We just started our 7-day trek of Poon Hill and I’m struggling. Before the trip I worried about my two girls trekking like this, but I should have been worrying about myself.
The walk starts easily enough, through flat tropical countryside dotted with palm trees and banana plants, where carefree toddlers play in puddles in front of their little homes. Laundry dries over small patches of land. We stop for a few minutes by a stand with tourist trinkets, such as colorful knitted Nepali hats and skirts. I buy a tiny Ghanesh statue to protect us — Hindus call him the remover of obstacles.
We cross through blankets of rice paddies and we start our ascent in earnest. After a few hours, my legs feel like the 10 kilo packs of rice passing donkeys carry on their backs, while my girls whistle up the cobblestone steps like Sherpas.
To the girls’ delight, a stray dog adopts us as his new family and follows us for the rest of the day. We feed him biscuits.
We don’t see many people, just some farmers tending the land and women picking rice. It’s June, the beginning of the monsoon season, so there are very few other trekkers. For now, the weather is glorious.
‘Only one more hour till our break!’ our female guide yells from behind me. I groan.
We found her through the only all-female trekking guide agency here, Three Sisters in Pokhara. Scared off by stories about male guides sometimes drinking too much and harassing women trekkers, Anil (my Nepali husband) had made a female guide his one demand.
At a blue teahouse, I gratefully rest my legs and let sweet cardamom flavored Nepali tea warm my insides. We’re surrounded by pristine emerald hills. I had not been prepared for such beauty. It is so quiet – the only sound we hear are donkeys’ bells in the distance. Since there are no roads, they are the main mode of transportation here.
Hailing from a country that’s mostly below sea-level, trekking in the mountains never appealed to me. But with the girls at the perfect ages of 10 and 12, I thought it would be good to show them more of their dad’s country and culture, a world very different from their private school bubble. My husband Anil had to work, so it’s just my daughters and me. I watch them chatter away, their cheeks reddened with excitement.
With 2 more hours uphill to go, we reluctantly leave the lovely teahouse behind us.
‘Don’t worry! Today and tomorrow, hardest. After that, easy,’ our guide giggles.
Besides her, we also have a Sherpa to carry the one backpack that contains all of our clothes and necessities. He is a long-haired, stocky man who exudes a happy calmness and I instantly adore him. So do the girls. He teaches them Nepali songs as he leads the way.
Home for the night is another teahouse. Our rickety room barely fits 3 beds and our things, but it costs $4 a night and the girls love it. That’s what I admire about them. Even though they live a luxurious life, they get excited about anything new and different, like this room with its paper-thin makeshift walls that stay patched together with different sized and colored pieces of hardboard. It looks like a bit of a storm would make the whole structure collapse, but I try not to think about that too much.
We shower in the shared bathroom, which is not more than a concrete box with a leaky faucet. Dinner is a feast of rice, dal, a veggie curry and pickles on an outdoor patio with just four tables. The view of the surrounding green hills is breathtaking as daylight fades and tiny lights appear from the houses that dot the hills.
The next day we find heavy, dark clouds overhead and the air cool and damp. As we walk, the only sounds we hear are bird chatter, crickets and the grinding of our boots in the mud.
We pass an open area where the clouds break, and the sun comes out in dusty rays. Hopping over a small stream, we find an abandoned cabin decorated with colorful Buddhist prayer flags, burning incense, and fruit and flower offerings.
We sit down and take out our metal water bottles. Basking in the sun, I feel a sense of utter calm and peace descend on me — as if I had been meditating for hours, instead of trekking.
We stretch our break to half an hour until the guide pushes us to go, and we reluctantly get up. As soon as we leave that magical spot, the clouds close, covering the sun, furthering the idea that we just left a very sacred place. The Buddhists must feel it, since they put up their flags and offerings right there. Nepal is full of experiences like that. The hike is hard work, unpleasant even at times, but it’s dotted with glimpses of a paradise that make it all so worth it.
As we walk, the changes in landscape are constant and sudden. It goes from flat and tropical to forested, mountainous with stunning valley views to a place that looks and feels like the Shire of Hobbiton.
During one teahouse break two other trekking travelers tell me how brave I must be to do this hike alone with my girls.
“Yes, or how dumb”, I laugh, and realize that I have not seen any other kids on the entire trail. Not even with two parents. I tend not to think about the risks of whatever things I’m about to do, which is both good and bad. It’s good because I probably end up doing a lot more things than most parents, like trekking in Nepal. But the obvious bad part is that you may end up in dicey situations — maybe that’s why we religiously turn all the Buddhist prayer wheels that we pass.
As we take our final few steps up to our place for the night on day 4, I ask my guide if she knows CPR. She gives me a quizzical look.
‘You know, the thing you do when someone has a heart attack’, I add.
She breaks into a laugh and shakes her head. ‘Ah no, I don’t.’
Great. Questions flood my head. What would happen to the girls if my heart or another organ gave out? What would happen to me? I should have asked these questions before embarking on this adventure. I can kick myself. Irresponsible mom.
My negative thoughts disappear as an incredible view of the Annapurna range and Fishtail mountain unfolds before us. We stand breathless, overwhelmed with a sense of smallness. I watch the girls’ eyes glitter.
‘None of your friends have done or seen this,’ I tell them, as I squeeze their hands, ‘I’m so proud of you both.’ My eyes feel moist.
The highlight of our trip was not seeing snowcapped mountains, but the joy of bonding with my daughters and watching them bond with each other, which doesn’t happen much back home.
‘We’ll have this adventure forever. No one can take that away from us,’ I keep telling them, and I think they know how special this is.
There is hardly any internet on the trail, hardly an opportunity to charge our phones even. In the evenings we play cards, chat with other travelers and write in our journals while sipping Nepali tea.
Our last stop is the village of Ghandruk, the most scenic Nepali village we have encountered while trekking. It is our favorite stop on the trail, and we decide to stay an extra night. We wake up to the sounds of giggling children making their way to school on cobblestoned streets, donkey feet clacking on the steps up and down the hill, the chorus of the bells around their necks, distant chanting from the Buddhist monastery. A wonderful reward for all the hard work we did over the past week.
Back in Pokhara, I treat us to a room at Fishtail Lodge, a lovely place on a small island in the middle of Phewa Lake.
After a week of eating almost only rice and dhal, we drool over the range of meal options on the menu. We order Tandoori chicken, grilled fish, vegetable masala and a big glass of Sauvignon Blanc for me. We have dinner outside and watch the sun set over the lake as we chat about our mixed emotions with the end of the trek.
At night, as I lie on my soft bed and marvel about the crisp sheets, the girls text their friends. And I just wish that we were back out there, trekking without electricity or Internet.