Delve into Nepal with Don Palmer
The following is a guest blog written by Don Palmer who joined Seven Women and Hands on Development on tour. All photos were shot by Lachie McGarvie on tour.
Stepping from the First to the Third world was always going to be challenging and exciting. I knew that Nepal came in 144 out of 147 developing countries and it would be confronting. But I have spent a lot of time in aboriginal communities and thought I knew what to expect. There were many surprises and some sadness’s awaiting. First impressions were superficial. The seething swirl of motor bikes managing to avoid accidents by millimeters. The gutter to gutter pot holes. The dust. The spaghetti like agglomeration of electrical wires which festoon the endless narrow streets. Everywhere people with micro businesses specialising often in only single products. Chicken. Strawberries. Traditional drums. Simple fried food. The alley ways lined by endless tiny shop fronts with proprietors busily working or just starring hopefully into the middle distance. Then there are a seemingly endless assortment of curious vehicles and things being transported. To see people bearing loads like double wardrobes strapped to their heads is to see life at its most relentlessly demanding.
It was arresting to visit the sacred funeral pyres by the river and see how stark and unvarnished life and death are. For many Nepalese life beyond death is much more important than this life. And signs of that are not only found in the streets but in government policy that seems to have not engaged in simple things like poverty, education, health and, not least the plight of the disabled, particularly women.
One outstanding joy of the journey was walking the streets and alley ways with Stephanie and experiencing people come out of the woodwork to greet her. There is always laughter as she chatted fluently in Nepalese.
And meeting the women who life has dealt a harsh hand but who have found reason to hope through working with Stephanie. Each one had a tale that would make a hard man cry, but none told their tale to seek sympathy. They were women growing stronger by the day because someone from a country they could barely understand had taken a genuine interest in each of them and given them the chance to join in a sisterhood of opportunity and belonging.
Sitting with them on the floor of the tin shed they call a factory while they made the products for sale in Australia was a sublime experience.
And then there was night trek to Stephanie’s friend Ganesh’s village in what felt like climbing Everest (but certainly was not). It was as challenging a journey as anything I have ever undertaken. Our first village was having a wedding. Everyone dressed to the nines and two trumpeters playing enormous celebrational horns greeted us. Then it was the serious journey across several hundred meter long suspension bridges and then up a mountain track that the local goats would have baulked at. Over four hours in the dark, scaling terrain with floods of freezing water cascading down, lit only by tiny LED torches.
Note to Telstra: the mobiles phones had strong reception all the way.
We were greeted late at night high in the mountains with garlands of flowers and then sitting on the earthen floor of a tiny room lit only by four tiny sticks being carefully feed end on end into an earthen oven used to cook our food. It somehow felt Four Star. We slept on bare boards in a mud room over the stables where ox and goats were housed. Woken by a rooster on the open window meant we started the next day at dawn.
The people, whose lives were barely imaginably simple, were generous and welcoming to the strangers with their expensive technology of cameras and phones.
Back in the refugee slums of Kathmandu, where people live in crowded homes of bamboo covered with black industrial plastic sheets and a single central tap serving thousands, we found a welcome and met some astonishing and quietly proud people. One beautiful new bride was squatting and washing dishes, surrounded by the squalor. She was dressed fit to meet the Queen (a privilege for the Queen), beautifully made up and with the smile of someone who was living in paradise. She was a jewel in what many would consider to be hell.
While interviewing one woman in the rain I glanced down at my feet which were getting wetter by the minute in the fetid water. Then I glanced at hers and saw she actually had no feet.
And we walked this journey with other remarkable people. One man, Cecile, runs a small travel agency in a modestly located small alley way and happens to run and pay for two schools of a thousand kids. Visiting one of his schools I experienced children who were so eager to learn and so welcoming that I couldn’t think of any equivalent back in Australia.
Most of the time I moved from place to place bouncing around on the back of an old British Enfield motor bike as Lachie McGarvie, our talented and passionate Aussie still photographer navigated the cacophony of traffic. We tried to keep up with Stephanie’s whirlwind pace as she and her dedicated motor bike driver Padam, locally famous as a sports hero and fixer extraordinaire, ducked down back alleys and walk ways and visited the factories, sought out friends (like Mother Nepali who had been married at the tender age of just seven), negotiated with managers and linked up with countless women she has given a fresh start to in life. All the while I was feeling what a privilege it was to enter the under side of a world barely imaginable without being there.
Once we were bouncing along the fetid and rubbish strewn Basmati River and were called over by a group of street kids playing marbles. They wanted their friend, Stephanie, to join them.
It may seem to be a cliché to say that the whole experience puts life in perspective. It did, and that is a precious gift. To be so starkly reminded that one person, supported by enthusiastic friends back home, can make such a difference to the lives of so many is humbling and uplifting.
My assignment is to make a documentary for television about Stephanie and her organisation Seven Women. I hope it may just remind us all about what is really important in life and what is possible. And while we lead a privileged life in Australia we each have the chance to help lift up the lives of others, and in doing so, perhaps find purpose in our own.
You can watch the ‘Bringing the Light’ trailer here.
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