Originally created 05/26/98

Members of Himalayan ethnic group flock to U.S.



NEW YORK -- Gelmu Sherpa closes her eyes and gently sways to the ethereal chimes of Tibetan music, surrounded by Buddhist prayer flags, ceremonial cymbals and beaded jewelry.

"It reminds me, when I play this, of all the mountains. I can see everything," she said. "It's so clean. The air and the water is so clean."

But instead of her tiny village in the remote reaches of the Himalayas, Mrs. Sherpa is in her cubbyhole of a Buddhist artifacts store on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

In the past few years there has been a mini-boom in the U.S. population of Sherpas, a people known more for guiding climbers up Mount Everest than for negotiating New York City traffic.

Community leaders estimate there are about 600 Sherpas in this country, a tiny number but probably the world's third-largest Sherpa population after the estimated 25,000 Sherpas in the Himalayas, mostly in Nepal, and several thousand more in Darjeeling, India.

Most of them live in New York, with others scattered around California, Colorado and the Seattle area. In late winter, during Lhosar, the Sherpa New Year, almost every Sherpa in the United States and Canada travels to New York for the festivities.

"Most of us are like relatives, cousins. It's like a big family," Mrs. Sherpa said.

They were attracted to the United States by opportunities for work and education.

"The world has become smaller now, a lot of people know more about the U.S.," said Dhamey Norgay, a 28-year-old Sherpa who helps coordinate private disaster relief efforts.

Norgay is the youngest son of perhaps the most famous Sherpa, the late Tenzing Norgay, who accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on the first successful ascent of Everest 45 years ago this month.

Norgay came to America in 1990 to go to college, but he longs to return to the mountains he hiked with his father.

"You spend most of your life up at 6,000-7,000 feet, even the schools up there are more open," he said. "Being in the city, you feel just like getting out sometimes."

But while he's here, he can watch his brother and two other climbers scale the world's tallest mountain in the IMAX movie "Everest."

About 500 years ago, Sherpas migrated from Tibet to the remote reaches of the Himalayas in what is now Nepal.

They toiled as traders and farmers in the thin mountain air, until a boom in the popularity of Himalayan trekking turned them into sophisticated guides hobnobbing with wealthy foreign tourists.

"There are a lot of Sherpas who have become very cosmopolitan, very modern. They were introduced to a very elite culture that comes to them from all over the world," said Vincanne Adams, an assistant professor of anthropology at Princeton University who has studied Sherpas since 1982.

At the same time, Sherpas' educational opportunities took off with the opening of remote mountain schools funded by a foundation set up by Hillary.

Many Sherpa guides came to the United States to work for hiking outfitters, and many educated Sherpas were drawn by the lure of challenges and profits they couldn't find in Nepal.

"They're good workers," Adams said in a phone interview from Tibet. "They tend to have no trouble getting jobs."