Dumzi is the most sacred of all festivals at Pema Choling. Two days are spent simply in preparation: The making of thorma is the primary activity during this time. Puja (chanting) will last four days, and the final two days no one will sleep: Sherpa dancing, a traditional line dance in which both men and women participate, will fill the days. After dinner the atmosphere will be transformed and the wholesome Sherpa dancing will morph into a full on disco party, complete with strobe lights, all types of Nepali, Hindi, and western music (including Shakira, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and various rap artists), and an unlimited supply of chhang – Sherpa wine made from millet. I follow the festival sponsor, Ngawang Dorje, into the store room and watch three women arranging 8 or 9 barrels of chhang, which Ngawang tells me have been in the making for seven months at his lodge down the hill from here in Phakding. I poke my head through the doorway to get a better look at the barrels and the smell of fermenting millet hits my nostrils. So strong is the smell I jerk my head back involuntarily. My whole nose and sinuses feel brutally cleansed and I’m certain my head cold is cured once and for all. “It’ll be a really nice wine,” Ngawang says with a proud smile. After dinner I take him up on his offer to try the chhang; it’s smooth and the taste is alright, but I still don’t like the smell.
Morning. Just thinking of the chhang makes me sniffle, and I pick up my mug for another sip of hot milk tea. It’s only the first morning of puja, and I’m already feeling the need for a break, so after the breakfast break I retreat with my laptop to the dining hall where I can write while staying out of the way but still feel amidst the hustle and bustle of festival excitement. I’m interrupted by a tiny woman with jet black wavy hair pulled back in a braid, dressed in a silky lime green pastel chemise under a royal blue Sherpa dress of the same shiny silky material, embroidered with exotic flowery patterns in a rainbow of red, orange, yellow, and green thread. I love her demeanor; I was watching her yesterday and she’s certainly the most friendly and outgoing of the typically shy Sherpa women who stick to the kitchen, always ready with thermos in hand to pour a steaming cup of tea for anyone who wanders into a 10-foot radius. But this little lady is always laughing and smiling, flashing a gold tooth in her upper left set of molars.
She motions for me to follow her, and we walk through the dining hall, the kitchen, outside, and into the store room, where she shuts the double wooden doors behind us. She places her backpack on a bag of grain and turns to me with a big smile. “Okay, Sherpa dress,” she says, pulling a pile of clothing out of her pack. I hold out my arms and she eases me into a forest green blouse of the same shiny, silky material hers is made of. It boasts an understated iridescent zigzag print in the same forest green color; you wouldn’t even see the zigzags if it weren’t for the light catching the thread. She proceeds to pull a black dress over my head and ties it, then unfolds one of the beautiful Sherpa aprons – the hallmark of the Sherpa costume – and ties it high around my waist. I look down; the apron of brown, tan, camel, purple, white, and silver stripes stands out against the slimming black dress whose hem barely brushes the tops of my ballet slipper shoes. I love it.
I walk back out through the kitchen and into the dining hall, knowing that I’ll be under close inspection for the next few hours. Sherpa people are curious, boisterous, and proud of their culture; I know they’ll be both enthusiastic and tickled pink to see their favorite little white girl in traditional dress. Sure enough, I enter the room to an explosion of joyous catcalls, “Ho! Sila! Sherpini!!” Sherpini is the name for a Sherpa woman: All Sherpa men’s last name is Sherpa, and the women’s last name is Sherpini – although when used colloquially the term “Sherpini” usually refers to a married woman.
“But I’m not married!” I protest. They’re doing their best to change that. Things have been moving beyond the once innocent suggestions that I marry a Sherpa.
In light of yesterday’s conversation in the kitchen, I try not to feel self conscious as two men in particular inspect my new attire from across the room.
You might feel uneasy, too, if you had witnessed this that conversation...
Sapana and I am talking with the festival sponsor; they sit side by side while I stand facing them, my back to the fire. Ngawang sits with one leg crossed over the other and his hands clasped, fingers laced together around his top leg. He leans back comfortably and gazes into the fire while talking, then falls silent. I am absorbed in thought with the stories of his various houses in Nepal and his travels to the US when, after this pause in the conversation, he suddenly lifts his head to meet my gaze and steadily, thoughtfully says, “You know, I’ve been thinking about taking an American wife.”
I chuckle, knowing he’s already married with two kids; he only just finished showing my pictures of them on his iPhone some twenty minutes ago. He just smiles.
“Aren’t you married? What would your wife think of a second wife?” I tease, thinking he’s joking, of course.
“Oh, she has no problem,” he replies, completely serious.
“Wait, is it okay for Buddhists to have more than one wife?” I ask, not knowing why the idea makes me feel a little unsettled if not concerned.
“Yes, it is okay in our culture,” Ngawang says carefully. “This is more common that divorce. Perhaps 5% of Sherpa families include more than one wife, while less than 1% are divorced.” The idea still feels a bit incredulous, this is the first I’ve heard of polygamy in Sherpa culture.
After the arrival of some guests interrupts the cultural discussion and provides me some time for thought, Ngawang takes his seat once again and together with Sapana, the three of us fall back into conversation, this time joined by an older monk in his late 50’s, who also goes by Ngawang. I’d met this Ngawang just the morning before; apparently he’s been here at the monastery the entire time I have, but I had only seen him briefly the first day I arrived because the following day he started a month-long meditation and remained in one room above the monastery, talking to nobody and having contact only with the young monk who brought him his meals.
I’d only become cognizant of his existence a week ago, and then when I walked into the kitchen the first morning of Dumzi, there he was offering me milk coffee – a big treat in a place like this. After accepting a bowl of corn flakes (also a first time treat) from Kagi and allowing Lakpa to douse them in hot milk tea, I paused my wonderment at all these culinary treats and wandered over to meet the new face in a kitchen I now considered familiar domain. I approached Ngawang and used my ever-growing Nepali lexicon to ask his name and where he’s from. After exchanging only a few words, his face lights up and he suddenly says, “I enjoy you. After the festival you will come to my lodge; I own the Kala Patthar Lodge in Phakding. We’ll drink tea, eat some food and talk.”
“Okay,” I replied, returning his smile. What else could I say? It’s not very often a brand new acquaintance demands my presence as a guest in their home. I’m not quite sure what he saw in me, but Ngawang made up his mind about me very quickly. Perhaps first impressions are especially big with him, and I happen to be a morning person...that’s all I can figure.
That conversation ended when Ngawang was called out to attend to some matter with a visitor. He started to walk away and then double-backed, saying, “Okay, I will see you later and we will talk more.” I said goodbye and then picked up my phone, remembering I needed to call my mom during the brief period each day when the time difference between Nepal and Oregon is favorable for both of us. I caught my dad at home and we talked for about 20 minutes; then I started to walk back to the kitchen to refill my mug.
I looked up when I heard a voice in front of me asking, “Everything okay?” and suddenly strong arms were wrapping me up into a big hug. Everything really was okay, and in the midst of me trying to figure out what expression I might have made to make it seem as if something was amiss, it took me a moment to realize that it was my new friend Ngawang enthusiastically hugging me. All I could think was that, after a month of voluntary solitary confinement, he must be so happy to finally see people that he just can’t keep his joy to himself. That’s sweet, I thought, and then assured him everything was perfect before continuing on my way.
Now I was sitting with Ngawang, the enthusiastic hugger, and Ngawang, the festival sponsor, and they were talking about how they’d like to find me a Sherpa dress for the festival. “I’ll have my wife give me one to bring tomorrow,” said the first. “Be careful,” warned the second, “you might look quickly and mistake her for your wife.” That got a lot of laughs and invoked a series of jokes about him taking me as a second wife. I laughed along with them – not really feeling like there was anything else I could do – but had a strange feeling that they weren’t entirely joking.
So now I’m in full Sherpa costume, being paraded around as a one-person fashion show for the amusement of all present. Both Ngawangs are surprised and stop to admire my new look, and I’m not feeling any better about the marriage jokes. I might have shed the dress and ran back up to my room for the rest of the evening if I only knew what was to come...
After lunch Sapana and I sat in the dining room, chatting. A few people got up and Ngawang the meditating monk saw us and scooted down to say hello. Somehow, slyly, the conversation was immediately turned to marriage. Ngawang told us proudly, “You see that old monk over there, spinning the mani? That’s my poppy. He’s 84. And he walked here from the monastery in Ghat!” A two hour walk involving a steep climb of 200 m (about 600 ft). Sapana and I are impressed. “You know, he had seven wives. And my grand-poppy had eighteen.” Our mouths drop. Eighteen wives? The old monk places a hand on my leg. Weird flirting and innuendos ensue. Of all the places in the world, I thought this would be the last I’d ever be subjected to such treatment. But oh, it gets worse.
After dinner Sapana and I, the slow eaters that we are, find ourselves again one of the last few people in the dining hall. The old meditating monk comes by and asks me (for the third or fourth time), “Where do you sleep?”
“At saano gumba,” I tell him, “with the little monks. Remember? Big festival. Many people here. Festival sponsor in my room. No space for me here!” I simplify and exaggerate, convincing myself he’s only asking because he somehow didn’t understand the first three times.
“No, no...you eat dinner now, you’re tired. That hill is too big. It’s late and dark. You stay here, you can stay in my room.” My mouth drops. I look at Sapana. We’re both in shock. Is he really saying this? “My room. I have two beds, two blankets. You stay here. Good for you.” I want to run away. Fast. I laugh nervously and tell him “No way, that’s a horrible thing to say.” And then I escape to the monastery, where big and little monks are hanging out and stuffing goody bags.
I stay away, far away from this old monk and prepare to slap him if he touches me again. I absolutely cannot believe that, as the most senior lama in the monastery, he would dare to speak and act this way, especially in front of the other monks. I employ the monks my age as my body guards and pay them in Hershey’s Kisses I brought from Oregon. When the festival ends this dirty old monk will go home to his lodge in Phakding and won’t bother me. I certainly won’t be visiting his lodge for tea!