It is the month of May. The monsoon season is still ahead. Rain last fell seven months ago. The sun beats down on the village of Trisuli Bazaar not far from Katmandu, Nepal’s capital. Shepherds with weatherworn faces squat on the bare ground of the arid pasture, chopping hay with old, blunt long-blades.
Out-of-town tourists are a welcome distraction: a chance to trade cigarettes, Marlboros for Yak Filters. Every once in a while, one of the men gets up, takes a stool and sits down by his buffalo. He moistens the teats and starts milking with slow, deliberate movements. Out of hospitality, the shepherds offer the strangers a drink from the bucket. What is merely a sip of milk for the tourists is, to the cattle-holders, the most precious commodity they own. Nevertheless they are willing to share it.
Apart from that, they obviously greatly enjoy watching unsuspecting travelers’ faces upon tasting the milk. Fresh buffalo milk is a unique, acquired and for most of us, probably once-in-a-lifetime taste. In the early evening, the day’s yield, a 3-liter jug (not quite a gallon) of milk from each animal, is brought to the communal dairy, where it is traded in for 20 rupees. That is exactly the price of a small bottle of Coca Cola: an extravagance tourists enjoy several times daily without giving it a second thought.
These meetings between shepherds and travelers are not part of conventional mass tourism. Indeed, both travelers and natives are taking part in an ambitious project by the Nepalese organization CCODER (“Center Community Development and Research”), which has been in charge, aided by consultant Martina Mäscher from Germany’s overseas development service (Deutsche Entwicklungsdienst – DED), of planning community-based tourism in Nepal. Its plan is to ensure a better standard of living for Nepal’s villages by helping them plan their own development.
A total of 2.500 people in 150 communities are participating in the large-scale project. The first village trekking venture was completed by a tourist party in October 1998. However, the project is scheduled to properly take off in the next few weeks.
The Gorkha region, to the West of Trisuli Bazaar, will be the destination of the trekking parties. No matter what, the participating travelers will set foot in beautiful country, completely untouched by conventional tour operators.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the Himalayas. Schools, quality-of-life, qualified jobs are exotic terms or distant dreams. Unlike malnutrition, crop failures and child labor, which are a bitter fixture of everyday life in Nepal, CCODER has developed a model whereby the villages can raise their standard of living through their own initiative and by their own guidelines. The DED has provided CCODER with the consulting services of geographer Martina Mäscher. She bases her work on two principles: “We never tell participating villages what to do, but only, what they could do. And above all, the village communities are never given money, but instead the expertise and the equipment to help themselves.” Raising the community’s consciousness, improving the village infrastructure, and income-generating measures are the cornerstones of the paradigm. “Village Treks are just one of several options to generate income sources and prospects: however, it is an option that is of great use to the villagers even aside from any commercial considerations.”
One of the greatest experiences for any trekker is to get talking with the sociable Nepalese. You may, for instance, run into someone like Mahila Adhikari wandering home along a mountain path of an evening, past irrigated palms and potato fields. This mother of five children heads a CCODER Project women’s group in Trisuli Bazaar. Work in the fields is tedious and exhausting, especially in times of drought. The women get water from the river in buckets and pass them along a human conveyor belt to the fields. Only areas directly along the river are cultivated, the rest of the fields lie fallow.
But when Mahila speaks of the fruits of community work, her eyes light up. “In the vicinity of our village,” she says, “there are five groups: we call them Community Development Centers. We all sacrifice 10 minutes of working time each day. That makes one hour per week or one week per year. In this saved time, we do volunteer work for the improvement of the village: continue building the community schoolhouse, mend paths. The mountain path I’m walking on,” she proudly proclaims, “is four kilometers long. The whole village joined in building it – and it only took a single week!”
Mahila happily tells of the projects: CCODER also helped to build the local dairy. Its output not only safeguards the village’s self-support, it even makes possible modest exports to Katmandu. As the dairy is managed communally, individual buffalo shepherds achieve higher proceeds and the profits are used to finance new projects.
Meanwhile, the village of Trisuli Bazaar is not yet equipped with the infrastructure required for community-based tourism. The villages in the Gorkha region, however, have already fared very well with their first trekking party. The natives have had very little contact with outsiders before, and the visitors will be hard put to find a place that has been less impacted by the negative influence of ethno-tourism. Thus, a sense of the exceptional is present on both sides.
Lynda Leonard, an American trek participant, still enthuses about her experience: “It was like in a National Geographic video: the villagers lined up along the path to greet us with flowers and singing. They danced as they escorted us into their village.”
Gorkha lies between Katmandu and the tourist stronghold of Pokhara. Although the region offers quite a few cultural treasures, only few travelers have strayed here. This is the birthplace of modern Nepal. In 1768, the Guerkha king Prithvia Narayan conquered the valley, uniting the country. One of the most beautiful temples still bears witness to this historical event. Its climate is pleasant, its nature untouched.
For CCODER tourist parties, this translates to ten days of village trekking without telephone, cars and other tourists. The trekking paths wind through hilly country, the towering peaks of Annapurna and Ganesh are visible in the distance.
October, the best time to travel, is blessed with clear views. The itinerary calls for six hours of trekking a day. By the end of the tour, after a week-and-a-half, your legs are weary, your muscles sore and your lungs are tired of processing the pure mountain air. Meetings with the native Nepalese, so rare on conventional travel tours, happen again and again: an American tourist who also happens to be a Doctor of Naturopathic and Ayurvedic medicine, meets the village doctor. The latter, more medicine man than doctor, leads him to a patient. They consult, learn from and teach each other; respectfully and amicably. “A unique experience,” concludes the trek participant. “We have so much to give to each other and complement each other with.”
Martina Mäscher and her co-workers walk a fine line between the blessings of revenue and the curse of mass tourism. Commercial enterprises have wreaked havoc both on the social fabric and on the environment. Luxury tents with warm showers, along with imported European foods make colonists of the travelers, and reduce the natives to load-carrying coolies. “To achieve an economically perceptible result, a village needs the income from just one tourist party a year. And that is really the maximum. We intend to prevent commercialization and show the villages how to combat the relentless tourism in a positive way. Village trekking should retain its exceptional quality.”
The trekkers are put up in simple tents or the houses of host families. The kitchen is steeped in the flickering light of oil-lamps, the tiny butane stove won’t work, the lady of the house resorts to the old wood oven. She cooks a standard Nepalese meal: Dal Bat, rice with lentil soup and various vegetables. Following local custom, we eat with our fingers. Three fingers and the thumb of the right hand are used to mix and pick up the rice and sauce and bring it to the mouth, where the food is flicked in with the back of the thumb. The following morning, the trekkers are given an effusive send-off. There is still enough time to trek back to Trisuli Bazaar and have a look-see at the communal bank.
Each villager saves a certain amount each month – be it ever such a small amount. The savings are managed in a small shed that has been erected between the dairy and the community’s grocery store. Binod Kumari, the local banker, received his business training in Katmandu. He lets us see the balances and credit volumes and explains that the savings are earning good interest in a (large) bank. You can’t go very far with a minimum deposit of four Austrian Schillings per person and month. The money is used for the tiniest of loans, available only to those who also participate in the bank. The loans are used to finance looms, goats and water buffaloes, whose milk is then offered to traveling tourists… and so we come full circle.