Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Language of Altitude

Trying to get the essence of a new language is exciting. By essence I mean being able to use a few basic and useful words and phrases like “hello”, “goodbye”, “I would like some really good coffee please”, “where is the toilet”, and “I need to vomit”. With these five basic phrases you can get by in almost any situation.

Our first night on the road in the Khumbu Valley. The rooms at Phakding are basic and un-heated, although they are “ensuite”, which is to say that there is a tiny bathroom pod that hangs out over a babbling mountain stream and accommodates a conventional toilet pan, a shower and a basin. Quite what happens to the waste water from any of these appliances is open to conjecture. We have our evening meal and relax around an electric fan heater – the last such decadence we see for the next 12 nights. It is very cold and wet, and could be miserable if we let it be.

"Our first night on the road." Dramatic backdrop to some
wonderfully basic architecture.

Hari and I start the inevitable – “lets start speaking Nepalese in twelve minutes flat.” We laugh a lot and I learn very little, even though I slavishly note down words in my note book. At least I try, but between my dreadful writing and Haris’ thick accent and his dreadful writing I end up with a spiders web of dodgy phonetics with lots of double consonants.

We however sort out “Hallo” – Namaste; and “Goodbye” – Namaste. Well that’s simple enough and very sensible; an exchange designed especially for idiot foreigners. 

“Thank you” is Dhanebhat, and for some reason this simple word eludes me for days to come and as for “You’re welcome” (or “it’s an absolute pleasure old chap” in standard English) which is Suwagatham – if I understand Haris’ script correctly, still eludes me, although Kevin managed successfully to reduce it to sugarmouth for convenience.

An endearing moon faced child and her equally endearing
Mum. Hari, despite looking smug is no relation.

This intensive language lesson is happening while Kevin is chatting to a lone (and obviously wealthy) Canadian on her second gap year and Lavern is chatting to the owner of the Tea House who is nursing the most endearing moon-faced child.

Hari and I progress to exchanging kiSwahili pole pole (the language of Kilimanjaro) for the Nepalese bistari bistari; both meaning “slowly slowly” and used in the context of moving about at high altitude. “Tea” is Chiya in Nepalese not so far away from Chi in kiSwahili. This must be one of the most universal words in the world – other than “Okay”, a couple of very familiar Anglo-Saxon swear-words, and “Nelson Mandela”.

Phakding "Main Street". Our first stop. Bhim
is skulking in the far doorway. The donkey
has nothing to do with any of us.
“Coffee” is coffee, which is also usefully global.

Then we get onto sex, or should I say gender. “Woman” is Kate, and “Man” is Manchhe. At least I think so, because these notes are covered with many crossings out and are largely obscured by coffee stains. “Baby” is Bachha, - another interesting array of double consonants. “ I'm fine” is Tichha, and delightfully “Bye Bye” is Ta-ta.

But it is Manchhe that sticks – or rather Budo Manchhe. Hari says “You Budo Manchhe.” “No,” I respond “I’m Thaneri Manchhe, like you” demonstrating my new found command of the Nepalese language and my understanding of the difference between “young” and “old”. “No, no” he giggles “No, no, Budo Mancche” and emphasizes his assessment of my age with a painful punch on the shoulder. Across the room our two porters, Bhim and Junior (not yet known as Kharabir) grin broadly and obsequiously intone “Budo Manchhe”. And from then on Budo Manchhe becomes a mantra. I should feel like a god – but have become an Old Age Pensioner!

En-route between Pangboche and  Dingboche trying to take my mind off breathing I was mentally repeating the Nepalese  words we had come across so far. Not on the face of it a difficult task given the very few I could remember. Passing a diminutive Sherpa couple each bowed under a load of vast proportions I cheerfully gasped out “Namche” by way of greeting. My only defence is that we had been trekking in the neighbourhood of a truly unforgettable place called Namche Bazzar and that this word had obviously lodged itself firmly in the left hemisphere of my brain and shoved - Namaste - the word of greeting, to one side.

En-route between Pangnoche  and Dingboche . . " The site
of a terrible language faux pas.
This then was the equivalent of greeting someone in Paris (France) by saying “Paris”, or someone in London (England) by saying “London”. In the former instance you would be ignored entirely and in the latter instance you would of course rightly be arrested for gross invasion of privacy. Say “New York” to someone in New York (USA) and you will be charged with terrorism and confined to Guantanamo Bay for a life time. Likewise say “Alice Springs” to someone in Alice Springs (Australia) you could end up with a very fat lip or a broken jaw.

For me in Nepal the embarrassment was equal to all the above because there is nothing more mocking than the sound of derisory tubercular laughter echoing around the mountain fastness of a place, near a place called “Namche” and rightly not called “Namaste".

"Budo Manchhe becomes a mantra" Hari and Bhim hold up
an old age pensioner just before the climb up the "hill" to
Namche Bazzar.

1 comment:

  1. This was fabulous! I love how you're so willing to immerse yourself in the culture, the people and their lives. Namaste!


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