Somehow, after three hours of conversation, she remains a mystery to me.

She doesn’t give me a lot of hints. Is she 26? 27? She’s finishing her PhD, a general clue. Throughout the evening we chat about our respective histories, our reasons for coming to Nepal, her research. She most reminds me of my photographer friend Dave Delnea. In looks and ambition they could be siblings. It’s so uncanny that a few times I catch myself staring.

We met because I’m a rookie here. Travelling in Nepal for a few weeks, naturally I wanted a SIM for my phone. After an hour’s walk in dusty diesel fumes, I duly paid the fee and walked away happy at my purchase ($10 for plenty of data *and* voice!). Except I forgot a critical detail: my new phone number.

My mistake worked in my favour. Searching out a decent cappucino, I asked a fellow traveller if she’d be willing to let me call her phone so I could discover my newly-won cell number. The conversation began from there.

She was in the highlands for three months, her fifth such visit. She lives with the locals, in a sacred valley free from any kind of animal sacrifice (which includes meat for consumption). A porter hauls up supplies every few weeks. Each day she charts the dwellings, measures the land and listens to the customs so that in the not-too-far future, if and when this is all wiped out, we’ll be able to measure the damage.

Such is the life of a disaster preparedness researcher.

Indra’s research is in a valley between the Khumbu (home of Mount Everest) and the Langtang trekking regions. This place, like everywhere, is being affected by climate change. The climate signal here is quickly receding glaciers.

When glaciers advance, their crushing weight grinds rock into powder and pushes it out in front, like a tongue licking foam. When the advance stops and the glaciers retreat, a high ridge of gravelly soil is left. These moraines dam massive lakes of meltwater, clean remnants of snow dropped thousands of years ago.

With the rate of meltwater increasing, eventually these dams break. The natural wall of the moraine is only loosely held by gravity. When the force of the meltwater exceeds the weight of the moraine, entire lakes can vanish in an instant. All that water heads straight down the nearest valley.

This is where Indra spends her time. She’s there measuring population, land values and discovering what the locals know and are prepared for in case of disaster. She’s also coming to understand their values—like, for example, their potatoes. This particular valley’s potatoes are the best, so the locals say. In fact they’re so good, not only are they the staple diet, but when locals leave for work in other cities, the comfort food they pine for is the potatoes. On her last trip, in addition to hefting down her own equipment down the valley, Indra carried several sacks of potatoes for locals missing the taste of home.

The valley is far removed from even the bustle of Kathmandu, let alone the sophistication and knowledge of my home in Canada. Yet the choices we’re making in places like Vancouver are changing the lives and livelihoods of these last few remaining micro-cultures in the high Himals.

It’s striking to me that thanks to a Google search for coffee in Thamel I’ve been able to make a new friend, and connect to a place and people that otherwise I would never know.

* I’ve changed some of the names & details for privacy