high altitude  expeditions, where he says he learned how to cook by hanging out in the tent with the professional chefs the Western climbers hire.

When he got married, he says his wife Sanju didn’t want him to do it anymore. It’s extremely dangerous, and not very profitable unless you are elected to go to the top, in which case you might make twenty thousand dollars. But the guys who carry the gear from the base camp to the next levels are paid for the weight they carry—about $30 for carrying 40 pounds across ice bridges and up steep sheets of ice. The pay is so low some Sherpas even carry twice the weight, increasing the danger but doubling their pay.

“Mountian climbing is not a very good job,” he says. Five times.

Now he leads treks into the lower peaks, and he is trying to get me to include a side trip into Nepal next January; he says if we get up very early we can get to a peak where we can see 360 degrees around us and watch the sun come up on the snow-capped mountains. There is no way our students can bring the gear required so I politely decline.

When he is not off guiding western hikers, Passang is a house husband of sorts, preparing meals for the Western guests who stay in their home (about $12 a day, including the meals) and caring for their four-year old daughter Chenju. His wife works in the tea fields for about $2 a day—$3 or more during the harvest period, provided she exceeds the daily 15 pound quota.

The national minimum wage of $5 a day doesn’t apply to tea workers. And I don’t get the sense they want their daughter to be one. They spend over half their income on private schooling and this will only amplify the challenge facing the tea industry. Already some of the estates are bringing in workers from Nepal as more educated kids seek other jobs. “It is a very big problem,” he says, torn by his own passion for the tea trade that has provided economic stability for generations and his hopes and dreams for Chenju.

He clearly dotes on her. You see him watch her as she sings Michael Jackson’s We Are the World to our college students. His face beams.

I’m not sure we will ever all come together as the song suggests. But pretty sure young Chenju will never work on a tea farm.

And she will always be secure in her father’s love.

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