The Making of Carrying Everest #2: Lessons and Insights of Immersion

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We crossed a line.

That fuzzy, indeterminate, unfixed space between tourist and local. Between outsider and insider.

It’s a bizarre, privileged and delicate place to be.

When a project or opportunity invites your full immersion, the stakes are higher, the lessons are steeper, and your ability to connect, empathise and generally jive as a person with the wider community is absolutely paramount.

It requires you to open your heart, to practice flexibility on a moment-to-moment basis and to be deeply aware of the assumptions, misconceptions and expectations that you, as well as the community you are immersed in, bring to the table.

This was the case when we were ushered into the homes, businesses and lives of the Kulung while filming Carrying Everest during September/October in Nepal.

Cholochhaa and Dilip Kulung, our guides, translators and researchers (aka, all-round miracle workers) were our bridge. They helped the film crew transition from inquisitive travellers to pseudo-residents, even if for a brief moment in time.

They opened the doors to the inside…

When you are gifted the unique opportunity to hear the stories of a community and to bear witness to their day-to-day lives, you are also indebted to a great level of self-responsibility – a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

In this second story about the Carrying Everest journey (you can read the first one here), I share with you the lessons and insights of immersion.

  1. Etiquette

 Connection takes time. If you want people to trust you and to open up to you, you have to be willing to do the work. I’m not referring to the background research, getting the lighting or the speakers accurate, or even asking the right questions. I mean respecting who you are spending time with and showing your generosity by drinking the tea that they offer you, making eye contact and listening with intent, even if you don’t speak the language (you will be surprised by how much you pick up on through expression, body language and tone/speed of voice), and not rushing the process because etiquette is just that – a process.

For most of the interviews we did, we spent just as long or even longer beforehand speaking casually in the person’s home or business about their day, explaining who we were and where we were from, playing with their children, trying their food or talking about the photos on their walls. There were times however, when we had a schedule to meet and the etiquette got sloppy and as a result, their answers to our questions were shorter, more matter-of-fact, and difficult to prize open.

On the flip side, there were opportunities to truly connect.

20161020_172700We were told of a mother living in Bung who had lost her son to altitude sickness when he was portering almost a year ago. We had the evening as well as the morning to meet with her and see if she was comfortable to talk with us and share her story before we had to continue climbing on the trail. She lived a little out of town, closer to the river, and it was starting to get dark. We visited her daughter who lived nearby to explain the documentary and gauge her interest in taking part. A little unsure at first, she advised meeting with her mother that night in preparation for the next day. Cholochhaa made the visit to her home where he stayed for several hours chatting about their connections (everyone in the Kulung community knows each other!) as well as the film.

The next morning, the mother met us at her daughter’s home. We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves, helped the family peel the garlic they had dried in the hot sun, and laughed and played with their ever-so-cute children who were very fascinated to have a group white foreigners in their backyard with some pretty fancy filming equipment.

The mother spoke effortlessly for almost two hours, revealing some of her darkest and hardest moments since loosing her son. “I feel alone. I have my daughter, but she is busy with her family. Now that I no longer have a son, my community doesn’t respect me anymore. The boy child is the most important in the family [in our culture] and now he’s gone. I’m lost without him.”

Without Cholochhaa’s support and the time to connect, this would not have happened.

Lesson learnt: Connect, human to human. Etiquette is supreme, always.

  1. Language barriers

 One of the biggest challenges to immersion in a foreign culture and community is language. Even with the support of translators, messages and meaning will undoubtedly get confused and lost. Speak slowly and simply. Over pronounce and don’t assume someone understands you. Repeat what you have said several times until it lands, using different words and gestures. And above all, be patient. Translation is hard work.

I have so much respect for people who can speak multiple languages. The way the brain rewires to find an appropriate or equivalent word in an alternative language at speed, and in the case of this project, lots of eyes, ears and pressure with cameras rolling and a team of people hanging onto your every word.

A question we desired answered but found very difficult to communicate was: ‘What does it mean to be Kulung?’

Words like ‘meaning’ and ‘feeling’ didn’t correlate in the Kulung world, no matter which angle we tried to take.

The Kulung are practical people. The meaning and the feeling is implied through their example.

 A father spoke to us at length about the many months at a time he is away from his wife and five daughters, transporting millet and gasoline from one village to the next upon the backs of his Gopas (a mix of a yak and cow). His face became sullen and he dropped his gaze to look down at his feet. Instead of probing, we let there be silence. With misty eyes, he looked back in the camera and said: “I hate pushing the gopas and making them carry very heavy loads because I know exactly what that is like from my many years as a porter, but I don’t have a choice.”

  1. Cultural assumptions

20161019_232450Life is difficult in the Mahakulung. It’s physically hard and emotionally waning, but that doesn’t mean people are not happy. It is easy to focus on what needs to change and be improved, especially when speaking to some of the most remote people in the world.

We quickly learnt that it was extremely important to be mindful of our personal assumptions, which ultimately informed the questions we asked and therefore, steered the conversation.

The ‘champion porter,’ who you met in the first story, was quick to remark that he was happy. That he adored his family and enjoyed his time in the mountains working alongside his friends.

A young woman who had recently opened a new teahouse in Namche missed out on school because she had to work to help her parents put food on the table. Instead of talking about her lack of opportunity, she was abundantly proud of her many years of hard work, which have allowed her to be an entrepreneur at age 19.

  1. Expectations

 
It became immediately apparent to us that this film holds great expectation in the hearts of the Kulung. It represents hope – hope for change. Luckily this expectation is shared with the film crew too, but expectation and outcome are two different realities. We continually discussed how we mindfully communicated the film’s purpose, how long it would take to produce and how we intended to platform their stories for change with their consent while not promising outcome. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk.

Some of the expectations include:

  • encouraging change in government policy to better support porters and their families
  • promoting development and investment in the Mahakulung region
  • attracting tourists to travel through eastern Nepal via the many home-stays
  • pushing the Government to formally recognise their Indigenous identity and rights

The moment we visited Chheskam’s Elementary School was when this became most apparent. We thought we were holding a small presentation in front a class or two. Instead, we were greeted by 300+ students from schools all over the valley and draped in flower garlands and silk scarves by each student who lined the school’s lawn. The excitement was rife and the expectation – even higher.

  1. Emotional intelligence

 Gauge the situation. Change plans and then change them again. Trust your intuition. And debrief – always, always debrief.

Sometimes we were great at this, and to be honest, other times, not so much. Time pressure, language barriers, different priorities, they all play a part.

On the same day that we were greeted by the hundreds of students at the school, we were told that a woman with four children under the age of 13 years at the school wanted to share her story with us. While people slowly arrived at the school for the ceremony, we set up the camera at a distance on the field. As we chatted, the lady broke down in tears, explaining how life was incredibly hard since losing her husband in an avalanche last year. Children, teachers and family members were intrigued by what was going on and started to form a circle around us. There was no privacy and the lady understandably became quite intimidated. Her children sat by her side, visibly emotional too. The timing and the space was inappropriate. We ended the interview, took the lady aside and thanked her for her openness, offering our words of condolence. We reminded her that her story mattered and deserved to be heard.

  1. Consultation: self and social inquiry

 Take off the expert hat.

This one is a biggy. Regardless of your niche, your educational background, your technical know-how, your confidence, in an immersive project like this one, the experts are the Kulung. Consult the real experts, ask their opinion, include them in meetings and debriefs, and make it clear that you are working in collaboration with them – that they are integral members of the team.

We were fortunate to have a team of eight Kulung guides, porters and cooks with us at different times throughout our journey, and we made it our priority to speak to them on the trail, at meal breaks and during down time to seek their opinion, ask for their advice and make them feel comfortable to approach us with any concerns they had along the way.

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  1. Egoism and altruism

 Understanding why you are driven to do something and the intention behind your motive is absolutely integral. It might sound simple, even obvious, but it actually isn’t in a lot of cases and a conversation (and probably several of them!) need to be had.

As a team of mixed Australian and Kulung people from different cultures, communities and industries, this was crucial to understand. While there is a core drive that united us all – to support the Kulung to get heard and seen, there were also discrepancies. Differences to be honoured and discussed.

And when you’re especially close to a project, this question, even if it’s a difficult one to sit with and answer, needs to be asked with each decision or change of plan: Is my ego driving this?

The answer might be yes. It definitely was sometimes on this trip. We’re all human. The ego is going to take the lead from time to time, and hey, that’s a-okay. Just know when it’s the ego speaking and be careful not to disguise it with altruistic motives.

Cholochhaa towards the end of the journey told me that many of the Kulung we spoke with during our interviews and interactions referred to me as Ridomaa, which means ‘the youngest daughter’.

Before leaving for Nepal for this film project, I scribbled in my diary the desire for ‘deep immersion.’

 I really couldn’t have dreamt up a better testament to this.

This story is second of a five-part series sharing my experiences as the storyteller on the film project Carrying Everest. Stay tuned for the next one!

Support and follow the creation of this documentary on Facebook and Instagram.

** Words by Leah Davies

**Photography by Jason Di-Candilo

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The Making of Carrying Everest # 1: A Sense of Place

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“Sewa,” says a young dimpled-faced girl as she straddles her schoolbooks close to her chest and walks through a field of tall millet that almost hide her face. Buffalos munch on grass and inquisitively look on with big brown eyes. Roosters crow to the high sun, and a queue of mules navigate the rocky footpath, carrying heavy loads of rice and flour from one village to the next, on their way to Namche on the Everest trail.

From across the valley, the constant sound of flowing water can be heard from the Hongu River and the many waterfalls that topple their way down mountain faces and ridges. The blue roofs of houses are scattered amongst the fields and the forest is thick and lush from the recent monsoonal downfall. As the sun descends, the soft scent of burning wood can be smelt from each homes’ fireplace.

This is the exquisitely remote region of Eastern Nepal known as the Mahakulung, where the people smile in the face of unbelievable hardship and without hesitation, offer you the food of their crops, endless cups of tea, and even their modest beds, choosing to sleep on the mud floor instead if it means you will be comfortable.

This is the home of the Kulung people, an Indigenous ethnic group yet to be officially recognised by the Nepalese government for their ancestral connection to this land and to each other.

 Yet, it takes one smile, one handshake, one gaze into another’s eyes to sense that this community is unique. That this community has seen, lived and felt some of the highest of highs and some of the lowest of lows

 It’s taken me a few weeks since returning from Nepal to wrap words around this experience, and I’m afraid, I’m still going to come up short, but that’s ok. This isn’t my story, this is the Kulung’s, and in time we will have a documentary filled with their stories told their way.

For now though, I will share a five-part series of stories reflecting on the making of Carrying Everest to take you on the journey.

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It begins with walking and it ends with walking…

 If you want to go to school, you walk. If you need to see a doctor, you walk. If you want to work, you walk.

And that’s how our journey began. It takes two full days on foot from Salleri where the road ends before you reach Khorodo, the first village of Mahakulung after crossing the Dipli bridge.

And this journey is not for the faint-hearted. There are steep, treacherous climbs up and down rocks and mud traversing valleys, waterfalls and rainforests. During our 26 days on the trail, it rained more often than not because the monsoon continued well beyond the season, with farmers hardest hit by the affects of climate change. When it wasn’t raining, the sun board down on us, reaching temperatures of 25-30 degrees.

And there were leeches. Lots of leeches.

Once you enter the Mahakulung, you realise just how far away from the rest of Nepal (make that the world!) you are. There is no reception, very limited power and basic sanitation facilities. Houses are few and far between, except in the main Village Development Committees (know as VDC’s) of Sotang, Bung, Chheskam and Gudel.

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And there is one lone path where everything enters and everything leaves.

 No wider than a one-metre in width, this path IS the road, IS the river, IS the life source for the region. It brings people, animals, trade and (very little) tourism in and out of the Mahakulung, and always has. There are no cars, bikes, trains or planes.

There are just the feet upon which you stand.

Women and men, the elderly and children, carry huge piles of grass, rocks, sticks, steel – anything that is required in this area – on their backs within baskets that have a strap, which rest on their forehead.

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The challenges are vast and geographical isolation is one of the main reasons.

 We interviewed a lady in her 60’s who had been bitten by a snake twice on her foot the week earlier when she was farming. “It hurts. I can’t walk on my foot without it hurting… It’s hard. I live alone down the valley near the river. My family took me to the village clinic to clean it, but for medicine, I must go to the hospital and that’s a three to four day walk away from Chheskam. I can’t walk that far. I can’t afford the medicine. I still have to work on the farm.”

We met with a 22 year old porter who has carried loads as much as 90kg since the age 15 to support his family and now wife and two-year-old son. “I remember the first trek I went on and the whole time I wanted to stop. I didn’t want to carry the load anymore. My back, neck and head ached, but I knew I didn’t have a choice… It’s easier now. I’m away from my family for sometimes very long periods if there is work. It’s dangerous work. I want to be manager. Maybe of a hotel, or work in an office. I don’t want to do this forever.”

We spoke to a mother with four children all under the age of 13 years who lost her husband in an avalanche when he was portering close to Mira Peak during the earthquakes that shook Nepal last year. “I worry all the time. I can’t sleep because I don’t know how I am going to be able to afford to pay for my children to go to school. To find work, I must leave the Mahakulung and work as a cleaner in a tea house or sell produce at the markets in Namche.”

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But then there are these stories…

We spoke with a loom business owner who lost his mother as a child and was poorly cared for by his father and had very little clothing. As a child he dreamed of having clothing to keep him warm and clean, and wanted to do the same for other kids in his community. “That’s why I started my loom business. It took me three weeks to transport all the equipment from Kathmandu to Chheskam, and now I have 28 staff who create traditional Kulung clothing for our community. I love my community.”

We chatted with a porter who is nicknamed the ‘champion porter’ among his friends because he has worked as a porter for more than 20 years, summiting several peaks and has never had an injury or fallen sick, carrying loads heavier than most with as little as a grimace. I asked him if he dreamed of a different future and he laughed. “I like portering. It worries my wife all the time because it is very dangerous, but I love being up among the mountains with my friends. I’ve always been a porter.”

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The opportunity and exploitation run parallel in every story and every encounter.

 I can’t help but feel that separation from the humdrum of the modern world has protected the Kulung in a way. From the corruption, greed and depression that are inevitable battles that come in tow with progress and development in many other societies.

This place, the Mahakulung, is unlike anywhere I have been before and I can confidently say, unlike anywhere else I will go again because to be honest, I’m not sure if there is anywhere else left like here in the world.

Untouched.


Physically unforgiving.


And steeped in the essence of what threads a community together.

Despite the challenge, there is respect, integrity and pride for what it means to be Kulung, in every smile, handshake and gaze.

This story is first of a five-part series sharing our experiences creating Carrying Everest alongside the Kulung community. Stay tuned for the next one! Support and follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

**Sewa is a the Kulung greeting for hello, which means ‘I honour your soul.’

** Words by Leah Davies

**Photography by Jason Di-Candilo

$2600 Raised for Carrying Everest

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We are thrilled to announce that thanks to our two fundraising dinners in Avoca Beach and Canberra we have raised approximately $2600 for our documentary Carrying Everest.

On Saturday  28 May, more than 40 delightful guests joined members of the film crew under a clear night full of stars to hear about the Kulung people of Eastern Nepal and our hopes for our documentary.

Leah talks to the guests at Avoca Beach

After listening to Hallam and Leah talk about our plans once we arrive in Nepal on September 15th, our host, the humble café and community space called Like Minds Avoca, served up a Nepali feast of momos, organic red lentil dhal, free-range chicken skewers with Nepalese spice, poppadoms, coconut brown rice and specialty side salads.

Nestled close to toasty bonfires in the garden, the conversation continued and interest stirred. Taryn Henry, a local musician set the scene with her angelic music and later, we enjoyed the delicious raw cakes prepared and donated by Wise Food cafe.

Hallam discusses the film at Avoca

We would also like to pay special mention to our lucky door sponsors Alchemy & Eden, Love Indigo Creative, Avoca Beach Picture Theatre, Nutrimetics, and Survival Emergency Solutions who gifted our guests with many goodies at the close of the night.

And thanks to this generous community, we raised $900 to support the Kulung people!!

 

On Thursday 16 June, just over 50 people joined us at The Hungry Buddha in Canberra fora Nepali banquet which gave ACT locals a chance to learn more about the Kulung people and our documentary.

Guests enjoyed a fantastic meal, with momos, Nepali-style corn, chili chicken, jhaneko daal, jog tarkari (vegetable curry), himalaya kukhura (chicken) and khasi ko mass (goat curry). We had so many wonderful comments about the food all night!

Our lucky guests also got to hear more about the project directly from two of the filmmakers. Director Hallam Drury talking in depth about the motivation and hopes for the project and cinematographer Philip Meddows discussed what attracted him to the project and how he was approaching the film.

Guests enjoying the dinner in Canberra

We also had a guest speaker, Lachhu Thapa, owner of the Hungry Buddha and director of the Reach For Nepal Foundation. Lachhu gave a wonderful talk on what it is like growing up in Nepal, the work of his foundation and spoke about Nepali food and cooking.

We also showed a video of the villages and regions we are visiting in September/October, as well as some footage of the filmmakers working behind the scenes on the documentary.

Nepali food going down a treat in Canberra

From ticket and raffle sales, the filmmakers raised approximately $1750 for Carrying Everest, a huge achievement that will significantly help make the film a reality.  We’d love to thank The Hungry Buddha and Martinos For Men for their very generous support of the Canberra fundraiser.

All money raised from both our fundraisers will end up in the local communities we visit. Because the Mahakulung region does not sit along the main tourist trail, the benefits will be a very real contribution to the lives of the Kulung people. The funds will be used specifically to support:

  • The 3-4 porters, guide, and cook who will join us on our 200km trek to Base Camp. We will ensure that they are paid a more than adequate wage for their support over the month.
  • The local teahouse owners (otherwise known as guest houses) in Mahakulung where we will stay. These funds will be used to pay them a more than adequate fee for our stay.
  • Villages and schools we visit during our filming, and to invest in local charities running education and development programs in the region.

We are incredibly grateful for your continued support of Carrying Everest. If you missed out on the dinner but would still like to contribute to the project, you can donate to the film here.

Thank you and Namaste friends xo

Phil and Hallam enjoying themselves in Canberra
Phil and Hallam enjoying themselves in Canberra

 

Fundraising Dinner in CBR – 16 June

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We are excited to invite you to an evening of Nepalese immersion and celebration at The Hungry Buddha, Curtin, on Thursday 16 June from 6.30pm – 9.30pm! Please note this is a ticketed event.

Buy tickets now! 

The night is to raise money for the documentary Carrying Everest. We are a mixed Australian/Kulung film crew who will trek 200km on foot through the Solukhumbu region of Nepal during September/October. Our aim is to document the stories of the marginalised Kulung community through the documentary Carrying Everest, the very first of its kind. Few people have heard of the Kulung, yet they remain the backbone of the Everest tourism industry.

The night will include:
* A traditional Nepalese banquet dinner
* Guest speakers from the film crew
* Silent auction of Nepalese handicrafts
* Raffle
* Wine/spirits/beer available to purchase (no BYO, sorry!)
* Live entertainment

Tickets are $50 (plus Eventbrite’s fee). All money raised will be used in the Mahakulung region of Eastern Nepal (ie not on plane tickets, film equipment).

This is an opportunity to connect with the local community and help the Kulung people of Eastern Nepal.
During our climb, we will stay in local teahouses (guesthouses), hire local porters and guides at fair wages and purchase meals and supplies in local villages, which in turn, will provide an income and much-needed investment for these communities. All money raised on this evening will go straight into the pockets of the local communities we visit. Because the region does not sit along the main tourist trail, the benefits will be a real contribution to the lives of the Kulung people.