The room is fairly small, and compared with the summer blaze outside, one wouldn’t call it very bright either. There are tiny wooden tables all around us, each with four chairs. Arushi and I fill two chairs alongside the window facing north. The curtains are open; a gentle breeze constantly collides against our bodies, diluting the quiet unrest of the situation. Our fingers play with the ceramic cups in front of us, feeling the ancient mantras engraved on their surfaces. Our eyes, though, are focused beyond the carved window.
“Dorje Lakpa – six thousand, nine hundred and sixty-six meters, Ray. That is five thousand meters higher than where we live,” Arushi mumbles, her eyes focused on the pyramidal mountain peak visible from the little restaurant. “And look, yet so humble.”
“You’re getting all poetic again, Rushi,” I say, turning the pages of the giant atlas. Hardly moving, she flicks a strand of her curly hair behind her ear, her eyes still penetrating the stone wall on the horizon.
“The view is more than worth a poem,” she replies.
It had snowed the previous night, blanketing it all in a hypnotic glow of white. Stranded in a valley, all we can do is watch. And talk.
“I wonder how it feels, Ray, setting my hair free in the cold air, ah! Very romantic, don’t you think? By the way, did you know that the wind in Namche is sometimes so strong that you can’t hear your own voice?”
“Yeah, you’d also be frozen solid,” Dolma interrupts the poetic ramblings, much to my delight. Her tiny body is covered in clothes one might see in a culture museum or a Sherpa documentary. Smiling, she takes an empty chair at the table, not bothering to ask permission. “And the hair thing isn’t nearly as romantic as it sounds, nani, especially if it’s curly.”
“Tashidele Nihau,” we greet her in our broken Sherpa.
In response, she lets her lips stretch a bit more, asking, “How is the culture presentation coming together, kids?” The gentle, flavored tone of her speech is something we have grown accustomed to, perhaps even fallen in love with over the past few months.
“All is well, Dolma.”
“That’s good, yes, very good. What do you want to learn today?”
Arushi flips through her notebook. “We haven’t begun the food section. How about traditional Sherpa meals?”
Dolma smiles. “Well, you already know that the staples are barley and corn; they form most of our festive meals, too, along with the meat of sheep and goats.”
“Spare us the details of that one!” our voices burst together, half joking. Raised in a strict environment of the Brahmin caste, we are vegetarians, and the thought of having meat is unpleasant to say the least. This surprises Dolma – she is still annoyed that we refused to try her “absolutely heavenly” Tongba beer.
“Other than that,” she continues, “there are boiled potatoes with yam, mostly in winter but sometimes-”
“Yam?” I interrupt. “You can’t possibly grow yams here, can you?”
Dolma laughs. “Why not? It makes pretty good breakfast throughout the year and even lunch and dinner during extreme cold. I even have them on my menu here!”
Though not genuinely interested to try boiled yams, we understand her implications. “We’d love to try them, in that case,” Arushi says with a grin. These words work magic on Dolma, who quickly leaves for the kitchen, excited for reasons we can’t fathom.
Arushi turns back to the window to take photos of the mountain with her phone. I think about all the secrets Dolma has let slip while telling us about the Sherpa lifestyle – how she was born beneath Everest in the mountain village of Namche Bazarr, and how she was married off to a stranger at the age of 16. How she’d run away, settling here with a restaurant in a place so different from her roots. We can only imagine the courage it must have taken to leave her husband after 10 years of childless marriage and abuse, to forget the mountain air she had loved dearer than her own soul, to start her life over again.
“I came here because I like tall people,” she sometimes claims, waving her five-foot body clumsily in the air. “I almost ran off with a Dutch guy once. Did you know they’re the tallest in the world?” Occasionally, she comes up with even more outrageous reasons for leaving her Himalayan town. “The air is so thin there, you can hardly breathe!” “This scar came from a yak – it brushed my arms with its tail when I was six.” “I named the restaurant after the mountain outside the window, kids, not my husband!”
There is nothing to be ashamed of, we want to tell her. It is okay to live for yourself, Dolma, you can’t keep waiting for frozen soil to melt. You deserve better than an isolated restaurant at the top of a snowless hill. Stop this fruitless running from your past. Embrace yourself!
Everything about her betrays her true feelings. Her voice, her language, the way she subconsciously sings in unheard languages – all spill out the intense longing she has in her heart to go home. Namche is yours, too, Dolma, we want to tell her. Do not keep yourself three thousand meters below happiness only because it still shelters the man who robbed you of everything.
“Maybe, you’d enjoy Namche more if you went there now? You know, since so much has changed … and this place isn’t really enjoyable,” we sometimes cautiously suggest.
Dolma does not realize that our culture project, along with the study of the socio-cultural attitude toward women in the high Himalayas, has already been replaced by something of far greater significance. We want her to be happy.
After a while, Dolma returns with a tray, interrupting the silence. She carefully places plates on the table, piled with slices of boiled yam. “Just have a piece!” she exclaims, unable to hide her grin.
The yam, though served with absolutely nothing at all, is an unexpected surprise. It is creamy, sweet, and has the most wonderful aroma. Almost as though Dolma is trying to put her own childhood on a plate, it is full of everything, this little vegetable. Completely perfect, even where it shouldn’t belong.
“See the taste now, Ray?” she asks excitedly. “Brought fresh from the mountain, these delicacies take a full year to form beneath the soil. The way they make us wait! But in the end, they make our winters worth the cold. Ah, wonderful times!”
These unconscious wisdoms often drip from Dolma’s lips, making us wonder if she is right – that the present, when dealt with patiently, is actually worth the winter to follow. Maybe if she surrounds herself with memories, even a daughter of the mountains can make peace with a life in a snow-deprived valley. “Distances aren’t always awful,” she reassures us. “And I can live here happily. I choose to.”
She has seen yams growing in frozen soil, and she can see herself blossoming here as well. “Anyway, somebody outside the Sherpa community needs to taste my Tongba beer!” she giggles, playfully mocking us.
We leave smiling, excited for another lesson next week.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.