There were a lot of things I loved about Nepal – I loved that you could get some really good food from around the world in both Kathmandu and Pokhara, I loved the hiking and the Mountain Tribes, I loved that you could find yoga classes absolutely everywhere, and that mango lassis and fresh squeezed sugar cane juice were in abundance, and I especially loved Fireflies.
Having said all of that, however, Nepal was also really exhausting in some ways that I’d love to touch on because I don’t think many of these things get talked about a whole lot.
One of the big things I found annoying was the casual sexism. When I was sick, I’d go to this restaurant for lunch and dinner and sit there reading on my own. This waiter would come by and hit on me, and try to flirt persistently. I’d be polite and curt, and give one word answers and be reading my book really obviously but he would press himself up against my table and keep asking me questions and wouldn’t leave me alone. One time I’d bought some bananas with me and he asked coyly if he could have them, which was awkward because I wanted to be like “no you cannot, and please leave me alone and get out of my personal space,” but because I hate being rude to strangers, I instead said ‘Oh, I suppose so.”
That’s only one example, but this kind of thing did happen to me a lot. I went to buy fruit and the guy didn’t want to let me have my bananas (I bought bananas a lot when I was in Kathmandu) until I’d agree to go on a date with him. Other times guys would call out to me in the streets or keep approaching me and trying to strike up conversation.
I don’t know if that just sounds like friendliness, and maybe it could be, but I think if someone looks like they want to be alone – especially if they’ve got headphones in, which I often did – and aren’t looking around like they want to talk to someone, then surely you can tell that your attention is unwanted.
Especially in a country like Nepal which has really conservative attitudes towards women – I mean, in a culture where it’s considered inappropriate for a girl to walk around alone with a guy to the extent that women often have to be chaperoned, you can’t say that I’m just overreacting to their overtures. And it happened constantly, which is exhausting when you just want to be left alone and don’t have to keep politely extricating yourself from uninvited conversations.
The race issue was also tricky. Political correctness is not something that is big in countries like Nepal, so if you’re not a typically Caucasian Australian, they won’t let you call yourself Australian. I’m totally not ashamed of my ethnicity or anything like that, and I’m really open about it; often when people would ask me where I’m from I’d be like ‘I’m from Australia but like, originally from India’.
However, I felt like a lot of the locals expected me to then conform to far more conservative ideals, because they thought I should act like an Indian – culturally, I mean. Random Nepalese strangers would constantly weigh in on how I should behave or walk or dress or speak. One exchange went like this:
Shopkeeper: Do you speak Hindi?
Shopkeeper: Why not?
Des: Well my family’s from Goa so it’s not the main language they’d speak anyway, but we’ve all been bought up with English as our first language, and given that I don’t plan on going to India, I don’t see any reason to learn Hindi.
Shopkeeper: You should learn
Des: But why? I would never use it
Shopkeeper: It’s part of your heritage. You should learn it.
I really wanted to say “Who the fuck are you to tell me what I should learn?” But instead I just shrugged and left. The most awkward instances were when Nepali women would come and rearrange my clothes because you could maybe see a tiny sliver of my bra strap, or when I was sitting hugging my knees and they’d come and push my legs down so that I was sitting cross legged.
This never happened to anyone else I was travelling with because they didn’t have dark skin. It made me feel super uncomfortable, especially because I just had to deal with it all the time. I felt like I was getting interrogated sometimes – the very first question that absolutely every single person in Nepal asks you is ‘where are you from’ and nobody would ever accept my answer, they’d always get into a long discussion about it, and I felt a little attacked.
It’s the kind of culture where you don’t just get to behave the way you want and get left alone – everyone who sees you, regardless of if they don’t know you, feels like they have the right to come up to you and tell you what they think – and most foreigners don’t get that much of it, but because I could pass for a Nepalese person based on my skin colour, I got it all the time. I really didn’t like that. I also felt like it said something about their culture that this was the most important question you’d get asked, and the main thing they’d judge you by – where you’re from. Why does it matter so much?
The other big issue is one that I guess can be fairly common in third world countries, where it sometimes feels like a lot of the locals you deal with just want to take advantage of you and fuck you over.
I had booked two trips with this tour operator called Hardcore Nepal. I was to do the Canyon, Cave, and Climb trip, and then had added onto that the 2 day Marsyangdi River Rafting Trip. I paid for both in advance, and was told that they cover all food and accommodation. I double checked with them that they’d be okay with my special dietary needs and they assured me that it’d be fine.
So here’s the list of things that were awful: On the first day when we were meant to go rock climbing, we had to be at their office at 6:30am. None of the stores were open at that time but I’d bought lots of fruit the night before so I could eat that for breakfast. That was fine but we then had a 7 hour bus trip to get to Bimal Nagar. It was past 2pm, and all I’d eaten all day were a few bananas. I wanted to eat lunch, but the guide suggested we climb first and eat later, to save time.
I get that some people can survive on one meal a day and be fine, but I am not one of those people. I can not go rock climbing after not having eaten all day, I was feeling weak and exhausted and I just really needed food. In the end, they made us wait over an hour anyway before we went climbing, in which time we could easily have eaten.
The actual climb was in a lovely little scenic strip but I was so tired and weak that I couldn’t push myself the way I usually do, and to make up for the bits where I was taking a long time, the guides just pulled the rope to help me up – which I didn’t want! I actually rock climb, this wasn’t a novelty trip where I wanted them to make me feel like I could climb without me actually having to put in the work!
The good part of all of this was that we had a nice little group – Kasper and Mikkel, both from Denmark, had been at Fireflies with me, and Warren and Parsia, from the US, were really friendly and funny. It was great that they were friendly, because the Hardcore Nepal staff had bought along a lot of their friends – there were more of them than there were of us – who I don’t think were paying for any of this, and it really made me feel like we were intruding on this activity that they wanted to do with their friends.
Then there was the accommodation. Their site said that “We camp at a small resort with showers, toilets, and restaurant.” I would have been fine in a tent – I’d have been super happy. Instead I was in a tiny hut that was cobwebby and full of bugs, and had one hard little narrow bed in it. This was used all day by people to change their clothes in and do whatever else in, and lots of their friends had their bags in here. The door didn’t lock, and besides being a communal storage space during the day, I also had to share it with one of their friends at night, who slept on the tiny sliver of floor that made up the rest of the room’s space.
The actual food was also problematic. I had checked about my dietary requirements and they’d assured me it would be okay and I had to keep reminding them about them, but for every single meal they’d offer me dal bhat first, or noodles, or something else that was gluten or lentil based. I’m not a fussy eater, and in dire situations I don’t mind eating gluten or lentils – I’ll get really gassy and bloated and have to run to the toilet constantly, but if someone’s invited me over for dinner I’ll just deal with it to be polite, leave quickly, and spend the next few hours in pain.
That’s not really something I can do while doing things like rock climbing and canyoning though. I felt so bad because at every single meal they’d give me food I couldn’t eat and I’d have to request something else and they’d always then take ages to get me something I could eat, and it’s like they wanted to humiliate me or show everyone how much extra effort it was to cater for me, and I felt so embarrassed and awkward about it.
At least in comparison to the rock climbing, the caving went much better. It was a gorgeous walk up to the caves, and a lot of fun going through them, but again they’d bought one of their friends along and she just wanted to take photos all the time. There were points at which we’d stop for 10 minutes at a time and they’d just be posing and taking photos of each other, completely forgetting about us, and that would get really boring and frustrating. Again, I felt like I was an interloper on an activity that a bunch of friends were going on together, and it made me feel like we were an unwanted burden.
Their site also said “After lunch we have time for rock climbing or a hike around the local villages to see how they make a local brew called “chang,” or watch the work of the village potters or weavers.” This is what annoys me about so many Nepalese tour operators – they say that you can do all of these things but when you get there, it’s nothing like what was promised. We walked into the village, and there was really nothing to see, and everyone just stared at us as if we were aliens from out of space. No potters or weavers, and nobody making chang.
The canyoning part of the trip at least did live up to it’s promise. That was a lot of fun, we got to pick some sweet local berries, and it was an absolutely thrilling and sometimes scary adventure. The only problem was that once we were done, I was told that they’d cancelled the rafting trip I was meant to go on the next day, and they wanted me to pay extra to go on another trip, or they said that I could go on a cheaper 1 day trip (without offering to refund me the difference). I was peeved, and I asked if I could just have my money back.
You’d think getting a refund wouldn’t be that difficult, but they kept making excuses for it; ‘we don’t have money here, you’ll have to go pick it up in Kathmandu’. I was going to Pokhara next, which was only a few hours away. I wasn’t going to spend another 7 hours going all the way back to Kathmandu just to get my money and then go all the way back to Pokhara again. Besides, they had trips leaving from Pokhara according to their website, so was it really that impossible to give me my money there? They relented and told me they’d get someone to bring me the money in Pokhara.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, they didn’t. For days they kept calling and giving me different instructions about picking the money up from my hostel, then from the bank, then Western Union, and I spent ages waiting around (because they’d told me to wait at my hostel for them) and chasing them up, and they ultimately called and said that I would just have to wait till I got back to Kathmandu. Of course when I did get back, they told me to come to their office in the morning and pick it up but they never turned up, and then they said they’d send it to me over PayPal, but never did. I never ended up getting my money back from them, despite lots of emails and calls.
So given that I now had some extra time, I planned to go to this place called Saathi Bio-Farm instead, which I’d found on AirBnB. This was another mistake.
The first problem was getting there – it was in a super rural area, with no public transport. I had to start by catching a minivan out from Pokhara – a minivan that was so full of people that I was literally hanging onto the outside, with the door open (as were two others), and praying to God that I didn’t lose my grip and fall out. After that harrowing ride I had to catch a bus – a proper one this time – and then a jeep. The jeep was full of boxes of supplies, and I was fit into the back between some boxes, almost getting crushed, with a sharp hook digging into my side. It was not a pleasant ride – we were going over a lot of rocky country, and I had to hold onto the hook to stop myself from slamming into it.
And then somewhere along the way, the jeep got bogged because of flooding, and the driver told me I’d have to get out and walk. This wasn’t on a road, remember, this was near a river, out along part of the Annapurna Trail. The driver pointed me in the general direction of the village I was supposed to head to, and I started walking.
It was the worst. I was out in the wilderness, there were no villages or people nearby that I could see, I had no idea where I was going, I got wet and scratched up because I had to cross a stream that was surrounded by thick, sharp thorns, and then to top it all of, it began to rain. I walked for ages, getting wet, before I found a little village, but the first person I met there was entirely unhelpful and shooed me away.
The guy who I’d booked with wasn’t going to be at the farm, so he’d given me his Dad’s number, but his Dad could barely speak English and when I called him, had no idea where I was or how to help me. It took ages before I came across some young girls who couldn’t really understand what I was saying but who I followed and eventually got to a bigger village, told the Dad, and he came and got me. By this point I was almost at tears. I’d wanted a proper, non-touristy experience – and I’d gotten it.
I thought actually being on the farm would make up for the effort in getting there, but it didn’t. The description talked about how you could milk cows and learn Nepalese cooking and eat freshly caught fish etc etc – but when I got there, they said the farm wasn’t fully functioning at the moment so I couldn’t do anything there. I literally spent days at this very rustic little cottage with this old Nepalese couple who couldn’t speak English, with no power or internet, and nothing to do.
The surroundings were really pretty, but it was so ridiculously hot that you couldn’t go out in the middle of the day. And there were no hiking paths or maps, so that I could wander off a little, but had to come back for fear of getting lost. And the rest of the time it rained or hailed, so that I was just stuck in this tiny little room. I read my book, I tried doing yoga, and then I sat there going slowly insane.
Also, the couple only have two meals a day, and there was nowhere else where I could buy food. They also mainly ate dal bhat, and again I’d asked the AirBnB guy if my dietary requirements would be okay or if I should bring food for myself and he’d assured me that it would be fine. The old couple didn’t feel the same way. I could hear them complaining about me being fussy, and they’d call all the neighbours over and talk about me. It was the worst – you never want to stay at someone’s home and feel like they absolutely hate you.
I ended up leaving early, and going back to Pokhara. I asked for my money back just for the days I hadn’t actually stayed at the Farm, and again the AirBnB guy made me run around for ages to get my money back, telling me to meet him at his office and then changing his mind about times, and then ultimately telling me he’d pay me on PayPal – which, thankfully, he did do at least.I was still very bitter.
I hate when locals who are in the tourism industry seem to think that either foreigners are evil or assume that foreigners are all really rich – and unfairly so – and should be exploited. That’s how I felt in both those situations – like they didn’t like me before they’d even met me, but that this was something they had to do to make a living, so they would tolerate me through it just to get my money. It was not great. It felt a little dehumanising.
The thing to take from all this, a wise friend of mine told me, was to appreciate even more the people who don’t treat you like this, and especially to recognise that when people do fall into those traps, that it might be a result of their cultural context, and that we have to both forgive that, and try to change it.
I absolutely failed in both these instances, but there have been so many other times while travelling where I’ve been able to forge a real human connection with someone else – and as a traveller it’s important to see those in the tourism industry as real people too, instead of just there to provide a service. Hopefully their next customers have better luck than I did.