Riding on the back of Buddha’s motorbike in the late afternoon, the village of Dalla seemed asleep. Knocking on a few doors, however, we were able to chat to some of the locals who are part of this Community Homestay project that, initiated in 2011 with support from WWF, was the first in Bardia.
There are 24 family homestays with one to four rooms that can be used to put up guests.Popular with Nepalese guests, it’s still pretty much off the radar for foreign visitors. I was there to check it out.
Bardia is a district in the far west of Nepal. The local people are mainly Tharu and are keen to say that they are not to be confused with the Tharus in Chitwan. They speak a different language and though to an outsider they look fairly similar, I was assured that they are quite different. However what they have in common is that they live in close proximity with tigers, leopards, wild elephants and one-horned rhinos, all of which make for uncomfortable neighbours.
Like Chitwan, Bardia National Park is a protected area that is home to these wild animals and many more. Try telling a wild elephant or tiger that they are trespassing when they decide to leave the national park and go on the rampage or snatch and eat a child. The community forest provides a buffer where local people and the wildlife – in many cases endangered species live uneasily side by side.
The village of Dalla is a typical farming village. The rice harvest was being collected when I visited in October. Most of the villagers were busy in the fields, moving huge piles of grass and fodder for the animals. The fields glinted in the autumn sun and the scenery was very beautiful. Visiting several of the homestay homes, I was impressed at how well the guest rooms were presented. Simply furnished with a bed and mosquito net, the rooms were cool in the traditionally built houses where the thick walls act as insulation again the heat and the cold. Rustic, there are no mod cons here and the area doesn’t even have much mobile phone coverage.
Arriving at my homestay late in the afternoon I was shown to my room, a traditional-style room with mud walls. Where it strayed from the typical was that it had an attached bathroom. Maybe half of the Community Homestay homes still necessitate a short walk across the yard to the toilet, but most are in the process of building ensuite facilities for their guest rooms to make life a bit more comfortable for their visitors.
Treated to a typical local Tharu meal with the family, I sat inside the kitchen. It was getting a bit chilly to stay outside once the sun had set. My host’s wife, relying in her son and husband to communicate with me in their broken English, smiled her understanding when I clumsily tried sitting on the mat on the floor. Seeing my awkwardness with this, a stool was produced and I could sit more comfortably (my days of sitting on the ground comfortably are sadly over!)
Starting with an appetizer of pieces of chicken cooked in a rich and tasty tomato and chilli sauce, the dal bhat was somehow different from any I had eaten before. The Tharus have their own style of cooking and also use ingredients that I had never seen used before. With lots of rivers nearby, they fish and even catch water snails that they cook in a curry sauce, sucking them out of their shells with a lick-smacking slurp that for the life of me I couldn’t come anywhere near emulating.
After a sound night’s sleep, with no noise at all (not even barking of dogs), I was up at the crack of dawn to go for a walk in the community forest. This was one of the highlights of the trip and I was not disappointed. Pushing our way through the tall grass, my host took me to a large tree house. Meeting the forest warden here who let us in, we climbed up and sat for a while watching for animals and birds.
Walking back towards the forest entrance, we visited a machan or tower that also serves as a very good place to watch out for wildlife. I was told how a naturalist had come to spend a few days there to make a film. It is possible to spend the night here and also in the tree house, for those interested to stay out in the forest overnight.
After lunch, I asked to visit the large local school nearby. With around 1400 children from age 6 to 18, this school teaches students up to Intermediate level. Chatting with the English teacher, she explained that most of the students were still celebrating a holiday and had gone for a picnic. A few children were sweeping up the leaves. School had been closed for Dashain for a month and was only very reluctantly coming back to life.
Opposite the school, there is the village healthpost and the VDC (Village Development Committee) office. My host had been elected the VDC chairman a few months ago, so he was very busy and immediately he showed his face in the office, was surrounded by a staff with papers to sign and questions they needed answers to.
Later in the afternoon, heading back just a few kilometers to what now seemed a much more modern main part of the village at Thakurdwara, I stayed at one of the two much less rustic homestays, both of which offer comfortable rooms and have plenty of experience looking after foreign tourists who have come to Bardia.
Dalla is as authentic as you get, in a beautiful part of Nepal. Here you really feel you are travelling in time, as little has changed here. You see the side of life that you rarely get to experience in most other places. This is the real Nepal.
Author: Marianne Heredge