Story telling from Australia
Most tourists in their right minds would never choose to visit the dusty town of Birtamod, a polluted sprawl that dribbles across the main East West Highway in southern Nepal. I went there last year with Wendy Moore and it was the highlight of our trip, and before you jump to any conclusions I loved every minute of that trip. Birtamod reminded me of Broken Hill, not because of the choking dust but because of something more elusive.
We spent the day in Birtamod learning how to make polymer clay jewellery. Our teachers were Wendy and several women from Samunnat, a refuge run by the smiling Kopila who must be one of the very few (if not the only) qualified female lawyers in that part of Nepal. Money raised by sales of jewellery made at Samunnat gives the women a measure of independence and helps them escape the domestic violence and abuse they have all been subjected to.
Any language barriers were overcome by laughter and the day was translucent with joy and goodwill but it was the follow-up that humbled me.
Somewhere along the line it was decided that we should be invited back the next day for lunch, not to the cramped building the women worked in, but to Kumari’s house. Plans were made, heads nodded in agreement and the following day we drove to Kumari’s house, a tiny two-room hut without electricity or running water in the middle of a beetle nut forest.
Kumari prepared the meal, as she prepares all her meals, in a fire pit dug in the earthen floor. She cooked for at least thirty people as relatives and locals emerged from the forest to stare at the rare sight of eight middle-aged Western women in that remote spot. All were offered food and drink, served with quiet grace by women who owned little more than the striking saris they stood up in, each saturated with colour. After lunch we sat on blankets spread on the forest floor and our hands and feet were decorated with henna, as a way of thanking us for the visit.
As someone who spent four years working at House & Garden magazine writing about beautiful houses and exquisite gardens (and rejecting those that weren’t beautiful or exquisite enough) it struck me forcibly that beauty has nothing to do with owning an original Eames chair, an Alessi tin opener or a Royal Doulton dinner service. The heart of a home is just that: heart. Kumari’s two room hut in a bettle nut forest was as welcoming as any waterfront mansion in Sydney and I thank the beautiful women of Birtamod, who had so little by way of material possessions, for welcoming us with such open generosity.
And the link with Broken Hill? Having lived in at least thirty different places I wasn’t expecting much from a mining town in the middle of the desert, but I felt welcomed to Broken Hill in a way I never expected. That sense of belonging to a community is something I will treasure, even when I’m far away.
Wendy is in Nepal right now. Follow the link to find out more about Samunnat and her colourful journey tours.