An Ilam Survival Guide

by Sanjena Sathian:

After a week here in Ilam, a rural district in the hilly tea-growing east of Nepal. I’ve composed a packing list for anyone who might be interested in venturing out here one day. It’s not a very touristy destination (I’m one of five foreigners here in the short term, and there’s one German couple who lives here).

When people say "hilly district," they really mean "totally mountainous district." Ilam is characterized by these mountains and tea gardens everywhere you look. (Sathian/TYG)

– Hiking boots and wool socks. We’re enveloped by little villages that are measured by whether they’re a 3 hour or a 3 day hike away – especially now, as it approaches monsoon season and roads get washed away, there’s no way to access most of the surrounding villages. Even the India border is noted as an “eight hour hike south of here.”

– Speaking of monsoon, an umbrella and rainjacket. So far, it’s rained all night most nights and no matter how sunny it gets during the day, you can’t trust these skies. It can start at any second and become a torrential downpour within minutes.

– A headlamp or a flashlight to deal with constant power outages. The frequent blackouts Nepal experiences, thanks to its inconsistent and poorly run power grid, make the whole town go dark for as much as 16 hours at a time.

– Chlorine tablets to purify your water. Ilam suffers from one of the worst water supplies in the world. But it’s also been recently accredited as one of the best developing “green cities” in the world. Plastic bags are banned here, so I avoid buying plastic water bottles too. Purifying your own water also allows you to refrigerate it and get some rare chiso pani, or cold water (normally water here is served hot, just after it’s been boiled. Not the best thing to accompany a spicy momo.

– Plenty of books, notebooks and pens. For maybe six hours each day, I have nothing to do but read and write (no complaints here). The workday runs from ten to five, and there’s one movie theater, which apparently only consists of a projector and some Nepali – not even Bollywood – films.
o One of these books should be a Nepali language book. Seriously, though I studied Nepali casually for a couple months before coming, I’ve quickly learned that while it’s enough for me to negotiate cabs in Kathmandu, it’s definitely not enough for me to discuss gender issues and Nepali identity with the locals just yet. Study time!

– A secret stash of food (mine includes peanut butter, nature valley bars, and plenty of gorp) for when you can’t eat any more dal bhaat tarkadi (HEAPS and HEAPS of white rice, lentils, and vegetables, consumed twice a day, at breakfast and dinner) or momos and soup (the standard lunchtime fare).

– Toilet paper. Nuff said.

Check out the photos below for a closer look at Ilam.

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