Last December, at a time when no one had any idea what awaited us in the new decade, three Colombians, four Nepalis and a fluent Nepali-speaking French woman gathered for an impromptu dinner at Newari Khaja Ghar, a family-owned restaurant in Naya Bazar in Kathmandu.
Since the dining area was busy, the owner kindly opened up one of his family bedrooms clearing away a bed and bringing mats in so we could enjoy each others’ company in a more secluded environment. Seated on the floor, we sampled baji chwela aila and talked about our recent Nepal travel stories over the beaten rice, marinated buffalo chunks and Kathmandu Valley’s artisanal rice spirit.
The Colombian couple had just been to Chitwan and Langtang National Parks. They were excited about their first encounter with a one-horned rhino, and laughed over a failed attempt to pass off as Nepalis to get cheaper bus fares. They were offered tea so often and with such insistence by guesthouse owners along their trek, that “Namaste” started sounding like “Namastea”, they said.
The group burst into laughter, sharing more hilarious and even hypocritical encounters in Nepal. We agreed that things needed to change, little knowing that in a few months change would be forced upon the world with a global pandemic and lockdown.
All of us that night in Naya Bazar had not only experienced fake hospitality as tourists somewhere in the world, notably after discovering what we believed to be an act of selfless local generosity was actually a tourist trap. But we admitted that we had also ourselves behaved as smiley tight-fisted tourists before.
A couple of weeks before that dinner, both of us, Bibek (a foreign-looking Nepali ecologist) and Lorena (a Nepali-looking Colombian anthropologist) went on a trek through the Tamang Indigenous Heritage Trail in Rasuwa, north of Kathmandu on the western edge of Langtang National Park. Raised in the Himalaya and the Andes respectively, we were driven by our love for mountains and trekking through them.
Beyond the physical challenge it implied, we were interested in connecting with places and people. Walking at a slower pace allowed us to linger, and look at things differently, opening up space for close encounters with local Tamang villagers, Nepali guides and international trekkers who we ran into on the trails. They all shared very personal impressions of life, longings and dreams with us.
The trip started with a bumpy, but musical, 8-hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Gatlang. This is the well-known ‘Black Village’ so-called because of its traditional black slate roof common on the Tibetan rimlands. Even though many of the old houses collapsed in the 2015 earthquake and were replaced with tin roofs, enough of them remain for the village to keep its name.
The Tamang Heritage Trail is one of those still little known hiking routes in Nepal in which you do not run into many outsiders, and get to see the kind of Nepal before trekking tourism took off, and where trekkers can get a more genuine travel experience and connect to the way locals live than elsewhere. And the beauty of it is the area is so close to Kathmandu.
Surprisingly, that night we met an Australian school trip of more than 20 girls who were rebuilding a local school damaged in the earthquake by flattening the ground, repainting walls and providing materials for students. We shared tea with the two adults in charge, and one of them owned the travel agency behind the idea.
He explained the girls had raised funds in the past year for the cause, pointing out how the journey was already transforming them. His eyes smiled as he shared how the students felt Australians could learn a lot from the Nepali lifestyle, which they found to be a lot more meaningful and rich in hospitality, human connection and simplicity.
It was clear to us that his purpose is to help re-educate travelers through experience, by making them feel uncomfortable in order to expand their horizons. That is pure inspiration for others to do the same. This was an example of how ecotourism enterprises can create more shared value in remote areas by combining the business and social aspects of their job.
Inter-cultural trips create memories that provide people with additional ways of looking at life, and solving challenges at home. Locals and visitors can benefit beyond the purely financial or leisure aspects of the activity. Active listening and collaboration between travel agents and local community leaders can happen before, during and after a trip. Further, defining a common vision leads to applicable and lasting impact.
Locals recommended that we hike up a few hundred meters above Gatlang to the alpine lake Parvati Kunda, a Hindu pilgrimage site, originally known by its Tibetan name Aamachodingmo (mother of deep lakes). After ringing the entrance bell, we came upon the lake lined with trees, prayer flags and scattered vermilion powder, evidence of how it is regarded as holy by devotees from both faiths.
Aamachodingmo is also home to some 40 bird species, and a source of drinking water for the villages below. But like many other misguided attempts at modernisation, the natural ambience has been somewhat spoilt by a cemented wall. We struggled with this notion of ‘development’ in which modern construction materials undermine the lake’s irreplaceable ecological function.
Even so, the place was serene with the rays of the December sun slanting down through the canopy of the forest. Two iridescent dragonflies joined us while we meditated on its shore. We recalled how in different cultures dragonflies symbolise transformation, and we felt they fitted the state of our minds as well as that of the lake. Aamachodingmo is indeed imbued with spiritual energy.
The neighbouring monastery and cheese factory were closed. But the caretaker Dai and Didi, our homestay host, were most welcoming by opening their kitchens to us. Dai offered Tibetan bread soup he was cooking, and we savoured it, sitting around the fire.
Noticing his traditional attire, we asked what being a Tamang meant to him. He giggled nervously at such a weird question. For the indigenous people in Colombia’s Amazon rainforest, the answer to that question is essential to their survival. Thanks to the ownership of their ancestral roots, the tribes recovered their lands, sacred sites and the right to live according to their traditions.
In contrast, we realised that cultural and spiritual beliefs are even more respected in Nepal. Still, when Dai finally identified himself as Tamang, Tibetan, Buddhist, Hindu and Nepali, we wondered if he preferred to be politically correct, or if he truly felt free to choose who he wanted to be.
Before sunset we insisted that Didi join us for dinner. She shyly proposed to have a sisnu nettle dish with dhindo corn porridge and kodo wine made from millet. With tongs inside a basket we headed to the backyard to gather some sisnu and very quickly learnt a new Nepali phrase haat polyo, but the stinging hands did not diminish from the pleasure of cooking the meal, singing and conversation by the kitchen fire.
Food is always a conversation starter during the trek. And meeting Dai and Didi as well as the drangonflies and birds turned our visit into an unforgettable experience. We are certain they and the children of Aamachodingmo also realised that it is not just the mountains trekkers come looking for. Warm human connection is vital no matter how different we seem from each other.
After almost getting lost, we followed the electricity poles in our hike from Chilime (1,891m), the site of a hydropower plant, to Nagthali (3,150m) spending one day along the way. Surrounded by observant snowy peaks, we only heard our own breath until reaching the top with the sun warming our backs.
That afternoon we set off to Thuman, missing the trail again. It was then that we remembered the scary stories of other lost tourists who do not always make it because they mis-read the signs. Trail signs can indeed save lives, and hiring local guides is essential. Luckily, we managed to use our prior experience to read the slopes and reach Pemba’s guesthouse before sunset.
Pemba runs her homestay with a 6-year-old daughter who is constantly calling out to her “Aama, Aama!” Like many Nepali village women whose husbands and grown-up kids are either abroad or in cities, she raises her child, looks after the crops, does house chores and runs a small ecotourism business like a multi-armed Hindu goddess. Her leadership, resilience, managerial and cooking skills are impressive. Pemba says she feels lonely, but chooses to be happy enjoying every time friendly guests talk to her.
The local government plans to invest public funds to build a view tower at Nagthali. This would be completely unnecessary, and the money could instead be used to training local trekking guides, put up trail signage in English, or design Tamang heritage experiences. We reach the conclusion that ‘tourism development’ is not just about building infrastructure, but mainly increasing meaningful human interaction.
Warmed up by the sunrise, we descended to Syabru Besi on the other side of the Bhote Kosi River for the steep hike up to the holy lakes of Gosainkunda. Roads were being built aggressively, and had almost reached Thulo Syabru. While crossing the village, we were welcomed by tall cemented guest houses displaying beers, Red Bull and Coca Cola and abundant “Namastea” salutations inviting us to “at least buy some tea”. After the trek down from Nagthali, this felt like a city. We decided to stay far away from the town, pushing ourselves to walk till sunset to Karma Guest House.
After waking up to purple sunrise views the next morning, we pushed ourselves upwards on the final stretch to Gosainkunda. We had run out of personal things to talk about, so the subject turned to politics. We compared the histories of Nepal and Colombia, and realised that both countries not only have mountains but also violent pasts. We acknowledged that the same mountains we love, the Himalaya and the Andes, have also witnessed the cruelty of civil wars on opposite sides of the world. There are decades of wounds, scars, stories of courage and sacrifice that are still alive among our peoples.
Nepal went through a 10-year war between the government and Maoist guerillas (1996-2006) and ended with a comprehensive peace accord that enabled their political participation and the induction of a part of the rebel militia into the national army.
Colombia has faced 60 years of armed conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), other smaller communist guerrillas, paramilitary groups and political elites that have been fighting over land, political power and drug trafficking routes. Colombia also signed a peace agreement in 2016 with FARC that brought relative stability. However, in Colombia’s case, remote areas which are strategic for the drug trade will continue to be unstable as long as there is a global demand for cocaine. The white powder is stained with much bloodshed.
Our childhoods in Nepal and Colombia were similar – both of us grew up with daily news of bombings, kidnappings and murders of civilians and social leaders on highways, mountains and forests. For Nepalis and Colombians, traveling this freely was impossible during the conflict – this trek was a gift from history. We hoped our mountains can witness healing conversations and reconciliation among the people residing on their slopes.
We had lunch in Cholangpati, and because it was the winter off-season we were the only guests. After devouring a dal bhat we continued our ascent to Laurebina (3,920m) and looked down at a carpet of clouds to the west. And it was another two hours to the still waters of Gosainkunda, with a full moon rising over the ridge.
We spent two nights by the lake at 4,380m in guest houses that took turns to open. They were packed with Nepali and foreign trekkers sitting around the central fireplace. Two friendly Nepali tour guides asked us to join them for a cup of Khukri Rum in the kitchen because they were curious to see a Colombian and a Nepali trekking together. They were even more surprised to hear that one of us was a tour guide back in Colombia.
Next morning, the serene atmosphere was disrupted by a noisy helicopter. Passengers hopped off at the helipad, quickly ran to the edge of the lake, briskly washed their faces with its holy water, posed for a few selfies and headed back to the chopper. They spent 30 minutes on the ground and then took off again for Kathmandu.
The locals gathered around to watch — just another bunch of tourists invading their space without even saying namaste. That may be one of the reasons why some local lodge-owners do not seem interested in knowing their guests. The feeling of being clients and vendors was clear. Still, we managed to make a local woman laugh in a clumsy attempt to wash our clothes.
The following morning we crossed Suryakunda Pass (4,610m) surrounded by the crackling sound of the sun melting the ice crust on the lake’s surface. Then through the cliff at Ghopte, walking across slippery ice on rocks through cloud forests. The trail descended through misty flanks all the way to Melamchi, our final destination. From there it was another full bumpy day on a bus back to the Kathmandu, with the music again blaring all the way.
Namaste dissolves unfamiliarity when served with a genuine smile. This unique hospitality towards guests is deeply rooted in Nepali cultural upbringing. Nonetheless, that same “Namastea” made us feel uneasy in some trek stops.
Although Nepalis complain about low-spending tourists, seeing them only as cash dispensers tarnishes the motto Atithi devo bhava (guest is god) value the country boasts about. “Namastea” adds a commercial dimension to the greeting. We ask ourselves how porters, guides and guesthouse owners like Pemba and Didi would prefer to feel at work: what kind of hosts would they like to be? What kind of travelers would they like to receive? What can be done to create better connections between locals and foreign visitors?
Throughout the trek we witnessed how tourism transforms places and communities for both good and bad. For instance, realising Tamang homestay menus were standardised, we suggested that owners added local ingredients, cuisines and drinks as options. Doing so would reinforce Himalayan traditions and a sense of identity.
The Colombian experience shows that tour guides are key to mutual understanding between travelers and locals. Guides should be more appreciated and supported for their contribution as translators of our national realities before the world. The more bilingual, knowledgeable, reliable and kind tour guides become, the more memorable experiences will become in already welcoming countries like Nepal and Colombia.
Our journey showed us that the main purpose of ecotourism can shift from visiting romanticised ‘untouched’ landscapes to discovering nature with people in it. Intertwined as they are, both deserve the same respect. Notably, treks in Nepal can also teach us about farming, cooking and other skills required to sustain life in remote areas. Such activities increase interaction and opportunities for local entrepreneurs.
Traveling would be more fun, more meaningful and productive for everyone if we make it humane. If we remember to see the god that lives in guests as well as within us. Let us not forget what truly matters and who we are. When tourism finally picks up again after the virus, we should re-imagine tourism saying “Namaste” with a smile, and also add: “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam”, the Sanskrit phrase from the scriptures which means “The world is one family”.
This is an article by Lorena Gómez Ramírez and Bibek Raj Shrestha, originally published on the Nepali Times.
Lorena Gómez Ramírez is a Georgetown University Latin America Leadership Program alumni (US) and designs regenerative indigenous travel & destinations in Colombia.
Bibek Raj Shrestha is an Erasmus Mundus Scholar and a graduate in Applied Ecology from University of East Anglia, UK, working on wildlife research and conservation.