Nepal has a special place in my heart. In fact, travelling to Nepal for the first time eleven years ago was one of the most defining moments in my life, and in so many ways.
I remember the moment where my curiosity of Nepal was sparked. It was from a girl called Jo during an anatomy class during my second year at University. Jo was travelling there over the summer break to do some trekking. I nodded knowingly as she talked about the places she was going to visit and the regions she was going to hike. The truth was, at the time, I didn’t even know where Nepal was. I hadn’t even heard of the country. I didn’t know it was in Asia, and I certainly didn’t know that it had eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains- including the highest one, Mount Everest.
Ironically when I travelled there about a year later, I still didn’t know much more. My friend Jenny and I decided to go to do some volunteers work overseas and Nepal cropped up. I think that we ultimately decided to go to Nepal because I thought Jo from anatomy class was really cool and I liked the idea of saying “I’ve just come back from Nepal” and having people look at me like I was a super hard-ass intrepid explorer who travelled to unknown places.
I remember landing in Kathmandu a couple of days before New Year’s day, 2004. Jenny and I had spent a few days on a stop-over in Bangkok, which for me was an eye-opening experience in itself and briefly prepared me for the months that lay ahead.
This trip was my first trip overseas without my family. My previous travel experience had always been in the comfortable confines of a hotel, motel or ‘glamping’ at the very least and I had never come across a squat toilet before. That first time that I walked into the toilets of a petrol station just outside Bangkok and came face-to-face with hole in the ground surrounded by a porcelain frame is a memory I will have forever. I remember walking out and looking in another cubicle, only to find the same thing. This was going to take some getting used to, and for the next couple of months this was what it was going to be like.
Kathmandu literally took my breath away. Sparse dirt, dilapidated brick buildings, roads in poor conditions, people begging for money- I had no idea that capital cities looked like this and that people lived in such impoverished conditions. Despite this, there was a sense of charm and excitement to the place. Perhaps it was because I was on a new adventure, but also (as I came to discover more and more) there was an incredible rich culture and the people were happy.
It’s amazing that people can be so happy with so little and appreciate what they have. In Nepal, a lot of people only have two meals a day: both of which are exactly the same. At the time, it was inconceivable that people could eat and enjoy dal (lentil soup) bhat (rice) and takhari (vegetable curry) every day. (You can find my recipe for Red Lentil Dhal here).This was another thing that I needed to get used to when staying with host families. I couldn’t be a spoiled princess from a Western country and expect other food when this was all that people could afford. In saying this, I did indulge and purchase snacks along the way. I remember feeling overwhelmed with guilt after I found out that a tube of Pringles cost more than the monthly earnings of some people. Even being what we would consider a ‘poor student’ in Australian standards, I was comparatively rich in Nepal and had been caught up in the whirlwind of a strong currency.
I can’t say that I never had another highly-processed food product during my time there. In fact, I often needed the break from local food because of bouts of gastro from the food safety issues associated with undrinkable tap water (another thing I took for granted). However, I did learn to be more appreciative of the simple life- something which I try to convey in my present life.
My time in Nepal was incredible. We welcomed 2004 in the streets of Kathmandu and had Mount Everest beer on a rooftop pub. I was able to go white-water rafting for the first time (I fell out of the raft into the rapids), I was able to get up close with a one-horned rhino in Chitwan National Park, and was able to see some incredible mountains along the way.
On a whim, Jenny and I decided to trek Everest Base Camp with the organisation that we were volunteering for. One of the guys, Vishnu was a trekking guide and was escorted by Sonny, who was going to be a porter for Jenny as he learnt the ropes of guiding. Looking back, I really had no idea what I was in for. I had never done a hike before (let alone one for 14 days), I had never carried a hiking pack for extended periods (I had to ascend almost 2400m with a 15kg pack), I had never seen snow before (we experienced temperatures of minus 30degrees on some nights) and I wasn’t really at my peak fitness at the time.
In saying that, my ignorance really helped along the way. I remember the relentless 5-6 hour hike to ascend 788m to reach Namche Bazaar. I was basically walking in slow-motion because I was affected by the altitude and my legs were burning. If I knew this was ahead of me, I am not sure if I would have done it.
Along the trek I cried, many times. Not only was the hike physically challenging, it was also mentally challenging for me. I still get altitude sickness at high elevation and it can be incredibly frustrating to know your physical capabilities but not be able to work to your capacity because of the lack of oxygen.
A lot of people on my trek were the same. In fact, only Jenny and I actually made it to Everest Base Camp because the rest of the group were unwell from the altitude. We had to join another group and their Sherpa, Rendi, who was a saviour to me. In his double-plugger thongs, he helped me get to Everest Base Camp (where I stayed for ten minutes and smiled for one photo) and pushed me (literally) back to the lower camp of Gorek Shep. The following days of descent were a relief as I became more and more like myself as it got easier to breathe and function.
You would think that from this experience that I would be scarred, never to hike again. However the beauty of nature, my insignificance around the mountainous landscape and the kindness of local people showed me the essence of living simply.
Nepal continues to have a special place in my heart and I went back to visit with my friend Colin two years after that original adventure (but that’s a story for another time). I hope to head back again, to revisit my old friend that influenced me so much and to once again say, ‘Namaste Nepal’.