Empowering Women In Nepal
Nepal is a country of extremes. Home to the Himalayas, its natural landscape is extremely beautiful. It has a rich cultural heritage and the Nepali people are warm and friendly. But with its political instability, poor infrastructure, and extensive social problems including poverty, unemployment, homelessness and the oppression of women. Nepal can also be confronting and at times extremely overwhelming.
Women in particular have a rough time in Nepal. Much of the inequality comes from ingrained cultural traditions such as the caste system and the dowry system. In the villages, young girls are often forced into arranged marriages from as young as 9 years old. Many girls do not attend school at all. Child trafficking is not uncommon and domestic abuse is rife.
I recently spent a month in Nepal volunteering in a Kathmandu school. After my teaching experience, I had a few days up my sleeve so I decided to do a short trek. I had heard of a company called the Three Sisters Adventure Trekking ( http://www.3sistersadventuretrek.com) that hire and train underprivileged girls to become trekking guides. Traditionally, guiding is a male domain but Three Sisters have challenged this notion by being the first trekking company to employ female guides. As a woman travelling alone, I loved this concept. Not only would I feel more comfortable with a female guide, I am always happy to support a company that strives to empower women.
I emailed the Three Sisters a few days before my trek and asked about their 5-day Gorepani/Poon Hill trek leaving from Pokhara. They replied promptly and quoted reasonable prices for the hire of a guide with an option of a porter to carry my bag. I decided I really only needed a guide as I didn’t have a very heavy bag. The cost of the guide was US$25 a day, which seems to be the going rate amongst most trekking companies. I was responsible for the cost of my accommodation and food along the way, which I paid directly to the teahouses.
If you were looking for a relatively short trek that is not too challenging, I would recommend the Gorepani/Poon hill trek. Usually a five day trek, it can be tailored to your needs, adding or subtracting a day or two here and there with a variety of track diversions. Longer, more challenging treks are also an option from here such as “ABC”- Annapurna Base Camp or the Annapurna Circuit. The trek leaves from Pokahra, about an 8-hour hair-raising drive along mountain cliffs from Kathmandu or a short and scenic 25-minute flight. I chose the flight, even though it was more expensive (about US$110 one way), for the views of the Himalayas through the clouds that were amazing and to me, well worth the extra cost (plus I avoided those cliffs!)
I met my guide the day before the trek so we could discuss safety and equipment. Her name was Indra, she was 27 years old and had been working at Three Sisters for 8 years. During our trek, Indra and I chatted a lot about our lives. Her English was good and she was a thoughtful and gentle young woman. She treated me really well, making sure I was happy and had all I needed throughout the trek.
Indra came from a small village in the Everest region. She was the youngest of 7 girls and her parents were farmers. When Indra was three years old, her father died, leaving her mother and sisters to work in the fields. Indra had to walk over an hour each way through the mountains every day to get to school. She dreamed of being a police officer so when she was old enough she travelled to Pokhara but unfortunately didn’t pass the entrance exam. That’s where she heard about Three Sisters and she applied for an apprenticeship there. She was accepted and she had to study hard to learn English and all the skills and safety requirements of being a trekking guide. She says being a guide makes her feel like an independent woman. She is also proud that she can send money home to her mother, who is becoming frail in her old age and finding it more difficult to work in the fields.
The Gorepani/Poon Hill trail is a popular trek and winds through some beautiful prayer-flag strewn mountain villages and ancient Rhododendron jungles, offering breathtaking panoramas of the domineering peaks of Annapurna (8091m) and Machhapuchchre (6993m- meaning “fishtail” for its distinctive summit.)
The morning trek up Poon Hill (3200m) to view the sunrise is a highlight and should not be missed. Watching as the sun slowly spreads glowing golden light across the mountain peaks is a magnificent display of beauty and worth the 5am rise.
Accommodation along the way is in teahouses. Teahouses all have basic rooms with usually two or three single beds and a shared bathroom. Hot showers can often be purchased for a small fee. Occasionally there will be an option of a private bathroom for an extra cost. As a single traveller, I paid about US$3 a night for the bed and shared bathroom.
I quickly became familiar with the menus in the teahouses because they were identical. Tourist menus are set by the government, along with the prices, but the variety was good, consisting of a range of Nepali and Western meals. Nepal’s national dish, dahl baht is the meal of choice if you want to eat like the locals. It is a plate of rice, lentil soup and simple vegetable curries, which are refilled until you say stop. It is wholesome and packed with all the right nutrition needed for a big day of walking. Breakfast is a choice of eggs or cereal and fruit and lunch was usually the popular ‘momo’, which are steamed dumplings stuffed with vegetables. I began to look forward to an afternoon cup of warming masala tea- which is a milky, spicy tea- as I kicked off my walking shoes exhausted but satisfied. Three full meals a day plus drinks and snacks usually cost about US$20.
We walked between four and seven hours a day, mostly along gently undulating paths. But be warned, although this is considered an “easy” walk by Himalayan standards, there are many stairs (3000 on day two alone!) so don’t think you can get away with it if you’ve just come out of your “couch potato” phase. The highest altitude reached is just over 3000m, which probably won’t cause you altitude sickness but you’ll be puffing a lot more than you do at sea level. The area is not exactly remote, and in peak season you will pass, or be passed by dozens of trekkers as well as locals and the odd donkey train.
Nepal has seeped its way under my skin and I am already planning my next trip. The country is in a state of flux and needs our help but the beauty of the Himalayas is breathtaking and magnificent. It is hard not to feel humbled when those majestic peaks surround you. Enjoying such an adventure, knowing you are contributing to the empowerment of women makes it extra worthwhile.