In this electronic era long distance relationships have become almost mainstream but long distance marriages? Now there's a different story.

Today Our People tells the one of a Nepalese couple separated by the 11,767km that divides Rotorua and Kathmandu.

For more than a year Ajay and Suman Pant have lived apart, not because their matrimonial relationship of 15 years has fizzled but because of their passionate commitment to a successful joint career.

The reason they're living half a world apart is for Suman to obtain an internationally recognised Kiwi tourism management qualification with accompanying experience to further bolster their already flourishing Himalayan valleys' trekking company.


She's mid-way towards her goal. After graduating from Toi Ohomai, Suman's had a frustrating wait for a work visa that will allow her to acquire the postgraduate skills she signed up for. She'll take these back to Footprints Nepal Travels and Tours, the company Ajay established in 2010 "when I felt the need for more challenges".

Those are the words of the man himself, whose presence was an unexpected perk when we knocked on Suman's door. We had no idea he'd be around but the reason was obvious, he'd been here, albeit briefly, for his wife's capping ceremony.

People from their Himalayan country are rare commodities hereabouts.

Between them, the Pants share with us a "togetherness" story that's totally foreign to the New Zealand mindset.

They are outcasts from Nepal's strict caste system. It did its darndest to keep them apart after the couple met as students.

Ajay is from a high caste Brahmin family, Suman is, by their reckoning, "three or four layers below".

Neither family approved of crossing the divide.

Ajay lays out the stumbling blocks their marriage had to conquer.

"It is not usual for my caste to marry a lower caste person, usually our marriages are arranged. We had some big issues convincing my parents. Suman was living with her sister and brother-in-law who simply weren't prepared to accept me."

Suman takes over: "I ran away, took a public bus to Ajay's parents, they said he wasn't home, I asked a friend for shelter, we thought 'how will we manage this?' So we took off together."

Eventually Ajay's parents mellowed but there was to be no big traditional wedding ceremony with the usual rituals spread over several days.

"Instead we married in the [Hindu] temple with just Ajay's dad and uncle, no other guests, it only took a few minutes. Our two families have still not met, I continue to feel the pain, my family shuns me because I eloped," Suman laments.

Their married life began in Ajay's parents' home but tensions remained.

Ajay continues: "We moved into our own place, it was one room, we slept on the floor. Because Suman had been working for her family at the school her brother-in-law runs she lost her employment, I'd just started a job with a minimum salary. Eventually with the help of friends we managed to build up a home."

Suman went to India as a babe in arms, her father was an army man. She grew up and studied in Delhi.

"At 22 I went back to Nepal, I said to myself 'this is my country, where I belong'."

Our People's fascinated to know how come both speak such perfect English.

Suman: "I watched a lot of English movies, documentaries."

Ajay: "I worked with English-speaking people from volunteer organisations constructing buildings for health camps in remote areas, communicating with the locals. When we got married I became a marketing officer then taught computer skills."

He joined a Netherlands-based trekking company, remaining until that need for a fresh challenge enticed him into opening his own company.

Suman became his administrative assistant, customising treks for overseas clients.

The company presently employs two fulltimers, with a fluctuating number of freelance staff. Ajay is explicit the company's role on the great Himalayan tourism trial is "all about trekking, not climbing peaks".

With the company's business increasing, the couple accepted they needed more know-how of international tourism's inner workings.

It made sense for Suman to study professional tourism management, enter Rotorua.

"We saw this ad saying the New Zealand-based Waiariki Institute of Technology [Te Ohomai's forerunner] was holding an exhibition in Kathmandu.

"On the last day, in the last hour we popped in. We were their last customers."

They liked what they saw, the enrolment process began. Suman's course started in March last year.

From life in a marital home she found herself consigned to accommodation in a backpackers.

"I thought this isn't going to help me learn about New Zealand culture and traditions."

She was provided with two home-stay addresses but her experiences don't reflect well on Rotorua's reputation as friendly and hospitable.

"They were not nice places, they treated overseas students like customers, packing us in. It was as if they were just there to make money out of us."

A man she calls her brother - "in Nepal we call good friends our brothers and sisters" - had a friend in Wellington who told him his Rotorua cousin took home-stay guests.

Suman's prayers were answered, Margaret Classen opened her Springfield home to her.

"I couldn't have a better place. She treats us as our mother, we call her Mum."

The 'we' includes Ajay. His latest visit was his second "and Suman was home [Kathmandu] in January to help with our business so we haven't had too much time to get lonely without each other".

The pair are experienced travellers. Ajay's visited Europe four times, Suman three.

"In Europe people have little idea where Nepal is. New Zealanders are different because of Sir Edmund Hillary conquering Everest they know a lot about our place, our culture."

The striking differences between the two countries haven't fazed Suman.

"When I go back I'm now the one who gets the culture shock."

Born: Ajay: Kathmandu; 1974, Suman: Remote Nepal village, 1978
Education: Ajay: Kathmandu; Suman: Delhi
Families: "Just us."
Interests: Ajay: Photography (his landscape work is of professional standard), technology "I'm passionate about it". Reading "technology, travel, hiking and tramping books". And "showing people Nepal's amazing places".
Suman: Singing, "I can only sing Christmas carols in English, I sing in Hindi and Nepalese". Has sung with leading Bollywood stars. Travelling, meeting people
On Rotorua: Ajay: "I can't explain in words what a beautiful place it is."
Suman: "It's full of nature, we went to Auckland and I said 'once is enough'."
Personal philosophies: Ajay: "Being simple is the most definite thing in life."
Suman: "Spread smiles on people's faces."