Margaret and Dick   


September 2012: The Nepal chronicles

We spent ten days traveling with representatives from Free the Slaves around Nepal, where we were able to see their effective and efficient work to eliminate trafficking.  We met hundreds of slavery survivors and heard stories that ranged from heart-wrenching to inspirational.  

There are over 27 million slaves in the world today, more than any time in history.  Free the Slaves believes that ending slavery worldwide is an ambitious – and realizable – goal that requires a solid commitment to specific guiding principles as well as multiple, holistic approaches.  Our Mundito Foundation will be working to support Free the Slaves as our Fall 2012 project.  Watch that website for details.  And be sure to give generously to help fix the problem. 

Motto from one group of slavery survivors:  "When life gives you a hundred reasons to cry, show life that you have a thousand reasons to smile."  These chronicles may lead you through a similar range of emotions.

Buddha Air 
Fingerprinted and photographed 
Simara security  
Sister power  
Beyond hotel-and-restaurant touring 
Star quality  


Buddha Air

Our gentille organizatrice had described Buddha Air as a small private airline company.  She is not a big fan of air travel in general, so she was not looking forward to our 20-minute flight from Kathmandu to Simara.  And she was definitely hoping that the monsoon rains would hold off for the morning.  Her colleague, who is not a big fan of road travel in the third world, was praying for good flying weather as well.  “It’s only 90 miles, but the roads are awful.  It would take us five hours, unless there is a strike, then it could take a lot longer.” 

Okay, so Buddha Air it is.  As we bused across the Tarmac to our little 19-seat sewing-machine-turned-airplane, I tried to offer some reassurance.  “This is a good time to be fatalistic.  Whatever is off in your future, it’s entirely out of your control right now.  Besides, it’s Buddha Air.  What could possibly go wrong?”  My words didn’t appear to help.

Another member of our group was dismayed.  “I can’t believe nobody told me there was no toilet on this plane!  I should have used the one in the terminal.”  Dick, who had sampled the facilities, disagreed.  “The cleanest thing in there was what was behind my zipper.  I wouldn’t touch anything else."

Photo courtesy of Virginia Williams

As I’m writing this, we are skimming very close to the treetops and I’m hearing noises I don’t think I’ve ever heard from an airplane.  I wonder how our gentille organizatrice is doing.

Ah!  Runway!  It looks like our next incarnations will have to wait a bit.


Fingerprinted and photographed

Within our first 24 hours in Nepal, I had been fingerprinted and photographed. The why illustrates some structural problems faced by Nepali people.  The how reminded me that third-world solutions are often simpler and more efficient than they seem. 

Nepal is a country of breathtaking beauty and crushing poverty.  The Himalayas attract tourists with their valuable dollars and euros.  But years of Maoist insurgency have taken their toll on the tourism industry, even though the Maoists have tried to handle tourists carefully.  In the event that we were stopped and asked to pay a Maoist “tax” at a roadside checkpoint, we were assured that the rebels would issue a receipt to ensure free passage at the next checkpoint. 

We came to Nepal representing Mundito Foundation, traveling with Free the Slaves (FTS) to visit with people recently liberated from slavery.  Mundito funded an FTS program several years ago to free children from bondage in the fishing industry of Lake Volta in Ghana, and we have been looking forward to supporting their work again.  When FTS invited us to visit their Nepalese anti-trafficking projects with other major donors, we jumped at the chance.

Upon arrival, we faced an immediate practical challenge.  I had lost my French cell phone on the flight from France, left behind in the sack of little electronic gadgets that I had grabbed to snap this photo of the Himalayas. Nobody died, but I was left without cell phone or cables to charge my tablet computer and camera.  I had hoped to use my cell phone in Nepal after swapping out the SIM card that is its brain. 

I posted a note on Facebook bemoaning my loss.  Within minutes, Kathmandu expert Connie had added a comment:  “If you need electronics of any kind, have a taxi take you to New Road.  It's the marketplace in Kathmandu for everything tech-related!”  It was a suitable launch to our Nepal adventure.  A “quick” 1-hour cab ride through chaotic Kathmandu traffic brought us to a jumble of electronics shops, a third-world version of any big-city electronics neighborhood.

I quickly found my replacement cell phone – same brand, same model, cheap, “unlocked”, and pre-paid – just like the one I had lost, except for the added line of Nepali script on the keyboard.  Cool!  To buy the SIM card that brings the phone to life with a local provider, the shop owner sent me to another store.  “My brother here will take you,” he said, indicating his assistant.  “It will just take ten minutes.”  A quick walk brought us to the SIM card store.  A guard at the door directed me to fill out a form and provide a photocopy of my passport and fingerprints of both thumbs.  “Do you have an ID photo to attach to the form?”  No, of course I don’t.  Couldn’t he just copy the photo from my passport?  No, and his attitude indicated that he meant it.  My guide knew a photo shop in the neighborhood, so off we went again.  Ten minutes later we had a nice set of ID photos.  Back at the SIM card shop #2, the security guard did the fingerprinting.  I purchased the card and powered up the phone.  Margaret, back at phone shop #1, had long since concluded that I had had suffered a medical emergency.  She was relieved to see me.

Why all this bureaucracy just to get a working cell phone?  Nepal has been through nearly twenty years of low-level civil war as Maoist guerillas tried to impose their vision of government.  The shooting war is over and Maoists have been integrated into government, but the odd coalition does not work well.  Continued unrest brings paralyzing strikes at frequent intervals, and most strikes are organized through cell phone communication.  By keeping close track of who owns what cell number, the police have a tool to identify and track agitators.  Big brother is watching.

Yes, fingerprinting and photographing and needing three stores to get a cell phone produced tear-your-hair-out frustration.  Nepalis face this and other daunting structural problems.  But the speed and flexibility with which we solved the problem illustrates how the Nepali people have the ambition and resourcefulness to overcome obstacles.  It was worth it to see just how well the “brother” worked his way through the system.  And no, he would not accept a tip for over an hour of work for me.  “This is my job,” he said proudly.

Now six days back in France, I still haven’t been able to convert the phone to French service.  Phone trees, visits across town to a phone store whose national computer system is down, and a complicated set of instructions have not yet produced success.  I wish my Nepali fixer were here to help.

Simara security

The Nepal/India border is very “porous”, so human trafficking between Nepal (mostly supplying) and India (mostly buying) is rife.  In visiting communities of survivors near the border, we flew in and out of tiny Simara airport.  You might think that security at a tiny remote airport would be light, but you would be wrong.  The reason for the meticulous inspections surprised us.

All flights into and out of Simara are provided by Buddha Air, and you’ve already seen (above) a picture of our little Beech 1900D aircraft.  With a maximum of one flight per hour and a maximum of nineteen passengers per flight, their security force has all the time in the world for inspections.  Because frisking is always involved in Nepal air travel, the lines divide into men and women.  I (Margaret) was the first to go through.

We always travel light, and we had left some of our clothing at our main base hotel in Kathmandu, so we each carried only a daypack.  My pack was filled almost entirely with photography and electronics equipment, plus toiletries and a change of clothing.  In frisking me, the guard felt the pouch inside my shirt. 

“For your passport?”  Yes.  She indicated that I should open up all pockets of the daypack.  Next to the plastic sack of toiletries in the front pocket, she found a small pack of biscuits.

“Biscuits?”  I nodded yes.  She poked around in the main chamber of the pack but didn’t seem interested in the camera equipment or iPad.  She returned to the front pocket.

“Biscuits?”  “Yes, those are biscuits.”  She turned to the bottom pocket that was a tangle of cords and chargers.  Then back to the front pocket.

“Biscuits?”  I again nodded yes.  She waved her hand in apparent frustration and indicated that I could leave.  A little confused by the interaction, I went into the post-security area to wait for the rest of our group.

When Dick joined me, he was chuckling. 

“When they frisked me, they found the pouch under my shirt and made me take it off.  They were admiring the money stashed inside a plastic bag.  One of them pointed to a $1 bill and asked if he could have one as a souvenir.  I told them they could both have one.  That was the end of my inspection.”

I was stunned to realize I hadn’t recognized three direct hints for a bribe.  Biscuits, of course!  It’s almost lunchtime!  I got off easy:  another woman in our group saw her chocolates pawed one by one until she finally gave them up. 

TSA, please don’t read this.


Sister power

The strongest ammunition against human trafficking is the testimony from survivors who understand all too well the trap of slavery.  We saw it up close and personal. 

In several emotionally draining visits, we were inspired by survivor groups that, with modest financial assistance and much guidance from Free the Slaves (FTS), help people recover from the trauma of slavery.  Initially defeated and timid, the survivors gradually find their voices and become assertive.   FTS channels support in Kathmandu through the groundbreaking organization Shakti Samuha (SS) which translates loosely as Sister Power.  SS set up a visit for us with survivors of “cabin restaurants”, restaurants/bars with tiny private rooms for one-on-one interaction, usually sexual and uninvited, between guest and waitress.  I was surprised to hear that not all the women want to change jobs; many like dancing or working in restaurants.  But they want their jobs to be legitimate:  fair wages, decent treatment, and free of coercion to provide sexual services to the clients.  We met this feisty young dancer whose days of being dominated are over.

But when SS encounters a young woman under sixteen in this situation, they initiate an active rescue.  SS provides a shelter home where rescued children can remain until it is clear that the families will not sell them off again or until a more suitable living situation can be found.

Shakti Samuha began in 1996 when a group of thirty young Nepalis were liberated from slavery in an Indian red light district.  Because most had been trafficked into India as children, the girls had no papers and so could not return home.  Neither the Indian nor the Nepali governments stepped in to help.  Angered when one girl died for lack of medical care, they began to demonstrate violently and demanded repatriation.  A group of NGOs became aware of their plight and helped get them back into Nepal.  “Turn your tears into action,” said a doctor who had helped them.  Thus was born Shakti Samuha, the first anti-trafficking organization to be recognized internationally.

SS has grown to over a dozen survivor groups helping hundreds of survivors across Nepal.  They have trained dozens of groups of young people to act against trafficking, and they counsel over a thousand low-income low-education children who are at high risk of being trafficked.  SS provides survivors with a forum to exchange their experiences.  They help women save money in a communal loan fund, and they offer training in trades ranging from beauty parlors to chicken farming to sewing.  One group of former cabin-restaurant workers now runs the lunchroom for a Nepali airline.

We visited various FTS partner organizations and women’s support groups in Kathmandu, in the Himalayas, and near the Indian border.  We asked the women about their hopes and dreams.  Shy at first, they would gradually open up.  The women hoped that their daughters would get a better education and that they themselves would become financially independent by learning a trade.  FTS partner organizations around Nepal put women in financial control of their lives, as with this proud owner of a beauty parlor.    These strong women are turning their hopes and dreams into reality.



Most of us don’t go to work fearing for our lives.  For slaves and the people working on the front lines to liberate them, death threats come with the territory.  In our meetings with former slaves and our discussions with grass-roots organizers, we heard what it’s like to live under that cloud:  a former house slave when she begged to be repatriated, a grass-roots organizer who was piecing together a legal case to prosecute a trafficker, a girl trying to escape from the circus with her little sister, escaped slaves preparing to testify in court, a woman whose husband forbids her to walk around her own village, and even family members of a child who has been welcomed back from slavery.  I will kill you” are words that some people hear with alarming frequency.

It’s an expression we’ve all used in jest.  But workers on the front lines of the anti-slavery movement know a class of people who use the expression quite literally and may be preparing to carry it out.  Kevin Bales, former President of Free the Slaves and author of many books on modern-day slavery, uses the term Disposable People to describe the total disregard of human life that is now typical in trafficking.  It’s clear that when you’re messing with the livelihood of people who are entirely without scruples, you’re going to be putting your life in danger.

During our time in Nepal, we were never in danger, aside from the usual third-world risks of air travel, road travel, crossing the street, eating, drinking, and mosquitoes.  The FTS staffers are slightly more vulnerable – especially those working in-country – but as representatives of an American NGO they have protective systems in place.  But we met many brave Nepali activists who weren’t returning to the safety of a hotel after our meetings.  Whatever your religious leaning, we ask that you pray for these people.  They’re doing God’s work.

At the end of our trip to Nepal, one of the FTS staffers cautioned us to take care of our emotional health upon our return.  “We work with these stories every day, but you’re hearing them for the first time.  You can’t take in this information and not have it affect you.”  We salute Team Awesome at FTS for their amazing work and thank them for the depth of understanding they brought to this journey.


Beyond hotel-and-restaurant touring

Photo courtesy of Mark Stroud
Margaret and I generally try to travel in a style that we call “beyond hotel-and-restaurant touring”, avoiding tourist hotels, restaurants, and organized trips.  Our most rewarding experiences and lasting memories happen when we leave ourselves open to chance encounters.  Our visit to Nepal with Free the Slaves was highly organized, to be sure.  But when we found ourselves meeting with villagers in cinder-block-and-thatched-roof huts in remote outposts, we knew we were experiencing a Nepal that is well outside the protective tourist bubble.  I like this photo of us melting away in one of the meetings.

We had a comfortable base-camp hotel in Kathmandu that catered to NGO professionals.  But in Hetauda we slept (well!) on the hardest mattress I’ve ever encountered.  In the Himalayas we spent a rainy night in a safari tent.  (Note to self:  watch out for slug-slippery footing en route to toilet.) 

Photo courtesy of Mark Stroud
  The mountain landscape is beautiful, but navigation can be challenging.  On one road near the Tibetan border, we had to get out of the bus to lighten it as the driver put rocks in the water under the rear wheels.  Vertical villages are linked by stone step pathways.  Adding a touch of surrealism, new fiber-optic cable was being laid in roadside ditches to bring high-speed Internet to rural Nepal. 
Religion is a powerful force in Nepal, where Hinduism and Buddhism coexist comfortably.  While the stone monuments were certainly beautiful, we were even more moved by the simple religious fervor of hundreds of people walking clockwise around the famous Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath, praying, chanting, and spinning the prayer wheels.  
  Midway through one of our meetings with slavery survivors, a holy man started chanting, drumming, and blowing a loud horn.  It turns out that local meetings are held in the village’s Hindu temple, and the holy man was just doing his usual thing at the usual time.  It added a bit of comic relief to a meeting that was charged with emotion and catharsis.  The men, who stood in the back of the meeting in support of the group, told us that they now encourage women to find their own voice in this patriarchal society.  This is huge progress. 

General strikes are common, and as a result transportation often grinds to a halt.  On one occasion a police escort helped us progress safely and unimpeded.  Military checkpoints were common, apparently to reduce smuggling near the border with Tibet.  But police appear to be viewed positively, in part because of the role they play in liberating children from slavery.  We watched street theater skits by children who have come out of slavery, and police and village activists were portrayed very favorably.  Those children were acting out their own history (ouch!), and the spectators left with a renewed suspicion of strangers who promise riches abroad.

We met many women and children whose strength was born of crushing experiences in their past.  They can now flourish thanks to police and NGOs that engineered their rescue, village activists who assist their reinsertion into society, and peer groups that help maintain their resolve.  Each step along their road, including government policy, judicial process, income-generating activities – is reinforced by modest funding from Free the Slaves.  It works because the locals are determined to make it work.

The socio-economic environment of Nepal leaves people vulnerable to being trapped into slavery.  Opportunities seem better in India or the Gulf States, and thousands leave each year for promises of prosperity.  But too often those promises are masking a sinister reality:  children confined to a circus where they are forced to perform dangerous high-wire acts in exchange for a diet that is barely adequate, domestic servants locked in the back rooms of homes in the Gulf States, women compelled to provide sexual services for restaurant patrons.

But everywhere we noted hope and progress.  The civil service is at work.  NGOs channel foreign funds to Nepalis who are forging lasting progress.  People-power thrives at the grass-roots level, and solidarity in the villages is remarkable.  I often found myself saying that democracy is thriving in the villages, even though Nepalis have never experienced democracy in their national politics.  Local support groups bring renewal, education, and economic independence to people who had thought they had to leave home to survive.  And some well-placed financial assistance from the developed world keeps the hope alive.

This is where you come in.  Watch for our next installment.


Star quality

Some time back, I had occasion to travel with some women friends, one of whom could be described as having high glamour standards.  Dinner was a major event, and she demanded no less than two hours of preparation before setting off for the evening.  Hair, wardrobe, and make-up all had to be perfect.  For an evening out with the girls.

It was thus with some trepidation that I received the news that our small group traveling to Nepal with Free the Slaves would include Hollywood star Virginia Williams (Fairly Legal, How I Met Your Mother, Honeymoon with Mom, …).  Sounded like a publicity ploy.  Sounded like high maintenance.  Sounded like déjà-vu.  You should stop right now to look at her page at IMDb to get the context.

What I usually pack for trips to the third world, in order of priority:  camera equipment, malaria meds, computer, Pepto Bismol, minimal clothing.  What I usually omit:  make-up, dress clothes.  I’m okay with that – it helps that the photographer is rarely in photos – but this time felt a little pressure.  Should I try to up the fashion ante?  Should I launch an emergency make-over?

We don’t really watch TV.  Recently we found a satellite cable dangling in front of our window and realized we had probably lost signal.  But when?  Our last TV addiction was West Wing, circa 2006.   Our first Mundito project was launched later that year, and life has been pretty busy ever since.

   “Anybody a fan of Virginia Williams?”  I asked my Facebook friends.  A lot of smart people responded enthusiastically, including a professional mediator who is a major fan of Fairly Legal.   I looked at her bios in Wikipedia and IMDb.  It appeared she might be a pretty cool person to travel with.

If I harbored any secret hopes that Virginia would be less than stunning or that her charm would fade when the going got rough, they were dashed at our first meeting.  And every day after that.  While I melted away in the heat and humidity (see photo in previous story), Virginia glowed.  When it was time to bond with the slavery survivors, she would dive in.  While we bumped along in the bus for hours at a time, she would entertain.  When the rest of us would show up to dinner more or less cleaned up, Virginia would float in looking like Venus on the half shell.  And her prep didn’t take two hours, either.

But ultimately her lasting impression is of a person who is as passionate about ending slavery as we are.  Virginia is organizing a Hollywood fundraiser to benefit Free the Slaves, and it will surely be a fabulous success.  How wonderful to have support from somebody with her visibility!

But we’ve got a starring role for you, too.  Our little Mundito Foundation is aiming to support the antislavery work of Free the Slaves with a grant of $30,000, half of which will come from generous people like you.   To reach our goal, we’ll pretty much need the help of everybody who’s been following our Nepal chronicles.

At the request of Free the Slaves, we haven’t shared the survivors’ testimonials of suffering and rescue on our website.  They are too painful and personal to broadcast on the internet.  We’ll be relating some of the stories in a snail mail to our Mundito donors.   You will find them to be heartbreaking, personal, and inspirational tales of heroism.

And there are stories yet to be told, by people who remain in slavery and may have lost any hope of escape.  These are the people that you can help.  You can send me an email (graffmm at with your name and address, and I’ll send you that snail mail.  Or you can sign up and donate at the Mundito website right now.  Let’s see that Mundito brand of star quality!

Limoux stories index

<<< Gourmandise          Hope springs eternal >>>

If you'd like to receive alerts for future Limoux stories,
"like" the Limoux stories page on Facebook.