I had been dreaming about visiting Nepal since 1979 after attending the Banff Film Festival which featured several films on trekking and climbing in Nepal. Eighteen years later this dream finally became a reality, when in 1997 I had the privilege of accompanying a group of Smithers, B.C. high school students on a month long trip to this mountainous country. Much to my surprise I would find this trip far more meaningful than going as a regular tourist, trekking a regular route through the Himalayas. We were travelling as donors to a project set up by a Canadian who had been living in Nepal for 25 years. Known as the Nepal School Projects, it helps the Nepalese people build water systems, medical posts and schools in their own villages. We were providing money for building supplies that were not available near their villages and instead of just mailing our donation we got to deliver it personally.
My nose is pressed to the window as we fly closer to this tiny country. I cant believe I am almost in Nepal. I see the terraced hillsides first--they look just like the pictures! I run to the other side of the plane to get a glimpse of the magnificent Himalayan Mountains. I am so excited I cant contain myself. Im running from side to side, leaning over strangers, a huge grin on my face! I feel like Im coming home. Maybe that dream stuffed into the corner of my brain has done something to me.
I think I am prepared for the culture shock, but nothing I have done has prepared me for the feeling of complete fascination as I peer out the bus window. We are en route to our hotel in Kathmandu. Throngs of people dressed in bright sarongs, loin cloths, turbans and robes are doing life on the streets. Cooking, washing, sleeping, selling, buying, socializing--its all happening right here. Every few blocks a water tap attracts a group of people. Some are washing dishes, some are washing their hair or brushing their teeth. Men carry huge bags of grain or even double beds down the middle of the road, right there along with the cows, goats and chickens. The streets are lined with mud and brick buildings in various stages of completion. The smells and sounds are wonderful. Wood smoke and garlic, diesel and cow dung, shouting and honking. I love it.
Two days in Kathmandu and were pros. We know our way around town--how to barter, where to eat without getting sick, and which washrooms wont make us throw-up. (theres not too many of those.) Weve been to the Buddhist Temples and watched the Tibetan Monks chanting; weve spun the prayer wheels and lit the candles. I am most fascinated with the Hindu pilgrimage site, even though as westerners were not allowed in the actual temple. Here we see holy men in saffron robes with long gray dreadlocks and painted faces as they sit in perfect yoga positions for hours. Bodies in various stages of cremation are on platforms beside the river while life goes on around them. No one had told me life could be like this. I am blown away!
Michael Rojik, the co-ordinator of the Nepal School Projects, picks us up at our hotel at 5 a.m. Our first 10 day trek is to the Mahabharat Region of Nepal and is organized by Michael (a Canadian who works for this donor sponsored project.) We, the donors, get to deliver our donation personally to the village where our $5000 will be used to build a water system.
We jostle and bounce for three hours on a bus until we reach a place where all roads end (probably only 40 km in total). Here we meet our porters and guides who are to carry our gear and hold our hands if necessary. It will take us 5 days to reach the village where our money will be put to use and 5 days to come out by a different route. Our guides and porters dont speak English, we dont speak Nepalese--but we teach each other all day long as we walk the trails, rest together, eat and camp together.
The weather is gorgeous. Every day is sunshiny and warm, while the nights are pleasantly cool. The scenery is beyond belief. We are in what is know as the hill country (9000 foot hills) and we walk up one hill and down another. Every scene is special with green terraced fields, clay huts with thatched roofs, water in irrigation ditches wind around miniature fields and spill over stone walls. A water driven flour mill looks like a scene from the past. The lovely people greet us with hands together and a short bow. "Namaste," we reply--the first word we learn in Nepalese.
We camp in or near the tiny villages along the way. Perched high on a ridge or nestled down in the valley each camp is always a new delight. On our arrival the children appear first, then the men, and finally the women. They observe us intently and are most eager to watch anyone write in their diary. It must be fascinating to witness if you yourself have never written before. In the villages that boast a school the children are enthusiastic about teaching us how to write in Sanskrit or helping us with our Nepalese pronunciations. We play games every afternoon with the children, porters and guides. Various forms of Red Rover, Duck-Duck-Goose, volleyball, soccer, and charades have us doubled over in laughter. After a while we notice its only the men playing the games, while the children watch. Everyone is joyful and its as much fun to watch as play.
We are treated like royalty by our hosts. At 5:30 a.m. we are woken with a gentle shake of the tent and a smiling guide serving us hot tea. If we are planning on moving camp that day, our only chore is to wash up and pack our small day packs with water, camera and blister paraphernalia. While we eat a delicious breakfast our tent and other gear is loaded onto the backs of our small but strong porters. We are in awe of them--running up the hills in flimsy flip flops with 100 lb. loads. We follow our guides through the countryside, past villages and farms, over rivers and passes, through rhododendron forests. By noon we find our lunch spot already prepared for us in a shady, scenic location. Now we stop for two hours to eat a full course meal, drink tea, rest and visit with any locals who might wander by. Arrival in camp is no later than 4 p.m., just in time for tea. The villagers soon arrive to greet us and the fun begins once more. We have dinner by six and maybe a singsong and dance with the locals until sunset. With no electricity for miles and miles the night is silent and wonderfully dark.
After 5 days of walking we arrive in the village that is to receive our donation. The entire village has turned up to welcome us and have built a beautiful arbor of rhododenron flowers for us to walk through. The village Brahmin greets us and puts flower necklaces around our necks. They are so proud of their village and so they should be. It is an immaculate little village high up on a ridge overlooking mountains, rivers, and green terraced fields. The water is just too far away and our money for plastic pipes, taps and concrete will help them immensely.
Another 5 days out and we leave the Mahabharat. By this time we love the people here and are wondering if they might have a better way of life than we do. When the crops are good and the illnesses stay away, they have an enviable life. Every person has an important place in the community, the children are loved and cared for by all, they have time to stop and say hello. Life is quite simple.
Back in Kathmandu we stop only long enough to shake the dust off our shoes and get ready for the next portion of our trip. This half of the trip is not related in any way to the School Project. We are going to be just regular tourists. Lets face it, you cant visit Nepal without a trek through the Himalayas. Now these are honkin big mountains. Just look at the mountain outside your door (if you have one) and imagine three times higher! No more 9000 foot hills, were about to trek through the biggest mountains on earth.
We take a bus to Pokhara, the jumping off place for some major trekking. The Nepalese in this part of Nepal have this trekking business down to a science. The trails are beautiful stone walkways, the teahouses are clean and cheap, the restaurants are always open and the food is made from scratch. We soon discover you cant be in a hurry in this country. Lunch appears two hours after we order, but we know its fresh because we can hear them pounding the flour for our order of Tibetan flat bread. These villagers dont greet us like long lost friends as they did on our Mahabharat trek, but they appreciate our business and are friendly and honest. The scenery makes up for the tourist-like feeling we have on this trek and its fun to meet other trekkers from all over the world.
In the wink of an eye the month is up and we must go home. I make a promise to myself to return as soon as I can.
As it turns out I have been back in Oct and Nov of 1999 with 15 others who experienced this wonderful trip with me. It looks like it will be an annual event from Mid-October to Mid-November each year. Mike Rojik of the Nepal Schools Project is delighted to have us back as much work is still to be done in Nepal. I am also getting involved with the Himalayan Childrens fund which our friend Tashi is co-ordinating. I would like to invite you to join the trip this fall.