Beyond the pre-conceptions of Nepal

A Nepali Times intern looks back at her time in the country

All photos: Aïsha MacDougall

At the start of 2023 I was working in a bank, by the end of the year I was standing at the top of Gokyo Ri watching as the last light of the day hit the top of Everest. If you had told the January 2023 version of me what my life would be like now, I would have laughed. I have spent the last five months in Nepal, while this is my fourth time in Nepal, it has been the first time that I have properly lived in the country and my first time pursuing my passion for journalism and photography.

There is something magical about Nepal that is apparent from the moment you arrive - a sense of comfort and innumerable possibilities. It is a rare thing to visit a new country and immediately feel at ease. I never knew it was possible to be overcome with nostalgia for a place I had never visited before until I came to Kathmandu.

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Throughout my time at the Nepali Times, I have written about Nepali botanical art, jazz festivals, profiled an ex-soldier and athlete, mobile phone legislation, climate change, and Nepali cuisine. I have found that journalism is a wonderful vehicle through which one can develop a better understanding of the world and one’s place in it, and, ultimately, learn and experience things that you would otherwise never have the opportunity to. I have been able to learn more about Nepal, its culture, and its society. By writing articles for the Nepali Times, I’ve been able to join together the diverse fragments of Nepal that I have experienced into one cohesive tapestry.

The highlight has been meeting the people and having the opportunity to share their stories. In October in the Annapurna Region, I had the good fortune of meeting Captain Poon when I stayed at his teahouse in Ghorepani, who graciously shared with me his incredible life story. Captain Poon’s life can only be described as remarkable, he began his journey as a Gurkha before becoming an international diving champion only to then become a business owner, a politician, and a local hero. I loved being able to learn more about his life and ultimately share his story so that others could also have the privilege of knowing him. Seeing the reaction to the story by him, and his family, was truly wonderful and allowed me to realise the power and impact that stories can have, and the ability of journalism to allow people to connect with the lives of those even in the most remote of places.

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Naturally, no trip to Nepal would be complete without a trek, so I spent the first two weeks of December journeying to Gokyo Ri. It was a spellbinding experience, the deafening beauty of Nepal’s mountains was heightened by the fact that for the majority of the journey, the only people on the narrow paths were the guide and I. The sheer scale of the towering mountains and the vast and expansive landscapes were so overwhelming that I often felt the urge to look away. In the best possible way, I had never felt so small in my life, talk about giving you a sense of perspective. However, my perspective was also altered in another way - while I was able to witness the diverse beauty of the Khumbu region, I also witnessed the devastating impact that climate change is already having on the beautiful Himalayas. Despite being in one of the highest places in the world and in the depths of winter, there was a distinct lack of ice and snow, this was most notable looking down on the Everest Range, where the snow was sparse at best where even the tallest mountain in the world looked bare. In Europe, talk is cheap, and climate change is treated as a selling point but it is these regions such as Khumbu that will be the most affected. It was truly an eye-opening experience that I will forever remember.

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Another thing that was particularly striking was witnessing the different attitudes towards life and death in Nepal, especially in comparison to Western perceptions. A few days after landing in the country, I had the privilege to experience Gai Jatra in Bhaktapur, a celebration of life in the face of death, for those who had lost loved ones the previous year, it is a chance to celebrate their honour, very much reminiscent of the “Day of the Dead”. Generally speaking, in “the West” we shy away from death, refuse to speak of its existence and ultimately dedicate our lives to delaying the inevitable. Through festivals like Gai Jatra, I found that death became not a scary, elephant in the room, nor a source of tragedy but rather an opportunity to celebrate life, to bring people together, to create a sense of hope. Life and death are not beginnings and endings but rather part of the constant passage of time.

No place is a better embodiment of the refreshing Nepali attitude toward mortality than Pashupathinath where I was lucky enough to witness the evening prayer, and to put it plainly, I had never seen anything like it. The exuberant atmosphere would never make you think that is technically a site of death. While grieving families cremated their lost loved ones, 100m away were people singing and dancing, and street vendors selling cotton candy. One would think that this would be a juxtaposition but upon reflection, perhaps not, perhaps joy and grieving need not be mutually exclusive.

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At the risk of sounding clichè, the more of Nepal I experienced, the more Anthony Bourdain’s “travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering on the unknown” rang true. There is nothing more rewarding than getting to know a place, to slowly peel back the layers of expatriate separation, and begin the process of making a new place your home. There is truly no place easier to make your home than Nepal, the country is warm and welcoming, and its people even more so.

Journalism has provided me the opportunity to unfurl my tourist pre-conceptions of Nepal and enabled me to dive head first into the complexities of this magical country. I found that just when you think you have experienced everything that Nepal has to offer, something shifts and a completely new, unexpected side of the country is serendipitously revealed.

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As someone who grew up reading Tintin and spent their teens idolising Anthony Bourdain, this experience has been the manifestation of my childhood daydreams. I witnessed the sun setting over the World’s tallest mountain, visited the holiest of temples, tried the sweetest of foods, and most importantly, met the most incredible of people. While a part of my heart breaks that this experience has come to an end, I do not feel bitter or forlorn, rather I am filled with immense gratitude. I have never experienced such kindness and joy as I have from the Nepali people and I hope to take some of that warmth back with me to Europe. Namaste Nepal, and thank you for everything.

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