Serangkot viewpoint

November 16, 2008

"You need to learn some words." Mukhiya encourages. "One word a day. What do you say?" I tell him I think I might be able to manage that. "Bistare bistare means go slow." I sound it out and it seems simple enough. "OK that was easy right? So today you can learn two. Jam jam means let's go." I write down the words phonetically, convinced that as simple as they might sound, I'm bound to forget them tomorrow. "These two words will be useful on our trek. OK? Jam jam." I can't say that I'm not nervous about the hike that'll commence tomorrow.Sketchbook

We continue up Serangkot to catch the sunrise. Mukhiya points out the summits in the range visible from the top of the hill. Annapurna 1, Macchapucchre, Annapurna 2, 4, Lamjung. "How do they get their numbers?" I ask, "What kind of order is it in?" Mukhiya doesn't answer my question directly. But he tells me that in the past it was difficult to know which mountains were higher and which were shorter because geological equipment was not available. Instead, locals decided which were the highest by observing which summits were lit first during sunrise.

Why bother to fulfill your namesake when you can exploit it. The Sherpa caste orginates from the Everest region. They have long been respected for their knowledge of the region. However, the commercialisation of the Everest region has meant that guides from all castes, from throughout Nepal, have trekked, reached the summit, and led expeditions to Everest - competing with the Sherpas. The knowledge of the Sherpas and the fact that the first Nepali to summit Everest was a Sherpa, has made the name synonymous with the very people who lead and manage treks in Nepal (not just the Everest region).

In an attempt to hold on to and retain their namesake, the Sherpas have in recent years made it mandatory for groups to employ Sherpa in order to access certain regions around Everest. They've also imposed this on guides from other castes - not freeing up rooms to groups that are led by non-Sherpas.

So recognised are their names and reputation that Sherpas who lack the passion and knowledge to lead treks, have been doing so anyway because they can, and they've been rumoured to charge a premium for the reputation that their namesake carries.

The name "sherpa" means "mountain guide". While most castes have been protesting their right to access jobs that for a long time have been applicable only to certain castes, here's one that is taking advantage of the capacity that has been awarded to them at birth!

Several guides and trekkers outside of the Sherpa caste have reached the summit of Everest, but the halls of fame that pay tribute to the mountaineers of Everest have only acknowledged those from the Sherpa caste. Whether there's truth in such prejudices remains to be seen.

In order to further explore and understand the Nepali caste system, I had to ask the dreadful question, "What is your caste?" (asking this question might seem dreadful for me, but is in fact a very natural question to ask amongst those who have castes). My guide Mukhiya tells me he has forgotten, which seems bizarre to me, but he tells me it's one of the lowest, perhaps the second lowest. What he's able to tell me is that the occupation associated with his caste is the blacksmith. "Blacksmith sounds OK to me," I say honestly, and perhaps naively.