All you need is determination and you can achieve anything," says Sarina Gurung, who made an unconventional career choice to become the only female helicopter pilot in Nepal. In four years, Sarina has already notched up over 1,000 flights and is now used to the reaction she gets as she lands her chopper on remote hillsides. "Hey, it's a woman," villagers say as she climbs out of the cockpit, and they rush to touch her to see if she is for real.
Sarina laughs at this, and hopes she breaks traditional stereotypes about women by just being there to do what she does. As a girl in Solukhumbu and daughter of an ex-British Gurkha, Sarina never imagined she'd ever be a pilot. After finishing high school, she remembers ruling out the usual career options: doctor, engineer, nurse. "When I decided to be a pilot, I thought about the idea, made a plan and worked on it," says Sarina. She enrolled at a Russian aviation school in Odessa right after graduation. After getting her flying license, she returned to Nepal and got a job with Simrik Air.
It's a choice Sarina is glad she made, and Nepal is one of the most challenging areas of the world to fly a helicopter in. "Thanks to flying, I've really learnt a lot about Nepal, its geography and biodiversity," she says. By now, she has landed her huge Mi-17 helicopter in 500 places spread over Nepal's 75 districts.
Sarina plans to continue flying high, but refuses to limit herself to just being a pilot. "Sometimes, it gets monotonous going from Point A to Point B," she says. But as an aerobics instructor and bungy jumper as well, Sarina has no time being bored. Now she wants to try paragliding as well. On top of all this, she's making a foray into film, having just completed a six-month video project on Rai culture which will be released soon.
Sarina is happy that she is not yet a celebrity. "People really don't know that I exist," she says, pointing out that her name was not mentioned when a national newspaper ran a list of all the female pilots in Nepal. She ribs us: "You guys need to do more homework."