Trekking through the foothills of the Himalayas – often at 15,000+ feet – was an ambitious yet seemingly attainable goal during my short time in Nepal. Indeed, the deep burn I felt in my legs as the eight-day trek ensued and overall physical exhaustion that invaded every cell of my body – while ascending 4 to 5,000 feet in elevation each day – were good indicators that this was to be the most physically grueling, yet rewarding, experience of my life.
But as is often the case with traveling, my global misadventure contained a few precious life lessons aside from reaping the glory of physical conquest.
While traveling in Nepal I also reserved high hopes to volunteer. You see, back in 2011 my traveling trajectory shifted abruptly. During a surfing trip in Ecuador, I was confronted with emaciated children living in wooden shacks. Their reality consisted of no running water or adequate food and an appalling lack of sanitation. And there I was, enjoying cheap room and board and dollar cervezas, lollygagging from one surf spot to the next. After that trip I vowed that the next time I found myself vacationing in a place where poverty is so pervasive I would volunteer in some way. So when I decided to visit Nepal–where half of its population live below the poverty line, I began scouring the internet looking for nonprofits that needed help. I wanted to contribute my skills as an editor and writer, or to work with children in some capacity. Now, if you’ve ever thought about volunteering abroad, you’re probably familiar with the scad of websites offering “an experience of a lifetime… for only $3,000!” Yep, and the more I looked, I discovered it’s not uncommon for organizations to charge thousands of dollars for ‘voluntourism.’ Well, you can imagine my excitement/relief/restored faith in humanity when I somehow stumbled upon the website of a burgeoning volunteer organization, Experience Himalayan Nepal (EHN), where I could pay something like $300 to volunteer for two weeks. The nonprofit stated that it worked with Nepali orphanages, schools, organic farms, and families. Perfect.
Those next few months leading up to my trip, I was in weekly contact with a man from EHN named Phil. He insisted on arranging my trek for me and was adamant that I trek first and volunteer second. This way, he said, I would be able to stay in rural Nepal with a family during the festival of lights, Diwali.
Now I know myself, and I knew that if I trekked first I would have little vigor left for my stint of volunteering. But Phil insisted it had to be done this way. He said in Nepal everyone has to trek with a guide and that there would be none available if I volunteered first, and then trekked during Diwali. I would soon discover, however, that all of this wasn’t true.
Well, the time had finally arrived. After a few whirlwind days in Delhi, India, my friend Jess and I were hopping on a plane to Kathmandu. As women who live in the mountains and are accustomed to the softer demeanor of mountain people vs. city folk, we were psyched to trade the chaos of Delhi for some alpine state-of-mind. We would spend two days in Kathmandu and then begin our trek in the region of Langtang, bordering Tibet. The biggest draw with Lantang is the promise of less congested trails–particularly in comparison to the more popular Annapurna region–and the apparent influence of Tibetan culture.
Plus, each night we would lay our heads down in one of the small guest houses (or shall I say, often urine-scented wooden mice shacks) situated throughout Langtang National Park. This way we could avoid lugging around camping gear, leaving our packs to weigh in around 30 pounds.
Arriving to the Kathmandu Airport late one night, sans the visa photos we each needed, Jess and I took some pretty embarrassing portrait shots in the instant visa photo booth, that is, after we woke the man up who was working it.
Some 20-something men from Hotel Buddha Land and a mentally disabled man met us outside the airport.
“Hello, welcome to Nepal. He will take your bags,” one of the young men said pointing to the disabled man. Once in the hotel’s small van, we realized the man wasn’t affiliated with the hotel at all but the young men gave him work like this all the time. This was an immediate indication that we were in a place much different from India. For me, one of the most troubling aspects of Indian society is the way the general populace looks down upon the poor/disabled or otherwise ‘low’ classes of people. I immediately liked these cheerful young men, who worked at the hotel 24/7, and went to sleep at night on the couches in the hotel’s reception.
We met up with Phil and Anu, from Anu Treks, the following day. Phil, a fast-talking Brit, seemed scatterbrained yet nice as he walked us through the pulsating streets of Kathmandu, advising us on Nepali culture.
We removed our shoes before entering Anu’s upstairs office, where she greeted us warmly and offered us tea. In order to patronize a female guide, who often receive much less work than their male counterparts, I arranged with Phil to go through a woman-owned trekking company and to have a woman guide. Anu’s appearance, however, had me a little concerned. When I think of mountain guides where I live, I think of strong, muscular individuals whose physical prowess is unmistakable. Anu, on the other hand, was overweight and far from possessing the physique of someone who climbs the sickly steep terrain of the Himalayas. I hoped our guide would at least be in better shape. So after a disorganized quick mission to the tourism office to get our trekking permits in order we made plans for the following day to meet up with our guide, Bimala, and take a 6-hour bus ride to the mountain village of Dhunche, where our trek would begin. Little did we know, the next two days in which we would attempt to reach Dhunche would be filled with more fear and uncertainty than any other part of our trip.