I was told I would never find a female trip leader in northern India. What I’ve learned during this whole process however, is never to accept what people tell you in situations like that. Perhaps it’s easier just to do the normal thing and not to challenge the way things are done, but after a huge amount of searching, it turns out that there was someone…
I first met Jangu Lepcha in a small hotel room in Siliguri, Northern India, just by the border into Sikkim. Naturally, the first thing I did in a panic was to show her my chairpack, which luckily she seemed to like. I was nervous what she thought about the trip and the ideas behind it, I hadn’t even spoken to her on email before I arrived, it was all done through a contact we both vaguely knew.
But as I came to realise as the trip went on, with Jangu there was no need to worry. “I’ve brought my own traditional clothes too”, she beamed at me, instantly relieving my nervous stomach. She’d read up all about Alexandra David-Néel, and seemed as fascinated and inspired by her as I first was all those years ago. This was a lifeline for me when my many moments of confusion and insecurity about the trip would set in.
This enthusiasm and confidence was to get me through many a tough time. Jangu was incredibly patient, kind and understanding as well as fantastic company, and of course a laugh. She was there pulling me up every time I fell over, to share thoughts with, to guide us and tell us about our surroundings but most importantly as a friend. I wouldn’t have coped anywhere near as well if I didn’t Jangu (and of course camerawoman Emily) there to support me. Women have an instinct about what each other’s needs and we formed such a strong bond, one that you could only get from travelling with other women.
As far as she knows, Jangu is the only female guide in Sikkim, especially one who is from the area and of Lepcha decent. The Lepchas were the original inhabitants of Sikkim, and many still worship nature. Most Lepcha communities no longer live in the forests, and life can be hard in the villages where they now have to live. Jangu spends much of her time going back to her village and trying to help the women and girls there develop skills for their future. Her dream is to eventually set up Jangu’s Adventure School for Girls, where she can train girls to become mountain guides, and employ local women to work in a homestay.
Jangu is such an inspiring woman, she surprised Emily and I every day and looked after us as if we were part of her family. This trip would not have been able to happen without her, and it scares me to think what it would have been like if she wasn’t a part of it. Jangu certainly has a friend and number one fan for life now – me!