THE ADVENTURES OF ANNAPURNA , PART 2 – KATHMANDU
Day 3 – Monkey dodging & tattoo design
Tom has the whole day off so he takes us along to the monkey temple. Susan is not a fan of monkeys and neither am I since seeing a woman endure, and lose, a wrestling match over a summer dress on Gibraltar Rock a few months back. And they’re a bit creepy. We’re both stupidly apprehensive about climbing some steps to this temple.
And what a climb it is, a nosebleed inducing climb up an endless staircase to a massive golden Buddha and temple on top of the hill. Our collective inability to deal with the climb is both expected and worrying considering what’s to come in the next few weeks. Plus there are monkeys everywhere. Tom surrenders a bottle of Coca Cola almost immediately after buying it, screwing the cap on tight so as to give the bastard monkey a challenge. The thieving furry git.
I grip on to my bag as we wander the many pathways with beautiful buildings and structures, still being reconstructed after the 2015 earthquake. These buildings, teetering on the edge of the hillside, are covered in exquisite wood carvings, burning incense and butter lamps. They look so delicate it seems simply a matter of time until they crumble again. Festoons of prayer flags flap in the gentle breeze as we make our way down the hill (and thankfully away from the monkeys) until we reach the Natural History Museum. At 100 rupees (about 75p) this place is well worth a visit. Inside the dusty and cramped interior we find such delights as a pickled 8-legged foetus, a big map of Nepal with dead things nailed to it and – my favourite – a brick in the fossil cabinet.
After our ‘enlightening’ educational interlude we hop back in a cab for another short journey of car-scooter-pedestrian-cow dodging to Thamel, the main tourist-trekker area of Kathmandu. The reason we’re here is to visit Tom’s trusted tattoo artist. Susan is adamant that she will have her first tattoo before she reaches the big 4-0 in a few months, and what better subject matter than this epic trip? The biggest question remains unanswered for quite some time (about 3 weeks in fact) – yak or cow? The design concept throwing together prayer flags, Machupuchare, the colours red & orange and whichever 4-legged beast Susan decides on. I don’t envy the tattoo artists’ job at designing this one, but as Susan diligently sits down with pen, paper and beer to sketch exactly what she’s after, I don’t think he’s got it too hard.
The highlight for me comes as we pop downstairs from the tattoo studio to Mo:mo Hut where I have free rein to shove food into my face once again (bulking for the big walk obviously). Mo:mos of all varieties are nimbly constructed, cooked and speed out of the tiny kitchen in minutes on great steaming platters. This makes me more excited than it should. Mo:mo are bitesized dumplings filled with veg, dead stuff or as I now know, sweet stuff and come steamed, fried or ‘chillied’ with a spicy dip. Served across Nepal and Aldershot. But my experience at home has not prepared me for peanut butter filled mo:mo. OMG. As all the kids say.
And then, quite predictably, the evening degenerates into beer drinking and rock bands at the Purple Haze club. Complete with dodgy covers of U2 and some artistic string breaking, the bands approach to stage management leaves the venue manager in me shuddering. But the beer is cold and about half the price of the UK. This obviously only added to the haze as somewhere along the line I record a million terrible videos on my phone and then go to bed.
Day 4 – Raksha Nepal & humble pie
I am both surprised and delighted I have no trace of a hangover, for today we are off to a hidden location to visit the girls of Raksha Nepal, an organisation that rescues & aids the recovery of women and girls abused by trafficking and sexual violence. This could be a heavy day, and as Susan and I are running art & craft workshops, not knowing quite how many we’re catering for, or how receptive they could be, this could all easily go quite badly. Aldershot’s wonderful West End Centre has furnished me with a metric tonne of art pencils, all printed with the Westy branding, as gifts for the girls. So we have something to bargain with at least.
After an hours bumpy ride through a misty and damp Kathmandu we arrive at a brightly painted shack on a hillside overlooking the city. I’m not sure what to expect as we’re asked to sign consent forms ensuring the safeguarding of the children and respecting the anonymity of their identities and the location. Despite a box asking for our mobiles to be left, we’re told that as we’re ‘family’ we can keep them on us, but not to post anything to social media that can reveal any of the children or indeed the buildings around us as a repeat insistence of the forms we just signed. Noted. This feels really quite serious.
We are led through the welcome shack gateway and are immediately greeted by a singing, clapping and smiling line up of all the girls. I’m stunned. I wasn’t expecting quite so much genuine joy about the place. My smile ends up hurting my face as I repeat ‘namaste’ to each and every girl, being very careful not to miss anyone out. There are so many girls here, and it starts to dawn on me just how much a problem sexual exploitation is in this otherwise beautiful country. We’re instructed to sit and are welcomed in the traditional Nepali way with scarves and trinkets and a whole lot of dancing before the girls form a much rehearsed group, ordered by age and height, to tell us their name and what they would like to be when they grow up. I’m delighted to hear that so many aspire to be doctors, lawyers and engineers in a culture that is so male orientated, but also slightly perturbed that none are aspiring artists or musicians and the fact that they all look fairly unimpressed when I tell them I’m an artist tells me that creativity isn’t necessarily promoted as a career option.
This is, however it ignores the arts, all inspiring stuff. Then we hear the stories of how some of these girls found their way here. An 8 year old girl being brought to Raksha after being gang raped and being so damaged internally and externally (and I’m sure mentally) that she will be unable to live a normal life. Another, of attempted suicide following sexual abuse from both grandfather and father. Of rape by a brother – and the resulting pregnancy – who is now Raksha’s youngest sister at 12 months old. Many, of working the brothels and massage parlours of Kathmandu… these girls are just children. I am brought crashing back to reality in absolute horror and am devastated that life has been so brutal for each of these girls. I visibly shed a tear. I’m not the only one. The work that Manuka, founder of Raksha Nepal, the volunteers, and indeed the older sisters here is awe-inspiring and, sadly, essential. In Nepal there is no state victim support service, no support for victim’s families, no network of help to assist women and girls in getting out of living situations where they are permanently at risk. No free medical treatment. On incredibly limited funds, Raksha Nepal offers a safe house, medical treatment, education, psychotherapy & counselling, rehabilitation & reintegration, a saving & credit cooperative that encourages independence, training programs, legal aid. They are also in desperate need of a playground and a library. And rice.
Susan and I run an epicly long workshop, drawing and making flowers until all the materials have gone, feeling guilty that we didn’t bring more. Every girl is so well behaved, so polite and so excited by the activity that I am hugged repeatedly, dragged back and forth to help with fiddly tying and have flowers clipped into my hair by these little sisters trying to beautify me. I feel accepted and I am proud to have 70-odd new sisters. Despite clearly having so little, we are fed a delicious lunch of noodles before being dragged outside to be taught how to dance. The gauntlet is thrown and I make my best efforts to follow instruction to nail this Bollywood twisting and turning, but when I look up I am met with faces filled both with disbelief and hilarity. Dancing, clearly, is not my forte.
I am touched by the experience and a little sad to be saying goodbye. But we must leave as it’s getting late and we need to pack a bag for the big off in the morning. Thank you, my beautiful Raksha sisters.
If you’d like to know more about Raksha Nepal, or to support them, visit www.rakshanepal.org
Massive thanks also to the West End Centre, Aldershot for the pencils. Each girl now has a pencil to draw and draw and draw. Possibly encouraging them into a career in the arts… www.westendcentre.co.uk