By Danielle Shapiro
Fulmaya Rokaya wanted to hike back through the rugged mountains to her village, roughly 20 miles from the airfield where we stood. Even though it would be a two or three-day solitary walk through the foothills of the Himalayas, she insisted. We’d just finished trekking for five days together through the mountains southeast of here, and now we were parting ways.
I was to fly and take a bus back to Pokhara, an adventure travel hub in the country’s center. I worried that 20-year-old Fulmaya, who’d been the assistant guide and porter for my just-finished trek, would be lonely or unsafe as she walked. This part of Nepal’s western region, the Jumla and Mugu districts, is far from the country’s tourist hot spots – the Everest region, the Annapurna Range, and Kathmandu. Cars, electricity, and indoor plumbing are scarce. It is wild, and it is quiet. But Fulmaya assured me that she’d be fine on her own.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried. Fulmaya’s lived in the area most of her life. She knows the territory well and had confidently led me along unmarked and sometimes divergent trails. Plus, it’s what she had been trained to do.
In December 2008, Fulmaya attended a guide-training course put on by a dynamic trio of sisters in Nepal’s adventure capital, Pokhara. Lucky, Dicky, and Nicky Chhetri are well-known in this tiny former kingdom that is buckled under the weight of the world’s highest mountains. In 1994 they founded 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking, one of the country’s first hiking guide services owned and operated exclusively by women. They’ve been widely recognized with awards from international travel and social change organizations, and they have cultivated a unique niche in Nepal’s tourism industry, which is still largely dominated by men. It’s through their company’s nonprofit arm, Empowering Women of Nepal (EWN), that they train women such as Fulmaya to be guides and implement an essential component of their mission: empowering women.
Watching Fulmaya disappear around a hilly corner after we said goodbye there was a noticeable bounce in her step and I couldn’t help but compare her to the very different girl she says she once was. Just a few years prior, Fulmaya says she was shy, afraid to talk to strangers, and nervous about traveling to unknown places. At 18, she was married and on the verge of quitting high school, the sisters told me. She might have ended up working village fields, and few would have thought it odd. In western Nepal, which includes the country’s most impoverished and least developed areas, women rarely move past tilling crops and raising children.
Yet the Fulmaya I’ve known is employed, actively pursuing her education and decidedly, she says, not ready for kids. Through her connection to the Chhetris, she’d not only learned to guide tourists on the trail, but to choose her own path in life.
Traditional roles for women here, coupled with western Nepal’s deep poverty, left me expecting to meet many women akin to the “old” Fulmaya – largely disenfranchised, struggling daily against social and cultural inequities. I had hoped to see some among them, with the Chhetris’ help, gaining opportunities for independence, education, and economic empowerment. In fact, among the 700-or-so women the Chhetri sisters have trained to be guides through EWN since 1996, including more than 80 from western Nepal, increased self-confidence like Fulmaya’s is one of the most common benefits of the training – what they’re doing is working.
W hen I first heard about the sisters more than two years ago, I was intrigued but knew few of their story’s details. What I did know is that they were literally blazing new trails in Nepal and using outdoor sports as a way to push for women’s rights – in a place where women are often treated as second class citizens. I knew their efforts could not be easy, nor could they be undertaken by women of weak character or thin resolve. Their nerve, their spirit of adventure, made me want to learn more.
I interviewed a few friends and clients. Gera van Wijk, who has known the sisters since 1999, said that while their business has grown the Chhetris have maintained a singular focus on improving the lives of their nation’s least fortunate, especially women. “I think they make women realize that they can be whatever they want to be,” she said.
For trekkers, going on a trip with 3 Sisters is also life-changing. “So many women and men choose 3 Sisters for their holiday because it’s not just a holiday, it’s something more than that,” said van Wijk, who has been on multiple trips as a guided hiker and, after a seven-month stint as a volunteer with their nonprofit, counts the sisters themselves as friends. “You have the feeling that you are really contributing to something,” she says.
On my last night in Pokhara, the sisters and I gathered for dinner. I was eager to talk to them together to understand this chemistry that van Wijk described as so impressively transformative. After wrangling their busy schedules, we eventually landed at a quiet table amid the city’s bustling streets.
The sisters, who share a striking resemblance that includes long dark hair; broad, engaging smiles; and welcoming mannerisms, are yet distinct in personality. Lucky, 45 and the eldest, often takes the lead in speaking for the group and is clearly the point-person on EWN business. She is visionary and seemingly tireless.
Nicky, is much more reserved. The 41-year-old youngest sister deals with clients, usually from the comfort of the 3 Sisters office. She sits behind a tidy desk quietly conversing in a gentle, melodic voice that belies her organizational prowess. Dicky, is cheery, just shy of bubbly, and spends much of her time in the field, guiding trips.
At dinner the sisters spoke about the changes they have seen in the women who’ve completed their programs. They told me about my own guides – 21-year-old Bina Nepali who led me through Nepal’s Himalayan foothills and Fulmaya, her assistant – describing how Fulmaya’s attitude toward education has changed, how she’s determined to become a guide, and how talented she proved to be in rock climbing. They recounted how Bina, once profoundly timid, is learning to take more initiative and speak up with her impressive English vocabulary.
“This is how we empower women,” Lucky said, in between bites. “By going out into the field, experiencing other cultures through our guests.”
Two weeks earlier, I had traveled with Lucky into the small village of Juphal, in the Dolpa district. After an hour-long flight over magnificent mountain peaks west of Pokhara, we landed on the barren gravel strip that is Juphal’s airport and I felt instantly transported to an earlier time. This remote outpost is carved with winding dirt and stone-stepped trails. Women gather water from a central tap, vegetables and herbs are laid out on flat, dusty rooftops to dry under the sun, and sheep graze along the rocky hillsides. I was there, before leaving on my own trek, to observe several days of a basic eco-tourism training course that Lucky was leading.
From the beginning of 3 Sisters, the Chhetris had been interested in working in this impoverished district – along with the nearby Humla, Jumla, and Mugu districts – where sweeping views are unmarred by modernity. The 5,000-square-mile administrative zone that includes these districts is Nepal’s largest and most remote. It contains two national parks, is native territory for snow leopards, and has very few roads.
In this rarely visited western part of the country, bordering Tibet and stretching to Nepal’s northernmost corner, the Chhetris have applied their model of women’s empowerment in an effort to build environmentally sustainable tourism. They hope to bring economic development, improved health conditions, and education to people in places rich with natural beauty and cultural heritage but poor in nearly every other way. Theirs is one of the few trekking outfits in Nepal doing such work.
Because of the unique resources and natural assets at stake, the sisters are moving forward with their tourism and development agenda slowly. Their approach in this region starts with the basic eco-tourism training for locals. It includes sessions on leadership, lodge sanitation, and personal health and hygiene. There are also classes in first aid, environmental protection, trekking, English language, and Western culture. So far, more than 300 hotel owners, restaurateurs, and shopkeepers in the area have completed the course.
Although the EWN tourism trainings are open to men and women, in Lucky’s class that day just nine of the two dozen participants were men. The eco-tourism sessions took place in an empty building on the village edge constructed with mud walls, wooden beams, and plank floors.
Lucky and three ex-patriot volunteer teachers found that emphasizing basic Western customs – like being on time, not littering, and washing hands – was essential. Despite being bad for the environment, littering isn’t considered taboo in this sparsely populated region. But in the effort to ensure long-term sustainability and appeal to the cultural norms of the predominantly European and American guests, teaching locals to pocket their trash is an easy and important lesson.
The English classes were especially lively. Led by one of the volunteers, the group followed her in shouting out greetings: “Good Afternoon!” “What’s your name?” “Pleased to meet you!” It was a cacophony of giggles and students struggling with accents while eagerly repeating key phrases.
Among the more difficult lessons are teaching women about equality, self-esteem, and empowerment. Early on at the training Lucky exhorted her students to shed timidity.
“You should be strong. Don’t be afraid,” she told the group after getting no response when she asked if they had any questions about the material.
Fulmaya, I would later discover, is a living example of the Chhetris’ aim to elevate women by giving them earning potential and real-world skills. Confident and capable, Fulmaya’s new attitude isn’t the only thing that’s changed since she met the sisters. Along with guide skills, the sisters told me she’s improving her English steadily and when she completed the six-month guide training course, she reenrolled in school four grades ahead of where she’d left off. Now she savors her earning capacity as a sort of freedom and encourages other girls to pursue guiding.
During our dinner, the sisters speak passionately about their work in western Nepal. Lucky is the most vocal, her brown eyes shining under trendy blue spectacles.
For now, she says, EWN is focusing on Jumla and Mugu, leading individual and group treks, as well as recruiting local women for guide training and to work as porters. They continue leading the basic tourism training as well as courses in cooking and lodge management. “We are finding a great impact of this work,” says Lucky. “In this community, they had no idea of their natural resources.”
Lucky vividly recalls her first trip to western Nepal more than 20 years earlier. Women’s lives, she tells me, were “one step better than an animal.” While the situation has improved, women there, as in most of Nepal, still attend less school and earn less than men. Maternal mortality rates remain high, and many girls marry in their teens. The country has a largely patriarchal culture and only recently has it become acceptable for Nepali women to work outside the home doing more than nursing or teaching.
I witnessed these women’s lack of opportunity while visiting the rural west with Lucky and trekking with Fulmaya and Bina. The life I saw most women leading is an arduous one. They labor up massive inclines and down precipitous descents wrapped in long skirts while under enormous bundles of hay, firewood, and other supplies. Bent at nearly 90 degrees, a strap on the forehead helps them carry loads that nearly outweigh their lithe frames. Sometimes men accompany them carrying similar cargo, but more often the groups are all women and girls.
The Chhetri sisters are Nepali but grew up in Darjeeling, India, and say it was their father who taught them to be independent. All three attended college, and their father never forced them into marriage. “He was very inspiring,” says Nicky. “He’d say, ‘You should learn to drive, wear pants, don’t be dependent on a man.'”
Lucky took those lessons to heart, and in 1990, after a month-long guide training course she attended at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, she convinced her sisters they should start a guiding service. “We decided that by running the guesthouse and trekking, we lose nothing,” says Dicky. “We gain everything – confidence, knowledge, money.”
The trio moved to Pokhara in 1992 and started a guesthouse in 1993. A year later, they were guiding foreign trekkers, primarily women, who often recounted stories of harassment from male guides. They saw an opportunity for themselves: “As soon as we put up the logo, ‘female guide service for lady trekkers,’ we were so busy,” Nicky says.
In 1996, the sisters began training other women from across Nepal to become trekking guides. By then they each had completed official guide courses, becoming well versed in wilderness first aid, managing altitude sickness, basic flora and fauna, local culture, and religion. In 1999, they registered Empowering Women of Nepal as a nonprofit organization. As their for-profit trekking business grew, so did EWN’s charitable projects, particularly those in western Nepal. Fifteen percent of their profits – more than $4,000 in 2009 – help to pay for EWN’s guide trainings.
“I think the main things that have helped them with their success are business savvy, political savvy, and true empathy and altruism for women of the region,” says Gary Fleener, who worked with the Chhetris to organize study-abroad trips for American college students in the early 2000s. “I guarantee they would be richer if they just focused on the business.”
Personal wealth is clearly not their main objective – a point that became abundantly clear to me on my own trek into the Chhetris’ eco-tourism promised land. On a crisp, clear day, I set out from the headquarters of the Jumla district on my journey to Rara National Park, one of the region’s key attractions. Located in the Mugu district, it is Nepal’s smallest national park. But the shimmering, deep sapphire pool in its center, Rara Lake, is the country’s largest.
At my side were Fulmaya and Bina. Along the way, we met two women’s groups who have received micro-loans from EWN. Fulmaya, her mother and aunt, belong to one such women’s cooperative. Like other groups around the country, their aims are building community, camaraderie, and opportunity for its members.
Women in both groups had used the money to buy goats and sheep, especially female animals, which reproduce and continue generating income. They also used the money for schoolbooks for their children and as a safety net for medical or other emergencies. While they have to pay most of the loan back, EWN donates 20 percent of it to the women.
Rama Bhandari, a member of one group whose guesthouse we stayed in our first night on the trail, had attended an EWN cooking training in 2007, and said she now earns more than her policeman husband. She helps provide for each of her four children, whereas before she couldn’t afford to give her two girls textbooks.
Rama said that prior to meeting the sisters she didn’t know what it meant to be empowered. But with EWN training, she and others have become more self-confident. They’ve learned basic reading and writing and are more inclined to speak to strangers and offer opinions. “They taught us, as women, not to be hopeless,” she said.
Her comment, and all I’d seen so far, helped me answer the questions I’d had about the Chhetris before my trip. Yes, they were actually making material differences in the lives of some of Nepal’s most disenfranchised women. And yes, those changes were empowering and moving them toward independence. Much hard work remains for the sisters before the changes in these women’s lives start to revamp entire communities. But Lucky and her sisters were on to something.
During the five days I trekked with Fulmaya and Bina through Jumla and Mugu, we hiked beneath snowcapped mountains from one basic guesthouse to another. These houses had intermittent electricity, heat radiating only from crackling kitchen fires, and no indoor plumbing. I didn’t see another Westerner on the trail, and frequent periods of total quiet reminded me of our remoteness.
Nearly all the walking was up or down – in Nepal there is little that could be called flat. While beautiful, it was taxing. Yet even in her halting English, Fulmaya proved supportive, moving at my pace, reminding me during the steepest climbs that I was a “strong walker.” On the laborious, knee-grinding descents, some of which were more than three hours at a stretch, I marveled as she skipped down sections of the path, obviously at home in these mountains. With her ruddy cheeks and cheerful demeanor, she rarely stopped smiling. I even caught her humming on occasion.
Towards the end of my dinner with the sisters back in Pokhara, my last conversation with them before leaving Nepal, I asked what their goals are in western Nepal. Dicky’s unabashedly ambitious answer was what I’d come to expect from the Chhetris. And, as always, it is consistent with their vision of women’s empowerment as a socially transformative force.
“To change lives,” Dicky said, without hesitation. “If the women change and are educated, then the whole family and commu-nity will be changed. That’s why we start with women.”