Tuk tuks, dogs, cows and pedestrians all occupy the busy streets of Kathmandu, where cars and trucks beep and beep with a language all their own, somehow signaling what they’re about to do.
This is a different kind of driving, where potholes are filled by men sitting cross-legged in the center of the street while practiced motorists swerve by them, unfazed.
The tops of temples stand tall above these bustling roads—their walls painted with the haunting eyes of Buddha, staying watchful over the people below, while prayer flags flutter in constantly moving color, carrying intentions of the people to the wind with every fraying thread.
Inside these temples are shrines where people lay their offerings to the gods: photos, flowers and food.
Ornate crematoriums, too, stand tall among the temples, as sacred buildings for the departure of the dead. These buildings are not hidden or ignored. Death is part of life here, and there is no reason to fear it.
Color is everywhere. On the long skirts of women, in the plentiful marigolds and fuchsia flowers so lush from the recent monsoon. These flowers are strung into garlands and necklaces for visitors, just one way that people of Nepal celebrate life between the many festivals devoted to the many Hindu gods and deities.
The people here celebrate every day, every moment they can and no time is left idle. Even in the most remote villages, where tilling the fields on a yak-drawn plow occupies most of the day, there is always time for tea and a game with friends or strangers, soon to become friends.
Journeying outside of the city, we are met by goats—hundreds of them—being herded out of the village and into the city where they will meet their end in a ceremonial, sacrificial feast. While the daily meal consists of vegetarian dal bhat (lentil stew over rice) or biryani, there are special days when the city shares the meat of goats or other animals. We are glad to be journeying away from the butcher houses on that day because while the lives of the animals are being honored in this way, it’s sure to be a difficult sight. But difficult things can be beautiful too. It’s beautiful that animal meat holds such meaning and is cherished. These people have a deep connection with the animal that gave its life to nourish them, while it might seem gruesome to us, in many ways, it also seems more natural and more humane.
Once the goats have all passed, we set out on the trail once more, finally reaching a lake where rowboats transport children to school, along with whatever vegetables or goods must be brought from the farming villages to the markets that day. We board a boat of our own and take the quiet journey across Phewa Tal lake to reach the World Peace Stupa in Pokhara, known to the natives as “Shanti Stupa.” This stunning edifice stands majestic and white, a clean contrast to the grit of the city streets. Here, again, prayer flags make their way to the top of this pagoda, with its domed roof and golden accents that shine against the bluest sky. Spending a moment at this Shanti Stupa overlooking the lake is a perfect kind of serenity, truly a spiritual experience.
From here, we begin our hike through rural Nepal. We meet our head Sherpa who will guide us along the way, gathering news by word of mouth from the owners of teahouses where we will stop to spend each night. This is how information is exchanged out here—there are no televisions, no newspapers, just travelers telling of avalanches or obstacles in the trail ahead. His name is Pasang, which means “Friday.” In his culture, people are named after the day of the week they are born, and their family lineage becomes part of their name. There are no first and last names in their culture, so when a census was taken, many wrote “Sherpa” as their last name. And it’s an identity that they are proud of. To become a lead Sherpa takes tremendous skill and many years of practice. These people do everything for clients like us. They navigate the trails, showing us the wonders of their native land, they cook traditional meals for us, they teach us card tricks and phrases in their language. After journeying through the mountains like this, a person who we only just met transforms into a friend that we will remember forever. It’s a strong bond that we are both so grateful for.
Making our way along the trail, often encountering sets of steep stone steps, built for the benefit of the many tourists who come to make this trek each year, we sometimes will pass by carpenter’s workshops or flour mills. Each night, we watch the local women do a traditional dance outside before we slide into our sleeping bags in a small, empty room of a teahouse that Pasang has found for us. And each morning, we wake before dawn to watch the sun rise over the mountains. As the elevation increases and the temperature drops with each day’s journey, this morning ritual becomes increasingly more of a challenge. But it’s always worth it. To see the sun glow and reflect against sheets of rock, casting the first warmth of light over the rest of the valley is a spectacular sight indeed.
There is no running water along the trail. Everyone shares communal showers set up in a separate stone building. Next to the shower room is an outhouse.
Around these teahouses, it’s common to see beans and lentils drying in the sun, set out on cloths spread on the ground. Chickens will run by, and in the background are shelves filled with Western items—processed snacks and shoe polish. The local people wear simple sandals, but keep shoe polish available for sale to accommodate their Western visitors. It seems like such a silly commodity in a place with no running water, and we all have a good laugh. We stock up on a few small things to give to the children we meet along the trail each day, who are all eager to greet us.
After many days of walking the trails, with only cold, outdoor showers to bathe with, Pasang brings us to a place that we will always remember as the most glorious part of the journey—a hot spring. This shallow pool, this natural phenomenon sits beside a rapidly flowing river, the current so quick that it crashes against the rocks with a thundering sound. We warm ourselves in the spring and watch the river run by. It is the most magical thing.
Our trip ends with a bittersweet goodbye to Pasang. He and the other Sherpas bake us a cake! It might not have very much sugar in it, but the gesture makes it the sweetest cake in the world. The next day, we board a small plane to take us around the tallest mountain on earth. We mainly wanted to see Everest because we were so close-by—it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With our touristic cynicism, we wondered how we would know if the mountain range was actually the mighty Everest, or just some other stretch along the Himalayas. But as the plane approached it, we knew. Everest truly did tower over the rest of the surrounding peaks. It was darker, more ominous. Astounding.
Journeys like this aren’t always glamorous. In fact, they seldom are. There are two different kinds of travel: relaxation and experience. If you’re lucky, your journey will show you a bit of both. But at the end of the day, to experience a land and a people so different from anything I’d known before was truly something that makes life so enriching.
Heading up the Business Insights and Merchandising Teams at Ten Thousand Villages involves serious desk-bound work. The counter balance is a spirit of adventure to travel the world. Shiobhain frequently visits her family in her homeland, Ireland, and has been fortunate to visit Nepal, India, and Bangladesh, reinforcing her passion for fair trade. Shiobhain is celebrating ten years working at Ten Thousand Villages. An avid runner and hiker, Shiobhain has also enjoyed many of the spectacular landscapes of America….mostly on foot!