When you conjure up an image of Nepal, it’s likely one of the snow-capped Himalayan mountains. Likewise, if you visit, you’re bound to field questions from cab drivers and fellow tourists eager to hear what trek you’re planning.
Even from the window seat of a tiny plane, the Himalayas are majestic enough to take your breath away. But despite how it’s often imagined, Nepal is as diverse a place as any. If you’re willing to take the road less traveled and head west, you’ll wind up in the lush forest some 6 kilometers from the Indian border.
That’s where I spent several days in October, living in a mud hut alongside the Tharu people in the Dalla community on the outskirts of Bardiya National Park. The self-sufficient, indigenous ethnic group occupies Nepal and India and has its own culture and dialect.
As our car departed Nepalgunj Airport and ventured into the jungle, we quickly traded paved roads for dirt, cityscapes for vast fields of rice, hordes of people for roaming water buffalo, and frequent car horns for the cicadas’ song.
It didn’t take long before it dawned on my group: We’re really here, and here is far, far away from anything we’ve ever experienced.
We soon came to realize that the Tharu people are far more generous and welcoming than we could have imagined. On our first night, Sudip Tharu, our host, asked if we’d like to attend a villagewide football game. We were the first international group to sit in on such a game, and locals were rightfully confused at our presence. It didn’t take long for the community to warm up to us, though. In time, the namastes — the traditional Nepali greeting — were flowing.
There are plenty of moments when I’m appreciative of the fact I’m alive. In this moment, I marveled that I somehow ended up in this place in time watching the fiery sun make its descent in the sky, leaving a coat of warm light on everything it touched.
I didn’t grow up here. In fact, I’d never been anywhere like it. But here I sat, cheering for Dalla’s team and experiencing a true snippet of life in a village on the other side of the world.
Maybe finding beauty in the simplicity is what it’s all about. In Dalla, neighbors are quick to lend a hand and even quicker to share a smile.
No one better represents that than Sudip and his family. For Sudip, Dalla is home. He works as a nature guide at Bardiya National Park, coordinates homestays, helps in the rice fields and still makes time for everyday life as a son, husband, sibling, friend and soon-to-be father.
“I love nature and culture,” he told me when I asked about his decision to return to the village after leaving for school.
As was our nightly tradition, we sat outside of Sudip’s family kitchen, scarfing down a helping of dal bhat — a traditional Nepali dish of steamed rice and lentil soup.
If nature and culture matter most, it makes sense that he’d return. The Tharu people commune with nature because they live in it. They revere the Bengal tiger and must keep an eye out for wildlife at all times to protect their families and crops. On our final night in the village, we ran from our meal to watch the community scare away an elephant meandering through the rice fields.
More than anything, however, the Tharu people are a true community. Families stay together, and the locals share a bond that’s formed only when you’re an integral part of another’s story.
“We are all one family,” Sudip’s friend Om Chaudhary told me one afternoon while he took a break from cutting rice in the thick jungle heat.
Om attends college in Kathmandu, Nepal’s heavily populated capital city, but he comes back to Bardiya as frequently as possible.
Traveling, especially to somewhere like Nepal, is a luxury that’s not available to all, and I recognize the inherent privilege in my ability to visit. I appreciate the unique opportunity to be able to experience the world and its people, the ways in which we are all the same but also completely different. As a journalist, it feels like my duty to ask questions, to listen, observe, soak it all in and then write, write, write.
So many visit Nepal to attempt some of the world’s tallest peaks, and maybe one day I will visit for a trek too.
But sitting alongside Sudip and his family, communicating in English but also in belly laughs and knowing nods, it was tough to escape the feeling that this was just, well, it. This was the experience. This small village, this hospitable family were the reasons we traveled 24 hours to Nepal and took another plane ride and multihour car drive once we arrived.
More than the bustling streets of Kathmandu and perhaps even more than the majestic Mount Everest, this is Nepal.