KATHMANDU - When there are gatherings in our valley, the women sit with the women and the men sit with the men, and the children tear about evading adult arms that reach out to obstruct their fun. The men form a long line on low benches along the front wall of the house, patriarchs sitting at the end closest to the fireplace with the wide-legged weariness of ageing masculinity; down through the established householders with their roars of laughter, past the young fathers bouncing sticky toddlers on their laps, through the self-conscious new and prospective grooms, to the awkward youths who cram together and snicker and mutter and jostle each other.
Everyone wears down jackets.
In such a line as this, a gambler would have good odds that any man, picked at random, has stood atop of Everest; chances better still that he has been partway up the mountain a dozen times only to return to Base Camp, collect another load, and head off to cross the treacherous icefall again. What elsewhere is extraordinary-the raw material that can be spun into charitable foundations, movie rights, pub boasts and motivational speaking tours-is quotidian in the villages of Thame Valley. Even our monks shed their deep red robes in spring and come back snow-burnt, the marks of sun goggles etched pale across their cheekbones and their lips chapped flaking white with bleeding crimson cracks.
When I finished high school and left Kathmandu for university in New Zealand, I was conditioned for the reactions my last name would elicit. "They ask how many kilos you can carry," says every Sherpa who has ever travelled abroad. But I was caught by a more common response: "Shuuurpa," in the muted antipodean accent, "Seriously? That's AWESOME!"
It is something to behold, the open-hearted enthusiasm that the Sherpa name elicits in the western mind. It is (as every random company that has capitalised on it well knows) the branding motherlode-stimulating a vague positive association founded on six-odd decades of mountaineering mythbuilding. I wondered what deep, subconscious connections, what snippets of information, what flashes of imagery were being evoked.
"Awesome" how? I came to ask myself. More importantly, "awesome" for whom? Uncharitably, I imagined them imagining themselves as conquering heroes, assisted by a legion of Sherpa faithful ready-and cheerful-to lay down sweat and lives in service for arduous, but ultimately noble and glorious, personal successes. Still, it is undeniable that, in "post"-colonial democracies where ethnic minorities carry the burden of insidious and vicious prejudices at every turn, Sherpas are fortunate. Everyone loves us, everyone trusts us, and everyone wants their own collectable one of us. Internet listsicles call us 'badass' and we have a very large, very coveted piece of real estate in our back yard. It is a stereotype, sure, but a positive one.