Travel Sustainably is a Teja on the Horizon article series reviewing my efforts to travel more responsibly. This first edition reviews new things I tried in my attempt to be sustainable while travelling in NEPAL – whether by pre-planning, or from the opportunities I found while there. It covers what I did well, what I would keep doing/using, what I would do differently next time, and what I failed to do.
- Planning sustainable travel to Nepal
- 1. Support local female livelihood
- 2. Travel without consuming any plastic bottled water
- 3. Avoid accepting single-use food containers
- 4. Maximise my airplane luggage allowance to bring needed supplies
- 5. Buy from ethical businesses
- Serendipitous opportunities to be even more sustainable in Nepal
- Fails: Sustainable travel regrets in Nepal
- Sustainable travel discoveries: Honourable mentions in Nepal
- Carbon offsetting information to Pokhara, Nepal
Planning sustainable travel to Nepal
When I was preparing to go to Nepal and India, I was cognisant that this was a milestone trip for me. This would be the first time I travelled alone, for a whole month. I would travel completely differently than I have ever travelled before.
So I thought, why not make it even more different? This was the perfect trip to see just how sustainable I could realistically be in Nepal. What would be a better time to try out more sustainable habits, that could easily become my new travel normal?
There were five new things I prepared to try doing for my trip to Nepal.
1. Support local female livelihood
While I was doing research for trekking in the Annapurnas, I discovered 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking, which trains and provides female trekking guides and porters for trekking tourists. 3 Sisters is also female-owned, and the first to open up this career option for Nepali women. So I booked my trekking package with them.
What were the additional benefits of hiring a female trekking guide?
I personally felt more comfortable trekking with other women, especially since I was doing it solo. Going with a female guide & porter also comes with a different style of interaction. We ended up taking photos together and enjoying things like flowers and butterflies all over the mountain.
Are there any downsides to hiring female guides and porters?
I can’t really think of any downsides compared to the more conventional arrangement of hiring a male guide & porter. I suppose the only thing is that the weight limit for a female porter is less than a male porter. But, to be honest, I didn’t even pack up to the weight limit of my porter.
Would I hire a female trekking guide again somewhere else?
Absolutely. If I go on a trekking expedition again, I would look to get female guides, especially in developing countries.
2. Travel without consuming any plastic bottled water
If you’re wondering if plastic bottled water is sold in the Annapurnas, the answer is yes. However, that is hardly a sustainable option. Here’s what I did instead.
I brought two refillable water bottles (because I would be trekking at the start of the trip and need to stay hydrated). I also took the recommendation of an outdoorsy friend and bought a portable mini water filter. Outdoor tech has really come a long way these days. The filter is really light and compact, and filters water to potable levels comparable to municipal treatment standards.
Unless you’re doing hardcore outdoor camping / offroad stuff, you just need to bring the filter itself and its squeeze bag. They both fit into a small pouch. When you’re back from the trip, simply follow the instructions to clean out the filter for long-term storage.
What were the additional travel benefits of a portable water filter?
The need to spend money for drinking water drops to nil. Additionally, the filter is so convenient to use (filters two medium size water bottles in less than 10 minutes), that it is actually even more convenient than going out to find a place that sells bottled water. I literally just filtered tap water from the bathroom, even when I was at guesthouses.
Are there any downsides to portable water filters?
I guess it does need a little bit of upfront investment in the tool. Of the filtration-type solutions, at the time I was shopping online, the Sawyer Mini Filter was the best deal. The filter quickly pays for itself though.
Would I keep travelling with a portable water filter?
This potable water filter is now part of my standard travel kit. The only time I’d leave it behind is if I’m going on short trips to urban places where I know for sure I can drink tap water.
3. Avoid accepting single-use food containers
From past travel, I knew that at some point I may want to pack leftovers for later, or buy takeaway snacks. And I also wanted to avoid taking non-recyclable plastic lined coffee cups. I knew that Nepal would probably not have a strong recycling system, so not creating this waste is more sustainable.
Again, I tapped into the inventions now available for outdoor enthusiasts. So I bought a set of silicone collapsible bowls and cups. I chose this solution over other solutions because these are lightweight and only takes a small amount of space in the backpack.
What were the additional benefits of collapsible containers?
The lids are super airtight, if you get the proper gear. It is very unlikely for your food to spill out, even if it includes liquids. In fact, when I carried food across significant altitude differences, it got super hard to open because of the pressure change.
Are there any downsides to collapsible containers?
If you seal the containers at an ambient pressure that is significantly different from when you want to open them, it can get a bit hard to open again. Not that this would be relevant for most trips.
Also, you would need access to clean water to wash them between uses. But this is not a big problem, if you happen to also be carrying a portable water filter (and some kind of detergent).
Would I keep bringing collapsible containers when I travel?
For backpacking travel, yes. However, if I’m on city travel or other more short-term conventional trips, I think it’s easier to just eat in at restaurants.
Also, I keep packing them in my check-in luggage, so I always find myself without the cup for the inevitable airport coffee. So next time I need to remember to put them in my carry-on. [2020 Update: I have since upgraded to a collapsible mug.]
4. Maximise my airplane luggage allowance to bring needed supplies
At this time, I was already offsetting my energy carbon emissions, including for travel. But were there even more ways to increase the sustainability of my flight to Nepal itself? Well, I’m one of those travellers who usually pack lighter than my airline ticket’s luggage weight limit.
I came across a great website when I was doing all this prep work, Pack for a Purpose. It collates the needs of a lot of different local charities and projects from all over the world. If you’re already going there, you can bring things they need in your spare luggage allowance. For example, a school in Nepal might need stationery and mathematical instruments. So you bring your donation in kind, in whatever spare luggage space/allowance you have, and drop it off at the designated location.
What’s great about the website is that it allows the projects to specifically request what they actually need, and there is a time stamp to tell you when the list was last verified. This way you have the peace of mind that you are indeed bringing things which the community will find useful.
What were the additional benefits of bringing supplies via Pack for a Purpose?
Since you’re dropping off real things in person, there is an opportunity to meet local people of the country you’re visiting in a unique context.
I didn’t get to do this, however. I chose to bring some supplies for a school near Pokhara. Unfortunately, I didn’t contact them ahead and didn’t realise that the lodge which volunteered to be the drop-off point is closed in the monsoon season. So before I went on my Annapurna Sanctuary trek, I had to arrange to link up my guesthouse with the lodge, for them to pick up the stuff the next time they visit Pokhara Lakeside (in a few days).
Are there any downsides to joining Pack for a Purpose?
I guess the main downside is the extra time for dropping off the items. Getting the items in the first place shouldn’t be a bother; otherwise it probably defeats the purpose.
Ideally travellers shouldn’t bring and donate large quantities of items that can be bought locally, or via local businesses. This tends to depress the local economy, which is unhelpful in the long run to communities. If you are interested in supplying more than just what fits in your spare luggage allowance, you can visit the location while dropping off what you brought, and help them obtain supplies more locally.
Would I join Pack for a Purpose again?
Yes, but next time I would check beforehand on the pickup arrangements.
[2020 Update: I haven’t actually done this again. I do check before every trip. It’s just that I haven’t gone to a place that has a listing on the website.]
5. Buy from ethical businesses
My basic plan was to buy as locally as possible. When in doubt, generally small businesses retain more money in the community than corporations.
However, it was possible for me to be more specific in my sustainable travel planning for Nepal. During my research I found a great article compiling a list of restaurants and cafes, with an ethical side to them. This is brilliant; we all need to eat when we’re travelling. It might as well go to support something awesome. So I cross referenced them with where I was planning to stay and visit, and saved their details to my travel plan.
What were the additional benefits of buying from ethical businesses?
I found that reviewing why the businesses claim ethical standing was a good opportunity to learn about local values and issues.
Are there any downsides to supporting ethical businesses?
Depending on your dietary restrictions/choices, you may not be able to do this. Additionally, for this trip specifically, I found some of the places hard to find.
One was closed at the time I went (perhaps because it was off-peak season). And… there are downsides with calling your cafe ‘No Name’! Although, ironically, it was the one cafe I did find, and the pasta was pretty good.
Excuse me, do you know where the No Name Cafe is?
Not sure… what is it called?
Er… No Name.
It has no name?
No, no… the name of the cafe is No Name.
Is there a name or is there no name for this cafe?
Would I continue researching ethical businesses before travelling?
It can take considerable effort to research this from scratch. So I probably would keep to the easier default travel habit of prioritising local businesses. But if I find a similar list again, I would make the effort to match up.
Serendipitous opportunities to be even more sustainable in Nepal
While there are things you can prepare from the outset, don’t forget to keep an open mind when you have arrived. Sometimes, you come across opportunities that you didn’t know about, and could not have planned for. During my Nepal trip, I found two ways to become even more sustainable.
1. The Tibetan refugees in Pokhara
During my time in Pokhara, I met some Tibetan refugees selling jewellery by Lake Phewa. I sat to chat with one of them in particular, an affable older woman, more than once. Some of them asked me if I had cold weather clothing to spare.
I did bring thermals with me, even though it was summer, because I was trekking up to the base camp. I ended up giving away most of them.
2. Ethical cashmere in Nepal
When I was walking along the main street of Lakeside, Pokhara, a cashmere merchant invited me in for tea, because he recognised me as a fellow Muslim. I accepted, and that’s how I met Baiti, another solo female traveller from Indonesia.
While we were there, a couple of British girls also joined us, and while we were all curiously looking around the shop, we learned the shopkeeper came from a family of certified Kashmiri master weavers. So we asked about his cashmere, which is surprisingly affordable considering how expensive even mediocre cashmere is, in other parts of the world.
That was when we discovered that the way their cashmere is still produced has many traits that would be considered fair trade and ethical. But it never entered his mind to differentiate his products from an ethical standpoint. For him, why would you do business any other way? Nor did they have the knowledge to sell their wares online, making them reliant on foreign distributors and retail foot traffic.
We all came away thinking that someone should do something about this. (In fact, we tried to set up an Etsy store, but it got too hard). I mentioned this unfair state of affairs to Jason. One thing led to another, and we ended up building an online store to, well, ‘do something about this’!
Please check us out on our gorgeous store.
2020 Update: It has been a steep learning curve, but the store is surviving what 2020 is throwing at it so far. It is very important to us that the store embodies ethical fashion values. For example, in terms of livelihood, the store provides from the bottom first.
Additionally, we are the only online ethical cashmere store that seeks to transfer online business knowledge to our partner, via his daughter Sumi. This is very important to me, as someone from a developing country myself, albeit one that is further along.
Too often, brands in developed countries ‘help’ us by making us a cheap supplier of quality products. However, they would rather we stay as a supplier rather than become capable to be an equal partner. And that is why there is inequality in the world, and why it is growing. It is not easy, but I am determined to move that line.
Fails: Sustainable travel regrets in Nepal
This wouldn’t be a complete and honest review if I didn’t mention where I fell short. There was one sustainable travel fail that stuck most prominently in my mind, which is about trying to avoid accepting single-use carry bags.
Actually I did bring a cloth carry bag to prepare myself for success. However, I constantly forgot to bring it with me when going out and about. This was, in part, because I occasionally used it to separate portions of my packing, so it was not always available to bring. As a consequence, I often found myself without a carry bag in stores. This is very disappointing for me, because at home I seldom forget them.
How I improvised to reduce my waste generation
I would try to pack my purchases in whatever bag I had with me; sometimes I had my day backpack. Once, I brought some bananas back tied to my wrist with my own hair elastic band.
Eventually I did take a bag, but re-used it for subsequent trips out. The good thing about Nepal, is that it seems fairly standard to give out a sturdier form of carry bag, which is a kind of faux-fabric material. So although the material is plastic in origin, it is designed to be a multiple use item. I rarely saw the flimsy, plastic shopping bags there.
What I would do differently next time
I have since acquired packing cubes, which help to keep my things more organised. This meant that I am no longer forced to use my carry bag for that purpose, and it is always available.
Sustainable travel discoveries: Honourable mentions in Nepal
Part of the value of travel is to widen your perspective and see the different ways that people do the same things or solve the same problems. There are three things I saw in Nepal that I found interesting from a sustainability perspective.
1. There is actually plastic recycling in Pokhara
I did not expect there to be plastic recycling in Nepal. After all it is a developing country that was just struck by an earthquake not so long before I came.
However, not only was there a community-driven waste collection initiative within the Annapurna Conservation Area itself, in parts of Pokhara I saw collection bins for plastic bottles. For example, along the trail up to the World Peace Pagoda.
Even more impressive than the existence of such collection points, is that they were actually correctly used. There were indeed only plastic bottles in there. Anyone who has ever tried to do a recycling program will understand what a miracle this is.
How come Nepalis can do it? Or do they just get a better quality of tourists?
2. Compostable disposable leaf plates
While wandering around Kathmandu Durbar square dutifully listening to the tour guide drone on about facts and dates, stifling flashbacks to history class in school, I was distracted by something much more curious.
Later, after the tour was over, I came over to examine it more closely.
In the shadow of the temples and idols of the square, a few women were busy at work. Quick, deft fingers turned leaves into plates and bowls in a matter of seconds – for sale. The plates were single-use and disposable – but they were compostable and renewable.
Maybe this partly explains why I didn’t see that plastic or styrofoam was a ubiquitous thing yet in Nepal. And I hope it never will be.
In the same vein as supporting ethical outlets, I came across an interesting shop in Pokhara. You would need to walk quite a way south along the shopping road of Lakeside. Here there is a Nepali handicraft store which is run by the charity Yes Helping Hands. The crafts are made by the deaf and blind.
I wasn’t looking to buy crafts, since I was travelling light and had a long way to go yet. But it would be a good place to prioritise, if you were looking for souvenirs.
Carbon offsetting information to Pokhara, Nepal
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Pokhara via Kathmandu produces carbon emissions of approximately 2,807 lbs CO2e. It costs about $14 to offset this.
Sustainability can give a different way of travelling, but I’ve not looked back since. PIN THIS for your upcoming trip to Nepal!