Categories: JapanNepalSustainable TravelTravel

A Little Story… And the Case for Planning a Trip to Nepal

An interpretive dancer sways to the music and delights the audience in the dim lighting of the Honen-in temple in Kyoto, Japan.

The first strings of a melody slid into the corners of the room as the musician strummed her guitar. The nearby interpretive dancer stood frozen in place, eyes cast upward as she waited for her cue. The tiny grandma behind me bobbed from side-to-side over my shoulder, attempting to see past my tall frame. I slouched deeper into my folding chair.

Minutes earlier, a volunteer at the Honen-in temple in Kyoto had stopped my aimless meander. With alacrity, he ushered into a room and said only: “Yes, yes, good.” I took it on faith that I’d like wherever they were leading me. Each new temple I visited presented an exercise in futility as I accepted a colorful pamphlet from the cheerful worker. Few were ever in English. I would walk away studying that page as you would a piece of delicate art, running my fingers across the lines of kanji—Japanese characters. Like those workers, the Japanese seemed nonplussed by my blank stares when they spoke Japanese to me. People directed me around the country with effusive Japanese and enthusiastic gesturing reminiscent of an episode of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” I rarely knew what was happening. Instead, I learned to revel in the floating sense of discovery as each new experience unfolded.

In the temple, the song picked up speed. The singer began a cheerful tune and my brain snapped to attention. I understood the words. How unexpected. She was singing in neither Japanese nor English. In that heartbeat, my awareness jolted me six years back in time to the side of a mountain in Nepal. Surya, my infuriatingly optimistic guide in the Himalayas, chanted the chorus of a Nepali folk song. He was prodding me to echo his lyrical voice, as I had every day since we started our trek. As the weakest link in our hiking trio, I was slower than the rest. My Nepali was the best in the group, however, so Surya taught me Nepali songs as we trekked. The maze of lyrics and translations kept my mind from dwelling on the long days of 4,000-step staircases through dense, old-growth forests.

Bringing up the rear on day two of our trek, which included five hours of staircases.

The easiest to learn was a folk song about a bird, Resham Firiri. It has a lilting chorus and it’s contagiously popular across Nepal. Other trekking guides would hear me coming in the distance as my voice bounced through the tall trees and the rough forest floor. As the source of the off-key—but enthusiastic!—rendition of their country’s beloved folk song, the guides rewarded me with boyish smiles. As our groups slid past each other on the narrow trail, their voices lifted in song for the chorus, making sure it reached me. Then they slipped further away, continuing down the trail away from us, carrying the tune to other ears.

In the temple, the Japanese singer and dancer progressed through the song’s verses. Past memories floated around me like the seeds of a plucked dandelion catching the breeze. We erupted into applause at the song’s end and the singer spoke for several minutes. From the vibe in the room, I imagine that she was talking about the earthquake and her song as a tribute to the people of Nepal. Throughout Japan, collection plates at temples and street corners noted that donations for the day would go to relief efforts. So, in my mind at least, she was speaking to that. Then she launched into her next song, the incomprehensible lyrics were in Japanese this time. I was free to sink back into the flow of Japan.

As I write this now, the bouncy words of the chorus dance through the room, whispering memories of the past. That song linked two seeming disparate moments. Forged together now is a mountainside in Nepal and a dim room in a Japanese temple three thousand miles away. My Nepali guide’s child-like voice sings in tandem with the crisp female vocalist lit by the soft temple lights. I breathe in musty wet forest as I remember a petite woman in red as she sways and twists and flows around the room. Somehow, impossibly, time and space blended these two moments. They crystallized, forever linked for me.

Last year, I shared the bubbling laughter and connectedness I felt on a dala-dala in Tanzania. The women that day banded together to help me find my way, and cheered me on as I skipped into my hostel. Three years ago, I hung from my taxi window in a roundabout in Yangon, Myanmar. A love of travel swamped me—a love for the flood of scents that rush across you, the random, delightful experiences you never plan but find only by chance.

The world has rallied together to support Nepal. Our collective focus turned toward this small Himalayan nation, mourning the losses to people and history alike. And in the temple that day, I breathed in the drifting incense and realized yet again the reason I travel: for the connections. I travel for the ability to pull together a deep and nuanced story of the world and our shared role on this planet. Chimamanda Adichie shared a powerful TED Talk about the dangers of the single story. She spoke to the dangers of media and stereotypes that give us only one way to view places and people flickering across our news stream. Last month, Nepal featured briefly on our collective radar. Mention the country and our first thoughts flit toward images of vast devastation. Thoughts swirl around the amount of human life affected by the earthquake in the Kathmandu Valley. Those images motivated the world to donate to extensive recovery and relief efforts needed across Nepal.

This moment in Japan reminded me that this is but one story of Nepal.

Let’s not forget that Nepal has many stories. Many pieces of the country’s culture, people, and history went unsaid as we watched the earthquake disaster unfold. It’s easy to leave the country on that note. It is, however, short-sighted.

As Nepal rebuilds, it’s these other stories of a warm culture and a welcoming tourism industry that we need to continue telling. Through these other stories we form nuanced understandings of this complex nation. Alongside the rebuilding efforts, businesses are looking for ways to move ahead. A Nepali-run adventure travel company reached out to me for advice. In the wake of such a powerful narrative about Nepal’s destruction, they wondered how they can help the world remember that they depend on tourism dollars for their livelihoods. They are not downplaying the severity of the disaster relief—this work is imperative to their recovery. But Nepal is a small country, and tourism impacts even the remote villages. I spent two months volunteering and traveling through rural Nepal in 2009. My tour guides were quick to paint for me a snapshot of their daily lives. They shared stories about the love of their life living in a small village beyond the trekking path. They described for me unparalleled dal baht they longed for at their parents’ remote farm. To a person, they had journeyed from the country’s tiny villages into the bigger cities to make money so they could support their families back home.

I often write about grassroots tourism. I wrote about it for NatGeo. I launched an entire site dedicated to supporting the concept. Local-level travel has the power to impact the world. Spending tourism dollars directly within a local economy allows those people to use those funds to eat, live, and lift themselves out of poverty. Donations provide the deeply needed short-term relief, but the country’s long-term recovery strategy relies on rebuilding their tourism industry.

So why should you plan that trip to Nepal? Now, as ever, the transfer of dollars from the developed to the developing world through economic support and tourism has the greatest long-term impact. And maybe not right now, but in the coming months, and likely by the next trekking season, they’ll be ready for you. The Kathmandu Valley has a long, long path to recovery. It will take years. But much of the rest of the country is still working. The airports are running. Trekking guides are eager to help tourists tackle Annapurna Circuit. As the Nepalis in the Kathmandu Valley shovel rubble, they are also rebuilding their homes, rebuilding their hotels, and rebuilding their businesses. In the wake of the earthquake, those who want to rebuild their livelihoods in tourism are left wondering how they ask the world to come visit.

The Nepal tragedy already begins to fade from the media. As we move into summer and long for the cool breezes of fall to assuage the unrelenting heat, think about Nepal. The country is more than the latest victim of a natural disaster. Nepal is a beautiful, vibrant country with Nepali people eager to show you another story of their home.

Below are some of my favorite photos from my two months traveling through Nepal in 2009.

This post was last modified on July 11, 2017, 10:00 am

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  • Hi Shannon

    Next time when you go back to Nepal you must also visit India it has awesome places to visit.

    • Thank you Neha, India definitely has gorgeous places and I would love to return. I spent seven weeks there in 2009 and found it a fascinating place.

      • Hi Shannon,

        When you go India you must visit Hill Station of India they are awesome.
        I Have to Jawhar Hill station and Matheran it has great atmosphere specially in winter and rainy season.

  • Beautifully written! I felt right there and then with you. I could even sense a bit of nostalgia. People are what make places. And the Nepalese are a beautiful people. You make a wonderful case for visiting Nepal and supporting their communities. xx Kat

    • when in Nepal I ask some people the issues REALLY at stake. My information as well as yours is 2 new airports Lumbini Pokhara coming and most of all super capitalist development of Terai. My informant told me India wants control over electricity coming from Terai as Nepal has capacity which we all knew 2. Now why let people demonstrate over the right wrong thing over and over again. The real issues being national debt. number 1. good relations with India number 2 traditionally nepalese imported refrigeraters from INDIA. Yes India has a bad habit of enslaving nepalese and taking money from Nepal as they have a higher level of education. Should it be fought out in the streets? Most certainly NOT. The fact of a maost republic for the sake of peace without Justice is an absurdity. Saarc countries must cooperate, World Bank should just give the new republic of Nepal the opportunity to finalize development of hydro Power. WOrd bank was helping India in the days of maoism. these are the days of post maoism good morning. People are sick of it same useless youths that join Isis are ventilating maoist ideologies without having much clue. The fact of having had closed schools for 20 years nearly is hardly cute or funny.
      It was a mistake I agree to sack the government now it will be hard to sack Oily. We wait for Baburams new Party already he is not cooperating with Rabindra Mishra or rather the other way around. Maoim is out of fashion haleluja.

      • I agree about the airports. when those come up to speed, the remittance laborers will no longer need to go to KTM for visa, or for flight to Quatar or Malaysia or wherever.

    • No, I never said I was going there this fall. I was in the Caucus region and not able to get there. I hope to revisit in the next year or two. I am sorry to hear that the petrol situation continues to deteriorate.

  • I've only just discovered your blog, but I have enjoyed every post I've read so far. Always beautifully written. I've also checked out your grassroots volunteering site, which I'll definitely utilise when I move on from where I am currently based. I only hope that my own blog will be as inspiring and and informative as yours! Looking forward to traveling more with you!

    • So glad you found the site and that it has resonated! I wish you so much luck as you write and share your own journey on your blog. And with the volunteering. Please don't hesitate to let me know if I can ever help with anything. :)

    • I have been there probably20 times going back 11 years. Never had a verbal or physical threat. Very pleasant people.

    • Nepal is a beautiful destination, and I know there are many travelers who have been there recently. That being said, you want to do some research yourself to see what the situation is like, and if it's something you want to experience. Consider emailing some bloggers who are in the country right now, or expats who live there. I do know that there are tourism businesses back up and running all over Nepal.

  • I visited Nepal last year, few months before disaster hit this beautiful country. I so loved my 15 days there. Your article so much resonates with my experience - one of the most friendly people. The friendly lady who was able to speak in broken english, and used to own a small cafe near my hotel in Thamel. With amazing buff dishes I used to have every morning- be it buff chowmein, thupka or momos. Or the guy who started with innovative hostels in outskits of Kathmandu, offering people real nature. He started this by taking loan from his uncle, and was so happy running it with success.

    All these people I met were all linked to tourism, and my heart goes out to them. So much hard work put in, and now again they must be putting in more hard work. I would for sure visit Nepal again in near future. As you rightly pointed out - that only tourism can take them out from this hole.

    • Thank you for weighing in and sharing your experiences Taya, I haven't been there in many years but I do so enjoy my memories of the Nepali spirit.

  • Shannon, we are glued to your page!
    Heading to Nepal next week, your articles about Nepal are just what we needed to prepare for a trip of a lifetime. Did you trek in Nepal at all? We are thinking on going to Everest Base Camp...let's see how that goes! But heard that Annapurna are equally beautiful.
    Thank you for sharing your adventures and writing beautifully.

    • So glad the piece resonated. It's such a beautiful place and I have no doubt that it will be an incredible adventure for you. I did trek in Nepal, I hiked for five days on the Annapurna circuit: It was hazy the days I visited, but it was also beautiful and I think there are usually pretty good views. Either area is great, though I think the terrain is very different, as are the vibes on the trails. Neither one is a poor choice. I hope it's an amazing trip! If you didn't see my Nepal guide, it shares ideas on the guesthouses I used and the things I saw, the best activities, etc. Happy travels! ~S