Deana Zabaldo
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 11 October

Meet Deana Zabaldo – Wanderlust's World Guide of the Year

Moments after she was crowned, Peter Moore got the chance to ask Deana how she felt about her achievement... and what it takes to be an award-winning guide

In a year that featured truly exceptional nominees, Deana Zabaldo, a guide for Mountain Madness, was crowned Wanderlust World Guide winner for 2013.

Although she lives in San Francisco, Nepal is Deana’s second home – and it shows. Her knowledge of Nepal’s language (she’s fluent in Nepali), culture and religion runs deep. Besides guiding, she also runs a non-profit organisation to benefit the local people, which gives her insights that many guides couldn’t possibly possess.

No wonder, then, that she’s been voted top guide for 2013.

"Her charity work for the local community was a deciding factor for me,” said judge Peter Antoniou. Mark Carwardine added: “A gifted communicator, caring and sympathetic, who succeeds in making clients of all abilities feel good about a difficult journey – she’s clearly remarkable.”

Peter Moore had the opportunity to speak to Deana after the ceremony and asked her about her life as a guide. And what winning this prestigious award means to her.

How did you start out in guiding?

I was originally a Peace Corp volunteer in Nepal and lived for two years in a village in the remote Himalayas and got attached. I moved back to California and after being there for a little bit realised that my heart was still in Nepal so I took a trekking group over with me when I went back. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be doing. But that was my first group and it evolved very organically after that. I loved doing it and opportunities came.

What was it that got you ‘attached’ to Nepal?

Other than the spectacular natural beauty, I think that it’s a very deeply spiritual place and a very vibrant and eclectic and intriguing place – historically and in modern times. In the end, really, I fell in love with the people. I formed close bonds with people in the village and in the capital and that’s what kept me coming back.

When you have a tour group turn up, what is it that you want to show them? What is it that you hope they’ll take away from the trip?

I want to show them the mountains, of course, but I also really want to connect them to the culture and the communities. I want them to see below the surface in Nepal. I think it’s really easy for them to come and be so captivated by the panoramas that it’s easy to gloss over what’s really happening for people. 

Even when you see cultural events, they’re very complex and it’s very hard to make sense of what you’re seeing. I really like to unravel that for people, to talk about the religious history, the political history, the modern events, what it looks like for everyday people there and to help bridge the gap.

As a guide in Nepal, you have altitude to contend with as well. What do you do when you see some people are coping well while other aren’t? How do you manage that?

Altitude is a challenge for a lot of people, that’s for sure. And nobody knows how there are going to react to it until they get up there. We try to keep a close eye on them and to see when they start taking a turn for the worse. It depends on their condition as to what we do for that. We try to address it earlier rather than later so they’ve got a better chance of being successful, getting to the top.

What do you enjoy the most about your job?

I think travelling in Nepal and in such extreme conditions, something that is so mentally and physically challenging is a transformative experience for people. It’s a life changing experience for people. To be part of that, and to help facilitate it, is amazing for me.

What do you think makes you a good guide?

I think one thing is that when I first went to Nepal, I was in this really remote area, I was a total city girl. I’d never even been backpacking. So it was a very foreign experience for me to be hiking and living in the mountains this way. I still remember what that’s like very clearly and I think that allows me to have a lot of empathy and patience with people who are experiencing all of that for the first time and who are struggling with some of the realities of being out trekking for two weeks.

The other thing is that I’m just passionate about Nepal and I think that shines through to people and they enjoy listening to me talk about it because I am genuinely interested in stuff.

If someone wants to be a guide, what’s the one piece of advice that you would give them?

Find something and somewhere that you are genuinely interested in and pursue it in depth. And in the process of that, provide really great customer service to people.

Have you thought about what you might do with the bursary?

I have a small non-profit that provides seed money and gap money for a couple of programs in Nepal. One of the programs that I started when I was a Peace Corp volunteer was with sustainable, organic agriculture so I’d like to expand that program now from tea into almonds. Also a children’s home. And I do some other, one-off projects like solar cookers for Buddhist nuns. So there are some small initiatives on the side I’d like to give more too.

Finally, how does it feel to win Wanderlust World Guide of the Year?

It’s a tremendous recognition of the work that I’ve done there and the choice that I’ve made to devote so many years of my life to guiding. It’s great to have that acknowledged, not just by Wanderlust but by all of my clients.

For more information about the other winners, visit our Wanderlust World Guide Awards page here.