“We were almost immediately overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the local people.”
By Taru Jaroszynski
Nepal is a country where mountains move – quite literally. It’s also a place where you can move through mountains on foot and it takes your breath away. Avid adventurers frequently walk the Annapurna circuit or summit Everest base camp. Last year I joined a group of university students from the Sustainability Institute, South Africa to visit North Western Nepal to study rural development and environmental sustainability – as a result the Himalayan peaks and the people set me questioning my own mountain of assumptions.
Off the Beaten Track
I was visiting Nepal for 6 weeks; three of those were part of an experiential university course where we hiked through villages to study rural sustainability firsthand. Our journey was marred by delays and stopovers at very hot and humid airports, but we managed to keep our spirits high. We flew in a small plane from Kathmandu to Nepalganj and then another to Jumla – we were after all going where few tourists venture.
After landing on a tiny military airstrip in the apple-growing region of Jumla, we were almost immediately overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the local families. Farmers laden us with apples, children plied us with walnuts and grandmothers offered us chillums with toothless grins. Families even gave up their rooms so we might sleep curled on a sleeping mat protected from mosquitoes. I felt like a celebrity as I washed in the village tap under sarongs with no less than twelve children at a time sitting cross-legged and giggling at my pink faces and slippery soap action.
From there we walked to Lake Rara, the deepest and biggest lake in the Nepalese Himalayas and then, after walking through forests of birch and pine, trekked along the ridges overlooking the Kanali River to a village called Boldick in the Bajura district. The scenery is hard to describe without glib clichés and rather sappy metaphors but, in short, it fills you with awe.
Work with Nature
The houses on these mountains are built with wood, stone and mud and have no nails. It sounds funny and it took us ages to notice it but there are no nails. These houses have the most amazing views of valleys, puzzle-piece rice paddies and the Kanali River which reaches all the way to India. The river is fierce but we saw how people channeled this power to water the paddies and grind millet and flour with hydro-mills. It was sustainable, renewable energy and farming for the most skeptical among us.
Food along the Way
Our staple diet was Dal bhat (lentils, rice and vegetables) and after marveling for a few days at the amazing variation of lentils which we washed down with very sweat chai (tea made from local plants) the variation in supermarkets back home all seemed a bit excessive. I must admit, when we found eggs offered for sale along the way, we would all send up silent prayers of thanks. Meal times were sometimes quite traumatic! In Nepal it is rude to leave food on your plate. So the trick is to stop the server before they dish more than you can possibly stomach. This often involved using hand gestures and inflating your cheeks, otherwise you’d have to eat and eat and eat. Although by the time meals start, we were often famished. There is no ‘fast’ food – meal preparation starts when you arrive and it means children are sent to fields, little girls collect vegetables and wood and if you are lucky someone will milk a cow.
A Different Kind of Wealth
We walked every day. It was hot but despite the beating sun, children and women skipped past us. Every now and again some of the older school boys would stop and practice their English with us. One boy, about 16 and pretty well dressed walked with us up a hill from a beautiful waterfall to a forest. He told us about Nepal in English. He recited “Nepal is the twentieth poorest country in the world. It is very underdeveloped. The people need development”.
It jarred. As we stared down across the valleys at the houses made from local materials; farming practices that are seasonal, sustainable and deeply respectful of the environment; children who run in groups along the river and adults who laugh together overlooking views that inspire works of art, it’s hard to classify this as poverty and underdevelopment. It filled me with a terrible sense of sadness. How tragic to learn about your own country and culture in terms of its “poverty”, its “lack of”, its low GDP. Maybe he, me, the western schooling system have it all wrong, this cannot be poverty. And with that, in the mountains of Nepal, a mountain in my mind also shifted.
About the Author: A lover of the outdoors, Taru tries to spend as much time foraging, walking, cycling, running or exploring outside. Her trip to Nepal was part of a sabbatical in public policy where she tried to save the world one policy at a time. Telling stories about her adventures in Asia and now in Europe led to a little foray into blogging where she tells about her worst mishaps, of which there are many. Its all there in the Incidental Adventurer: www.incidentaladventurer.wordpress.com
All photo credits: Taru Jaroszynski