So what, says I, I want the sonofabitch and I don”t need any fucking advice from you.
The three of us had been trekking for 6 days from the Chinese road where we had been hauled in a elaborately painted truck featuring mostly strangely endowed women in what might pass for 1930’s bathing suits surrounded by lotuses and dhorjis. On the trail we were not roughing it, in addition to seven Sherpa porters, a cook and a guide, Nema Chorta, who spoke a sort of English and who assured us daily that, “we are not afraid”.
What that said for his past experience we never found out and never will because he died in all too common bus accident some 20 years later in 1988. Meanwhile back on the trail my two companions were of the opinion that I should leave the Mane stone where it was. Now a little background, I was at that time, among other things a collector-dealer in various kinds of antiquities that struck my artistic fancy. I had been doing this whenever my roamings had brought me into contact with the unique beauties of the world since the late forties and this did not always mean antiquities. We had passed these particular Mane stones by the thousands at every dangerous pass or bridge or wind-swept summit. They were etched with Sanskrit calligraphy with the Buddhist prayer, Om Mane Padme Hum. Of all sizes, shapes, composition and character. Struck by their strange and rustic beauty,I wanted one quite early in the expedition and would often lag behind examining them for the one I would have. I must have seen thousands of them by the time we reached Jumbesi, an ancient stone village perched on many terraces going steeply down to the Dud Khosi river and it was there I saw it. Perched on a shelf in back of the Ghomba, the temple, it was exposed to the elements as were the piles of carvings in schist and granite for who knows how many years. It was granite and pear shaped and had the Highly prized Lenza Calligraphy coiled like a snake around it. The figures were as beautifully and carefully carved as if it was done by ancient Egyptians. It was about 4 feet high and weighed around 160 pounds. I calculated how many porters, at 75cents a day, it would take to get it back to Katmandu. Easy-peasy!
When we had assembled our camp on the wind-swept terrace close to the Ghomba, I approached Nema for his advice on how to get the Mane stone back to Katmandu on our way home.
-There are too many Mane stones on the way we are going Sahib, forget this one it is much trouble to get this one. I will get you another one.-
-Nema, I want this one, I have seen many along the way and this one I will have-
-Okay, I will ask the lama what we can do-
-The roof tiles on the Ghomba are very worn and I could pay to have them covered with gold again so they would be beautiful once more.-
-Yes, sahib, I will talk to the lama.-
In the morning, Nema Chorta took me aside and told me that the lama had said if I would pay a Thangka painter to repaint the big dragon-filled painting at the entrance to the Ghomba as well as putting new gold leaf on the roof, that I could take it. At this point in our conversation, Nema hesitated. He continued.
-All the people have to agree to let it go. We will only know when we return. Not to worry, we will find another at my home.-
-Why would they care, there are dozens in the pile behind the Ghomba.-
-Sahib, these people are country people, they are superstitious.-
So we packed up all our gear, the porters helped one another to load the big wicker baskets full of food and supplies, that served as packs with the final adjustment of the strap that went across the forehead. I often looked at these wonderful cheerful Sherpa people and thought that I would actually prefer to be in a jail cell than to be a free man and get up in the dark freezing morning, eat a few handfuls of last night’s cold rice and step out barefoot onto the steep trail lugging about 80 pounds, day after day. It seemed to me that something had prepared them for whatever might come and they never developed the propensity to complain or even to judge what is better or worse. As for the three sahibs, we were all in quite good condition and all we carried were small field packs with a good number of tangerines, some chocolate bars and maybe a camera. Still it took us about 5 hours to catch up to our train since Nema prepared our breakfast after the porters left, of rice with some greens, cups of tea with 2 or 3 tablespoons of sugar and a few potatoes spiced with fiery chili. Off we went, every day a wonderful crisp November morning with clear skies and the most breathtaking mountains all around us. When we reached one of the many passes I would scout out the Mane stones and though there were many, none were anywhere near as special as “my mane stone”. Standing on a vantage point, Nema would point out the far away ridge that was the grayest of the layers of ridges that changed from green to blue to violet to gray like cardboard cutouts one behind the other. Then he made his morning pronouncement. -We are not afraid!-
One of the things Nema meant was the weather was something to be afraid of here in the Himalayan winter and we had been lucky. Sunny days every day all of November and December. Our luck held even though I had thrown some bones into the fire. Very bad! It surely makes rain or snow. We are not afraid.
By the time we reached the Khumbu valley in the shade of Chomolungma I had had it with looking for Mane stones. I got Nema aside and said to him;
-Send one of the porters back to Jumbesi and tell the lama that when we come back thru there in a couple of weeks that I will do what he wants and to tell the people of the valley that I am a good Buddhist and want the stone to mark my ashes in San Francisco.-
Two weeks later we arrived back to Jumbesi and before we climbed that last long grade to the ghomba, There was the lama and two other monks coming towards us. He soon told me that all was in order and I could leave with the stone tomorrow morning when there would be a pujha ceremony to send the stone off.
We went around to the back of the temple and there stood “my mane stone” standing on its shelf amongst the many others. Nema came around with Big Stoop, as we called him, the biggest and strongest of the porters, a Tibetan and not the smartest, and one other strong Sherpa. They had with them, three woven mats which they positioned under the shelf and behind the stone. Some clouds had come up and a stiff little breeze had come upon us. Nema looked worriedly at the sky and urged the men to hurry. They clasped their arms around the stone to inch it forward onto the mats but no amount of huffing could even budge it. Nema conferred with the lama and in a little while four more men arrived with ropes, mats, poles and big baskets and of course every child in the village with there green snotty noses. They looped ropes about the object and prepared to tumble it into the baskets while Big Stoop helped by bodily pulling it. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw all this manpower unable to budge this just average sized stone. They pulled and they grunted and at last started to tip forward, but unfortunately one lasso slipped off the top and the stone banged back into place where the Tibetan’s arm was. He let out a howl and pulled it away with a significant amount of skin abraded away and dripping blood. When I had digested this drawback to my affairs, I realized that not only had it started to snow but that all of Jumbesi was in attendance. Nema suggested that perhaps we could leave the Mane stone for another day. Or year. I felt that I was the captain of this particular ship and this was approaching mutiny. I controlled my frustration and said we will try once more. And so we did but not without mishap for this time it did not fall directly into the basket without glancing off the ankle of one of the helpers from the village. He hopped and grunted bravely and was helped away, but there was a rising murmur from the onlookers. I said;
-Let’s get this out of here before they change their minds-
-Perhaps we should leave this for now.-
– Get five of our porters here and tie the stone to the poles and bring them to our tents.-
As I looked to our tents and porters coming down the short trail it became quite apparent that a snow storm was in progress, that I hadn’t noticed in the excitement.
The porters and Nema arranged the ropes and poles to sling the weight amongst four porters and commenced to heave. And heave they did, but nothing moved and I was sure they were doing this to me on purpose for there Wily Oriental reasons. And there was only ten yards to our camp. Then they mutinied. Nema said they were only ignorant farm people and refused to move it because it didn’t want to go. Then I blew it.
-OK Nema you grab those two poles and I’ll take these and we will move it in stages to the tents.-
Reluctantly, Nema took his burden and I took mine, walking backwards. It was heavy but not that heavy. At the second stage I tripped and fell backwards while Nema with his forward momentum flung the Mane stone at my head. I went unconscious only to come to with blood in my eyes and loud shots coming one after another. I cleared my eyes to see and what I saw was quite unexpected. A furious wind had come up and yanked the pegs out of the tent’s rain shield and was snapping them in the wind with explosive violence while horizontally driving snow almost obliterated the scene of the men of Jumbesi reclaiming their ropes and baskets. Nema said;
-Maybe Sahib we should not take the stone right now.-
My head hurt and I felt more than a little foolish, but next morning I felt alright and the sun was shining and the wind had died and Nema was at the tent flap with a big cup of sweet tea. Nema said we must go to Pujha and I wanted to.
As we walked yesterdays bloody pathway there was no Mane stone nor any sign. Did I imagine it. I certainly didn’t have an imaginary bandage above my eye. I walked around the back of the Ghomba but no Mane stone there.
We entered the Ghomba and when our eyes got used to the dark we could see that my Mane stone had been moved to a position of honor in the lap of the big golden Buddha and was surrounded by dozens of burning butter lamps while clouds of incense came from many bundles of smoking sticks. Ranged along one side were high ranking lamas from neighboring monasteries and along the other wall seen in semi darkness and smoke were the Tibetan musicians producing enormous sounds from instruments from hell. Trumpets from the thigh bones of monks, Large marine conchs with gold trimming and copper and brass horns 12 feet long. At times they sounded like the New York subway with all the locals and expresses coming at once This music would sound exotic and spiritual for ten minutes but for several hours it certainly did something to your head not to mention the pain in the legs and back from my constantly shifting half lotus position. It suddenly without warning stopped and I felt myself expanding in every direction. I don’t know how to describe this expansion as it included some kind of expansion of my mind. Was it only my mind? All I know is my eyes could only open to slits and the bones of my face seemed to open out. To expand! The Jumbesi lama came to me and helped me arise as my legs were sleeping. When I stood, he stood in front of me and we touched foreheads. Then he took me to the high lama and we touched heads, and down the line to the lowest lama. This was not a serious and pompous ceremony, it was accomplished with some giggling and shy responses. Believe me, when I went outside I was really stoned, elated and more than a little dizzy, but ready to go. Nema said with that special Eastern wobble of the head;
-We are not afraid-