It is 5:30 a.m. at the Sadhana Meditation and Yoga Retreat near Pokhara city in the heart of Nepal and the bell rings three times to wake the guests.
A dozen sleepy-eyed tourists make their way down to the meditation room as the sun begins to shine on the mountains that surround the peaceful centre.
The pre-meditation stretching begins with some light ankle and hip-flexor work.
For a hockey player with very little flexibility, sitting in the half-lotus position requires more than light stretching, but with enough pillows stacked under me, I manage to sit cross-legged on a yoga mat, ready for the first of two meditation sessions of the day.
Heavily incensed air fills my lungs with every deep breath and I quickly feel a calmness wash over me as I focus on nothing but the sound vibrating through my body.
Following the meditation, nasal cleansing activities kick off the first of two daily yoga sessions. Over the course of three days, a familiar rhythm consisting of meditation, yoga, hiking and chanting develops, leaving my mind sharp and my body cleansed and ready for the days ahead.
Following a three-day stay at the retreat, I head down to the city centre to obtain the necessary hiking permits and prepare for the four-day trek I have booked with a local Nepali mountain guide named Raj.
The following morning, we set off together for a ninety-minute taxi ride to the small city of Nayapul, the launching point for our trek in the foothills of the Annapurna mountain range.
Home to two of the top fifteen tallest mountains on Earth, and among the worlds most deadly, this range boasts more than 30 peaks that surpass Canada’s highest, Mount Logan.
Our first day is “light”, with only six hours of trekking and a mere 3100 hand-placed stone-steps going straight uphill. The hiking was the easy part: dodging the mules, cows, chickens, dogs and goats sharing the route proved to be a little more difficult.
Fortunately, we arrive in time to get a room in one of the “nicer” guesthouses where a double-bed with a gorgeous mountain view sets me back a whopping 150 Nepali rupees, or about $2 per night.
At that price, I was very thankful for the home-made bed-bug spray of tea-tree oil my thoughtful girlfriend Chantal packed for me.
The following morning, we hike through some of the most gorgeous landscapes the Himalayan plateau offers.
As we ascended, the terraced rice fields give way to lush mountain vegetation while views of the snow-peaked mountains ahead became more vivid.
After crisscrossing countless streams, waterfalls and rapids gushing down from the mountains above, we enter an ancient rhododendron forest with a palpable energy.
Its high canopy and moss-covered trees present a truly peaceful setting to practice my new-found meditation skills, with the langur monkeys playing above as the only disturbance.
The following day, we awake around 5 a.m. for a brisk one-hour hike to the Poon Hill mountaintop to catch the sunrise over the Annapurna range.
With Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the morning breeze, we had front-row seats to one of the most beautiful sunrises in the world.
As the light creeps up the horizon, it crests over the vast forest below us to shine its golden light onto the snow-white peaks surrounding our vantage point.
I shoot more than 100 photos that morning alone in this photographer’s paradise before setting off for the eight hours of hiking that lay ahead of us that day.
A typical cheerful Nepali, Raj keeps my spirits high by telling me stories of the Yetis from his hometown and signing traditional folk songs.
I also spend a good deal of time talking hockey and music with three Swedes completing the same trek, recalling World Junior Hockey games in particular.
With five straight hours of downhill saved up for the last days of the hike, my quads and calves were on fire by the time we arrive back in Pokhara.
Having become friendly over our four days together, my mountain guide Raj invites me to join him and his family to celebrate the tenth day of Dasain, one of the largest festivals in Nepal.
This 15-day celebration is the longest in the Nepalese calendar and grants schoolchildren and government employees a month-long vacation from their daily routines.
I meet Raj in the early morning and he leads me to his home to meet his charming wife and twin seven-year-old boys. As a polite French-Canadian boy, I bring a nice bottle of wine to accompany the heaps of food I was told to expect.
Following a scrumptious meal of chicken boiler curry and sel roti, a fried donut-like bread made of rice and millet, the first ceremony begins with the children of the extended family, with whom I am included to my great honour.
Sitting beside five school-age children whose combined weight is probably less than my own, a candle is lit in front of us on a plate surrounded by rice and herbs.
We are first showered by water and rice, a symbol of cleanliness and prosperity. A mixture of water, rice and yogurt is then placed on each of our foreheads prefaced by a blessing of good tidings similar to those given to me by my father every year on New Years Day.
A collection of herbs and flowers is then placed on each ear accompanied by a small monetary gift.
I am touched that despite the obvious poverty in which they live, they see fit to give me a gift. Giggling with the children around me as the rice occasionally slips off my forehead, I feel completely accepted by my new Nepalese family.
A second meal of dhal bat, tough buffalo innards and white rice is served with a strong cup of roksi, the local moonshine that looks like water but tastes like fire.
A young boy is invited into the small home to share the food, despite being a stranger to the family. He is clearly hungry and most likely an orphan, but he is accepted into the family as openly as I am for the big festival.
Following the meal, each family member gives a deep bow to one another as a sign of respect and thanks.
The family then dons clean clothes while Raj presents me with a traditional Nepalese hat to compliment the rice on my forehead, and to help me blend in with the locals.
Standing a full foot taller than everyone in my party, this is highly unlikely, but I gladly accept the gesture and place the cap upon my head as we set off to the home of Raj’s brother-in–law for more festivities.
A sudden rainfall interrupts our walking plans and all eight of us squeeze into a taxi cab for a very tight ride. With both twins on my lap, we set off across town, and quickly arrive at our destination.
A few flights of stairs later, we find ourselves huddled in the home of Raj’s brother-in-law on the top floor: a small eight-by-eight-foot room with a propane camping stove, four cement walls and a wooden bed without a mattress.
I am introduced to the eight additional family members that will be celebrating with us, and more local moonshine is brought out to celebrate and accompany a generous serving of mutton curry and fresh banana.
The rice ceremony is repeated with the brother–in-law also smattering rice on my forehead and generously presenting me with a monetary gift.
The adults then sit in a makeshift line to start preparing the next and final course, traditional Nepali dumplings called momos.
As rain pounds the thin sheet-metal roof above our heads and the electricity flickers on and off, sometimes giving out for hours at a time, the family and I sit by the light of a single candle sharing laughs and telling stories while matting down the dough, crushing hot peppers and filling dumplings with a curry-like paste.
Plate after plate is taken off the steamer and we feast on the spicy dumplings, washing them down with Fanta, Pepsi, straight whiskey and roksi.
A feeling of euphoria washes over me as I realize what an amazing experience this was: a genuine interaction with people from a foreign culture that so graciously accept me into their home, sharing their food, drink and company, while including me in their customs, and expecting nothing in return.
Although Nepal is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen, it is the Nepali people who are the true gem of the Himalayas and for that, it will forever hold a place in my heart.
J-F Démoré is a president and CEO of financial planning firm Integra Wealth and a sought after motivational speaker. A world traveller, this is the first in a three-part series in which J-F chronicles his adventures in Nepal.