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When the Trekking Trail is the Best Teacher

A month of travel through Nepal proves just as enriching as second grade math, science, English, and history. Maybe more.

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Last fall, my husband and I took our daughter, Amelia, out of school for a month. He was scheduled to teach a class at the Khumbu Climbing Center in Nepal, and we saw it as the perfect opportunity to undertake a family trekking adventure in the Himalayas.

Granted, Amelia’s in second grade, so it’s not like she’d be missing SAT prep. Her teacher fully supported our plan, and we’d pack plenty of math worksheets and a blank journal for Amelia to record her experiences. But to paraphrase Mark Twain: We weren’t going to let school interfere with her education.

And that education started off with a bang.

A harrowing flight from Kathmandu on a tiny plane landed us in Lukla in the Khumbu region, where there are no roads or motorized vehicles. Rather than take the most direct trekking route to Phortse, the small town where the Khumbu Climbing Center is located, we chose a circuitous 11-day itinerary through numerous villages, past monasteries, across dozens of suspension bridges, and beneath several soaring Himalayan peaks. Our worldly school was in session, and Amelia’s favorite subject became running over every suspension bridge we saw, even if it was out of our way.

The days were physically demanding. We routinely covered four to seven miles of steep terrain at altitudes of 11,000 to just over 15,000 feet. But our time on the trail also provided opportunities to study geography, social studies, foreign language, and religion, not to mention, P.E.

We learned about countless Buddhist traditions, but Amelia was most drawn to the prayer wheels. These cylinders are inscribed with prayers and mantras, and we encountered them daily on our trek, at every monastery and scattered at the entrances and exits of villages. It’s customary to spin the prayer wheels as you go by—always, we learned, clockwise, the same direction in which the mantras are written.

The towering peaks of the Himalayas dominated the sky no matter where we went. Amelia quickly learned to identify several favorites including Lhotse, Cho Oyu, and Amadablam. She was even inspired to write a poem: “Amadablam, tall and skinny. Not as tall as Everest, but still very pretty.”

We learned about local cuisine and found new favorite foods, such as chapatti bread with yak cheese, dal bhat, and “buff” (as in water buffalo) momos. And although most people we encountered spoke at least a bit of English, we attempted to learn a few words in Nepali too. We could return the greeting of namaste and say a polite dhanyabaad (thank you).

Having a guide certainly helped make this an educational experience for all of us. Kesha Shrestha with Nepal Fair Step Trekking taught us all the names of the peaks, explained local cultural and religious traditions, and more.

One Nepali tradition we all grew to love was the giving and receiving of ceremonial scarves called khatas. We received our first (of many) khatas when we were greeted by friends at the airport in Kathmandu. As we trekked our way to and from Phortse, we collected several dozen of them. When we arrived in Phortse, residents of the town welcomed us by draping khatas around our necks. Amelia and I were given them as a sign of appreciation after we helped hand out some warm jackets to the town elders and notebooks to the school children. And when it was, sadly, time to leave Phortse, we received yet more khatas as a gesture of farewell and good luck.

Amelia kept detailed notes about all she saw and did and learned on our trek. I have to admit, however, that the math worksheets never left our duffel bag.

But neither we, nor her teacher, were disappointed. Amelia created a presentation for her class, with a photo journal and souvenirs (like prayer flags and yak hair). Her presentation ended with the same ritual we had experienced so many times during our trip. She went around the room and draped a khata around the neck of each student, sharing a little bit of her education with her classmates.

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