Teacher as sherpa

In season they come, these strangers, our guests. We leave off digging potatoes to guide them.

Farming is not a bad life, after all. These valleys may look barren, but long cultivation has carried the stones from field to wall and we've learned to draw green from dirt and bent backs. Still, it's our tradition to welcome guests. The money the strangers bring buys land, the journeying is an adventure for us, too. And we know the long road's lonely.

stone They want to climb the highest mountain; they want the heights. Although we've worked with them for years, this passion of theirs still seems dangerous. One doesn't step in the holy place. To show respect, we'd rather pile another rock before the distant peak; to show devotion, circle the base, one bow at a time. At the top, the air is thin, but you can survey the world. We come back down ourselves with altered view.

It's a long trek from where they fly in to base camp. They lead us on. Well, we may have to point them north, since map and mountain curl around each other. Or to sneak out at night, making sure the next day's path can't be missed. They discover the old places--the dim hollow, the only pass, the gorge's dizzy edge. With them, we gape for the first time, again. Then we take them by the collar, to keep them from falling in.

Over the years, we've worked out half a way to speak. Who knows, maybe it sounds just as strange to them as it does to us. It's good that they don't know how to talk; we can be by ourselves sometimes on the way up. We gossip:
-I can't believe my group this season. Guiding them is like wading through a snow bank.
-Mine is worse--half of them won't get out of their tents in the morning. They have me fetching tiffin, and then they still roll over and go back to sleep!

We do most of the arrangements. The equipment is getting more complicated every year. It's annoying to cart around this tiny silver stove, when we're still heating our houses with yak dung. And why the coat must be orange, we'll never know. But bottled air and this new tackle is all that will get some of the latest crop of climbers to the top.

We do most of the arrangements, and all the heavy lifting. We've lived here a long time, so we're supposed to be used to it. But we won't do everything. We won't actually lug any one bodily up the mountain, though we've carried a few down in troubles. They have to walk up on their own legs, just like us. Except at the summit, where all need each other's help.

Most of the strangers rush in and rush out. They're here just for the season. Some linger a time and see the sights, taking in an exorcism at the temple or what's left in that hermit's old cave. A few of these we invite into our homes. Politely we offer them tea and a plate of dumplings; politely they sip, pretending to savor the rancid butter. Then we part. Probably they will keep a box somewhere, with a few photographs of all of us joined against the cold, grinning like crazy people at the pleasure and utter improbability of standing together. We'll keep a box with these pictures, too.

Except for the very few, who come back again, who stay, who learn to talk, who scramble finding a corner of land to farm. And set up as sherpas themselves.


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