When your best friend invites you on a three-week kayaking trip to Nepal, you start thinking about it immediately. When he offers to pay for half your airfare with his spare airline miles, you don’t think about it at all. You just say yes.
This is how I found myself stepping off a single prop airplane in Juphal, Nepal, a windswept village that smelled of manure, woodsmoke, and dirt. I had nothing but a camera, the clothes on my back, and whatever equipment I could fit in the back of the 9-foot-long kayak being unloaded from the plane’s miniscule cargo hold. It would be the trip of a lifetime, though not in the way I expected.
Nepal is known for the jagged mountains of the Himalaya, the massive rivers that spill from those mountains, and the kindness and generosity of its people. It’s also known for its poverty. I expected the bustle and chaos of the city. I expected the street dogs, the foul smelling water, and the crippled beggars. What I didn’t expect was how afraid I would be during those first few days alone in Kathmandu.
I was afraid of getting sick, lost, mugged, drugged, pickpocketed, and making a fool of myself, as well as any other fear you could have while traveling in a foreign country. I did my best to adapt through trial and error, learning when a taxi driver was asking an absurd price or which chatty strangers were looking for money. All of them were. Evading surprise fees became almost a game, and when my friend Harrison Rea arrived, I felt a great sense of relief that I would no longer be playing alone.
Perhaps it’s a wonder anything could remain unexpected, as our journey threw us one curveball after another. First, Harrison’s baggage was delayed, causing a domino effect that pushed timetables for buses, secondary flights, and rest days into chaos. Instead of taking a bus to Nepalgunj, now we were flying. Instead of flying to Juphal on November 2 as one group, we would fly in two separate groups on two separate dates. Our fellow teammates, Ben Orkin and Tom Whipple, who had already spent a couple of weeks in country on treks would spend an extra night waiting for us.
Next, a critical debit card failure left us roaming the streets the night before our flight trying to piece together the necessary funds for our final flight to the river from ATMs with a maximum withdrawal of $20 USD or less. Then, it took us three hours to carry our kayaks to the river from the landing strip in the mountains.
The list goes on. The innkeepers at the put in, who had seemed so generous the night before, charged us twice as much as we had budgeted for our stay. The river was high. The rapids were harder, longer, and more dangerous than anticipated. Our camp stove functioned at less than half its usual efficiency.
Perhaps most unexpected of all was the lack of wilderness. On any multi-day trip I’ve done in North America, there has always been a point where I felt as though I could be the very first person to pass through the area. I know this is a foolish sentiment, but there is a wildness that can be felt when you are far from a road, or the only signs of people you have seen in a day are those in your group. There was none of this in Nepal.
Despite flying deep into the mountains, into a world of jagged edges and cold, there were signs of people everywhere. Pockets of trash punctuated the rambling shoreline. Teams of pack mules and the occasional jeep rumbled along the crumbling cliff walls. Village lights made constellations against the canyon walls at night.
We spent our days running the hardest rapids of our lives and portaging just as often. We would start our days at first light, and end them well after the sun passed out of sight beyond the canyon rim. Through it all we were met with cries of “Dunga! Dunga!” (meaning boat in Nepali) from waving children while the adults looked on, sometimes in stony silence, others in careful curiosity. When we would arrive in camp, exhausted from our day on the river, I’m ashamed to say the last thing we wanted was more local interaction. Despite our efforts to choose obscure and remote sites (both to avoid potential conflicts with landowners and for our own privacy), most nights we were met with a wave of children eager to practice their English or just observe the show. More than anything, this lack of solitude wore on the group.
It wasn’t until my return to the U.S. that I fully registered what a privilege true wilderness is. My journey through Nepal was a transformative one. I learned to become more curious than suspicious, more accepting of change than expecting control, and that world-class whitewater can be found anywhere… it’s everything else that makes an international trip so compelling. I think my film does a good job of expressing that.