Thursday, 26 May 2011

The wisdom of Michelle O

Dressed in a white tunic, black pants and a major gold belt – together with her black eye-liner, looking just a little bit 60s – Michelle Obama offered some career and relationship wisdom to a group of schoolgirls from inner city London (just up the road from here) who were visiting Oxford University. Who wouldn't want this wonderful woman on speed dial for all of life's crises?

“People sometimes questioned whether someone with my background could succeed at an elite university. And when I was accepted at one of those universities, I had all kinds of worries and fears and doubts. I worried that I wouldn’t be as well prepared as students who had come from more privileged families; I worried that I wouldn’t fit it somewhere so different from where I’d grown up.

"But after a few months, in college away from home on my own I realised that I was just as capable, and I just as much to offer [as] any of my classmates. I realised that if I worked hard enough I could do just as well as anyone else. I realised that success is not about the background you’re from, it’s about the confidence that you have, and the effort you’re willing to invest. You just have to work hard, that’s it. You have to push yourself. That’s the only thing. This doesn’t come easy.”

And on her husband, she said:

“I knew he was a special person. And it had nothing to do with his education, it had nothing to do with his potential. There are a lot of women who [to tick] the boxes – did he go to the right school? What is his income? It was none of that. It was how he felt about his mother. The love that he felt for his mother. His relationship to women. His work ethic.

"We worked together in a firm. He did his work, and he was good. And he was smart. And I liked that. And he was low key, and he wasn’t impressed with himself. And he was funny. And we joked a lot. And he loved his little sister.

"And he was a community organiser. I really respected that. Here we are in a big law firm, right, and everybody was pushing to make money. He was one of the smartest students at Harvard Law School, one of the smartest associates in our firm. He had the chance to clerk for the Supreme Court. And I thought – well, you’re definitely gonna do that, right? Only a few people have the chance to do that.

"And he was like, nah, not really. I think I can do more work working with folks in churches. And I was like, whoa, that’s different. And he meant it. It wasn’t a line, he wasn’t trying to impress me. It was those kind of values that made me think, you don’t meet people like that often. And when you couple that with talent and, he’s cute... You know, I always thought he would ... be useful [she laughs].

"But I had no idea he would be President. I didn’t think he was going to be President until the night we were standing on the stage and he actually won, you know. I was like, God, whoa, you won.

"The lesson for women is reach for partners that make you better. Trust your instincts. Good relationships feel good. They feel right. They aren’t painful. Do not bring people into your life who weigh you down.”

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Himalayan porters

One of the more unsettling sights you see while trekking in Nepal's Khumbu Valley is the steady stream of porters carrying extraordinary loads on their backs. There are no roads, and no transport other than yak – small planes land at airstrips lower down the valley, but higher up, they're strictly for emergencies only. So these human white vans keep the trekking lodges, the local markets and the wealthy teams at Base Camp supplied with food, drink, construction materials and other essentials.

The porters – small, wiry and weathered – have straps across their heads to take some of the weight off their backs, and small wooden walking sticks that double as bottom rests. Bent almost double, they trudge past, one tiny step at a time.

We saw mountains of toilet roll, sheets of plywood, crates of beer, roll matting, plastic basins, lemon drink, kerosene, enormous wooden planks as large as a crucifix, plumbing pipes 12 feet long and, once, a generator. Most wear flimsy plimsolls or sandals. One person had bare feet. The terrain is rough, the altitude punishing, and the mountainsides steep.

But the larger the loads, the better the pay. So it makes sense to carry as much as you can, goes the logic.
Some loads are more lucrative than others. These blue plastic barrels are toilets headed for Base Camp. Lined with a plastic bag, topped with a Western seat and placed inside a tarpaulin, they make for a surprisingly pleasant loo-going experience, considering.

A porter carrying a full barrel of poo will earn 150 rupees (about £1.20) per kg. At 60kg per barrel, that's 9,000 rupees – a good wage in Nepal. Any porter lucky enough to get the gig overseeing the transportation of an entire Everest expedition's excrement for three months can earn $2,500.

Struggling with my own meagre backpack, these porters seemed superhuman – and medieval. But they brought the Everest experience into sharp relief. For every rugged, moneyed mountain climber seeking glory on the summit, there's a porter who has to has to carry their shit back down the mountain. And there's very little glamour in that.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011


These Buddhist monks live in a monastery in Tengboche, Nepal – a tiny settlement on top of a ridge with breathtaking views of Everest and Ama Dablam (the large lump in the background, below). Even they appreciate the outlook: I spotted one peering up the valley through his binoculars, although he could have been birdwatching.

The monastery, or gompa, is richly decorated. Tourists are allowed inside the main hall, or lha-khang, twice a day to watch the monks chanting. Silk banners hang from the ceiling, the walls are ornate and colourful, and a large, bright Buddha oversees proceedings.

Early morning and evening the monks, who have dedicated their lives to the monastery, take roost like chickens on two sets of benches, facing one another. Some are little more than teenagers. They wrap themselves in fleece-lined capes to keep warm and start to chant.

The sound is a low drone with mumbled articulations, that lasts around five minutes before coming to an abrupt halt. This is followed by tea sipping, poured from a flask by a monk, slurping, yawning, ear-picking and glancing around the room at the tourists. Then the chanting begins again.

Tengboche was one of my favourite places in the Himalayas, perhaps because it's reached from either side by a very steep climb. Or perhaps because of its very good bakery. But perhaps it was the monks, who showed me the true meaning of dedication.

Sonam Sherpa

Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa lives in Namche Bazaar, a small, horseshoe-shaped town perched on a mountain high up in Nepal's Khumbu Valley, where the air is thin. Crows caw-caw loudly, yaks stroll through the streets, and the chink-chink-chink of hammer on stone is a constant soundtrack.

Namche is a popular stop-off for trekkers to acclimatise before pushing up the valley to Everest Base Camp, and beyond. We spent three days there breathing the sharp air and eating apple pie.

Unfortunately, I didn't take a digital picture of Namche, but this is the view up the valley from a short, steep path above town. That's the peak of Everest (behind a cloud).

Sonam is a historian of Sherpa culture and an excellent photographer. He is slight, with expressive eyes and a high-pitched, schoolboy giggle. With his wife, he runs a lodge for trekkers with two rudimentary museums attached: one documenting Sherpa culture, the other a history of climbing Mt Everest.

This is him as a beautiful 16-year-old boy.

And this is his matinee idol-handsome father, Sonam Girmi Sherpa, who undertook 37 expeditions to Everest during his lifetime.

When he was 19, Sonam junior contracted meningitis while making his way on foot, and by truck, to Kathmandu to embark on an engineering course at university. He woke up in hospital, deaf. He was sent to the best ear specialists in the US and London, but no-one could do anything for him.

The event changed the course of his life. He decided he had to do something his disability would allow. And he felt a deep desire to document the fast-changing lifestyle of his people, the Sherpa (the name given to people who live in this region of Nepal).

Communicating with a profoundly deaf man whose first language isn't English – although it is very good – is a challenge. But we managed through lip-reading (him), hand gestures (me) and scribbling on a pad (both of us).

"Where did you take this photo?" I asked. "OFF TRACK. ALMOST NO TOURIST" was the written reply, delivered with a wide smile and a twinkle in his eye.