By Dawne Belloise
Namkha Sherpa walks in gratitude and radiates grace despite the many hardships he’s endured this past year. As a Nepalese living so far from his family and culture, he feels Crested Butte is very much his home, and the community has shown him unconditional love and support.
Namkha grew up in the tiny village of Chheplung, Nepal, a five-day trek on the path to the Mt. Everest base camp and a half mile from Lukla airport. His parents were Sherpas and farmers, growing potatoes, beans, cauliflower and pumpkins, and he was only seven when he began his agricultural chores. At over 9,800 feet in elevation, Namkha explains that his district, Sololukhumbu, is actually warmer in the summer than Crested Butte and gets far less snow, so they are able to grow more of a variety of vegetables and food.
When he was old enough, he became a porter for his family’s guide business, carrying supplies and bags, fixing ropes, and making sure the trail was clear for the trekkers and climbers. He worked as a guide for nine years, learning English from the people he took high up into the Himalayas.
Namkha first came to the United States in 2006 for his uncle’s wedding in Boulder, where his uncle owns the popular Sherpa’s restaurant. There was political upheaval in Nepal at the time, as the Maoists were wreaking havoc on Nepal’s tourism industry by extorting money from trekkers and guides. Namkha got his visa through Germany since the unrest had closed the U.S. Embassy in his country. But after spending 25 days in Boulder, he was homesick and returned to Nepal.
A year later, Namkha’s other uncle, Chhongba Sherpa, invited him to Crested Butte. Chhongba had come to Crested Butte via Dave Penny, who had employed him as a guide while trekking Nepal. Namkha secured his U.S. working permit, boarded a plane, and flew back to Colorado with the intention of supporting his family.
He pointed out that although Nepal is wonderful, the economics are horrific, lacking in both jobs and money, and there were still destabilizing political issues. Now, however, the Maoists who were extorting tourists are part of the government, and the turmoil through the years had taken its toll on the tourism, trekking and climbing industry, which the Nepalese depended on for their livelihood.
When Namkha arrived here that June, he immediately felt a similarity between his home in Nepal and Crested Butte, with the snow-covered mountains and prayer flags blowing from so many houses in the spring breeze. His first job was bussing tables at the Secret Stash and his second job was painting buildings. In the winters, he prepped in the kitchen at the Avalanche on the mountain. After ten years, Namkha is still working those three jobs, and is now the supervisor for the paint crew. He works nonstop, no time off, seven days and seven nights a week.
He married in Kathmandu, an arranged marriage through the parents in accordance with traditional Nepalese customs. He and his wife, Pema, had their first child, daughter Tshering, two years before he left for America. Tshering was disabled from two days old, having been given an injection of either bad antibiotics or the wrong medicine entirely by an unknowledgeable doctor in the hospital.
Namkha came to the States to make enough money to support his family and continuing care for his daughter. His son, Chhumi, was born a year and a half after Tshering; both children were named traditionally by Buddhist monks.
The current earnings of most Nepalese workers in their country is $3,500 a year. Except for living expenses, Namkha sends his earnings home, not only to his wife and children, but also for his parents and two sisters, supported solely on his wages. It is the Nepalese way.
The responsibility of supporting his family back in Nepal has come with a price. Working more than full time, he hadn’t seen his family for more than nine years. He had never seen his son, now nine and a half years old, except for the times the family could Skype, call or use online social media. This is the life of an immigrant, he smiles, in his accepting and humble way. It is a difficult path, but Namkha takes joy in life, his responsibilities, his friends, family and the beauty that he sees daily.
A year ago in April 2015, as Nepal was hit with a devastating earthquake, claiming the lives of thousands and leveling villages into rubble, Namkha’s community was one of those destroyed, along with neighboring villages. The U.S. government helped with temporary relief for those Nepalese living in America, and Namkha qualified for the special program and travel permit, allowing him to return for the first time in almost a decade.
He arrived in May 2016, almost a year after the temblor hit. His adopted hometown, Crested Butte, stepped up, as this community always does in times of need, to raise money for Namkha’s village. Twenty local businesses sponsored the donation boxes. Irwin Guides donated 280 high-quality winter coats. Others came forth with whatever they could.
His good friend, local Ian Hatchett, helped him coordinate the efforts and they raised $15,000 from the community, and one of Hatchett’s guide clients donated the air miles for Namkha’s plane ticket.
Of the 75 houses destroyed in his Nepalese home, the funds helped rebuild 25 houses, a temporary school and school supplies for 52 kids in the village Bini down valley, as well as some of the teahouses, which will help rebuild the lost tourist trade. Namkha explains that the cost to rebuild one normal house is $4,000. He’s relieved to see that after a year conditions are getting better and it’s normalizing somewhat as they wait for the tourists to return.
But Namkha, in his calm demeanor, admits that 2015 to 2016 was an extremely difficult and dark year for him. After the news of the earthquake, while the wheels were turning to get him a travel visa, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and began the harsh chemo treatments. Then, in an unexpected tragedy, his 11-year-old daughter passed away before he could get home, just four months ago.
The Crested Butte community embraced Namkha. His bosses, Kyleena Falzone and Todd Barnes, lovingly handed him another $2,000, while locals poured out more love and support and another $3,000 to help with expenses after his daughter’s death. His daughter was memorialized in the traditional Nepalese ceremony and pyre. Namkha returned for his daughter’s funeral and he and his wife decided to donate those funds to orphans and organizations that support disabled children in Kathmandu.
He hopes to bring his wife and son back to the United States someday, but he says it’s very expensive, especially with the housing situation and the cost of living in Crested Butte, which he feels is his hometown now. Though his mind wanders back to Nepal, Namkha says, “I’m happy here, so very happy here. I owe so much thanks to the Crested Butte community, for showing love and helping. I’m really proud to be part of this community and very proud to be here. Maybe when I’m old, I’d like to go back to Nepal, sharing time between there and Crested Butte.”