What was your best experience during this assignment?
My first assignment in Nepal was in 1991, and it was remarkable to see how many changes there've been since then. Thirteen years ago you had to relieve yourself outside, but now some Sherpas have toilets and privacy. Rural electricity didn't really exist for them in 1991, but many villages now have it—very convenient for a photographer who needs to recharge batteries.
The Sherpas remain pretty much in control of their own culture. They are the ones benefiting from tourism. They own many of the lodges, restaurants, and outfitters that cater to trekkers. There is even a Sherpa-owned helicopter company with Sherpa pilots who fly trekkers into the hiking regions.
What was your worst experience during this assignment?
The Sherpas have gone through a lot of changes, and I think they are losing part of their cultural heritage because of it. Many have become extremely wealthy, and the "in" thing to do is to send their kids to boarding school in Kathmandu. Some mothers see them for only four to six weeks out of the year, and the grandparents have very little contact with them anymore. The children are in boarding school during some of the major holidays, so they miss certain cultural and religious ceremonies, and that's a sad thing.
As the world grows smaller, cultures with individuals who are savvy enough to be good business people will find ways to get ahead, but their traditions could be hurt in the long run. By the same token, it's not fair for them to be inundated by 20,000 visitors and not see any benefit from it.
What was the oddest experience that you encountered during this assignment?
Tourism took off in the mid-1960s after the airport was built in Lukla, and it has grown every year since then. In 1991 there were 17,000 visitors. Two years ago that number was nearly 26,000. So the local residents are a lot wealthier than they were 11 or 12 years ago, and now they're starting to diversify their businesses. They've put in satellite and Internet services. Instead of just offering a hotel room, they offer a hotel room with a restaurant, satellite service, and Internet service. They're making more money now from the same number of visitors. There are Sherpas who own cell phones and charge Americans four dollars a minute to call home.