Upper Pisang is a beautiful Nepali village high up in the mountains with stunning views of the Annapurna range. Here, Elise and I stayed at a tea house run by Meena and her husband. Meena understood Hindi, and we got chatting. She shared with me details of her life which were incredible and very much thought-provoking.
On one of the tea house’s walls, I had seen a family photo – Meena, her husband and their daughter, a young girl, of about seven years old. I hadn’t seen the little girl at the tea house, so I asked where the girl was. Meena explained that her daughter did not live with them. She lived with her relatives in a village, Chame, 20km away. The only school in the area is in that village. There was no school in Upper Pisang. To ensure that their daughter gets educated, they had decided to leave her at their relatives. They had decided to stay away from their daughter to give her the prospect of a better future. I asked if she saw her daughter often. Meena replied in the negative. She saw her daughter every few weeks, as there was no frequent transport between the villages.
Imagine living a life like that. You stay away from your children so that they can go to school. Imagine being a young child who cannot see her family every day because they are far away.
This story, though, is quite familiar.
It is the same with millions of migrant workers. Workers who have left the shores of Mexico to find work in the United States, in many cases illegally. Thousands of Filipinos serving as maids in Hong Kong, Singapore and the Middle East do the same. Thousands of Zimbabweans possibly live illegally in South Africa, working hard to better their families. Many are willing to disregard the laws to provide for their families. It is a story that echoes in almost every part of the world.
The struggle is familiar, and the pain is real.
On my cruise to Antarctica, I got friendly with the Filipino crew who took care of everything from laundry to cleaning the rooms to providing us with multi-course meals during the day. As part of their contract, they spent most of the year, for almost eight months, on the cruise and at sea and then they got a couple of weeks off. Their kids were growing up without them, but they had no choice. They had to provide for the family. The cruise jobs paid relatively well, and any money they made could help their families live comfortably. It was a choice they made, though am sure, no one makes a conscious choice to stay away from their children most of the year if not driven by economic realities of survival.
It is a case of survival only possible by grit and resilience. These workers are the true masters of these traits. I have watched many talks, available on Youtube and other platforms, on these values but these folks have built their lives on these values, and to have met them was most inspiring. They are the unsung stars of our world.
Continuing my discussions with Meena, I also found out that none of the kitchen essentials such as the gas cylinder was available in Upper Pisang. The kitchen essentials were available in another village called Lower Pisang, about 100m lower in altitude and about a twenty to a thirty-minute trek. They had to carry all that is needed back to their tea house because there was no transport, including animals, between the two villages. Meena lifted two gas cylinders (about 60kg) and her husband three gas cylinders (about 90 kg) when they made these trips to replenish their supplies. If they had to run a business during the trekking season, they had to do this year in year out. No choice.
It was a simple equation.
No Gas = No Food
No Food = No Guests
No Guests = No Tea House
No Tea House = No Business
It was a stark reminder of the difficulties and struggles of many people in this world. Migrant workers are living in unsanitary conditions. Some employers sexually and physically abuse maids and domestic helpers. Poor people are barely surviving to put food on the table. The state of affairs in many countries, including developed countries, is appalling. The struggles of millions of migrant workers and unskilled labourers are difficult to accept at times. Life feels quite unfair. Regardless of their struggles, Meena and the Filipino crew show up every day. I am indeed quite lucky to have lived in much comfort compared to Meena. Though I have had my struggles, I am still privileged compared to the Filipino crew. They have given me a master class in grit and resilience.