Sunday, April 24, 2016

Follow up feature on One Sherpa Home.

It's been a year since the tragic earth quake that destoyed Mingma's home. All is right in his world now, with much credit due to the generous donors and selfless volunteers who are One Sherpa Home. The King 5 reporter, Eric Westerman, who did the original feature on OSH interviewed me again the other day to close the loop on his last piece.  It's a nice news clip. You can view it HERE

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mission Accomplished!

Ten months ago Nepal was rocked by earthquakes that killed 6,000 people and destroyed many homes. One of those homes belonged to Mingma Chhring Sherpa, my friend and climbing partner from my Everest summit in 2013. As detailed in the entries of this blog, an incredible group of people, none of whom even knowing Mingma, came together to rebuild his simple residence. Today that home is complete.

It wasn’t easy. 

There were issues with raising the money, then getting it into Nepal. There were challenges involving design and engineering. Logistic complications called upon our most resourceful thinking to get materials and tools to a village located 12,000 feet in the Himalayas and 100 miles from the nearest road. At times we ran up against cultural barriers or competing goals that pitted our organization’s wishes against those of Mingma. There was sickness, frustration, communication breakdowns and enough love to overcome them all. 

Mingma’s new home is without question the warmest, most structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing home in Phortse. And still, it is entirely consistent with the needs and functions of traditional Sherpa life. Mingma is very happy and very grateful. 

So I say “Thank You” to all who participated; the Roosevelt Elementary School kids who raised $112 in a penny drive, my colleagues at UBS, those who paid to attend my talks, the Boys & Girls Club of Bellingham, blog readers who gave generously, our Board of Directors, Architect, Treasurer, and the amazing Away Team members of One Sherpa Home. You all chose to believe in this far-flung act of micro-philanthropy and it worked. Congratulations to you! Congratulations to Mingma!

P.S. Donations continued to drift into One Sherpa Home after our return from Nepal. By the time we closed the books on One Sherpa Home, retiring the organization just ten months after its creation, there was $2,400 of residual funds in its coffers. I recommended to our Board of Directors that these funds be given to Empower Nepali Girls (ENG), a U.S. based organization building and operating schools for girls in the remote regions of Nepal. ENG provided two workers to OSH at no cost during our building of Mingma's home. In return we trained them in safer building techniques and shared our Architect's Field Report. The Board approved this use of funds and I promptly sent off the check. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Construction update.

Mingma's home as of November 18,2015

I heard from Mingma shortly after my return from Nepal. He sent me a message through Facebook that read ;
Namaste dave sir
i got a wifi connection after a long.. i did all the expenses after all that all my personal money is not enough... the workers wages are too expensive thats out of my money if you can then i need about $6000 for the complete of my house ... please dave i know i owe you a lot but i need your help.. and i know you will help me ....

To westerners this might seem audacious keep asking for more. And I have to admit it felt pretty shitty. But then I reminded myself that the cultural chasm between Mingma and I is indeed vast, vast enough that I cannot assume what is rude in my world might not be course of business in his. I was also surprised by the amount Mingma requested. I had run the numbers past several Sherpa not connected with the project and they all thought the aid One Sherpa Home had provided (approximately $12,000 all in) was enough to rebuild the home. As well, I knew a few of Mingma's past climbing clients had also given him money. Mingma never disclosed how much of his own money was going into the project, nor the amount bid by the contractor, so it was impossible to establish his level of financial need versus want. I have come to understand that most Sherpa's believe westerners are all rich enough that dropping $6,000 here and there is of no consequence to them, yet that same amount is equivalent to 5 years wages for the average Sherpa. So they probably feel there is no harm in asking. I get that, but I was already into the project to the tune of $10,000 in addition to what OSH provided and, given the factual voids in the project's budget, could not put more into it.

I replied to Mingma with this message;
I am sorry Mingma, but I have done all I can do. You will have to find help from someone else.

That was it. No reply came. No word at all. Weeks passed as I wondered how construction was going ...IF construction was proceeding. So I sent Mingma a message last week asking for a picture of his home. He sent the above photo a few days later. No words came with it.

When we left Phortse a month ago there was just a foundation with rebar reaching 12 feet into the air. The current photo shows quite a bit of work has been done since then. Though some of it deviates from the design Trevor put together (such as using traditional stone walls without gabions) the basic structure looks pretty true to form. I look forward to seeing Mingma's home completed. For all he and I do not understand about each other, it seems clear we share this common goal.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Becoming Nepal

Through the years, I have known the pleasure of visiting many fine locations; beaches, resorts, ski slopes and lodges ...places so carefully crafted that they asked nothing of me, and I in return gave nothing back. To be certain, these were marvelous experiences in a temporal sense, and I would be sad to imagine having no more like them, but the simple fact is that nothing changes in the course of living them.  From food to linens to the very reshaping of the landscape these places sit upon, every aspect of them has been designed to match or exceed the comforts of home. 

It is not possible to visit Nepal. It does not understand your expectations and lacks the pretense to suggest otherwise. Kathmandu will show you her slums gathered just outside the airport, her miserable infrastructure and filthy streets. You will lose power a few times each day. There is little good coffee, and the crush of humanity will dissuade you from seeking it out. The air is thick with dust and smog, and the constant chatter of horns will fill your head as cars and motorcycles converse, weaving an auditory blanket of chaos. Yet the people of Kathmandu will strike you as remarkably warm, kind, and happy. You might attribute this to their trying to compensate for all that this place is not. You would be wrong. This is who they are, in spite of all they do not have, and something about that realization will invite you to bear witness on a personal level, unfettered by the possessions you left at home. 

The Khumbu will show you much fewer people and no motorized vehicles, aside from the occasional helicopter. It is nothing if not peaceful. But this comes at a cost. About 30% of the air one would normally breath is absent at this elevation, the water quality is suspect, and the vast majority of restrooms consist of drop pits below a hole in the floor. The lodges are unheated, the food is mostly freeze-dried, and personal hygiene becomes a battle not worth fighting. Yet here again you will find the most pleasant human beings walking the earth; toothless old men who join their hands in prayer and say “namaste” as you pass, Porters who find the strength to greet you as they toil beneath loads exceeding their own weight, children who extend a tiny brown hand for the sake of feeling your palm against theirs.  

There is no visiting Nepal. You can only become it. And the degree to which you do so will be defined by your ability to let go; let go of all your definitions and judgements, your petty needs and vulnerabilities. Let go of the anger you carry for slights you can’t even recall. Let go of more-ness. Let go of your self-limitations and slavish traditions. Let go of the self-protections that prevent your heart from growing. And with each thing you let go of, you will feel that space filled with warmth as you become Nepal. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Pressing on.

Mingma came to see us off the next morning as Dawa and his crew broke down our camp. He thanked me again for helping with his home and pledged to post photos as the reconstruction continued on. We hugged, then I set off with the group, trekking to Pangboche.
Jess visiting a monastery.
It felt good to be underway again as we traversed one side of the valley, gaining altitude over the course of the four hour trek to Pangboche. The weather was pleasant, the vistas magnificent, and the mood of our group was upbeat, having redefined our home building objective and declared victory.

We stayed that night in a lodge that boasted a visit by President Jimmy Carter many years ago. I bought a shower that evening and tried to imagine the former peanut farmer shivering in the same makeshift enclosure where I bathed, water falling freely through a hole in the floor while a bare light bulb dangled above. The proprietor set a fire to burning in the yak dung stove as we settled into the common room for dinner. This far up the Khumbu Valley almost everything on the menu consisted of some configuration of potatoes, rice, or pasta. Owing to government regulations of the national park these villages reside in, any fresh meat had to be butchered outside the boundaries, in Lukla, then carried in. Any such meat would spoil before making it this far up the valley, so canned tuna and spam were the only options. Still, we enjoyed our meals then played cards for an hour or so until everyone stalked off to bed.

I asked Dawa to summon representatives of the Pangboche clinic and school while we ate breakfast the following morning. By the time we finished our meal they had arranged several chairs running side by side across the patio. We were seated as dignitaries by the representatives and tea was served as I explained the purpose and mission of One Sherpa Home. On behalf of our donors and the assembled away team, I presented each institution with a cash sum of $250, the remaining resources in our coffers. You might have thought we were handing over the keys to a new hospital for all the gratitude that followed, including ceremonial khatas, hand shakes, and beaming smiles. Remote villages like Pangboche have so little to begin with, and with the tragic events of the last two years what modest income they enjoy from trekkers and climbers has been slashed. But people still get sick and children still need an education. So cash infusions like ours go a long way. I thought about the generous donors to OSH and wished they could have all been present to see the good their money was doing.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Complete Loop

By Karina Gallant.
Our arrival at the work site in Phortse was a disappointment at first. We all had our reservations on the trek up; worries about materials, and about what we’d get done in the short time we had there, and many of our fears and more were realized. There were no new materials, no gabions being built, and no workers. Mingma spoke about a mysterious “carpenter” that was supposed to arrive, and about the new windows he was having built, even though the old windows had been salvaged. Our perusal of the half built climbing school was not reassuring. It had been worked on and reworked on many times over the years, and was still nowhere close to completion. Dave’s 3 am insight was the theory that Mingma’s carpenter was really a contractor, and that he had used the money One Sherpa Home collected to pay this contractor and his workers. The frustration was palpable, but spirits were kept high and we tried to make the best of the situation until we had a better understanding.

The next day, Dave and Dawa confirmed with Mingma that this was in fact the case. Mingma is such an agreeable person, and the cultural differences made communication so difficult that he did not want to disappoint Dave, which led to the miscommunication. I also suspect that a friendship built on Everest does not translate very well into other situations—especially something like this. Fortunately, the contractor was very open to suggestion and they agreed that the house was going to be built to the original design. There were still very few workers though, and we knew that there wasn’t much we could do, so we agreed to leave Phortse early to do further trekking and complete a loop back to Namche.

When we left, there was a trench built around the house, and a few of the gabions were in place. The house needs around 100 to be complete, and it will probably not be done by winter as hoped, but after the first night we were much happier with the way things were going and with our understanding. The lack of workers and slow movement left us with a lot of free time, and we were content to drink tea, read books, and explore the village in the sunny mornings. A few of us took a hike to catch a glimpse of Cho Oyo, weaving above the village and through Phortse’s summer village, which is a little fairytale mountain town with stone houses and pastures and used in the months where the sun hits that side of the mountain.

At night, we would gather in the dining tent to eat the delicious meals prepared to us by the cook crew, which made the expectation that we’d all lose 10 pounds completely unreasonable. They fed us soup, potatoes, pizza, and various meats three times a day, which we rarely were able to finish. We very quickly ran out of civilized conversation and resorted to making fun of each other and telling bad jokes in our post dinner delirium. We were tucked in bed with our hot Nalgene bottles by 730 each night, and up early the next morning to gather at the work site or relax in our tents.

The day we left, we were surprised with snow in the morning, offsetting the predictable pattern of clear mornings and cloudy afternoons. It was a short hike to the Trekkers Holiday Inn Lodge in Pangboche, and we were bombarded with views of Ama Dablam and surrounding mountains. We went to Lama Geshe’s house and he blessed us, placing a scarf and red cord around our necks and having us chant along with him. The warm accommodations made us feel rebellious, and we would stay up til a whopping 8:30 to play cards and drink Khukri rum.

 Next was Rivendell, a lodge in Deboche. Sadly, we were not greeted by elves. We proceeded to try to score a helicopter ride, failing when we were told it would be about $2000. It was for the best, because the hike to complete our loop to Namche proved to be one of the most beautiful so far. When we said goodbye to the Namche Bazar, it really sunk in that the trip was coming to a close. Tonight, we celebrated our last night in the Khumbu with whiskey and another game of Oh Hell, our group’s official card game. Tomorrow, we fly back to Kathmandu. Although we may not have completed as much on Mingma’s house as we all hoped, these past few weeks have been a beautiful and unforgettable experience, and I think we all deserve to feel good about what we did. Along with helping provide funds and insight on his home, we donated money to a few climbing schools and clinics, tipped our Sherpas graciously, and hopefully started a pattern by teaching the contractor more earthquake resistant methods. Not to mention the amazing time we had hiking and bonding with the group and the villagers.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Parting blessings

By the fifth day of work we were running out of things to do. The next step involved placing the wire gabions in the trenches, tying them with rebar (Mingma’s home was the first ever in Phortse to use rebar), then filling the cages with carefully arranged stones. But the process of weaving the gabions from spools of wire was going slowly, only producing six in the course of three days. So we placed those cages and supervised the crew as they integrated the rebar both laterally and vertically, then knocked off early. 

We talked about the remaining days as we ate lunch back at our camp. Having trained the local crew on what to do with the gabions, it seemed senseless to linger in Phortse for four more days as the cages were slowly produced, so we decided to break camp on the 16th and pull a long deep loop into the magical villages of Pangboche, Dingboche, and Tengboche. 

Phortse's RN with Dave Mauro

The costs associated with building Mingma’s home had become much clearer since arriving in Phortse and I determined that OSH carried a modest surplus of cash. The group discussed ideas for using these funds and agreed we should make donations to Phortse’s clinic and school. We visited the modest one-room clinic the next morning and presented the attending RN with $500, a truly substantial sum for a health care facility serving people so poor they most often can not afford to pay anything for their care. The Vice Chairman of the school board was summoned by Dawa and we likewise presented $500 to him. He was greatly appreciative. 

We placed several more gabions the next day and spent a good bit of time going over the building plans with Mingma, Dawa, the Mason, and the Contractor. Though polite nodding almost certainly stood in the place of true understanding at times, there was enough dialogue between us to convey their grasp of what needed to be done. Then Mingma and his wife presented each of us with a ceremonial khata, a cream-colored silk scarf gifted in Buddhist culture as an act of thanks. Mingma’s wife gave me a full formal ensemble of sherpa clothing for Lin, a colorful layering of hand-sewn skirt, blouse, apron and headwear. It is too rare that a person gets to connect with a foreign culture the way our away team did in Phortse. We all felt grateful and proud.