Saturday, January 19, 2008

Recollection from a Tongba Bar

Something like 2,000 people have summitted Mt. Everest, with 200 or so deaths. It would be interesting to know how many of the survivors have lost parts of fingers, toes, ears, and noses along the way1.

The typical modern Everest climber has got enough money to pay the government for the necessary permits, and an agency to supply Sherpas and equipment. Depending on the arrangement, the cost could go as high as $100,000 for one shot at the summit.

Certainly, the experience is a huge challenge, and anyone who pulls it off is worthy of some respect. On the other hand, there are any number of summits that offer greater tests of athleticism, technique, perspicacity, and courage. Annapurna boasts a 50% death rate, and K2 isn't far behind. So one has got to suspect that, for many, the urge to conquer Everest derives partially from a need to acquire bragging rights, write a book, or present a slide show at the Rotary Club2.

Anticipating a future jaunt up Mera Peak, not far from Everest, I recollect a tongba bar in Kathmandu in 1995. The memory is rough, but there might have been four rickety tables, with peeling veneers, and a fat old Tibetan woman preparing the drink. Unlike the pic in Wikipedia, the tongba would be served in plastic buckets. There were only a handful of folks in the joint, but one of them was Ang Rita Sherpa. He was a bit of a celebrity, as he held the world record for most Everest summits at that time. Impressively, none of the summits required supplemental oxygen. My gurung friend Shyambu translated his words for me, and it seems that Ang Rita, national hero, was being stiffed out of a promised pension for Nepali national heroes. I'd guess that the stiffing somehow related to the ever-changing political landscape in Nepal. The guy appeared aged, but he was 47 years old at the time, dousing his woes.

Perhaps the guy finally got his pension. But I find the contrast between Ang Rita and the Rotary Club PowerPoint heroes to be conspicuous.

By the way, Tongba is unique and tasty. The fermentation goes on inside millet seeds. After the appropriate period of fermentation, you put the seeds in a container (usually the aforementioned plastic bucket), pour hot water into the container, and drink the brew through a bamboo straw that filters out all the seeds. The alcohol content is low (3%?), but you can get plenty pissed when you imbibe from a bucket, ordering refills as necessary.

1. Searching "climbing boots" on E-bay, I found one entry for "Millet Everest" boots offering the following enticement for dishing out the $300 bid: You'll keep your toes.

2. Here's a website that specializes, apparently, in hooking your organization up with an "Everest Speaker": !

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