A whirlwind, exhausting visits takes Portlanders to businesses helped by the Phoenix Fund
Walking up to the U.S. customs official, I was a mess. I had stringy, dirty hair, droopy eyelids from not sleeping for 42 hours and filthy clothes clinging to my tired body. The official looked at me, then down at my burned luggage that smelled like charred nylon, then back up to meet my eyes. I did everything I could to try to stay awake while he questioned me.
How long were you in Nepal? Why did you go back to India after leaving? What did you do in Darjeeling? Why were you there during these months? Did you go into rural areas?
I answered the questions carefully, searching for words to fully express my experiences during the last month. I just wanted out of my clothes and into a shower.
Then he said, with a firm yet tender tone, "Welcome home."
I burst into tears.
Now home and those tears behind me, I'm honoring a commitment I made in Nepal to do my best to shed light on the human spirits I found on this trip. Not just for the native Nepali and Indian people eking out a living from Portland entrepreneurs' seed money, but also for my traveling companions.
They had given up the comforts of Oregon and paid their own way on this arduous trip to encourage small-business owners in these developing countries and see how their grant money was being spent.
Many are aware of Mercy Corps, the Portland-based agency that assists needy countries around the world. One of its less-known initiatives is the Phoenix Fund, whose donors put up blocks of $10,000 or more for loans and grants to start-up businesses in developing countries.
I was asked to travel along on their recent donor trip to India and Nepal to photograph the farms, rural areas and small businesses they visited and create portraits of people along the way.
At first I shuddered at the idea of traveling in a large group. Nine people? I am used to traveling alone, or with one or two others at most, on photography explorations to remote places such as Madagascar and Bhutan. How could nine people navigate the peculiarities and inefficiencies of developing countries and not get into petty entanglements?
Our itinerary seemed daunting, involving thousands of miles and too many hours of travel in two weeks, with part of the time spent in cold tents.
Yet, my intuition kicked in, and I found myself saying, Yes! I would love to go!
After a few days in New Delhi, during the long, winding bus ride from Bagdogra up to the mountainous area where Darjeeling sits perched on a ridge, our personalities emerged.
Joe and Sharon, the only married couple traveling together, were efficient. They seemed always to get into the bus first, see the best birds, find the interesting places to visit and get their tent the warmest.
Tom was the scientist, a Ph.D. in physical oceanography, and always had the latest elevation news. He could answer disease- and weather-related questions, and he would caution us when needed.
Kim was the artist-in-residence, her lovely smile and joyful manner ever present -- even when she left behind articles at almost every place we stayed.
Margaret was Mercy Corps' community relations officer, as eager to learn about cultures as they come. Want to come to the leprosy colony with me, Margaret? Of course she came, lugging along her loaner photo equipment.
Fred was the business-savvy individualist. He didn't take along his coat but never complained about the cold. He seemed dumbfounded when we rallied around him to give him things to keep him warm at higher elevations.
Jean, our leader and director of the Phoenix Fund, was the hypervigilant watchdog who could break at a minute's notice into a cheer for a beer. She knew how to anticipate the next move and rode the bumps like a teenage skateboarder.
And then there was Stephen. Getting his Ph.D. in mythology, he was nothing like I had expected. Throw all of those influential credentials away; forget about his long list of business successes. Stephen just wanted to have fun, and with him, we all did, even at our worst moments.
Our journey took us to see businesses funded by seed money: from a paper factory to tea plantations to cardamom farms. Along the way, we encountered tribal ceremonies, a hotel lockdown, a hotel fire (we already had left the building), a tent fire and numerous other experiences.
The murmur of West-meets-developing-East dialogue could be heard as we changed car partners and business expectations were adjusted.
Why can't they reuse the water?
Must they heat that huge container?
Have they hired the best local project manager?
Where is the marketing plan?
Who can improve this brochure?
How can they increase production more efficiently?
All good questions. And all could be answered with quick solutions if this were the developed Western world we were talking about. But these projects face numerous obstacles, such as the basic demands of living, slow transportation, fire-fueled heat, underdeveloped marketing practices, cultural nuances, occasional political strife and extremely difficult administration.
One thing the projects did have in their favor was an eagerness to succeed. With all of our teasing and laughter put aside, the faces of these philanthropists became somber as they realized how vital the Phoenix Fund is to the villagers' lives.
I saw our faces grimace often at how these families live day to day, scouting for their next meal, searching for ways to educate their children and practicing the simplest sanitation habits.
We don't have a ball to play with? We'll make one out of bags and twine.
You don't have food for tonight's meal? We don't have much, but here, take some rice.
Are you cold? I will give you my place next to the fire.
We made friends with the villagers -- with some of those friendships having strong chances of lasting well past our travel days. In the paper factory, we saw two children, a brother and his big sister, who help their family keep the factory running. If this factory were not in existence, they would not eat well.
At each stop, our group split and we each lingered with a different person, getting to know their world a bit better and breaking down our preconceptions.
One moment will be forever embedded in my mind. It was during the last day of the more physically difficult portion of our travels, on our way to our last campsite in Nepal. Roads were nearly impassable, and we had just abandoned one vehicle.
We stopped four harrowing hours later, only to find that we had to trek to a higher elevation to reach the campsite. Filthy, hungry and bone-tired, I could not grasp how I could walk up with my laptop, cameras and other gear. I closed my eyes, searching for strength.
When I opened my eyes, three women stood before me. Within seconds, they surrounded me and gently took my gear. They took two steps forward, and so did I. For the next 45 minutes we walked this way. Four steps. Two steps. One step. When I stopped for air, they surrounded me in a tighter circle, watching for signs of faintness.
We couldn't share a language, but we knew our worlds were colliding. I felt a deep respect for their daily struggles to live on this rugged land.
After our rural travel ended, we spent a few days in Katmandu, where we knew the comfort of a hot shower in a marble-tiled bathroom and clean white sheets. At our last meal, one question dominated the discussion: How could we return home and deftly be able to communicate what we had experienced?
A quiet acknowledgement settled around the table that we would never be able to relay how it felt to see village residents take a small amount of money and transform their entire lifestyle into stable living conditions. We saw a level of drive, pride and responsibility that is hard to comprehend in our own privileged society.
When the customs agent told me those comforting words, "Welcome home," I felt an overwhelming gratitude. I was reminded that I live in a country that extends a hand to those who are living on the edges.
I urge us all to reach within -- and beyond -- our borders and look deeply into the eyes of our less fortunate brothers and sisters. They have gifts to share with us as well, among them perseverance over the most difficult level of existence, and profound appreciation for the smallest offer of comfort and encouragement.