The economy of risk

It didn’t quite work out today. It often doesn’t. But that is the risk. You have a go and hope for the best, wishing that somehow, things will work out awesome. So I guess that it’s a kind of glass-half-full analogy. Sometimes it just pays off. Like the other night, we aimed for Bercianos del Real Camino.

We arrived to a queue forming outside the door of the donativo at Bercianos with impatient pelegrinos (pilgrims like us) hoping for a bed and free meal for the night. Pedro from Germany, a hospitelaro (a volunteer who provides hospitality for the pilgrims on their journey) said to us “don’t worry, we never run out of beds.” True to his word, they pulled out a heap of mattresses and filled up the halls and prayer space to provide a sleeping space for the many pilgrims that were to follow.

A meal was served out on the street with about 40 people enjoying the company of the camino (the way) – conversation flowed easily. A huge pot requiring a paddle to stir the lentils and chorizo was cooked alongside a salad with wine and bread to boot. Most people helped out and in either serving proving true the maxim that “many hands make light work.” The sleep that followed wasn’t as golden as expected. For one, the man snoring next to me sounded more like a bear than human. Despite being a good cook, it deprived me of sleep. The creaking floorboards with the 2-5am rush to the toilet didn’t help the sleeping prospects.

Despite this, the economy of risk paid off. We had hoped and aimed for making this particular hostel. We had hoped that we were able to contribute to this meal with our own skills and help but were pleasantly surprised by the hospitality provided, the warmth of the company and the memories created on a night that proved the hospitality of the camino.

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We finished our bike leg at Leon, cycling 180km over three days. Continuing on foot we were sad to have left the cohort of friends that we had met along the way. From here, it is a week to go to Santiago. The summit of O’Cerbreiro awaits us tomorrow but the philosophy of risk is used often to decide whereabouts we will stay for the night. Do we hope for the communal and donativo? Do we risk the extra kilometres and hope that things will work out? I often joke that my wife often “lands on her feet.” Like a cat. I don’t. I have to plan things and hope against hope that I am able to work things out with my hard working attitude and focused mind. It doesn’t always work.

Instead, the economy of risk teaches us that putting faith and hope in the greater ideal of humanity often pays off. Today, it didn’t quite work out. I miss though the company of the Italians who cooked us an amazing carbonara and the friends that we met at Bercianos.  Today, I wine and dine at the Municipal because the guide book didn’t quite have the correct information and we should have hiked another 5km to the next town. When it does work out however, it’s awesome and restores hope in this concept called humanity.

Buen camino,

Rob

These Feet Were Made For Walking – 672 Kilometres To Go

CAMINO DE SANTIAGO DEL COMPOSTELLA The Way to the Field of the Stars of St James
Navarra, Spain

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Today we walked through light misty rain. The air was fresh, the landscape more vivid and above us the trees were luminescent against the cloudy sky. We have been walking for three days and are now 64 kilometres, two blisters, one sore knee and five delicious baguettes into the journey.

In reading the history of the way of St James we have discovered an interesting backstory to this highly regarded pilgrimage. It involves the fall of the Roman Empire in Spain, the invitation of Moors (Moroccan Muslims) to help Spain recover from the chaos of the Barbarian invasions, the freedom of religious and artistic expression encouraged by the Moors, Charlemagne who came to slay the Moors and promoted St James to become patron saint of Spain, and a shepherd in 813 who was drawn to a field by a bright light or star. Thus we get the name Sant-Iago (St James) de Compostella (the field of the stars). It seems that recently there has been an exponential increase of pilgrims seeking genuine spiritual experience and many do this by walking ‘the way’ or Camino.

The question asked by many fellow ‘pilgrims’ on the journey is ‘What made you decide to walk the Camino?’ and we have been spending the last three days figuring out our answer. I read in a guide book yesterday, which encouraged pilgrims to focus as much on the inner journey as the outer journey, that ‘we are not human beings on a spiritual journey, but spiritual beings on a human journey’ and I that has shaped my thoughts these last few days. So often, we do things as an attempt to ‘find God’ but if God dwells around us and in us, God is not hard to find. Rather, the journey of life seems to be more about us figuring out how we each uniquely express God’s spirit through our humanity in this world. So, we are enjoying walking, talking, meeting fellow walkers, dealing with grumpy days, buying fresh bread each day and drinking one euro bottles of red wine, delighting over century old cathedrals and beautiful red and white villages, all the while allowing our thoughts to subconsciously work through some of those deeper questions we don’t have time to get to in day-to-day busyness. My challenge is not to make completing the Camino the end goal (and always trying to overtake the pilgrims ahead – how unspiritual) but to be present in each day, enjoying conversations along the way and being open to what the day may bring.

Buen Camino!

Mishal

Surreal horror

It was with heavy hearts that we heard news of the situation in Kathmandu, just days after we had left. The very last thing that Nepal needed was a natural disaster, so close to the densely populated capital of Kathmandu and the tourist centre of Pokhara.

It seems another world away. Yet on TV, images flash across the world and we saw an image of our friends sitting outside afraid of returning to their homes. Many places we had visited moreover were devastated in the carnage.

  

It’s a world away from the comfort and luxury of Paris, France and our visit to the home of Claude Monet. The decadence of French nationalism is on full display in golden gilt shining brightly in the spring sun which couldn’t contrast more strongly with the dust and devastation in Kathmandu. The mandirs of Patan and the gumpas at Swayambunath in ruins. Thousands of lives lost and who knows how many left homeless.

My seven years teaching geography had covered the topic of natural disasters umpteen times. Students and I both enjoyed learning about tectonic plates and the effects these have on uplift, faulting and folding. It couldn’t be more removed though from the reality of living in a natural disaster zone.

Textbooks are very different places to the space inhabited by our friends and host family, sleeping rough in the streets tonight, living in fear of the next tremors to hit their dwelling places. The power of nature is overwhelming and entirely unpredictable at times. I mentioned the unsound nature of many of the buildings we passed by to Mishal on multiple occasions as we walked to our work each day in Kathmandu. It has made me grateful for the building codes and proper processes we have in place in our developed context. 

These codes could never apply in a developing country context however, with a huge shift taking place as rural populations pack into an already overcrowded urban space. Concepts of urbanisation took on new meaning for me seeing it in process. This combined with the fault line that Kathmandu straddles and it’s not hard to see why this shake was so disastrous. The stark realities of richer countries suffering greater economic damage compared to poorer ones suffering much greater loss of life couldn’t be made more clear in my mind too.

Some of the Sisters family live in crude tin shacks that barely kept the monsoon rains out. Our house didi Maya would say when it rained, “I have to rush home to control the flood”. I can’t imagine the devastation that the earthquake will have caused especially to those living on the margins. We have heard news that all of the Sisters family are okay but the fragile infrastructure in place will be stretched to the limit in the coming weeks and months.

As I type, estimates of the “death toll” have risen to 4000 although these are just initial estimates and are expected to rise dramatically. It seems inhumane this “death toll” though. A number that loses meaning when removed from the human relationships and interconnections lost forever. Family members and friends lost in a senseless act of violence. Having connected with many Nepalese through our project, these numbers lose significance quickly. One loss of life is devastating let alone thousands.

Two years ago I would have blamed God. Reding Dave Andrew’s Crux, however has helped me this time around to see things differently. Rather than seeing God as removed and inflicting the damage, I can see in this circumstance how God is actually in the middle of it all with people as they go through this tragedy.

I’ll be reflecting more though as I walk the Camino, asking some poignant questions along the way. Any input is much appreciated as we reflect on the surreal horror of it all.

5416m above sea level

Thorong La Pass

It was -11C and the snow shower made it difficult to see the next black post guiding us to safety. The snowfall was one or two feet in places and the hot Australian bush was no training ground to learn how to descend through the icy slush beneath us. The pretty pictures in the slideshow below belie the rapid turnaround in weather on the descent. I was honestly a little scared and on reflection would do things a little differently.

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The two Canadians who were with us were not perturbed however, skating down with their sticks showing us how it was done. Later confessing that if the conditions had worsened they would have been worried, we weren’t to know the precariousness of the situation until later. We ended up following the icy path etched into the snow by trekkers made earlier in the day but came eventually to a point where the track was uncertain, visibility was decreasing and the 5am brekky was starting to wear thin after the 1000m ascent from Thorong Phedi. What we hadn’t calculated was the effort required, after making the Pass, of the near 2000m descent that day. The snowfall certainly didn’t help. A prayer later and a guide appeared out of the haze leading our little group and two Dutchman to safety below.

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The group of us who made it through the snow fall that day. Jason from China (third from left) just shouted us all tea given the circumstances!

 

The relief of sitting in the tea house was palpable as we counted off the friends who appeared out of the snow cloud and joined us for a late and well deserved lunch. It was easy to see how the disaster in October 2014 could happen so easily. Some of the promised improvements are yet to materialise and would have improved the experience for all concerned. These fears may seem somewhat unfounded to an outsider or two foolhardy adventurers we met but I for one have increased my estimate of the power of nature and of the Himalaya. It’s certainly not something to trifle with.

Four days prior

The snow fall earlier that week (four days previous) couldn’t have contrasted more strongly. We had climbed from Pisang to Ghyaru the day before and descended through a winter wonderland. Everything covered in a fine white powder, the Annapurnas resplendent in their icy finery reflecting the brilliance of the sun above. Snow fights ensued and the ubiquitous branch shaking followed as the sun came out to thaw the snow beneath.

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Somehow we were the first people that day to break trail and when we had reached the foot of our descent had some great fun trying to pick out the path in the whited out landscape underneath. The inevitable snow fights ensued as the sun came out to play. Hot cinnamon scrolls awaited us in the next little village of Braga at the German bakery. The snow fell off the roof in chunks, curling off in waves of ice. On the descent from the pass later that week, there were no snow fights, just thoughts and prayers for a safe arrival.

One day later

Although foretold, I wasn’t prepared for the juxtaposition of the desert on the Jomsom side of the pass. The “rain shadow phenomenon” gets bandied around as the explanation for this landscape but still looks otherworldly with not a hue of green. It was such a different world that we entered after descending from Thorong La Pass. It looks like something out of Afghanistan or Pakistan with the desert beneath and snow peaked mountains rising above.

Looking down towards Kagbeni from Ranipauwa in the "rain shadow" of the Annapurna Range.

Looking down towards Kagbeni from Ranipauwa in the “rain shadow” of the Annapurna Range.

The Kali Gandakhi River provides relief however and two little oases were not to be missed. Many skip this next section opting for a jeep after the jarring 2000m descent. Kagbeni and Marpha were the little gems nestled amidst the desert landscape rising above. Apple pie of all thing therefore is to be found in spades throughout this section. None better than in Marpha where we ended up staying an extra night, enjoying a unique little town with a canal system ingeniously carved into the main stone covered street fed by the 7th highest mountain behind. Water is then diverted through the terraced apple orchards and fields beyond.

Reflections

The experience of the Circuit is something else. This blog overreaches perhaps in describing this trek as one “Less Travelled”. Many thousands travel this route each year. We immensely enjoyed the company. For it to continue, we felt moved to write a letter requesting that those responsible improve the safety of the Pass. Something this magic needs all the attention available to allow those who live and work here the greatest opportunity the space it needs to thrive.

Namaste,

Rob

Business is not so evil

I think one of the assumptions I have held is that business is evil, greedy, out for profit and not helpful for people or the environment. This is not to say that some of the ways in which big businesses act are completely unethical and immoral. However, one doesn’t have to look far to see instances of some businesses acting in the most egregious fashion. The Bhopal disaster in India, tax avoidance deals with governments and oil spills come to mind.

Having being part of a start-up business that’s also acting as a social enterprise, my views have changed over the last two months. To begin with, it’s really difficult for businesses to get a good go of things here because of inflation (9.4% on average over the past five years), high fixed costs, the uncertainty of electricity and water supply and asset depreciation.

At times I realise, some of the business decisions I have been a part of could seem cold and calculated for the people affected. For instance some of the wages that have been decided on are low by international standards. I have felt uncomfortable at times when talking about some of the other decisions that have been made with regards to the budget keeping wages in mind.

The minimum monthly wage for an apprentice here is 7800 rupees (currently about 78 USD), however the business has had to invest heavily in certain items to get a kitchen built, to have a beauty parlour ready, and products ready to sell. The wages have been justified in terms of investing in the training of these women in readiness for the workforce. And yet, is a person valued less than some of the assets purchased? Hardly likely, although it would be difficult to run a coffee shop without a coffee machine! I found it difficult then to justify spending 37 times the amount on the coffee machine than the monthly wage of the apprentice operating it. I guess it comes down to the purpose of running the business…

The business that we have been part of has been an exception to the norms associated with the business examples cited at the start. What has driven this project is the idea of “business as mission.” This is a new way of doing business which seeks to place people above profit. Furthermore, any profits that are made are reinvested in the social capital of the business.

The aim of this social enterprise is to train apprentices in job readiness so as to stem the tide of human trafficking so prevalent here in Nepal. It’s no small task however, given the high levels of unemployment, low standards in working conditions and the slow growth of business.

Is it pie in the sky? I certainly hope not. Sales have been slow to start with, what’s needed now for this little startup is some decent publicity and some savvy marketing.

Sisters, an oasis in Kathmandu. http://www.fb.com/sisterskathmandu

End of a chapter

These past few weeks have flown by as Sisters Café & Beauty is well underway!

We had the arrival of our dear friend Anne in Kathmandu three weeks ago who is our connection to working with Sisters. Since last writing, we had the opening event for Sisters Café & Beauty. We enjoyed a sunny afternoon on the lawn at the back of the business with live music, face painting, free threading from the beauticians, tours of the building, delicious meatballs, pakoras, brownies and fruit sticks from the kitchen apprentices, and an encouraging turnout of locals curious to visit Sisters. Sisters has now been open for one week and we have had our highs and lows – highs being 13 customers on day one; lows being 4 customers on day two. So now we are all facing the new challenges of operating a business.

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Holi day, the famous Hindu colour and water-throwing festival was celebrated last week. I enjoyed watching the mothers on the top decks of their houses throwing buckets of water onto the people below then ducking behind the railings. Our best moment was when our team of five hit the street with water bombs. We bombarded a group of boys, lured them towards our front gate, then ran behind and grabbed our buckets of coloured water before dumping them over the surprised yet amused crowd. Victory!

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Our patience was tested last week when we collected our KeepCup order arrived at customs. We were expected to pay 7000R (approx. $100) for collection after already paying hefty freight charges. The man in charge of finding our order took his time so after deciding to shadow him until we received our order, we trailed him to seven different desks. We cheered when the box appeared (I had thought it might never be found) and then waited for processing. This lent, I have been asking for help in being less impatient and this experience taught me that while waiting can be infuriating, my response to my patience being tested is more important than the outcome. Still learning this lesson!

Keep Cup arrives in Nepal!

Keep Cup arrives in Nepal!

This week Anne, Rob and I all got to enjoy forced rest. Yes, our guts were hit hard and many bottles of coke and slices of white bread were consumed in recovery. We spent this weekend at Nagarkot, a village that exists primarily because of its magnificent views of the mountains. This morning, we just spent hours watching the different cloud formations over the mountains, changing our opinions of which one is Everest according to which ones appeared taller than the last (note: Everest is so far away there was little chance we could see it!)

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So, our time in Kathamndu is coming to an end. We are easing ourselves out of Sisters and Rob and I are most looking forward to getting into the mountains. We have also decided not to head to Cairo for our next stop due to some changes in travel arrangements and travel warnings. So, we will keep you posted.

 

Food discoveries

  • Kir: A breakfast dish consisting of sweet brown rice, coconut and peas. Delicious!
  • Biryani: a spicy rice dish filled with raisins, spices, meat and veges.
  • Banana & Papaya Lassi from Sisters Café.

Books on the go

  • Little Prince by Conor Grennan. This story tells of one backpacker’s volunteering experience in a children’s home in Kathmandu that turns into a discovery that these children are not orphaned but children trafficked during the civil war in the 1990s.

Reflections

I have been enjoying reading Richard Rohr’s daily reflections on Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures, these last few weeks while being in Nepal. One thought that has stayed with me was Rohr’s expression of how Christianity relates to other religions: ‘Unfortunately, Christianity, [puts] itself in competition with other religions – instead of being a non-violent message of universal love that is needed for the maturation of all religions. Only in this much more demanding way can Jesus’ message really be “the salvation of the world”, otherwise Christianity is doomed to remain just another competing team.’

When Jesus walked the earth, he conversed with all peoples of all faiths: Romans (note that the Romans were the ones persecuting the Jews), Jews and Gentiles (the unclean according to Jewish law). He didn’t focus on which religion each person adhered to. Rather, he sought to display the message of universal love to call all people to salvation.

As I witness the expressions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and other faiths in Nepal, it is obvious we are all searching for ‘salvation’ (to be freed from those things that stop us living the way of grace). Jesus speaks to all these faiths by giving us an example of what true religion looks like – a fierce surrendering love that calls all religions to grace, mercy and truth.

Highlights so far

  • Finding out that the real name for Everest is Sagarmatha;
  • Trying not to scare possible customers away by smiling too much when new customers walked into Sisters;
  • Seeing the apprentices rise to the challenge of hosting and serving new customers, and seeing the energy of the staff excited about making Sisters happen;
  • Having family and friends eagerly provide support money to help fund some necessities at Sisters;
  • On a morning run seeing the Nepalese army, all in white gloves, picking rubbish up along the Bagmati River.

 

Namaste,

Mishal

Living In The Future – 2071

Patan, KATHMANDU, NEPAL

We are currently living in the future. I only just found out that Nepal is actually in the year 2071. This futuristic country currently has electricity for 25% of the day, solar panels, seasonal produce, no traffic lights, no heating in houses in winter or air-con in summer, a six day working week and walking is the main form of transport.

Last Friday night, everyone in our house sat down to watch Sherlock Holmes Seasons 3-4. Manun made popcorn, I had found some Lindt chocolate and we were all gathered in the lounge for the occasion. The generator was turned on for electricity – a special Friday night treat. The usual computer choice had been stolen the night before, computer option 2 did not have the right cord to connect to the projector so computer 3, the device most likely to crash, was used. After half an hour of waiting for the computer to load, we finally dragged the desktop (remember them?), multiple cords and all, to the lounge to began our programme. TV viewing has never been so memorable or hilarious!

I am appreciating small pleasures again such as a hot shower, a warm blanket in the evening, legs to get me from A to B, hand washed clothes, baked goods (ovens are rare), electricity, finding a running route that includes trees and friendship. Perhaps our future won’t have quite the same luxuries available but we will always have the ability to be thankful of the good things constantly around us.

This week has had its ups and downs but Sisters Cafe and Beauty is coming along and there are small answers to prayer each day: a head waitress has been hired, sick staff are feeling better, and promised goods have been delivered on time.

Food discoveries:

  • Momos: There are a popular Nepalese dish. They are dumplings served with a curry sauce. Rob and I thought we were ordering one momo for 120R ($1.50) and received ten momos in return. Bonus!
  • Masala Tea: I have discovered a form of chai tea! It took a week, but spiced hot tea does exist in some cafes.
  • Aloo Chop: potatoes mashed with onions and spices, rolled into a ball and fried. Delicious!

Books on the go:

  • Allegiant: Currently finishing off the last of the Divergent Trilogy for an injection of popular culture and dystopian themes.

Reflections:

Rob and I have been sharing lots of life together at the moment, including learning to operate in a work capacity together in a different country. We work very differently. This has caused some laughs (afterwards) and I am learning to appreciate our different outlooks on life. In the wise words of some friends ‘sometimes you are both right’. I am realising that the important goal for me is not to be productive (something I value highly), but to learn to be patient, appreciate Rob’s approach to problem solving and to not get jobs done just using my own capacity. Ah life lessons – we appreciate them in hindsight!

Highlights so far:

  • Finding out we are living in the future!
  • Discovering that the swastika is actually a Hindu good luck symbol. And to think I had credited it to Nazi Germany. It now makes me realise why so many businesses have swastika in their name or logo!
  • Wandering Durbar Square Patan, a significant religious site, and reading all about its history at Patan Museum. What an interesting place Nepal is, bordering two dominant Asian countries – China and India.
  • Mountain days – when the haze clears and the Himalayas are showing off all their splendour in the background. It just makes the day feel alive.

Namaste,

Mishal

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