Travels with Joni for International Boutique

I have just returned from a month in Asia, where I attended meetings, visited some Amurtel programs, and of course shopped for the International Boutique. On this leg of my annual travels to Amurtel projects around the world, I went to Thailand, Nepal and India.

Without a doubt, the highlight of my trip to Nepal this year was a visit to the Jampa Ling Tibetan Refugee camp, just outside Pokhara. Amurtel has no projects in Nepal, and it has been bothering me that I would come, shop and leave, without doing anything for the local people. Our shipper Tashi is a Tibetan and for the past three years he and I have been exploring ways Amurtel might work in Nepal. We had not come up with anything so far that felt consistent with Amurtel’s approach to service. This year as we were sitting over tea together Tashi asked about our work in Haiti, and as I was sharing with him the success of our micro finance program, his whole face lit up ;‘This is something that would be very helpful for the women in our camp”, he said. He immediately began to lay out a whole proposal, until I stopped him and explained one of the basic tenents of our development work was the concept of partnerships. I told Tashi it was not up to him and I sitting in a café in Katmandu to decide what the women in Jampa Ling, his family’s camp, needed. Rather, it would be better if I met with the women there and asked them to explain what they needed. We then looked at each other and almost at the same time said: “let’s go to Pokhara tomorrow.” Tashi arranged a car and very early the next morning we set off for Jampa Ling.

I have to say I thought the worst roads in the world were in Haiti. I stand corrected. Currently in first place now for the world’s worst roads are those in and around Katmandu. It appears there has been no money put into infrastructure, including roads, for the past 30 or 40 years, yet the increase of population, including refugees, tourists, and cars, buses and trucks has risen exponentially. The road we were on, which is the one main highway in the country, was really a slalom course with crater sized holes in the middle and sheer drop offs down steep mountains on the side. What had previously been a barely passible two lane road for small cars and scooters was now filled with large buses, transport trucks, and everything else that could possibly be wheeled. The blue haze of exhaust from leaded gas hung over everything, often times blocking the spectacular views of Annapurna and other Himalayan peaks in the distance. Six-and-a-half bone-crunching hours later we arrived at the camp.

As a Tibetan Refugee camp, Jampa Ling is unique in many ways. For one thing, it was set up for the survivors and families of the Chushi Gundruk, a fierce Tibetan Militia who fought for Tibetan freedom against the Chinese occupation from the late 1950s through the mid 1970s. I felt a great sense of awe when Tashi introduced me to a number of old warriors, including his father. These men had the sweetest smiles, constantly fingering their prayer beads and relaxing in the sunlight. But an unmistakable no-nonsense countenance still shaped their faces.

One of the most inspiring parts of the camp was the ‘senior center.’ This was a U-shaped building that provided housing for those older people who had no family to stay with. There were a number of rooms where one or two elderly residents would stay, with a common prayer room, dining room and lots of outside meeting areas. A cook and two aids lived on premises. The whole center was supported by the other camp members. When I arrived, many of the men were sitting together outside, playing cards. There was also a group of women sitting under a tree weaving on small looms and chatting. Many of the men carried visible scars from the war, and all were very warm and welcoming to me. I was struck by what a good model this was for caring for older members of a community.

While touring the camp, Tashi’s young son Tenzir pointed out a “dying house.” It was empty and when I asked Tashi about this, he said “business has been slow, so we closed it down.” Although I was moved that the camp had what I thought was a hospice center, I was totally at sea—with so many elderly in the camp, how could “business be slow”? Finally after a few more questions, Tashi explained that they used to have a weaving shop in the camp and the “dying house” was to dye wool. I laughed and had a good reminder of how simple words can so easily lead to misunderstanding!

I had an opportunity to meet with the young women in the camp. Unemployment is extremely high in Nepal, and even more so for Tibetan refugees in camps. Many of the younger men have moved to the city to look for work and send their earnings back to support parents and children. The women in the camp were eager to explore ways they could contribute to the family and the camp. We discussed what skills they had, and what they could envision themselves doing to create income. We looked at woven hand bags, sleeping mats, sweaters, and other things the women made. Tsering Chenga, one of the younger women, had been making very cute animals and dolls from wool she had spun. After discussing all the possibilities with the women in the group, it was decided that Tsering Chenga could teach the others how to make the animals and dolls, creating a viable small industry for them. What they would need from Amurtel would be seed money to buy the wool and a few other supplies, and assistance in finding markets to sell the finished product. This is exactly the kind of program Amurtel likes to partner with; it is self-governed, empowering for the participants and respectful of local culture. Before leaving the camp, I purchased all the animals the Tsering Chenga had made with the hopes we can create enough demand that this small business can take off.

We had to drive back that night as my flight to India was early the next morning, so after warm farewells and hugs from the women and Tashi’s family, we began the grueling drive back to Katmandu.

The next day I flew into Delhi and met up with Patty Martley of Fayston, who had joined me to shop in India. This year we planned to go to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan and home to beautiful block print textiles and gorgeous carpets. Patty has an incredible eye for color and design and I relied on her for selecting the tablecloths, napkins and placemat sets, bedspreads, quilts, vests, jackets, scarves and carpets we purchased. Our shopping schedule was so intense we barely managed two meals a day, and a few times, we had to make due with just breakfast. The colors and fabrics in the Jaipur shops were unbelievable and many times we ended up buying two or three times what we had planned because we couldn’t say no to any of the choices.

One evening we were able to visit a children’s home in the area managed by Amurtel. What a wonderful break from the markets. There were approximately 30 children, from just a few months old to about 19. The kids were excited to show us their schoolwork and art, and we shared dinner and a bunch of hugs with them before returning to our hotel. Most of these children were abandoned as infants, although a few had been brought to the home after their parents died. At the home they are given a sense of family, love, and a healthy place to grow up. As funding allows, we send them on to college so they will be financially secure as adults. One of the older girls was studying computers in college, while another was studying to become a teacher.

On our return to Delhi, Patty and I spent a crazy day shopping in the markets before her return to the Valley. I went on to Calcutta to meet with other Amurtel directors and immerse myself in strategic planning for the next year. While there I began to see the news reports of Hurricane Sandy. I was horrified to see the unbelievable damage hitting our own shores. I was never so appreciative to have the ability to text; to be in touch with friends and family in the affected areas and to communicate with our relief teams on the east coast. Amurt/el workers helped run shelters in NJ and are continuing to help with cleanup in NY.

For many reasons, there seems to be a greater number of those truly in need. Floods, drought, war, recessions, lack of education, etc, all putting massive roadblocks in the way as people struggle to make a future for themselves and their children. As a global community, we are being asked to go beyond the limitations of our selective boundaries and to reach across to those facing unbearable circumstances. As I travel both internationally and in the USA, I am struck by people’s generosity and willingness to help. I am constantly moved by people’s ability to recover and move on, to find ways to keep hope alive. It is my hope that we might contribute even a small amount to this testament of faith and perseverance.

Now back in Vermont we are unpacking boxes, marking all the beautiful items that are arriving not only from this trip to Asia, but from other parts of the world as well as we prepare for what looks to be the best International Boutique ever.

This year the 29th International Boutique will be at the Masonic Lodge in Waitsfield, from Dec. 8-15. Proceeds from the sale go to support projects for women and children here in VT and around the world. Please stop by!

~Joni Zweig