By Denise Beecroft
In April 2018, I travelled to Nepal as part of a ‘Trek for Rights’ fundraising trip for UN Women. The trip involved a visit to the nation’s capital Kathmandu, a flight to Pokhara and a 6-day trek in the Annapurna region. We walked up hills and through villages. We breathed the fresh air and took in the amazing sights.
Our local tour leader was Kalpana Bhattarai. A true adventurer with a strongly independent streak, Kalpana loves the mountains and the responsibility of introducing travellers to the beauty of her home country.
Having a woman as the head of our ‘almost’ all-women group made total sense, but was unusual in Nepal.
Though many women have embraced a career in tourism, not many have been willing to take on a tour leader’s responsibilities. Social norms, parental expectations and a preparedness to be away from home for weeks at a time, has stopped a lot of women getting into this field.
Nepal is a very male-oriented society and when Kalpana started working as a guide, she received some resistance from the male crew, not used to taking orders from a woman. Once they realised that she knew her stuff, they settled down. These days, the trekking team is like a family, each feeling reassured that they’re playing an important role.
Kalpana has worked in tourism now for around 7 years. It wasn’t a career her parents imagined, although her grandfather may have had an inkling. He was a renowned astrologer who used the position of the stars to look into a person’s future. When she was young, he predicted that she would travel and earn her living in ‘foreign currency’.
Kalpana described her parents lovingly. Her mum, though illiterate, had resisted an early marriage and her obligation to live with her parents-in-law at a young age so that she could earn her own money. Her father wanted an education for all of his children. Though he sometimes worries about Kalpana’s choice of career, he is very supportive of his eldest daughter.
Like her older brother who has excelled in science on the international stage, Kalpana has gained some solid qualifications including a Bachelor Degree in Finance and an MBA in Entrepreneurship. But a desk-bound job in business is not part of her picture.
Kalpana now works for Royal Mountain Travel who are the local team for companies like Inspired Adventures. They’re a bit different from other trekking companies because their trip accommodation is often in community homestays rather than in the traditional ‘tea houses’. In this way, they try to deliver a more ‘authentic’ travel experience while supporting local communities more directly, especially women.
Kalpana loves working as a tour guide for many reasons. She loves getting fit and the experience of walking through her country. She loves working with her team of porters and the trek support crew. She thrives in nature, taking particular interest in the plants and birds that she sees along the way. She loves meeting people from all over the world and introducing them to her country and Nepalese culture.
She is a believer in stepping out of her comfort zone, testing herself physically and mentally.
Kalpana was recently recognised for her work in tourism. She was rewarded with a trip to Amsterdam where she met with other tour guides from around the world.
“I love to encourage other women to try something different. They shouldn’t always do what society expects them to do – settle down early and have a family,” Kalpana explains.
“My big dream is to climb Everest. It’s going to be hard work and it’ll take a lot of money, but it’s something I think about every day.”
At one stage during our trek, a ‘misunderstanding’ about accommodation meant serious negotiations were required with one local community leader. Kalpana kept her cool and made sure her crew and travellers were accommodated comfortably as arranged.
Kalpana’s honesty and openness – and her amazing smile – is one of the many things I’ll remember about my trip to Nepal.
It was also wonderful to meet six of the women who have benefitted from empowerment programs run by the local office of UN Women.
Like many of my fellow travellers, at the end of this Nepalese adventure, I was already planning the next one.