Cultural Immersion in the High Himalayan Village of Puma Nepal

Life in Puma, Nepal – An Exercise in Sustainable Living

The idea of sustainability, first proposed in 1854 when Henry David Thoreau published Walden, has come to mean a way of living that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In today’s developed countries, where the acquisition of material possessions is highly valued, achieving a sustainable lifestyle is quite impossible. But during my recent home stay in the tiny mountain community of Puma Nepal I witnessed an example of sustainable living that is as close to pure as can be expected in a developed world.

The Himalayan village of Puma Nepal practices sustainable living

The Himalayan village of Puma Nepal practices sustainable living

The 60 or 70 simple homes that make up the village are constructed primarily from locally available stone, clay and timber, as are the mortarless, hand-hewn paths that cascade down the mountainside. Artesian wells bubble up through the impervious rock and flow year round, providing residents with free water that can be brought into the homes via pipe or hose. Houses are generally unheated, despite being at high altitude. Instead, people retire early and snuggle under thick quilts in bone-chilling winter temperatures, rising before dawn to sparingly stoke outdoor clay ovens with firewood gathered from the surrounding forest.

Puma Nepal is inhabited solely by members of the Gurung caste, who have traditionally served in the military or farmed. On terraced mountain fields, each Gurung family plants rice, millet, potatoes, and a variety of leafy greens. Crops provide the bulk of their annual food needs and only a few staples like spices, cooking oil, and tea must be purchased. But abundant natural resources and fertile lands aside, the real secret to Puma’s success is its tradition of helping one another and practicing an age-old barter system.

During my four day home stay, the rice harvest was just beginning. Aama, now well into her seventies and no longer capable of farming her own land, lent out her wooden yoke and till to neighbors, who attached it to their oxen team and, after the rice had been cut, plowed her fields as well as their own. In return, Aama prepared her spacious stone patio for drying the harvested rice. A younger neighbor mixed local clay with sheep’s wool and water until it was the consistency of putty and spread it by hand over the cracks between flagstones. Aama paid the woman with a mound of dried rice and several chunks of rock salt. While the patio was being sealed, Aama’s grandson, Prakash, arrived and made Chang, an alcoholic beverage from rice paste that had been fermenting for several days, while Nani, another member of Aama’s extended family, severed millet seeds from their long stalks in preparation for making home-brewed beer.

Can’t see the above YouTube video about life in Puma, Nepal? Click here.

When it was time for Aama’s buffalo to be bred, a neighbor lent out his bull as a sire, and the buffalo milk from the mother was subsequently shared. Aama’s two hens and a cock kept her well-supplied with eggs, and a dozen or so chicks provided meat for the table. Other neighbors raised goats, which also provided a ready source of meat. Nothing was wasted in this community; millet and rice stalks were used as forage for the buffalo and buffalo dung was recycled in the vegetable garden.

Though residents of Puma live a simple existence, I was constantly amazed by their level of sophistication. Unlike larger metropolitan areas, where trash is blithely tossed into street, Puma is trash free because village elders have established fines for anyone caught littering. In the same vein, the village has partnered with World Vision to develop an environmental sanitation program that established rules for building toilets and made open defecation a fineable offense. Aama’s squat toilet was, without a doubt, the cleanest I have ever seen and there was not a speck of trash to be found anywhere on her property.

Even the mountain schools were more advanced than others I visited around Nepal. Both the primary school in Puma and the secondary school in nearby Baglung Pani have well-stocked libraries, courtesy of the Room to Read program out of Great Britain. Students are taught English from the moment they start school and every youngster I spoke to could converse in English to some degree. When I questioned the school headmasters about their most pressing needs I was told that computers are a number one priority, as the children must be computer literate in order to enter the workforce. Schools I visited in Pokhara were lucky to have pencils and notebooks for the students.

Another force to be reckoned with in Puma is its Mother Group, an organization of women who perform traditional Gurung dances and songs around Nepal and throughout SE Asia. Each family in Puma is expected to participate in the group; those who cannot perform sew costumes, cook, or keep the books. Revenues from their performances have paid for a community pavilion, repaired or built rock staircases, and even constructed a modern rice mill, eliminating the need to husk rice with hand-held grinders.

Can’t see the above slide show about sustainable living in Puma, Nepal? Click here.

This tradition of looking after one another has resulted in strong community ties in Puma. Neighbors stopped by Aama’s home each morning to share a cup of tea and again in the evening as the setting sun painted orange and purple hues on the snowy mountaintops. Girls from neighboring homes gathered on the porch and sat with their arms thrown about one another, singing and gossiping, while adults sat on the patio rock wall and reviewed the day’s work. The interdependent lifestyle of these villagers has forged a sense of love and caring that I have rarely witnessed elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the outside world is increasingly impacting life in Puma. Electricity used to be generated by a cooperative owned by the village but over time they could not maintain the infrastructure, so the plant was turned over to the government and residents now must pay for their electricity. Soap, shampoo, light bulbs, mattresses, metal pots and pans, water hoses and drums, and matches must all be purchased, and many villagers own cell phones, mp3 players, and televisions. As the modern world increasingly encroaches on this idyllic mountaintop, my fervent hope is that the residents of Puma are able to adapt without losing a lifestyle that values faith, family and friends above all else.

Giri Gurung, managing director of Nepal Tourism Travels & Adventures, organized a portion of my travels in and around Nepal, including my trips to Nagarkot, Changu Narayan, Chitwan National Park, and this amazing four-day home stay with his family in Puma. Nepal Tourism Travels & Adventures office is in Kathmandu, conveniently located in the Thamel backpacker district. Their website is www.nepaltourismtravels.com.np, and Giri’s email is [email protected] or [email protected]

20 Comments on “Life in Puma, Nepal – An Exercise in Sustainable Living

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  2. It almost makes you wonder if technological modernity and some aspects of humanity are mutually exclusive. Do the conveniences of modern life make it more difficult than it needs to be or do we simply miss the alternative paths in between. My apologies for the overly philosophical comment but this absolutely wonderful post brings up a conundrum that I’ve contemplated often.

    • Anil: I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I have a theory that happiness is
      inversely proportional to material wealth!

    • Thank you, Nancie! Heartwarming is the perfect word for how I felt when
      visiting Puma.

  3. I wish more Americans realized the importance of the barter system. Of course, it wouldn’t work here since many people are money hungry. I’ve always imagined living in a community like this. I’ll be in Nepal in April, so hopefully I will experience something like this. Great post!

    • Thanks Ordinary Traveler.If yo want to do a homestay in Puma, just get in
      touch with my tour operator, Giri Gurung, whose info is shown at the bottom
      of my article. It is his family I stayed with.

  4. I don’t believe that care for each other and village values change that quickly even as the amenities and impact from visitors is felt, especially in places where the elderly are so greatly respected. I hope I am right. Beautifully captured in words and pictures as always.

  5. Life as it should be were we all focused on what’s important. I found hilarious the fact that there are littering fines, it’s like you mentioned, it shows how sophisticated they are in a place where our concept of sophistication simply does not exist.
    It’s sad that century 21 is upon them and soon all might be lost…

    • Hi Nuno: I have my fingers crossed that they are so immersed in strong
      family and community values that they will find a way to incorporate new
      technology without losing what is so valuable, just as they have adopted the
      concept of no littering or public urination without abandoning their other
      structures for coopertive living.

  6. It’s so great to see photos of my old students! I’ve been gone now two years – and it really appears the village has changed. When I was there they were just building the outhouses for everyone and the Mother group was just forming.
    I love the video you did – it really makes me realize what a gem Puma was. When I was staying there – it’s sometimes hard to see it in such a way as life for a westerner can be challenging there. I think Puma is the perfect village – the people all work together and I certainly was the benefactor of that as various neighbors brought me meat and welcomed me into their homes every night. Staying with Didi and Aama was one of my best travel experiences.
    Barbara – I wish you could have stayed even longer!

    • Ottsworld: I agree that more than any of the other villages, Puma has
      something special. They just seem to have a really strong sense of
      community. Wish we could be more like that in the US.

  7. What a very special community and way of living – a lesson in the meaning of happiness

  8. My god but I love this post. Sounds corny but I can “feel the love”. I do hope that they can keep this special ambience even when modern conveniences arrive. The secret, I think, is in not letting the possessions, or more precisely “love” of them, rule our lives, and this can also apply in societies which still don’t have all the gadges we have in the “west”, so this isn’t just about “the simple life” in one sense.

    The contrast is much less dramatic, but I often bemoan the “progress” of this island, which has turned quite charming fishing villages into modern resorts, and yet, it isn’t up to me to deny the locals a better life. Looking at the picture of the woman washing clothes, I noticed her elegant hands, with a lovely braclet, and wondered what daily hand-washing does to them. It would be wonderful to have modern conveniences, but still keep the best of traditional life, but I have no idea whether that is possible anywhere in the world. It does seem as if the people of Puma have a better chance than most, though!

    Your pictures are amazing btw.

    • Thank you, Islandmomma! As usual you make me feel wonderful about what I do.
      I struggle with this whole issue of progress. From a traveler’s standpoint,
      I’d love to freeze Puma in time so that everyone could share my experience,
      but things change and it is not for me to deny people entry into the modern
      world with all its appurtenant gadgets and conveniences. As you say, I hope
      they can learn from the mistakes of the developed countries of the world,
      whose populations have so willingly abandoned the things that should be most
      highly valued in favor of material possessions, money, and status.

  9. This is an excellent post – thanks for sharing it! I’m always really amazed at how resourceful people are in developing countries – I guess I shouldn’t say ‘amazed’ because they have to think innovatively, but when I compare their lifestyles with our Western ones I get really angry about wasteful we are, mostly because of laziness. I find these stories to be very inspiring.

    • Hi Andrea and John: I have the same reaction, plus one of tremendous
      gratitude whenever I return to the States. It does, however, take me a while
      to get through the culture shock each time I return. Just going to the
      grocery store is a mind-boggling experience after spending months in
      third-world countries. I am often sad that people in the States are not
      grateful enough for what they have, but of course, that is because they have
      not traveled and are unaware of the situation in the rest of the world.
      Living in the U.S.is like having tunnel vision most of the time; even the
      news tells us little about the world, unless it is some “news-worthy”
      horrible disaster.

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