My name is Shanley Kellis and I was born and raised around the city-love of my life, Los Angeles. My career has taken many turns at this point in my life but as of very recently I am currently working in production for TV. In both production and event photography, the long hours and physically demanding nature mixed with the new locations and new scenery everyday actually make it a lot like the basic flavor of traveling. I left a desk job to work on my feet all day mostly because I realized I could handle it after having traveled a lot the past few years - all those hours dragging bags up and down cobblestone streets, navigating foreign subways, coping with uncooperative weather, wearing my shoes down to through their soles - traveling has rendered me more prepared than ever for this new career path I’m on. Hopefully it will bring me as much joy as traveling does.
How does photography influence the way you travel and see the world around you?
There are a number of different ways that photography serves me when I travel - of course the most obvious is that it allows for the creation of a collection of vibrant keepsakes. I suppose a big criticism some people have of those who live their travels with their eye to the viewfinder of a camera is that they are removing themselves from a moment… but to me it’s not that simple or at all damaging for your experience. In fact, there is a saying in philosophy that goes: “the object is not separate from the object observed,” which is to say that once you notice or engage with another object, that object will have a lasting effect on you. For me, being behind a lens does not remove me from a moment, as I am still being constantly enriched and internally changed by what I’m observing around me.
What sparked your interest to travel to Nepal? Which regions did you visit?
Nepal actually ended up being a trip we tucked in between plans in a very loose itinerary. I had been in India for a wedding and had every intention to jet straight off to Thailand to lay on the beach for a few weeks afterward. But a friend who was also in India for the wedding mentioned that he was going to head to Nepal and do some trekking and that he would love to have my travel buddy and I along for the ride. We looked into it, saw how easy it was to get there from India, and booked a ticket without knowing at all what to expect or what we were going to do. Our friend was already sky high up in the Himalayas by the time we landed in Kathmandu, so we landed blind and hit the ground running.
We spent time in the capital city Kathmandu, relaxed in lakeside Pokhara, trekked to Poon Hill in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas, and journeyed a bit further out to explore the jungle of Chitwan National Park. And even though it was a short trip, I loved getting to know the country and demystifying it a bit, although it remains a very spiritually interesting place for me.
How did you plan for it? How did you navigate between each city?
We didn’t plan too much too far in advance. I believe it was low season, so we were able to make a lot of our decisions on the fly. Nepal has a fairly robust bus system as far as getting between main sites goes but I do feel that it’s worth noting that bus rides in Nepal are not for the faint of heart. I am deathly scared of heights and on a lot of the drive through the mountains I very frequently felt like the whole bus might topple off the side of a cliff. Not to mention that the drivers go pretty fast around the turns and it actually isn’t uncommon to see buses in traffic accidents. I actually ended up making some playlists for myself that were made up of super soothing music that I would listen to on the drives to calm my nerves. If buses aren’t for you, I believe too that you can hire private taxis at a pretty good price to take you from place to place. We never ended up doing that except for our transportation from Pokhara to the base of the mountains for trekking. But I would say that it was reasonable and felt very safe, plus our hotel arranged it for us.
What would you say differentiated each city and region you explored from each other?
The landscape was very different in each place, of course, as we went from bustling capital city, to a quiet lakeside town, to the mountains, to the jungle. It’s pretty cool how varied it is even within such a small country and we essentially were hopping from microclimate to microclimate. Kathmandu is a bit muggy and smoggy… Pokhara the air was fresh and we experienced a crazy rainstorm with the biggest water droplets I have ever seen in my life… the mountains were another world of cool, crisp air, sunshine, and occasional rain… the jungle was hot and humid, mosquitoes abound. Nothing unbearable and all a welcome change from the desert heat we had been experiencing in India a few weeks prior.
Another thing that is always a funny thing to notice is the different kinds of tourists in each place. In Kathmandu, we actually rarely spent a lot of time in places near a ton of other tourists and it’s a pretty overwhelming place… so I feel most people don’t spend a tremendous amount of time here. We often would just try to blend in on the busy market streets (and fail, obviously) and drop into the smaller alley ways when possible to see what we could find and explore. In Pokhara, you find a lot of wealthier European tourists and the town of Pokhara almost looks like something you’d find in Colorado by day… a lot of North Face and hiking boots. In Chitwan, it was low season so we rarely saw other tourists and hiking in the Himalayas, you will mostly only run into other outdoorsy types but usually only at the end of the day around the fire at your guesthouse.
How did this trip differ from your past trips? What surprised you most about your experience?
I had spent a lot of time traveling to large metropolitan cities around Europe and places like Tokyo and New York. These kinds of trips, while still cultural and special, involve a lot of eating, spending money, and being around technology, bright lights, and lots of people.
What was great about our trip to Nepal as well as the proceeding weeks in India and the following weeks throughout other parts of Asia is that we spent a tremendous amount of time outdoors. I live in Los Angeles where I can say that there was a point in my life where I would spend 2 hours or more in the car each day and then 8 hours in the office… not a lot of time to be outdoors in the fresh air. It’s true, I do try to hike once and awhile and go to the beach, but nothing can match a real trek through the mountains or through the jungle. I loved feeling so connected to nature.
What would you say was the most challenging about your experience? The most gratifying?
I’m not really sure about challenging, besides the fact my body is not made to travel long distances up and down hills when trekking. But I can say that the most gratifying thing was how much time we were able to spend conversing with Nepali people. We found an awesome local restaurant and bar in Kathmandu where we hung out with some Nepali 20-somethings for a night, the man who owned our guesthouse we stayed in in the city was a total sweetheart always willing to help, we met a man on the street who was our unofficial tour guide for the day, our guide to Poon Hill Padam was an extremely lucky find and wonderful source of cultural knowledge, and the 2 silly dudes who dragged us through the jungle were absolutely hilarious. We met so many kind people who never treated us any differently than they would any other stranger. I never felt like I was being treated better or worse, I always felt like I could level with them and just chat and joke and have fun.
What tips and advice can you share for future travelers?
I’m always really bad at answering this question since I never do a ton of pre-planning or research for my trips… I kind of just fly by the seat of my pants which is both a blessing and a curse usually!! I’m never 100% prepared and never have things quite figured out. But I’m a huge proponent of WikiTravel along with just sitting down at a table with some other travelers to see what their reviews of the area are or trying to meet some locals to ask them what they think you should get into while you’re hanging in their town or city.
Although, I do think that one thing that is definitely worth pointing out as far as travel tips go is that you should know that there aren’t a ton of hostels around the country (if any...I’m not sure), so we stayed mostly in guesthouses and small hotels. The party backpacker vibe doesn’t really exist here so I could imagine that as a solo traveler or just a social traveler in general it could be a bit challenging to meet and socialize with other people in that special way that backpackers do. I traveled with friends so it was nice to have built in companions for our journey.
What is your favorite memory from your trip?
The guides that we had for our jungle trek were the funniest pair. I can’t even remember how we ended up booking them but they were very welcome entertainment for what was a very arduous 8-hour trek through the jungle in Chitwan National Park by foot. They didn’t speak a ton of English but I don’t remember it ever even being an issue. They kept us entertained while we took water breaks with wordless riddles (i.e. games with sticks) and taught us all the different ways to NOT die by wild animal in the jungle: run in zig zags from rhinos, make hideous noises to scare off a sloth bear, two steps forward and one step backward to sneak away from tigers. They even laughed with us after we actually did get chased by a rhino and all screamed and ran for our lives.
What were some of your most memorable experiences?
The most important and impactful memories for me are those of our guide, Padam, from our trek to Poon Hill. Since we had limited time and I personally am not a very seasoned outdoors-woman (I’m working on it, though!) we hired a guide and did one of the shorter more common treks in the Annapurna circuit which only takes you up about 10K feet. This portion of the circuit takes a total of 3-4 days while the entire circuit can take 2-3 weeks depending on your speed.
Our awesome hotel in Pokhara set everything up for us and within a day or so of requesting help we were in a car on our way up to the base of the mountains. With hopes of being lighter on our feet, we packed a small portion of our belongings into one large pack and one small pack and planned to switch off every few hours on our trek, leaving the rest back in Pokhara. We met Padam in one of the towns at the base of the Himalayas and sooner than later we were on our way.
Padam, whose name he told us means lotus flower, spoke near perfect English as a result of his having been a guide for 20-something years and he had a teacherly quality about him, which ended up facilitating a number of fascinating conversations that made the 4-day trip that much more poignant and impactful. He almost immediately instituted an open door policy of sorts for any question we may have - there wasn’t really a limit of what he was willing to explain to us and he even allowed us to ask him personal questions about his own life. We not only were able to get to know him but were able to learn a lot of things about Nepali culture in an open and honest way. He encouraged curiosity.
Everyday we were surrounded by astonishing beauty - meandering creeks, tiny babbling waterfalls, huge roaring waterfalls, old stone walls and staircases, farm animals, blue skies and fluffy clouds, pouring rain, tiny mosses and old knobby trees. Padam taught us everything from the history of the old Salt route, to any Nepali vocabulary we wanted around the fire each evening, he explained things like how he was raised in a polygamous household, how he met his wife 3 days before they were married and how he plans to raise his own children… free to be with whomever they choose. His openness was something we were so lucky to experience and I think what I appreciated most was that I never really felt like he was being overly comparative or judgmental of the differences between our two cultures, he was just telling it like it is.
On the 3rd day, I believe, we summited Poon Hill at sunrise and gazed on the scene in front of us, a line of mountains directly across the valley from us among which were the 7th and 8th tallest peaks in the world, something like 8000+ meters high. I remember there was a moment when a small plane flew across our line of sight that was almost halfway as high as their ridges. Seeing these gigantic towers of rock and earth in front of us was truly awe-inspiring, not to mention the fact that we were sitting atop Poon Hill amongst people from all over the globe speaking dozens of languages, alongside Padam who had the kindness and an honest desire to let us in on his own experiences of the world. It was a true moment of what astronauts call the overview effect - where you are able to grasp the idea that we are all here together as a parts of one giant whole. It’s true, the astronauts get to experience this feeling while looking back at the blue orb of the world against the blackness of never-ending space… but I think it’s possible to feel this way here on Earth too. Being in the Himalayas, or any striking landscape I believe, can for some reason bring us to these types of realizations about our genuine smallness and people like Padam can make these kinds of journeys not just physical ones, but also journeys towards a special sort of togetherness. What an inspiring trip that was!!
What’s next for you? Any final words of advice?
I´m currently traveling in Peru, visiting family from my maternal grandmother´s side of the family. It´s a total trip being here because our family lost contact 50-60 years ago, so we´re learning so much about my grandma so late in her life (she´s 97 - so crazy, right?!). But that´s all a very long story for another day!
When I get home I’m looking forward to taking some domestic trips in the US - I’ve spent a decent amount of time and money traveling outside my own country and learning about other cultures while there are still some days that I feel like I hardly understand my own. I’m looking forward to getting lost “out on the open road” as they say and exploring the American west. I’ve got a potential road trip to Idaho on the books so far.
Images Courtesy of Shanley Kellis
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