Sonoman helps launch trek biz in India
RAJA SAHOTA and Sonoma Valley High School grad Elise Noel, along with daughter, Layla, have launched a successful and sustainable business leading treks in India.
Born and raised in Sonoma Valley, Elise Noel is now raising a daughter of her own in Dharamsala, India.
The Sonoma Valley High School graduate flew to India as an 18-year-old, planning to teach yoga to rehab patients. There, she fell in love with the culture, as well as with her supervisor.
Raja Sahota, Noel’s husband and now her partner in business, is originally from Punjab, India. In 1998, he began work for Cross-Cultural Solutions, a program that aims to provide study abroad, volunteer and intern opportunities to people worldwide. Sahota worked as the director of Cross-Cultural Solutions in India until 2007, at which point he joined forces with Noel to begin a project that has since developed into a successful company.
Sahota and Noel began their journey by forming a youth group in Dharamsala that aimed to educate the local people about sanitation, nutrition and safety – at the time, the locals had trouble managing simple but essential community tasks, such as dealing with garbage.
“Every problem in the community is linked to all sorts of things,” said Sahota. The idea was to bring residents of the community together to collaborate on important projects, not an easy task considering that Dharamsala is made up of people of numerous cultures and castes, from the local indigenous to Tibetan migrant laborers and foreigners.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama relocated to Dharamsala when the Tibetan government was exiled, and it has long been a haven for Buddhists in India, although much of the population remains Hindu. Situated in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, the area also offers a wide variety of outdoor experiences, from the peaks of the Himalayas to raging waterfalls hidden in the rocky terrain. It has long been popular with tourists who seek both its spiritual offerings and its recreational activities.
With opportunities presented by Noel and Sahota, the young people in the community seized the chance to make a difference in Dharamsala, working with the couple on projects that would initiate real change.
As those in the youth group grew older, and a demand arose for sustainable employment, Sahota and Noel focused on transforming their work into a true business, and Himalayan Explorers was born.
Himalayan Explorers, which has been functioning for about four years now, is a trekking company that offers honest, wholesome service to tourists hoping to discover India. But more importantly, it is a business that employs the young people of Dharamsala, who hope to eventually heighten the standard of living for their families and neighbors.
“Our first goal is to make sure that the people within the community have sustainable jobs,” said Noel. “We wanted to establish a business that would get people out of the cycle of poverty and still locate them in their tribe.”
The core group of boys from the youth group – most of the women who were involved were married and moved to the homes of their husbands – are paid 12.5 percent of the company earnings. Meanwhile, 60 percent of earnings go back to the community, funding projects and local initiatives to continue to tackle the issues that the youth group identified and battled in the beginning.
Himalayan Explorers also aims to be the ideal choice for tourists.
“Tourism in India is very haphazard,” said Sahota. “We try to offer tourism that is actually clean.”
Sahota explained that tour guides of many less honest companies in India are paid the equivalent of $3 for a day’s work. Often, trekking guides develop severe knee problems, causing them to lose their jobs, but also preventing them from being able to farm and sustain themselves and their families.
“You have to make sure you’re doing responsible tourism,” said Sahota. “You have to ask, ‘Who is getting the money?’”
All of the guides at Himalayan Explorers are trained and qualified to lead the treks, which is not always the case at other touring businesses, he said.
Sahota believes that, not only do foreigners gain a rich and intense understanding of Dharamsala and the surrounding areas, but that the employees of Himalayan Explorers and the members of the community are also enriched in the exchange.
“They have a stereotype of what America is like, and then that gets broken,” he said.
The idea of mutual learning and understanding seems to be key to the success of Himalayan Explorers. Sahota and Noel, in addition to encouraging Sonoma locals to explore the opportunities that Himalayan Explorers has to offer, also welcome travelers to stay in their home.
“Our house has turned out to be a great stop for friends and visitors,” Sahota said. “We cook food, there is music. It adds to the whole atmosphere.”
One of those friends and soon-to-be-visitors, 20-year-old Sonoma local James Fanucchi, will travel to Dharamsala in March in the company of his camera. A journalism major at City College of San Francisco, and a photo intern at The Sonoma Index-Tribune since 2010, Fanucchi will venture out of the country for the second time in his life. Readers can follow Fanucchi’s personal journey and enjoy his photographs on his blog, photojour.com.