Think Nepal. Mountains. The heart of the Himalaya. Mighty Mount Everest. This is what most people (including me) think of, and why most people come.
But actually, surprisingly, the mountains fall sharply away and the southern third of the country called the Terai is extremely flat and low-lying. Few tourists manage to drag themselves away from the Himalaya to visit here; and that is reason enough to visit, for it is when you start to leave the 'tourist trail' that magic begins to happen.
Entering into the 'Far-Western Developmental Region', a name itself which evokes ideas of wilderness and the back of beyond, made a stark contrast to the disorientating madness of India. Life suddenly became peaceful; the horns and clamour of daily life in India faded away into a deafening silence such as I hadn't heard in the past two months. As darkness set in, shops closed, roads emptied and the towns became ghost towns. Where had all the people gone?! I was joined for this section by Kunal, my friend from Mumbai keen to cycle with me for a fortnight. It was his first time leaving India; if the change shocked me, it must have blown his world!
So far from the tourist hubs, this area is farming country and certainly less developed; locals live in mud huts and labour for long, difficult hours in the fields, women and children too. Farming machinery is non-existent, with work carried out either two-legged or four-legged. Some people are lucky enough to have unreliable electricity with which they can provide light on these dark winter evenings, while many others live off-the-grid, self-sufficient lives.
And yet, these people seemed the happiest of my entire trip. Genuine, contagious happiness. The kind that plants a wide, uncontrollable goofy grin on your face as you observe it. Kunal and I would cycle along, silent and undetected until... Suddenly, passing a house resulted in an explosion from within with smiling children covered in dirt and tattered clothes bursting out like little bits of shrapnel, heading straight for us. 'Namaste' they would call, breathless but respectful, putting their hands together and bowing their head. This scene was repeated hundreds of times each day, and I never grew tired of it, always responding with the same enthusiasm. Often we would stop to talk with them and take a few photos; they were shy at first, until we showed them their photo on the back of my camera, which always resulted in laughter and many photos of overexcited children! Special ceremonies wishing us a safe and happy journey became something of a daily ritual, as we were presented with a holy scarf (khada) around our necks and showered with flowers.
As expected, and sadly, this welcome and happiness was reserved for those slightly off the beaten path. As we neared the tourist adventure hub of Pokhara, local attitudes began to change slightly. “Hello!” A girl said with enthusiasm. I turned to reply back, a smile growing on my face. It was cut short when she made her demand, “Give me money.” Not a question but a command. “Sweets?” another sweet young girl called after me as I whizzed past. Sometimes when people see a white tourist dollar signs appear in their eyes, as I had also noticed in some of Turkey's coastal towns.
I left for the mountains, excited to glimpse the Himalayas, but sad to be leaving the Terai and its people behind. They seemed to be without many things the rest of the world enjoys, but they seemed to have found something much of the world still searches for.