Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” John Lennon
IT was her handbag which captured my attention. A beautiful travel tale of tapestry which whispered of a faraway land. I commented on her bag and she glanced at me from under inky black eyes. Her accent was baklava sweet, dripping in Middle Eastern exoticism, of sultry deserts and sticky desserts, piquant shisha pipes and ancient mosques wailing the Muslim call to prayer. “I am from Iran,” she said, smiling, “do you know Iran?” I have never walked in her homeland, but I know her region. Yet another destination. Like loneliness. Since publishing my blog on loneliness last week I have made an effort to walk my talk and try to connect more with my fellow humans, on a day-to-day level. I have been showered with so much love about my blog post, I couldn’t ignore the deluge. And what a torrent it was. I have been overwhelmed by phone calls, messages, emails and comments from friends and strangers from around the world. So today, I thought I’d share some of those responses, to remind you, that we are not alone.
One of my most deliciously surprising messages came in the form of an email, from the Netherlands.
“I stumbled upon your blog, “Only the lonely” and it touched me.
It feels vulnerable, and showing vulnerability is also strength,” the male reader said.
“Although from a slightly different angle, I can relate with your story.
I flew back from Brisbane(!) 2 month ago to the Netherlands after seven months of traveling alone.
“Yes, travelling you meet all kinds of awesome people down the road, but – also yes – it’s easy to miss the deeper connections.
Moreover, I felt a kind of alienated coming home.
“In my case, because I have had so many new and weird experiences to the extent, I have difficulty connecting to “normal” people.”
One of dear friends, who lives in the UK, sent me a message from the midst of their freezing summer.
“Your blog brought a tear to me…people don’t understand loneliness. I can howl for England on my down days,” she wrote.
It seems I made quite a few people cry (sorry), but I’m told in the nicest way.
Closer to home, a friend messaged me with the words “You made me cry with that post this morning. Beautifully written, and a good reminder to us all to be kind to each other,” she said.
Another wrote: “I cried and then smiled as I read your beautiful words and realised how terribly I am disconnected as well.”
And yet another wrote: “Oh, just having a teary in to my coffee. All those lonely days out in the regions coming back to haunt me through your always stunning words.”
Believe me when I say I never expected my two-day cry-fest, which ended in me penning a blog to try and write my way out of it, punch my way out of that painful paper bag, would have such an impact.
Another friend commented “I think we need more honesty to counteract all the bullshit because life is hard and shitty sometimes. By sharing your truth, you give other people permission to be honest…community is how humans have evolved and survived. It’s crazy (and arrogant) to think we don’t need it anymore.”
And this from another “I stopped walking to work months ago now, from the car park 20 mins away….. I have just felt worse and worse and retreated into my shell – over the last few weeks I have slowly started again! It has been great to see the happy Irishman I have gotten to know, and his wife – we always smile and chat quickly, today was in the morning and afternoon! It is always the small things that make us connected.”
Connections. Every person spoke about connections. And so many, many people admitted to being lonely. The issue is so big, that in the UK, they’ve even appointed the first ever Minister for Loneliness. And it got me thinking, is loneliness a First World problem? To some extent, yes, as we tend to have less community or “tribe” than those in Third World countries, but it would be too simplistic to suggest that those in developing nations don’t also struggle with loneliness. When I think back to my travels of the past two years, I think of the Ubuntu women in Kenya, who were ostracised by their communities and husbands, after they gave birth to disabled children; and the survivors of sex trafficking in Nepal, whose parents sold them into the sex trade so that their families could survive. On the other hand, I think about Bhutan, a place I travelled last year to see if it really was, as it claimed, the happiest place on the planet. In my interview with Gross National Happiness Director Sonam Tsoki Tenzin, she spoke about “authentic happiness”, a collective for the whole country and its people.
“I don’t feel sorry for people in the west because you are better educated and have a better lifestyle. But maybe you haven’t used it in the best of your interests,” she says.
“You’ve made it very easy to get things done, but have forgotten to get along with people.”
Back home in Australia, the World Kindness Movement shared my blog, which sparked another stream of conversations among strangers I had never met. I don’t have the answer to loneliness, but I believe it lays somewhere in remembering to be compassionate to yourself and others. Say hello to the exotic woman with the pretty handbag; wave if someone gives you a break in traffic; apologise if you are wrong. It costs nothing to be kind, but the impact you may have on just one person, could make all the difference to their day. Let’s keep this conversation going. In the words of John Lennon, imagine…
Why you don’t have to climb every mountain
“Mountaintops inspire leaders, but valleys mature them,” Winston Churchill
THEY look insipid, like a long line of stinking black house ants just before the rains come, trailing their way to the top. I’m standing at the base of Uluru watching a congo line of tourists snake their way up Australia’s most iconic rock, a monument we’ve been warned against climbing, again and again. It’s not just about death – 35 people have died trying to climb Uluru – but deity. The local Anangu Aborigines believe this is a sacred site, to be respected, and yet the visitors still scramble skywards. Under the hot August sun my face burns with shame at my fellow tourists.
In a recent piece for Fairfax Traveller, travel writing colleague and close friend Louise Southerden, who blogs under No Impact Girl, talks about why travellers are drawn to mountains and skyscrapers.
“Ever since we roamed the grasslands of Africa, we’ve looked to elevated locations for safety, for advance warning of predators – or invaders. Visit any castle or fortress from Bhutan to Balmoral (in Scotland), not to mention China’s Great Wall, and you’ll get a visceral sense of this strategic advantage,” Louise argues.
“Sometimes getting high is about escaping the cloying heat of the lowlands. Think tea plantations in the hills of Sri Lanka, the temple-dotted Himalayan foothills of northern India, the snow-caked peaks of Equatorial Ecuador (although Ecuador’s highest peak, the 6263-metre Chimborazo, has long lured climbers for another reason: it’s the world’s highest mountain when measured from the centre of the Earth, not from sea level).
“Altitude gain can also help us face our fears, give us a thrill (and sometimes vertigo) and let us see where we are and where we’re going, and not just cartographically.”
Ironically, I am in Bhutan, being cradled in the bosom of the Himalayas, when I read her powerfully-penned piece. I send her a private message, it’s in the valleys, I argue, that I discover my truth, in life’s troughs, not its peaks. Down in the nitty gritty. Louise, who is also opposed to climbing Uluru and other sacred sites, urges me to trek on and to scratch out my truth on the page. And so here I am. And I am not alone in this valley. Back in Bhutan, the Happiest Country on Earth, they consider the surrounding Himalayas so sacred, that despite having one of the world’s highest mountains, no climbing is allowed, unlike neighbouring Nepal and its alluring Everest. Three quarters of Bhutan’s land mass is mountain, yet its entire population lives in tiny slivers of valley. My nights in Bhutan are spent alone, staring at those mighty mountains, feeling like they’re wrapped around me like a comforting cloak.
On a visit to Nepal in April this year, I turn my back on Everest Base Camp and head in the opposite direction, towards the valley. I interview women who have been stolen from the mountains and sold into the sex trade, but have escaped and are now trained to become paralegals, and save other women in the same dire situation. So desperate was the sex trafficking in this country, that at one point, no teenage girls lived on Nepal’s mountains. The women, from SASANE, a project sponsored by G Adventures, are imploring the world to look into Nepal’s valleys, not its mountains. And these brave women are inspiration indeed.
Months later, my physio, who is an avid climber, and I discuss the death of New Zealand’s experienced mountaineer Rob Hall at Everest in 1996. I argue it’s ego that killed Hall – who had already summited the mountain five times previously – when he stayed up on Everest long after the deadline to leave had passed. My physio reckons Hall risked, and lost everything, because it was one of the first paid expeditions with tourists.
I ask another travel writing mate and avid climber, Andrew Bain, who blogs under Adventure Before Avarice his views on climbing.
“It’s a running joke, even among my hiking mates, that I’m one of those people compelled to stand on top of anything pointy – a peak bagger – and yet I often despair at the lack of respect we bring to mountains in the name of ‘conquering’ them,” Andrew says.
“Massive crowds filter through the Khumbu Valley to tick Everest Base Camp off a bucket list, for no reason other than the fact that it has Everest in the name. In so many cases, it’s not about the beauty of the place, or what it means, it’s simply a word to boast about, a tick on a list.
“Mountains are places that remind me that the world is greater than us – that we can’t conquer the planet as we believe – so to approach them is to respect them, whether we’re standing on top of them being uplifted by them, or simply looking at them from afar.
“I may be compelled to climb them, but I still take immense heart and hope looking at a mountain such as Machhapuchhare and knowing that there are still peaks that are beyond us, if not physically, at least spiritually or respectfully.”
And this is my point. I have a massive respect for those who climb, who forge new frontiers and discover new lands. But do it for the right reasons. Man can’t conquer mountains. Mother Everest continues to remind us of this. Trek but don’t trample. It’s not the Eiffel Tower I want to climb when I’m in Paris, jostling with thousands of other tourists wanting to tick it off their bucket list. For me, the joy comes from sitting in the shadows of this mighty metal sculpture, speaking with the old Parisian gent who ventures there every day with his coffee. That, to me, is the real Paris. I want to float down life’s rivers, part of the landscape, not perch atop it. Let me dive into the world’s oceans and lay on her sandy beaches, feet firmly in the sand. For to me, it’s in these rivets where the truth really lives. And so, on this hot August day, I wander around the base of Uluru, snatching quiet moments among her craggy crevices, listening to her tales, soaking up her soul and begging her forgiveness.
From October 26, 2019, no further climbing will be allowed on Uluru following a land-mark decision by the Traditional Owners of the land and the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board.
The Other Side of Everest
“Human trafficking is the second-most prolific organised crime on the planet after the weapons and the drug trade. But unlike drugs, a woman can be sold more than once and often many times in one day,” Sisterhood of Survivors, Kathmandu, Nepal
IN a pastel pink court building, the colour that little girls all over the world like to wear and a deep shade of irony, less than two per cent of Nepal’s human trafficking cases make up the Supreme Court caseload.
In the country’s District Court rooms, it’s less than 0.3 per cent. But there’s a blinding bullseye, one case that stands out from the rest. In March this year, in Nuwakot’s District Court in the country’s centre, one of Nepal’s sex trafficking ring leaders was sentenced to the nation’s harshest jail penalty in history.
Back in Kathmandu, in a basic brick structure adorned with hope, the women who helped put him away, have barely just begun.
There’s a slow rumble erupting around Nepal…not the kind that Mother Everest likes to display when she’s displeased with too many climbers, nor the type that destroyed Kathmandu in the 2015 earthquake.
This is the thunder of Third World feminism.
On March 23, local politician and Chair of the Dupcheswor Rural Municipality, Sun Bahadur Tamang, was sentenced to 37 years in prison for human trafficking. Two other men, Shukman Lama and Tikaram Tamang, were jailed for 32 and 30 years respectively.
And it was thanks to the women of SASANE, survivors of sex trafficking and slave labour, who filed a case under the Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking and Smuggling Act.
Launched 10 years ago with the assistance of a USD25,000 injection from global travel company G Adventures, SASANE rescues women who have been trafficked, and trains them to become paralegals so that they, in turn, can represent other women. Those who don’t have a basic education, are trained in valuable hospitality skills, which they share along with their stories to tourists, under the Sisterhood of Survivors project.
G Adventures Chief Experience Officer Baikuntha Simkhada (BK) says the border between landlocked Nepal and India is 1346 kilometres long, and because of open-border agreements between the two countries, passports are not checked, enabling trafficking.
“Human trafficking is massive in developing countries. In Nepal, when families have more daughters, they sell them to prostitution so the parents can get more money,” he says.
“Parents know certain parts of what happens to their daughters but they don’t know the worst because they hand them over to relatives that they trust.”
The number one market is India, where girls sell for between USD4000-5000. More than 7000 girls a year in Nepal are trafficked and more than 50 a day are trafficked across the Indian border alone. Many of them simply disappear.
“Kathmandu and other major cities of Nepal are the number two market,” BK says.
“The third biggest market is further afield in places like Malaysia and Dubai where girls are sold as ‘house workers’. This the new trick or they are also called Bollywood dancers from Nepal.
“They give lots of false promises. There are lots of illegal prostitution centres here. Sometimes they are rescued by honest customers who report to police.”
BK, who has a 13-year-old daughter, says he has asked “rude questions” of parents who sold their daughters.
“There are a lot of cultural issues around this,” he says.
“The parents didn’t know. They were looking for money. In some societies they don’t talk openly.”
At SASANE, women are fed and cared for, given medical help, and seen by social workers for counselling. Only 10 per cent of survivors file a formal complaint.
Since it was established, 249 women have been trained to become paralegals, offering free-of-charge assistance to other survivors, who they have represented in 400 court cases.
Nepal is considered the epicentre of human trafficking and the issue has only worsened since the 2015 earthquake resulted in more poverty and displacement.
SASANE aims to halt “modern day slavery” with human trafficking estimated to be a USD150 billion a year industry worldwide.
It is the second most prolific organised crime on the planet after the weapons and drug trade. But unlike drugs, a woman can be sold more than once and often many times in one day.
While the average age for a trafficked woman is between 14 and 20, some are as young as 6, with more than 26 per cent of trafficked women classified as children.
Indira Gurung, one of the SASANE’s three founders, can’t remember her age and reaches for her phone to do the calculation. Nor does she want her photo taken. She’s 33, but she lost her childhood and identity a long time ago, when she was sold from her mountain village and trafficked into slave labour in Kathmandu at the age of 13.
“The agent told my parents they would send me to school and after school I would work at their home. They did not send me to school and I had to work morning to night without pay. I worked that way for five to six years,” she says.
“I had a contact with another house and went to the second home. They sent me to school but did not allow me to study and I had to work but I got a high school diploma and got a job in a restaurant and the Nepalese customers abused all the girls here.
“When customers were coming to the restaurant they wanted to do sexual abuse to us. They wanted to sleep with us and forced us to drink alcohol. The restaurant owner pushed us to go with them. They would come into a small room and close the door and force us to sit on the couch.”
After six months of sexual abuse and when she was 19, Indira contacted an organisation who helped her escape.
“At that time, we had a lot of survivors like me and we talked and learned that one cannot fight but a group can fight,” she says.
“We hired a lawyer and learned from him about our legal rights to fight trafficking and other abuse.
“When I got paralegal training, I wanted to fight the restaurant owner but he was not there anymore. He is still free, that is not good.”
Indira, who continues to face threats from human traffickers, says she did not know slavery and trafficking was illegal in Nepal before she learned her basic human rights.
“People are telling us if we share our story no one will respect us but it’s not our fault,” she says.
“Survivors need marketability skills to stand for themselves. Sometimes I am angry at my parents but that is the situation I Nepal. They are also innocent.
“I underwent counselling and art healing to learn about the power of women. This way I became empowered. I realised women have a lot of power to heal and protect other survivors.”
Indira says she prefers to inject her energy into lobbying governments, police and stake holders like NGOs.
“We are known now. Before we began our programs, many girls were missing from the mountains, now there are adolescent girls living and working on the mountains,” she says.
“One day we can stop this problem in Nepal. If the traffickers work one time, we should work two times.
“If we expand our program into 77 destinations in Nepal we can stop human trafficking.”
Each year, through their tourism projects – visitors to SASANE are taught how to make Nepal’s traditional dumpling dish of momos before being served lunch – and other collaborations, SASANE raises a massive USD85,000 to continue its work. But it’s still not enough.
SASANE has plans to open restaurants in Kathmandu’s heavy tourist area of Thamel.
“The message for all of the women in the world is that if you don’t have economic opportunities you cannot survive,” she says.
“If you don’t have skills, you have to sell your body.”
Just before our interview ends, Indira begins to cry, not over the abuse she and other women have survived, but because tour groups such as ours visit SASANE.
“Thank you, you are giving us so much strength. Many people are visiting the mountain (Everest) but not the bottom part of the mountain. We should show their stories,” she says.
“I’m not a tough woman, other women are stronger than me. I’m only trying to do my best.
“I want to be a kind-hearted woman. I just give hope and love.”
To donate to SASANE go to http://www.sasane.org.np. The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of G Adventures (www.gadadventures.com) and Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com)