Thursday, August 13, 2015

Supporting the cottage industries in Nepal

Since the devastating earthquakes of April and May 2015, Nepal has seen a downturn in tourism.  April and May are normally busy months for tourism, and so for many Nepali, these are the months (along with the winter), when they will make their income from selling handmade items from the country’s many cottage industries.  Changunarayan is one such village that relies heavily on tourism to support some of its residents, with as many as 300 tourists per day coming to visit the temple in high tourist season.  Right now it is monsoon, and it is post-quake Nepal; a different Nepal.  Tourists are hesitant to come with aftershocks still a fading but very real feature of being in this country.  I have been here for ten days now, and we have had one decent aftershock so far and plenty of rain and very hot days.  I have walked through the Thamel district with street peddlers desperate to have me purchase their products – fuelled with stories of their brother, mother, sister, son, daughter or father who died in the quake.  Whether or not this is a marketing ploy to have me take pity and purchase, is anybody’s guess, but it certainly is difficult to say no when there is clearly such a need at this time to sell product.
Changunarayan is home to many small businesses selling traditional handcrafted items such as the Thangka paintings, carved wooden masks and wooden puppets.  The Thangka and masks are produced on-site in Changunarayan and provide an apprenticeship for young artisans looking to gain a craft that will provide an income for their future.  There are also small shops selling pashmina, yak wool blankets and other handcrafted items such as notebooks, tea, gift cards and lampshades.  Many of these items are sourced from nearby villages, which help grow and support the network of artisans making products as their main source of income.

Thangka painting in Changunarayan is big business.  The painting school has also provided many young women the chance to start a career in painting Thangka.

Being in a small village like Changunarayan where traditional handcrafts are nurtured made me draw parallels with New Zealand and our own traditional crafts such as Maori wood carving, weaving and painting.  New Zealand also has a very strong artisan culture; supporting potters, craftsmen jewellers, painters, clothing designers, sculptures and numerous handcrafts and locally made items.  One of the worst things about opening the gates to free trade with China has meant the majority of New Zealand designed items are made off-shore.  I am a keen advocate for supporting New Zealand made products.  What a domestic market does for the country is create an investment in its people.  When we source cheap, easy to reproduce products from China or India, we slowly but surely fritter away the skills needed in a labour force to keep the economy healthy.  Nepal has suffered immensely from large earthquakes, so this small country needs it’s cottage industry’s to be supported through tourism.  It needs to be able to re-invest in it’s people and find value in the local traditional artisans.  I had five items of clothing made last week in Sankhu – the town where we have been doing earthquake volunteer work building shelters.  In Nepal, women who wear the traditional clothing, have these items made from scratch.  A seamstress will measure you up and make to order.  Fabric is cheap and the variety is outstanding.  Consequently there is a multitude of seamstresses (and tailors for the men) to be found, along with fabric shops.  My five items included three tops in traditional Nepali style and two pairs of pants also in the same style.  For fabric and construction the total cost was 37,000 Nepali Rupee – approximately $50 New Zealand dollars.  

                                             Note that she sews on a treadle sewing machine!!

I was very happy with my clothing and the seamstress was very happy with my extravagant spend (five items at once is a big deal!).  I sure hope that Nepal does not sell out to ready-made outfits sourced from India or China.  I remember when my mother used to make my clothes.  I also remember making my own clothes and also for my children.  I remember when fabric shops were a common sight; when a seamstress or tailor would “suit you up”, and I also remember when “The Warehouse” came to town and ruined all of that.  The lure of cheap stuff right now has eliminated New Zealand’s autonomy as a manufacturer and producer of everyday items.  What this does is add more impetus to keep wages low; after all anyone can afford to shop at The Warehouse right?  Sadly, only the middle to upper class can afford to shop New Zealand made and possibly in reality, only the upper class can really afford to do that.   My hope for Nepal is that it will retain its wonderful traditional artisan culture and celebrate the wonderful quality products that are produced here.  

                Cashmere products for sale in Thamel.  These are locally produced in Bhaktapur.

     Felted products are everywhere in Nepal; ranging from purses to bags to booties and mobiles.

I would love for the rest of the world to see these products too and support Nepal’s growth by mindfully choosing Nepalese products over Chinese products.  One of the beautiful aspects of being in this country is seeing these artisans going about their work – especially when it occurs in a small village like Changunarayan.  That can only ever be good for a village such as this as it adds value to the experience of visiting for tourists, and embeds cottage industries into the character of small traditional communities.

Today I went shopping in Changunarayan to buy gifts. I spent 8500 Nepali Rupee (approximately $120 New Zealand dollars).  For that I got the following:
  • One pair of pants
  • Two T-shirts
  • One long-sleeved shirt
  • One set of locally made gift cards
  • Eight “purses” of Himalayan tea 
  • Four lampshades
  • Two stunning yak wool blankets
  • Six 100% pure cashmere “Pashmina” scarves/shawls
  • One wooden puppet
It feels wonderful to be able to support a small community by spending my money here.  In Thamel (Kathmandu) I would be paying “tourist” prices and the street peddlers would be purchasing products from small villages where the items are produced (like Changunarayan) anyway and adding their mark-up on top. 

You really do get a lot of “bang” for your buck in Nepal, but the impact of that buck spent, spreads far wider and deeper than a dollar spent in New Zealand.

Stray dogs and tin sheds

It was the sound of men making offerings to Lord Shiva around a symmetrical tree beneath my room, which first woke me.  About the tree they walked, mumbling loudly; hands lively as they visualised their God and their conversation with him. This was the daily ‘normal’, and would become my daily alarm clock.  As I watched the men deeply immersed in their private worlds with Shiva, I sensed as a voyeur should – intruding and invasive; uninvited.  The tree, perched on the edge of the mountain-side, held particular significance for the people of Changunarayan, and so the men placed tikka powder upon its bark – the trunk reddened with past offerings the monsoon rains had yet to wash away.
Opening the roof top door, I was projected into a dreamily still morning.  A soft pink glow had residence in the sky and a loosely draping mist clung to the valley floor.  Warmth embraced me, and the faint gentle aroma of earthy rain was in the air.  The city lay peaceful yet; spread before me some fifteen or so kilometres away and I could barely discern the odd musical tones of bus horns in the distance.  I inhaled deeply.  I was here.
Beyond faded hills on the opposite side of the valley, the 7406m massif of Ganesh Himal stood reflecting the sun’s morning glow in hues of pink, yellow and orange; at once I felt both insignificant and unassailable – “I am here Nepal; finally!”
I had planned this trip to the country of my childhood dreams for my entire life – for as long as I could remember; plotting where I would go, what I would wish to see (Sagarmatha of course), what I would eat and what I would photograph.  My planning then had been through the eyes of myself as a tourist – the country would show me what I expected of it; I would not need to go looking for the real Nepal.  I would no doubt wear those stupid pants that become shorts, and I would walk about Thamel in search of hiking boots and a trekking agency in an awe-filled daze.  That was then.
Now that lifetime of dreaming has slipped by with adventures in other lands and even living for six years in two different countries.  My youngest child spent the first two years of his life living overseas.  Now approaching fifty, my view of travel has changed.  My awareness is that of gently interacting with the country and its peoples; embracing their culture and not imposing my own.  It is as if I am looking for home; a home where I can give my whole heart.  So – I am here looking for the real Nepal. 
It is three months after the April and May earthquakes.  It is monsoon.  An acquaintance running treks to Everest base camp advised I stay away during monsoon; “oh it’s raining all the time” he said.  I had no intention of going to Everest base camp.  The trekking trails up towards Everest were closed anyway.  He had never been to Nepal during rainy season; his clients did not wish to get their feet wet.  Neither did he.
I was here with intent to help (in some small way), people affected by the quakes.  Tourists had spent decades travelling to Nepal in their stupid cut-off pants; eating in the homes of Nepali on the trail to view the world’s highest mountain; dropping their rubbish and money along the way.  Where are they now? Nepal was devoid of tourists – scared off by after shocks and landslides. Much of the foreigners that were in the country were “disaster tourists” – pointing invasive cameras at devastation so they could go home and say they had seen it … that they had been here.
“Help” … surely we should be asking the Nepali what “help” should look, feel and sound like for them.  Being in this country so soon after such a monumental event still felt like some sort of intrusion, yet I knew that decades of being “helped” already (schools, hospitals) should continue now more than ever; but in what form?  After asking some of the Changunarayan locals, myself, along with other “volunteers” decided to build temporary shelters for homeless people in the nearby town of Sankhu.  This ancient trading town of around five thousand people was the worst hit in the Kathmandu valley – losing ninety percent of its ancient buildings and homes to the quakes with a death toll of almost three hundred.   I had fundraised in New Zealand for the purpose of helping somehow and so had my travelling companions – we had money to burn!  Walking through this town devastated by the quakes was comparable to walking through a war zone.  I could barely fathom that three months after the fact people were still digging out their homes using rudimental tools, devoid of modern technology to help get the job done quickly and efficiently.  This was Nepal.  Rubbish was strewn everywhere; scrawny stray dogs rummaged around for a morsel to fill their tiny aching belly’s; chickens skitted about unapologetically – knowing the dogs had little or no energy to be bothered with the chase. 
And everywhere eyes … watching as we foreigners slowly took in the broken landscape; overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of destruction brought to this once beautiful settlement.  I could not use my camera straight away.  The shock needed “to land” first of all.  No amount of photographing would ever explain this to a purveyor of my images once I got home.  This was too much.  There was a tangible feeling of death; no camera could ever capture that.
Once again the fleeting feeling of intruding washed over me as Nepali lifted their heads from their work and watched silently as we wandered unhurriedly down the towns main business street – a muddy, filthy, stinking shadow of its previous self.  “Namaste” I offered … to no one and everyone.
Nepal is attuned to tourists – tourism is the second biggest industry behind agriculture.  It creates jobs and wealth for many along with supporting the once thriving cottage industry.  Nepali were always the subject of the tourists gaze; now it appears the gaze was upon us … creating an awareness of awkwardness in me – an intention to action hanging in the air as rancid as the smell of faeces that also hung heavily.  Treading cautiously through mud, rubbish, broken bricks and rubble, I felt the first drops of a warm rain contact my skin.  Slowly they intensified until quite suddenly they amalgamated in an urgent blanket of wet warmth as if the Gods were somehow trying to erase the devastation and start anew.  Drains filled quickly with water and over-flowed whilst dogs and children ran for cover.  People kept digging with a slow monotonous rhythm as if keeping time to the beating of some silent drum.  This was Sankhu – broken but fighting back … in its own time.
Our small group built ten temporary shelters.  Nothing more then tin sheds in reality.  In the grand scheme of things ten was never going to be enough.  I asked myself time and time again – who are we building these for? Us or them?  Perhaps it was a little of both.  Grateful families welcomed us into their broken homes and tents for chia and food; unassumingly wishing to show appreciation for the shelter we provided them from daily rains and an approaching winter.  We could not speak the language of the other, but there lay an implicit understanding that transcended any spoken word; eye contact hanging longer than it would normally – “thank you” spelled out with the eyes, hands … heart.  Thank you came also from me for the opportunity to be shown that being in Nepal with an “intention to help” might not have necessarily meant me helping Nepali – but rather Nepali helping me unravel and reveal the essence of humanity.  They helped me to find the real Nepal.

Lesson learnt from Nepal: Volunteering and the desire to change the world.

Ok … so maybe not change the world, but at least leave some meaningful imprint on the world right?  I came to Nepal to help in the village of Changunarayan, which I understood was very badly damaged from the recent earthquakes.  Certainly one does not have to look far to see damage and particularly in the temple area, which is the main attraction for tourist visits to the area.  Changunarayan is made up of five small villages that span across a large hill overlooking Kathmandu.  I took a walk to two of the other villages recently and there was evidence of damage there plus some people still living under bamboo and tarpaulin constructions dotted around the hill but I did not manage to check every part of the area out, so can only assume there are more like this needing something more robust to see out the winter. 

I came here with two other people from New Zealand.  I do not class myself as a “volunteer” but I guess by definition, “volunteers” we are.  I came here simply to help in some small way – to leave some meaningful imprint; in my world helping does not really require a label.  I intend to continue in helping in some small way where I can and I know I will be back.  Help does not have to be grandiose; just something that makes a significant difference for someone.
One of the things I raised money for was water filters.  In hindsight, I should have realised that by the time I got here to Nepal, the people in need would have iodine tablets coming out their ears and would not be too bothered with fiddly filters.  These filters were expensive too - $50 USD a pop; but I really liked the way “Waves for Water” ran their operation.  You set up your own fundraising page as a “fresh water courier”, and all donated funds go towards filters.  The onus is then on you to deliver (like a courier) the water filters to the destination. I decided to stick with my plan anyway and deliver filters where I could see a need.  When I got to Sankhu (where we ended up building temporary shelters for ten days), the need for water filters actually was greater than I realised with people being so incredibly grateful – some nearly in tears – when I installed a filter in their very humble homes.  

Lesson learnt though from this: immediately after a disaster clean water is usually attained through use of purification tablets.  As a long-term solution however, purification tablets are not ideal and sooner or later an alternative source of clean water needs to be found.  Water filters fill that gap adequately.  One downfall of the ones I distributed was; they were slow so people thought they were broken and then started taking the filter apart.  I was always worried people would stop using them for that very reason.
Changunarayan was on my radar as a location to help in some way.  Rebuilding the village was the motivation of Amanda Summers, owner of Starview Guesthouse in the village.  I could see her vision clearly too – to rebuild it perhaps even more beautiful than before and to make it a destination – capitalising on the many wonderful attributes the village has such as the temple, the ancient buildings, the picturesque views, the Thangka painting and mask carving.  The potential for other activities is broad – mountain biking, trekking, even a zipline has been discussed as a viable tourist attraction.  All of these things take a collective contribution and buy-in from community members and also a team of eager motivated people to ensure projects gain momentum and retain their integrity. 

Volunteering to help achieve this end is entirely possible but there are also opportunities to volunteer in surrounding villages.  As a foreigner coming to Nepal with the vague aim “to help”, I researched volunteer organisations and considered paying to join a group to build houses.  In the end after many discussions with Amanda, I decided to bite the bullet and just come.  No organised group; no high volunteer fees; no worries.  The general consensus was; there was always something that could be done to help support the growth of Changunarayan whether it was as simple as writing the blog post for the week or helping an old lady shift bricks.  Everywhere in this region has some type of need post-quake.  Out of interest, myself and the other people I came here with (plus a long-term volunteer at Amanda’s guesthouse), all decided to check out Sankhu – the town that without a doubt is the most badly affected in the Kathmandu valley region.  I was shocked to see the level of damage.  It was here we decided to focus our efforts.  Nepali people are very friendly; they ask if we need help and are genuinely happy to help.  One young man asked this when we were walking around Sankhu like stunned mullets, and after telling him why we had come he introduced us to Dilip his brother – a social worker of sorts in the village.  This began the start of a prosperous and at times frustrating two-week sojourn in Sankhu building tin temporary shelters.  

Lesson learnt: you do not need to go through a volunteer organisation to get involved with helping in some way.  You could literally walk into Nepal with a shovel and find someone to help.  No middle-man needed for that!
Whilst in Sankhu I casually wandered into two schools.  Immediately I was swallowed up by beautiful Nepali children, just hanging out for some kind of interaction to practice their English.  I ended up spending an impromptu hour in one school helping kids with their English – which was needed as the teacher spoke no English at all, leaving me wondering how on earth she could teach it!
After talking to people about going into schools, I have learnt that most schools would be vey grateful for some help with the English language.  The reward is this: the children will adore you.  They truly think you are heaven on earth and are so grateful for the time and attention spent on them.  Possibly the happiest and most memorable moments on this trip have been those spent with children; in Changu and everywhere else I have been, I just love the kids.  

Lesson learnt: just go for it – go into a school.  Knock on the door and ask if you can spend some time.  They will not say no ….
One take away lesson for the other volunteers I came here with who had a vision of churning out houses in no time at all; is that Nepal operates on its own time.  So if you come here to volunteer, be prepared to have to wait at times for things like power, for decisions to be made (this takes at least half a village to debate often for 30-45 minutes at a time!), and be prepared for things to go totally off tangent.  Do not fight Nepal or it will fight back even stronger – just let Nepal be and things will be fine.
One take away positive about volunteering here, is that Nepali are beautiful, generous, real people.  They are genuinely inquisitive; genuinely interested in you and what you are doing and they are happy to take you in and give you chia and probably even a bed if you needed it.  Yes the Thamel street peddlers and stall owners will try to work an angle and make a few rupee more if they can, but no one here would steal from you or hurt you. Nepal is a great place to volunteer and remain safe. 

Some suggestions for volunteer ideas are as follows:
1.     General clean-up work after the earthquake:  Invest a couple of hundred rupee in a shovel.  Buy extra shovels and gift them to the locals.  Go and help someone dig or shift bricks, or build or whatever it is that needs doing due to earthquake damage.  There are always old women; elderly couples; young couples with small children; homeless people that need a hand. They will be so very grateful.
2.     Build shelters: If you have the financial resources to do so then do so!  There is still a genuine need for temporary shelters that are both water resistant and warm as winter approaches.  Nepali make some beautiful bamboo and mud huts, and I also saw some wonderful temporary shelters using the bricks from destroyed buildings as a front and rear wall, with curved roofs like a semi-circle.  However, simple corrugated iron structures are also everywhere and more are needed.
3.     Give the gift of clean water: In the mountainous areas this is not so urgent as there is natural spring water, but in the lowlands such as the Kathmandu valley area there is still a vert urgent need for filtration systems.
4.     Give clothing: The quake has taken homes and all that lay within homes including clothing.  In the mountainous areas there is a need for warm clothing now and this will increase as winter comes and it gets much colder.  In the valley, rain-proof clothing is useful.
5.     Give tools: Spades and shovels, digging tools, wheel-barrows, crow-bars and other tools that make the job of removing rubble and digging out buildings easier would be greatly appreciated in areas badly affected by the quakes.
6.     Help in a school: Spend time developing the English skills of both the children AND the teachers! Run a sports day; share some stories; run an art class…
7.     Clean up the rubbish and litter: Nepal is badly littered which is such a pity. Encouraging awareness of the problem is a monumental task and good luck for anyone who succeeds with this; however it is urgent this is done at some point in Nepal’s future.  Suffice it to say, Nepal needs infrastructure first in order to deal with the developing rubbish problem. In time I think this will happen and naturally the rubbish issue will be worked on.  However, there is nothing to stop someone having a concerted effort at cleaning up small areas at a time and leading by example.  Perhaps going into a school and running a clean-up day is a place to start.
8.     Visit a refugee camp and ask if there is anyway you could help there:  I visited one that had a pre-school and a school for older kids.  They would be grateful for someone to add some variety into the day for the children.
9.     Run activities just for women and girls such as yoga; karate; language class…the list is endless. 
10. Help take care of stray dogs in an area: Most villages and areas have specific stray dogs that tend to hang around.  Strays are treated badly yet they provide people with a bit of protection and still remain loyal even though most people kick, beat and throw rocks at them.  If people began to take notice of dogs as sentient beings (as is a tenet of Buddhism) they would realise their value and potential for developing kinder human beings.  There is plenty of research that backs the value of pets.  Whilst there are too many strays to suggest they become pets as such; there is nothing stopping volunteers developing an on-going system of care, which could effectively be carried on indefinitely.

These are just a few suggestions, which could be done in exchange for cheap or free accommodation and food.  There are currently numerous volunteer programmes out there such as those involved with rebuilding damaged schools particularly in the more remote areas of Nepal. A simple google search may bring results.  Whatever you do remember the reason for volunteering is not to tick the experience off a bucket list; but rather to graciously and respectfully bring some small value to the people of Nepal in a way that is meaningful to them.  You might also just get some warm-fuzzies as a kick-back.