We left Pokhara in driving rain - proper monsoon rain that sheeted in and left torrents cascading from the fields and across the roads. Privately I thought our hopes of getting into the mountains were pretty slim but I didn't share my doubts with Oli and Andre my companions in this adventure. In the front seats were also Madon and Milan, both students who had graduated from the Shamrock school but remained as wardens. Our mission was to reach the remote village of Kumlung, high in the Annapurna foothills. We had heard stories here of low level but extensive earthquake damage and the village was home to one of Shamrock's students, 13 year old Prabesh.
My scepticism was well founded, when an hour into the journey and on the first steep ascent the jeep came to an abrupt halt - the cause a broken fan belt. We hiked to a local village and waited an hour before a very full bus appeared. With no room inside a bumpy but exhilarating four hours on the roof followed. We kept a good eye out for the thick bamboo stems that hung across the road and threatened to knock us flying. As we climbed every turn became increasingly perilous, the wheels mere inches from the edge, below which the rice paddies fell away in hundreds of steps. The rain cleared in the afternoon and the views were staggeringly beautiful when we eventually reached the road head at Surki.
We disembarked to find Sushma, a Year 10 student from the school. Sushma had shown me around Shamrock just a week earlier and I had been impressed by her excellent English and her ambitions to be an engineer. I shouldn't have been surprised but her very basic home was little more than a roadside teahouse where her smiling mother and little sister presided. They were thrilled to see us and we enjoyed a cup of milk tea before heading on our way. Our trek was only to be a couple of hours but it promised to be a brutal ascent. We started by crossing a deep ravine on a suspension bridge, below banana trees and long jungle creepers, even hibiscus flowers festooned the valley slopes. Soon we were climbing back and forth on the steep path, a 500m ascent in the humidity forced the sweat to pour off me before we emerged onto the cool ridgeline and a small village. Our destination was an hour beyond but now we contoured the hillside. The paddy fields that had dominated our journey had now given way to maize at this cooler altitude.
We made it to Kumlung just before dark and a welcome that despite many trips to Nepal I had never experienced. I have been to plenty of hill villages but all on major trekking routes where western tourists had long ceased to be a spectacle. Here it seemed the entire population of the village, perhaps a hundred people had waited to greet us. We were soon blessed with garlands of flowers while Prabesh led us, looking rather embarrassed at all the fuss, to his family home.
We spent the evening being fed a succession of supper dishes and listening to the village chief explain at great length how badly the village had been damaged in the recent quake. It was too dark to assess his claims, so the evening took a musical twist with the local performers assembled and all of us persuaded to dance. The Nepali wine flowed freely and the locals were thrilled when Oli passed round his collection of cigars. In the morning we took a guided tour and witnessed a village that was untouched by technology and probably barely changed in hundreds of years. The irony is that this was the ultimate eco community, a way of living that we could all learn from. It seemed every other house cared for chickens and mounted beehives to secure every food source possible. Many kept buffalo in sheds attached to the house. Their waste was transported to the fields for fertiliser and in return the cuttings from the maize were given to the animals. It was a beautiful cycle of sustainability and cooperation that also existed on a social level. I watched a blind woman strip the maize from husks, her solid forearms betrayed the fact that she had done this tens of thousands of times. Madon explained that with her disability this was her contribution to village life and despite the monotony of her task she was well cared for by the villagers in return.
I thought I had seen much of Nepal but I left Kumlung realising that I had a lot to learn. Away from the tourist areas life here is desperately hard work and full of challenges. The villagers had actually escaped the earthquake lightly but many of the houses now displayed cracks for which they have no means to repair. Promised grants from the government have so far failed to appear and when the villagers are illiterate they are cruelly unaware of their rightful allocation. This leaves the system rife for corruption and little money will trickle down to the families that need it most.
Much as I want these villagers to have a better way of life it was a very special opportunity to see how they live and work together. I doubt they will lives will continue like this for long, Young people are already heading for the cities so if you want a very special experience don't delay. Next time you are trekking with a guide or porter perhaps ask if you can visit their local village or where they come from. I guarantee you will have a memorable experience.