Exploring beyond Everest in Nepal and connecting with locals in India deliver tourism for good.
The Himalaya are, for many travelers, the reason to visit Nepal. Skyscraping and storied, they top life lists for good reason. So a trip to “the roof of the world” that didn’t aim for the ceiling honestly seemed a little crazy to me – until now. Hiking in the foothills southeast of Kathmandu, with no plans to go any higher, I think I’m as content as any trekker in this country.
Lush terraced hills roll out in all directions, the morning haze keeping things a little dreamy. The altitude is a respectable 5,000 feet, yet these aren’t considered mountains – our guide explains that in Nepal a snowy cap is required for that designation. Goats and chickens browse outside simple stone and brick farmhouses; laundry and prayer flags flap in the warm May breeze. My companions and I have hiked for a couple of hours along dirt roads and footpaths, and we haven’t seen another tourist. We share the route with women in colorful kurtas lugging baskets, men in topis sipping chai, and kids clambering after dogs over rock piles.
Panauti feels far off Nepal’s tourist track, because it is. Expeditions to Everest Base Camp, the Annapurna Circuit, and the like leave much of the country unexplored – a boon for travelers seeking authentic cultural experiences, but a lost opportunity for Nepalis left out of one of the nation’s most important industries.
The six-mile hike from the small town of Sanga (home of the world’s tallest statue of Shiva) to the historic city of Panauti was developed as a draw for visitors, with help from the Planeterra Foundation
. Founded by Toronto-based social entrepreneur Bruce Poon Tip, Planeterra embraces the idea that tourism can be a catalyst to improve people’s lives and a spur for the protection of natural environments and local culture. It’s the nonprofit offshoot of Poon Tip’s small-group adventure-travel company, G Adventures
Last year, G Adventures began providing something called a Ripple Score for its tours as a measure of positive impact. Working with Sustainable Travel International, Poon Tip says, “We looked at the entire supply chain to find out what percentage of the money we spend on the ground actually goes into locally owned businesses and local talent management. We were surprised, and it changed our behaviors.”
My day in Panauti is part of a trip showcasing some of G Adventures’ G for Good experiences in India
and Nepal. Like most of its trips, this one blends guided outings and tours with hands-on activities, such as learning to wrap a sari, and visits to social-enterprise projects.
Our hike eventually descends through rice paddies until we thread into narrow lanes in the Old Town that seem little changed since the fifteenth century, when Panauti was an important kingdom for the Newari, who have lived in the region for centuries. Our destination is the Indreshwar Mahadev temple. Unlike the better-known Hindu temple complexes of Bhaktapur and Patan, Indreshwar wasn’t damaged by Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake. The tiered, pagoda-style temple stands tall. Beneath it, women in embroidered silk greet us with flowered garlands. Young men play drums and cymbals, known as dhime
. I’m told that these once-neglected traditional Newari instruments are being revived by a younger generation for events such as this one.
Into shallow terra-cotta cups, women from the community pour aila, a local fermented liquor that burns going down. Dancers soon fill the courtyard; their classic gestures span the ages. By the time we’re invited to join in, the drink has done its work. We gamely try to follow the dancers’ elegant moves until everyone is freestyling and laughing.
For dinner, our party breaks into more-intimate groups. As part of the Panauti Community Homestay, another Planeterra-G Adventures initiative, local families host guests in their homes for meals and overnight stays, with a percentage of the proceeds shared by the larger community.
Srijana Strestha, an outgoing young woman who seems perfectly at ease with strangers, walks four of us to her home in a concrete building that looks like a small apartment complex. In the third-floor kitchen, her father, Laxmi Narayan Strestha, kneads dough in a metal bowl. Her mother, Ram Devi, slices okra. Anajani, her older sister, makes chai. A young boy scrambles in from next door to borrow a grater. There is plenty of good-natured yelling through windows. Anajani explains that 35 members of an extended family live in this building.
After a cold beer and peppery flatbread, we gather around a table on the rooftop balcony for a yomari-making lesson led by Laxmi. Yomari are cone-shaped dumplings filled with a tarry mix of coconut, cashews, almonds, raisins, dates, and sugarcane syrup that originated in these parts. Anajani shows us photos of her wedding. Her husband works in Saudi Arabia – due to a lack of opportunity close to home, many Nepalese men work abroad. It’s one of the reasons the homestay project was started by and for women.
We dine together back in the kitchen at a table purchased with homestay earnings. The same is true for the refrigerator. We put down our forks and follow the sisters’ example, using our hands to eat the mustard greens, okra, beans, eggplant, and paneer. If there are other concessions to outsiders besides the forks, I can’t spot them.
With the night comes rain, thunder, and a quick temperature drop. I imagine this cool air began in the deep freeze above the world’s highest glaciers. But that’s for others to contend with. I turn my attention back to these new friends, this cozy kitchen, and my first-ever yomari, which taste strange and sweet.
With visits to other social-enterprise projects in India and Nepal, G Adventures connects travelers to real people, real stories, and real change. Here, a few examples:
If the Taj Mahal is a cool marble monument to a noble love, Sheroes Hangout
in Agra puts that story in perspective. This cheerful café is run entirely by the survivors of acid attacks. It’s estimated that hundreds of women are attacked this way every year in India by the people who should love them – husbands, lovers, parents. The café offers purpose and community for victims in a culture that shuns them. For visitors, this is a chance to witness true bravery and to support these women in turning their lives around, which they do with grace and a surprising abundance of laughter.
The narrow lanes of New Delhi are a maze of wonders: Banyan trees grow into ancient buildings, clusters of cables loom overhead like enormous gaudy nests, zipping rickshaws and motorbikes test walkers’ composure. Get oriented to the neighborhood with the help of those who know these complicated streets intimately. The poised, articulate teenage guides leading the youth City Walk once lived on the streets of India’s megacities, surviving any way they could. As part of the Salaam Baalak Trust, they are given a home, secondary education, and preparation for careers in tourism (the tours are excellent practice).
, spicy Nepalese dumplings, are as close to a national food as you can get. Learn the trick of creating these neat little pockets with the women of the Sisterhood of Survivors, hosted by the nonprofit SASANE
. The Planeterra project in Kathmandu supports SASANE in training women who have survived human trafficking for careers in hospitality and as paralegals to help them land sustainable long-term jobs and reduce the risk they will be abused or trafficked again. SASANE won a 2016 UN World Tourism Organization Award for Excellence and Innovation. The afternoon includes inspiring stories, a cooking lesson, and a shared lunch with the sisterhood in their Kathmandu office.
G Adventures’ 17-day journey through India and Nepal in conjunction with National Geographic introduces travelers to highlights throughout both countries – as well as to projects that include SASANE in Kathmandu, the City Walk in Delhi, and Sheroes Hangout café in Agra. Travelers who want to experience a homestay like the one in this story can opt for a more modest seven-day trip
in Nepal that focuses on living like locals and includes a stay with a family in Panauti.
Travel advisors can work with Amber Tours, one of Virtuoso’s on-site connections in India, to craft special-interest itineraries throughout the country, from leopard tracking with nomads and Himalaya wellness retreats to gem shopping in Jaipur
, visiting royal palaces and monuments, and more.