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Everyone Smiles In The Same Language

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

Everyone smiles in the same language, they say. While only a few genuinely melt our hearts. It is as if their senders’ lips part to reveal the loving soul that resides behind them.

Don’t know how I kept going. You just do. You have to, so you do Elizabeth Wein
 a man hauling a massive luggage on his back in a mountain region
Portering is a shunned trade, yet its number one lifeline into Nepal's many remote areas (photo credit: C. Burns)

Purba Sherpa has this exquisite gift. Though his life was a long, tough drag with all the perfect reasons for him to go cranky, he maintained his genuine smile. And continues to spread it among those around him generously.

A place that attracts the world but ignores its unsung heroes

Purba and his wife Lomu live in a small Nepalese village 200 km east of Kathmandu. Although it is tiny, it is world-famous. At least among hikers and mountaineers of the old school. Because Jiri used to be the gateway to the Everest region, from which endless expeditions set off, incl. Sir Edmund Hillary’s, way back in 1953.

Purba is a porter by profession. A highly shunned occupation in the eyes of many but a crucial trade with a sincere tradition regardless. Because until not long ago, portering was the country’s primary means of getting supplies into its many inaccessible areas. And those who want to scale the Himalayas wouldn’t get far without these brave souls.

In short, portering was and, in various regions, still is Nepal’s number one lifeline.

A harrowing trade that deserves respect and not pity

Being illiterate, portering seemed like the only way into temporary employment.

“I was a kid and took pride in displaying my power, especially in front of the village girls. The heavier the load, the better,” Purba recalled, mischievously grinning at me.

What started as a muscle show to impress local girls became Purba’s life. For forty years, he dragged supplies in his baskets into the backcountry of Solokhumbu, home to Mt. Everest. A neck-breaking balancing act on challenging foot trails across endless mountain ranges and thousands of meters in altitude. Year in, year out.

You’re mistaken if you think of the comforts of a well-padded backpack with broad straps and all sorts of gadgets to ease the weight.

A man carrying a huge load on his back walks across a suspension bridge
A 100-kg-load is not uncommon (photo credit: Frances Klatzel)

The load is artfully stacked in and on top of a stiff, cone-shaped basket fastened across the forehead by a single belt. And there is literally nothing that cannot be transported. Groceries, coke crates, construction materials, furniture, animals, people, etc. Provided you have the necessary physical and mental strength.

Because people like Purba perform an extreme, almost inhumane task in hauling loads of shocking size and weight up and over narrow, rocky mountain trails.

An earning that bears no mercy

The pay is a slap in the face. A few dollars a day at best which includes food, accommodation, and compensation for damaged stuff. Peanuts, considering the enormous hardship these bold, ill-equipped mountain heroes face, many of them barefoot.

No matter how meager the income was, the steady flow enabled Purba and his family to stay afloat. Both sons study abroad. And with the boys now sending money home regularly, Purba can finally retire.

“The years of laboring are over,” he sighs, touching his wife’s forearm as if for reassurance. While the back pain no longer tortures him, he is now dealing with severe asthma. “Apart from taking it easy, swallowing pills, and dividing my energy well, there is little I can do.”

A smile at last that says it's all OK

Today Purba came to the bazaar with his wife, a 30-minute stroll from home.

They had an appointment at a bustling shop that sells everything and offers photo services on the side. When we met, they stood on the sidewalk in front of the store (that also housed my hotel), sheepishly looking into a camera. Arms firmly pressed against the body and no smiles between the wrinkles of their beautiful faces.

I reminded myself that taking official pictures in Nepal is often a stiff affair.

And while this gentle couple patiently awaited the photo, we sat down and started sharing stories from our different worlds. All along, I was bewitched by their exhibited humbleness and Purba’s engaging smiles.

An older Sherpa couple smiling into the camera
A special moment with Purba and his wife in Jiri/Nepal

The last one that sailed off his sun-cracked lips before I rod away truly melted my heart. Because it understood the unique language between two timeless souls.

I waved goodbye and promised to return to the land of the many unsung heroes of Nepal’s mountain world—of whom the smiling Purba still is one.


Thank you for your time and reading! I hope you find a reason to return.

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