I arrived at Kathmandu’s Lagankhel bus station at 10 AM on a Saturday morning. The station was a lively yet dusty square, seemingly disordered from an outsider’s perspective. But as with anything in Nepal, it upholds an invisible kind of organised chaos that seems to meet the needs of the ~25 million population. I find a place to sit in the shade of the hot midday sun, beside a peaceful Hindu temple that lay directly in the centre of the bus station as a somewhat silent refuge from the noise. I hear chatter, horns and loud voices echoing from each of the buses, as locals commute outside of the city to visit their home towns and celebrate Nepali New Year. It is April and the year is 2076. The Nepali calendar differs to that of the common era because it is based on the Bikram Sambat, an ancient calendar of the Hindu tradition.
I sit for a short while until a young woman approaches me. I am sure it is Indra, the girl who would accompany me to her home village on behalf of Duara Travels. I am headed out to Manikhel, one of two of Duara Travels’ homestay programs in Nepal. Duara Travels is a platform that promotes village homestay experiences in countries across the globe. Their aim is to direct travellers to places seldom travelled, like the place I will be visiting on this trip.
Indra directs us to one of the buses at the station. We take the front two seats. The young assistant dusts off the seats for us and directs us to sit. Within about 10 minutes the bus becomes crowded. Large bags are placed at our feet as the assistant makes room for as many people to embark as humanly possible. That’s the rule of thumb here. I’m pretty sure that ‘maximum capacity’ are redundant words. The driver hops in the front seat and revs the engine. We are off on our journey to Manikhel, Indra’s home village that sits about 40 kilometres south of Kathmandu. I am excited and intrigued to experience life in a remote village, and at this point am incredibly eager to escape the dusty roads of Kathmandu.
The journey is long, as we stop on occasion to pick up and drop off locals. There is a certain amount of patience one requires when taking public transport in Nepal. Timetables are non-existent, traffic can be excessive, and old, manual, overcrowded buses can only make it to certain speeds. But you always make it to your destination…eventually. If anything, Nepal has taught me more patience than any other country I have visited, and I always admire its ability to do so.
We drive through some Newari townships and head up into the hills. Manikhel sits at about 2000 metres above sea level so the views on the way are nothing short of magnificent. We ascend up the windy roads, through some forests and past small villages. The air became so much cleaner and life became so much simpler. After a long 4-hour bus ride we arrive.
Indra and I disembark from the rusty bus on the side of a narrow dirt road. Men in traditional Nepali topis stroll past us, Indra recognises a few and exchanges words with them. They were curious about me; it is very rare that a foreigner visit this region. Indra translated, “They were asking where you are from and wanted to invite us in for tea”. We had barely been here for 5 minutes and I could already feel the warmth and hospitality of the locals.
We arrive at a blue two-story building with wooden doors. Young children play hopscotch outside the door and smile at me as I walk inside the home. “This is my Auntie, Hirameya” Indra says. A middle-aged woman smiles at me with her hands in prayer. “Namaste”, she greeted me. I replicated her gesture and replied.
Indra and her Aunt spoke to each other in their language. “Are you hungry?” Indra asked me. “My Auntie wants to make us some food after our long journey”. It had been a long day and I was incredibly hungry. As I looked around the kitchen I saw a large shelf full of brass cutlery, plates and water jugs. Beside the shelf was a simple stove connected to a gas cylinder. We took a seat on a mat on the ground as Hirameya prepared us some curry with beaten rice. I took this opportunity to ask Indra some questions about the family and the homestay.
The community started the homestay with the aim to fuel economic growth in the region. Both of Hirameya’s sons have fled the village to work abroad – a scenario not uncommon for villages like this one. Remittances; that is, sending money home from abroad, account for about 30% of Nepal’s GDP. Women are often left to stay in the villages and care for the children while husbands spend years abroad. Indra said that her uncle only comes home once a year. It made sense to me why there were so many women in these households and not many men.
As I waited for the food to be ready I watched the scenes from the doorway; children jostled playfully, locals would peek their heads in every now and again curious of this foreigner who had ventured the long journey to their village. I learned the word “Lasso”, the Tamang translation of “Hello”, and was quickly able to greet the people I met. They always responded with a smile.
This village is predominantly home to those of the Tamang caste, the largest Tibeto-Burman ethnic group within Nepal. Indra explains to me that you can recognise the Tamang by their more noticeably Asian facial features such as rounder faces and smaller noses. I would learn a mixture of the Tamang dialect, as well as the traditional Nepali language, so I could create a small dialogue with the people I met. Only a very small percentage of people in the village speak English. I fact, if it wasn’t for Indra it would have been hard for me to communicate with many of the villagers. However, it did mean that I was able to quickly pick up words and I could sense that Ani wanted to learn as much from me as I would learn from her.
Hirameya, or Ani (Aunt in the Nepali language), owns one of the 3 homestays in this village and would be my host for the duration of my stay. She was a kind, gentle woman in her late 40s with 3 children and 5 grandchildren. Her 3 sons left Manikhel to work abroad, and so I was only able to meet her daughters in law and their beautiful children. Hirameya’s extended family lived in one of the homes only a 2-minute walk away and would frequently visit us, especially during meals. We would eat together as one big family, one of the aspects I thoroughly enjoyed about my stay.
On the menu that night was mutton, a delicacy that is mainly enjoyed on a special occasion. Ani and her daughter in law, Angeline, cooked a feast for all of us. There were copious amounts of rice, as well as spinach, chutney and the mutton curry; full of delicious spices. All of the food, aside from the rice, grown right here in the hills. The climate isn’t ideal for rice crops but there is an abundance of corn and wheat. Rice is imported from drier, southern regions.
After dinner, Ani took me to visit the local mill only a few houses down from where we were staying. I watched as the machine transformed corn kernels into corn flour that would be used the next morning for our roti. I loved watching how self-sustainable the community is here. They have prime real estate, with unlimited fresh water coming from the jungle and irrigation pipes set up for the water to flow through to the homes. They have the perfect climate to grow vegetables such as cauliflower, potato, tomato, cabbage and corn. Every home even owns a cow or buffalo for fresh milk, and chickens for eggs. Life might be very different from where I come from, but it is surely adequate.
That evening Ani showed me to the room of the homestay. It was a building located on a hilltop just up from Ani’s home, with a view overlooking the whole of Manikhel. As the sun set behind the hills I felt a sense of peace flow over me that I hadn’t felt in a very long while. That night I fell into one of the deepest sleeps I have ever had.
I woke to the sound of chirping birds. There was a beautiful silence that sat over the homestay; I was a world away from the chaotic streets of Kathmandu. Indra and I walked down to Anis just in time for breakfast. Ani had already prepared the dough to knead the roti and let me participate in the cooking. I grabbed a small lump of dough and a rolling pin, and started to flatten it. On the menu this morning would be chana (chick peas in Nepali), one of my favourite dishes. Ani poured us a cup of hot, tasty; albeit sugary, tea, and we sat on the mat digesting energy for the morning walk. Anis grandchildren Elisa and Shristi were never too far, entertaining us with their childish frolic.
Today we will trek through the surrounding villages and down to visit the free-flowing river, as well as a visit to some waterfalls and a fish farm. Ani took us the short-cut, through the paths trodden by farmers. It was nothing short of beautiful, as we passed by tall native Rhododendron trees and uninterrupted views of the verdant green hills. Once we arrived in the next village we were met by Ani’s friend, who so kindly invited us in for some tea and food. The hospitality of the people here never ceases to amaze me. They would take the coats off their backs for you.
While the family were chatting away I walked out of the home to explore the surroundings. There were some buffalo and goat grazing happily in the backyard. A few friendly faces with their hands in prayer greeted me with a “Namaste”. Each home had Nepali prayer flags hanging from the rooftops; a typical sight in these lands. I once again felt the feeling of utter peace and tranquillity, here in a place so far from where I was born yet a place that strangely felt like home.
We arrived at the fish farm and it was a sight I had never seen before. About 10 huge ponds sat on an area of the land beneath the hills. Water flowed plentifully from the mountains as hundreds, maybe even thousands, of fish danced around in the water. The fish farm feeds most of the surrounding communities and even makes its way into the larger towns. I treated Ani and her family to a kilogram of fish for our evening dinner. I felt it was the least I could do for the generous hospitality they had bestowed on me. That night Ani’s daughter in law cooked us the fish in a delicious curry, along with some rice and vegetables.
It was Nepali New Year and we had just arrived back from the festivities. Ani insisted that I join her in some celebrations and poured me a glass of Raksi – a type of rice wine. It had a strong spirit-like taste but with a touch of sweetness. It warmed my throat, and after half a glass I could already feel the alcohol in my blood. I started to practice some of the Nepali I had learned and Indra helped me with my pronunciation. We sat as a family once again, eating, drinking and laughing as the sun went down and stars became so prominent in the sky. By 10 PM the village was asleep, and all I could hear were the sounds of cicadas and the distant roars of thunder.
On the last day of my stay in the village, Ani and Indra wanted to take me to a beautiful monastery located about 10 kilometres away from Manikhel. “It’s a long trek” Indra warned me, “but it’s worth it”. We started our day nice and early. Ani packed the leftover roti and chana from breakfast in a bag to bring with us. We ascended deeper into the village, towards what seemed to be one of the highest points in the hills. We passed by more homes as friendly locals watched and greeted us; their traditional homes overlooking the distant hills.
On the way to the monastery, we stopped by Indra’s mothers home. Indra’s mother and father live here in Manikhel. Her 2 sisters live here as well. The family owns a rather large mushroom farm and is in the process of manufacturing water seed oil – herbal oil that is extracted from the water seed plant that grows in the cooler climates here. We entered the home through a small wooden door; a cloud of smoke waved over us. Indra’s mother was busy cooking, knowing that she had guests arriving. It was rather dark inside with a small bit of light coming through the cracks beneath the roof. At the back of the building were shelves holding different goods such as jars of peanuts, shampoo sachets and packets of noodles. They own a shop, which explains the locals congregating outside. I sat at the table inside and before I could speak there was a plate of delicious food in front of me; barbequed organic mushrooms grown right here on the farm, fresh sauteed spinach, lentil soup, and of course, rice. It was only 10 AM but I knew we had a long walk ahead so I ate as much as I could. It also helped that the mushrooms were probably the best mushrooms I had ever tasted in my life!
After a short tour of the mushroom farm we were on our way towards the monastery. The walk was long but soothing. We had nowhere to be in a hurry. I hummed the lyrics to Radnor & Lee’s “One foot in front of the other” thinking about how simple and beautiful life was at this particular moment in time. At one point it was so silent that all I could hear was the sound of wind in my ears and the orchestra of cicadas singing. We walked along the dirt track; the occasional farmer herding his cattle would walk by us. Otherwise, there wasn’t a person to be seen. Just the tall, green Rhododendron trees and the blue sky over the distant green hills.
I woke up from my meditative state as I heard Indra’s voice, “can you see the monastery over there?”. Far in the distance was a large, yellow monument sitting atop a hill. We were almost there. Beneath the monument was a small village. As we made our way there we were approached by some locals and they invited in for a rest. They offered us Mountain Dew – what I have learned to be the local’s version of coffee. Wherever you go, there is always tea and Mountain Dew. We chatted with the locals for about 15 minutes before commencing our walk towards the monastery. We were accompanied by some of the locals who so kindly asked the monks if we could enter – even though it clearly stated it was off-limits to tourists. The interior was as gorgeous as the exterior; as peaceful as you would expect a monastery to be. Ani entered the prayer hall and bowed to the altar. It was beautiful to see the Tamang faith so raw like this.
We headed to the top of the monastery for 360-degree views of the hills. I couldn’t believe we had trekked 10 kilometres to get here. The time passed so quickly. But we had to return, and so we decided to leave by the early afternoon to allow enough time before dark.
The walk home was just as peaceful. It reminded me how fast everything moves in the world that I come from. Everything is by the clock there. Here life is simply one foot in front of the other. As long as you have a roof over your head, clean water, access to food and the chance to sit and smile with your friends you’re happy. There seems no urge for much more – not in comparison to our constant need for more.
This weekend taught me a lot about simplicity. It taught me about human connectivity. I was taken in by a family and was shown incredible hospitality, even without a direct means of verbal communication. The morning I had to leave was very emotional for me. Having been travelling alone for so long; having lived away from home for even longer, I never realised the nostalgia I held for the sense of family and closeness. I will always remember my time here with my Tamang family, and if the stars align again perhaps I will return one day. Until then, Ani and her family will always hold a special place in my heart.
Duara offered homestays in rural, non-touristy villages in Africa & Asia in 2016-2019.