It was late afternoon and we hadn’t walked as much on this day as we did the days before. We decided to stop because we found a flat stretch of grass beside a river. While it’s easy to find a river in Nepal, finding an area flat enough for four tents could prove a challenge. If you manage this particular combination and your spot is slightly removed from a village, you struck gold. While the odd goat herder or travelling family doesn’t bother you, a group of 20 to 30 villagers standing around staring at you while you boil the water for your instant noodles can become slightly unsettling.
As we unloaded our packs and went about our routines of setting up tents, reorganising our meagre belongings, washing in the river and rationing our fire lighters I didn’t yet know that this place would be where I connected most profoundly with the Mugu District of western of Nepal.
Perhaps it was because we spent three nights here, but we were somehow drawn to this particular patch of trees. It’s hard to create a home when you’re wearing the same t-shirt every day and your kitchen equipment consists of a cup and a spork, but at this place we made an effort. We took spare rope and fashioned some washing lines. We stacked rocks to serve as chairs. We made a fire and stayed awake after dark.
When I think of Nepal, it’s this place that comes to mind first. It’s more than just a picture though, it’s a complete feeling. For that memory moment, I’m back on the same rock I visited every morning or balancing beside the river while I brush my teeth.
It seems the most detailed memories of all the places I’ve visited are often where the least amount of excitement happened, but where I found myself being entirely immersed in the place. It’s the bench beside the sweets stall in Bali, away from the beach on the walking path where I had a coffee at dawn on our last morning there. It’s the afternoon walk in a small town in Iceland, away from the waterfalls and the glaciers, followed by a donut and a read at the nearest, warmest coffee shop. It’s a nap on a hammock in Cambodia, shaded by the hut, the ocean only barely visible.
This is what place-based travel is. It’s being completely immersed in a place. It’s giving that place time to form a memory for you. Travelling like this is slow, local, and mindful.
This particular trip to Nepal was crafted around moments like these. We left our phones at the hotel in Kathmandu and spent two weeks walking to villages where cars cannot reach. At remote teahouses we waited for two hours while a family cooks rice, bean broth and potatoes from scratch on a fire. While we ate second and third helpings we attempted to cross language barriers with simple words and friendly gestures. We camped on grassy patches without facilities, washing our hair with river water poured from our drinking cups. We walked in forests, over mountain passes, across wooden bridges and past temples where strings of prayer flags have been torn to threads by years of gentle wind.
Our conception of pre-arranged trips is that they’ll fly past must-sees and tick off the sights. But an immersive learning journey like the one I was able to join is the exact opposite. It’s because you travel with facilitators and guides that you’re able to get that much further. You get to meet people you would never have met. You see villages and you walk on trails you wouldn’t have known existed.
Travelling is supposed to challenge us and change us, but we have to give it time to do its work. An immersive learning journey helps the magic of travelling slowly to happen.
While the journey I joined is unfortunately not taking place again, the Sustainability Institute is offering three different journeys this year. Go to Ethiopia to learn local conservation methods from the elders, spend time living in an indigenous community in the Amazon forest, or meet the small-scale farmers of India.
Or if you can’t, remember next time you travel to take the time, somewhere in your itinerary, to just sit in one place and take it in. You’ll look back after many years and that particular place will be the first that comes to mind. You’ll be surprised at the completeness of your memory.
Words & Photos: Adél Strydom