Guiding Himalayan treks, Nepali woman scales mountains of social taboos

Divorced and poorly educated, Kamala Biswakarma entered a unique training program, put her sari aside, and became self-sufficient in traditionally male business.

Kamala Biswakarma wears the pants in her family. Literally. Saris or kurtas are usually standard wear for Nepali women, but Ms. Biswakarma, at 30, wears pants, a T-shirt, and hiking boots to work. She could almost be mistaken for a foreigner in this tourist hub because no other Nepali women of her age dress as she does.

It would be incredibly difficult to trek in the Himalayas wearing a long polyester sari – and Biswakarma is a trekking guide for Empowering Women of Nepal (EWN), a nongovernmental organization that trains and employs women to lead treks in the Himalayas.

A quiet rebel, Biswakarma has not only shed her colorful robes and donned a more comfortable outfit, she also brings home a paycheck. She earns more than her husband and even more than many Nepali men. To work in a male-dominated industry, with a salary equal to "high government officials," is almost unheard of for women in most parts of Nepal.

I met Biswakarma when I came to teach at EWN for one of their month-long trek-guide training sessions. As she maintained eye contact and asked pointed questions in class, she clearly stood out as a veteran among the fidgety, shy trainees who'd just arrived.

She wasn't really in class to learn, as much as to be an example to the new trainees. She has been a competent trekking guide for several years now. Training with EWN since 1999, her résumé now boasts 26 treks.

EWN – the brainchild of Lucky, Nicky, and Dicky Chhetri, three sisters with a sixth sense for business and a profound sense of generosity – sends its graduates to guide for 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking, a company the Chhetris created to cater to women trekkers. The idea was hatched nearly a decade ago, when the sisters – Nepalis who'd been raised and educated in India – owned a guesthouse here. Their female clientele brought back stories from the trail about being abused and harassed by male guides and porters. The sisters saw a demand for female guides.

Their revolutionary venture encountered overwhelming resistance from locals at first. Biswakarma, among the first female guides, almost gave up. She now recalls one of her first treks when – overnighting at a tea house in a remote village – she awoke to a loud pounding on her door. It was a drunk male guide from another company. In the loudest voice she could muster, she yelled, "Go away! If you don't I will shout loud enough for everyone to hear." That was enough to scare him away. But, she says, she wondered, "Why am I doing this?

"It was really hard to trek with [other male] guides," Biswakarma explains. "They were jealous of women taking their jobs."

Despite the resistance, Biswakarma's successes hardened her determination. "People can say what they want. I have to do it. I have to make a different kind of society for Nepali women."

If female guides threaten men's egos out on the trail, it must take a certain kind of man to marry a trekking guide. Biswakarma smiles and says her husband, Nabin Shestra, is "a quiet man, and he is proud of me."

Not all men are so accepting. When Biswakarma – a poorly educated girl from the flatlands of Chitwan – was still living with her family, a widowed veterinarian came to her house looking for an arranged marriage. She was open to the idea. But when he found out she was training as a trek guide, he stopped knocking on the door.

"He's an educated person but he doesn't want an educated woman. I would have been a housewife if I [had] married him," says Biswakarma, who thinks he simply wanted a sitter for his children.

Although Biswakarma is remarkably open with me as I sit with her in her sparse, one-room home and drink milk-tea from a tin cup, she hesitates to talk about the painful catalyst for her career.

She left her first husband after he returned home from a "trip" to India with a second wife. Despite the humiliation and discrimination she knew she'd suffer from friends and even family, who offered no financial support to her, she divorced him. "Once I left, I never looked back," she says firmly.

Although she exudes confidence and wisdom now, Biswakarma was once just as timid as the rookie trainees who start out speaking in a whisper and avoiding eye contact.

"She is totally different today from when she first came to us," observes EWN founder Lucky Chhetri. "She spoke no English; had no skills and no confidence. [She has] changed dramatically."

Ms. Chhetri recognizes that Biswakarma's situation stands apart from other guides: "Even though she's married, she is continuing to live her own life. [This is] unusual. Many girls who get married as guides end up depending on men again."

Biswakarma now lives in a small apartment near the EWN office with her husband and her 4-year-old daughter, Sabanam. With the money she earns she sends Sabanam to a private school. During the off-season it's tough to make ends meet, she says, but she is earning substantially more than most working women. With her primary school education, she'd normally only command 100 to 150 rupees a day ($1.50 to $2.50). As one of 10 permanent guides at EWN she makes 400 rupees a day (25 more for treks above 3,000 meters) plus benefits.

She is far from the life her mother raised her to lead. "My mother taught me to work in the field and the kitchen," she laughs, as if she's telling a joke. "She told me, 'Women have to get married. [They] have to work, clean, get up early, and be a good housewife. And if you don't know how to do your housewife duties, then your husband's family will complain about you to me.'"

Little Sabanam is raised on a different mantra: "Study first, no work."

"I didn't get much education so I want more for her," Sabanam's hopeful mother explains."

Biswakarma shuffles through eight years worth of photos from her treks – showing me mementos of journeys that have toughened her physically, broadened her understanding of the world, and inspired new friendships. One Dutch trekker grew so fond of her that she sponsored a year of Sabanam's education. Another client from France mailed her hiking boots.

Biswakarma's first trek of the fall season is with a family of three from Sacramento, here for a 10-day journey to the Annapurna base camp. She greets them at dawn, beaming, wearing a baseball cap, synthetic pants rolled up above her ankles, hiking boots, and traditional red marriage bangles on both her arms.

As they drive to their drop-off point, Biswakarma chatters happily with her clients about tikas – circles made of red or yellow paste that Hindu Nepalis smudge on their forehead as a blessing. She points out landslides in the hills and jokes that there are no helicopter rescues out where they're going.

The mother, Denise Jabusch, laughs nervously. But as the van rounds a hair-pin turn in the road, high above the clouds, Biswakarma starts singing, in her Nepali-accented English: "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray...."

Ms. Jabusch relaxes and joins in.

Eight years ago, Biswakarma could have never imagined she'd be a trekking guide. She hadn't even seen mountains before she went on her first trek, as a porter, let alone challenge the limits of her confidence and society's proscriptions on a woman's life here.

But she is clearly atop her own personal summit as she puts her American clients at ease.

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