Rivers of Connection: A Semester Abroad in Nepal – Zoe Grumbach

Rivers of Connection: A Semester Abroad in Nepal – Zoe Grumbach

Amongst most college students, Nepal isn’t typically at the top of the list when considering a semester long study abroad. Sandwiched between India and China, the country is mostly known for the Himalayan mountain range, where mountaineers and adventurers test the limits of their bodies against the world’s highest mountains. I, too, was drawn to Nepal for the legendary mountains—but even more so, I was enticed by the glacial rivers that descend from those rocky peaks. Who would have thought: the river guide wants to make her study abroad semester all about rivers…I first encountered the Karnali River in Paddling Magazine, from a video titled “The Tears of Shiva.” The short film documented four kayakers descending Nepal’s “last major free flowing river,” before hydroelectric dams were constructed along the Karnali. I was immediately captivated by this river, the translucent glacial-melt band that descends 671 miles from a sacred mountain in Tibet to converge with the Ganges River in India.

In the months leading up to my departure for Nepal, I daydreamed constantly of the Karnali River. I carefully planned my journey to the remote region of Tibet, researching the (notoriously dangerous) flights from Kathmandu to Humla, where I would take either a bus or a car as far as vehicles can go, then carry on by foot to the upper reaches of the Karnali’s watershed. I dreamed of steep river gorges, and small mountain villages. I knew from my own experience working in the wilderness that the adventure would be laden with unforeseen circumstances and challenges; what I did not anticipate was being laid up in a traveler’s hospital with an IV in my arm for eight days.

A viral throat infection knocked me down just as it came time for me to leave the city and head for the mountains and rivers. Almost nothing could have seemed more devastating in the moment—that this journey I had so carefully researched and planned would not come to fruition. But I was there, in Nepal, and committed to four months of study about something related to rivers.

I wound up shifting gears, and focusing on a river closer to civilization called the Seti River. In lieu of an epic adventure into the most remote corners of the world, I spent 4 weeks looking at the effects of urbanization on waterways. The funny thing is, it really didn’t matter what the project was, nor where the river lay. Water will always be the most fundamental resource to life, and as such it has a tendency to bring people together and serve as a connection point that can bridge the gaps between different languages and cultures.

Over many shared cups of tea, and many, many, helpings of lentils and rice, I got to know the Seti River through the eyes of those who lived along its banks. Oftentimes, I found myself thinking of people back home who shared the same passion for rivers, and who knew the intricacies of their respective environment equally intimately. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the community I have found on the Middle Fork, who appreciate, advocate for, and tend to the spectacular wilderness and vital river we all love. Although it was not the grandiose adventure I had imagined, I left Nepal with a renewed appreciation and an even deeper sense of connection to the power of rivers.

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