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INDIA Himalayan Handmade Paper (HHP) / Grant Investment: $30,313 Background: A majority of India’s tea estates are in remote areas. Outside the tea industry, there are few employment opportunities in these rural communities. The aim of the Himalayan Handmade Paper (HHP) project is to create long term jobs and increase income for seasonal workers living in the Lingten and Makaibari tea estates in the Darjeeling region of India. HHP will provide a product in demand—handmade and environmentally friendly paper products for tea packaging, food packaging, decorative wall paper, and greeting cards.

NEPAL The Panchthar Premium Cardamom Project / Grant investment: $49,979 Background: For the last 30 years, farmers in Eastern Nepal have grown cardamom as a cash crop on small plots of marginal lands, but farmers have received relatively low prices for their cardamom from exporters. This was in part due to the farmers’ inferior ways of drying their cardamom, which was often ineffective and consumed large amounts of wood. The farmers also did not have sophisticated marketing strategies, lacking the necessary education and market knowledge. They were often disorganized and suffered from social exclusion. Under these market conditions only the richest, often high-caste farmers benefit from recently improved road access and cardamom drying technologies.

“Our itinerary seemed daunting: New Delhi to Bagdogra to to Kurseong back to Bagdogra to the Nepal border to Llam to Phidim to Akasebhangyng back to Phidim to Kathmandu. In two weeks.�


Prologue Walking up to the US 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. He looked at me, then down at my burned luggage that smelled like charred nylon, then back up for his eyes to meet my mine. 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, trying to search for the right words to fully express the experiences I just encountered during the last month. I just wanted to get

out of my clothes and into a shower. Then he said, with firm fortitude yet with tenderness in his tone, “Welcome home.” I burst into tears. I made a commitment while I was in Nepal that I would come home and do my very best to shed light on the human spirits that were present during this trip. Not just

for the Nepalese and Indians who were diligently trying to eek out a living from Portland entrepreneurs’ seed money, but also for my fellow traveling companions who had given up the comforts of Portland living to take on such an arduous trip to encourage the small business owners in these developing countries, and to see how their grant money was being spent.

“I made a commitment while I was in Nepal that I would come home and do my very best to shed light on the human spirits that were present during this trip.”

Many of you are aware of Mercy Corps, the energetic and highly ethical crisis support agency that provides assistance and services to countries with unstable governments. One less known leg of this organization is called the Phoenix Fund, where private donors put up $10,000+ blocks of money to provide loans and grants to small start-up businesses in developing countries. I was asked to travel along on their recent donor trip to India and Nepal, photographing the farms, rural areas and small businesses they visited. At first I shuddered at the idea of traveling in a large group. Nine people? You have to be kidding. I am used to traveling alone, or with one or two others at most, on international photography expeditions. How in the world could nine people navigate the peculiarities and inefficiencies of

developing countries and not get into petty entanglements? How could I navigate through these people, all of them influential and very adept at being in control of their individual paths as we made our way along a highly aggressive and multiple locations schedule? I know the pains of traveling to developing countries all too well. Our itinerary seemed daunting: New Delhi to Bagdogra to Darjeeling to Kurseong back to Bagdogra to the Nepal border to Ilam to Phidim to Akasebhangyng back to Phidim to Kathmandu. In two weeks. Part of the time spent in cold tents. Yes, my intuition kicked in, and I found myself saying, yes! I would love to go!

Faces of India

Planting Seeds

Our journey took us to see the seed money funded businesses: from hand paper making factory to tea

plantations to cardamom farms, with tribal ceremonies, a hotel lock down, a major hotel fire (thank the spirits we had already left the building), and numerous other experiences along the way. The murmur of West-Meets-Developing-East dialog could be heard as we changed car partners, and business expectations were adjusted. Why can’t they re-use the water? Must they heat that huge container? In what markets can they place the product? Is there really a market for this? Have they hired the best local project manager? Can they pull this off? 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 was the Western developed world we were talking about. But these projects have numerous obstacles, such as slow transportation, fire fueled heat, underdeveloped marketing practices, cultural nuances and protocols, the occasional political strife, and extremely difficult administration hurdles. One thing the projects did have in their favor was an eagerness to succeed that was passionately expressed beyond any work situation I have ever witnessed.

“With all of our jovial teasing and travel fumbling laughter put aside, the faces of these philanthropists became somber as they realized just how extreme of an impact their Phoenix Funds had on these villagers’ lives.”

Paper Factory


After a few days in New Delhi, during the long and winding bus ride from Bagdogra up to the mountainous area where Darjeeling sits perched on a high ridge, our personalities emerged. Joe and Sharon, the only

married couple traveling together, were efficient in their ventures. They seemed to always 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 PhD in Physical Oceanography, and always had the latest elevation news, could answer disease and weather related questions, and could 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, or suddenly found out that her Indian Visa was processed incorrectly and would not permit her back into the country. Margaret was Mercy Corps’ community relations officer, and was as eager to learn about cultures as they come. Want to come to the leprosy colony with me, Margaret? Of course she came with me.

Fred was the business savvy individualist. He did not bring his coat and never complained. He seemed dumfounded when we all rallied around him to give him things to keep him warm at higher elevations. His opinions were gifts to all recipients, intelligent as he is.

Jean, our leader and Director of the Phoenix Fund, was the hyper vigilant 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; her corporate background kicking in when she reviewed the hotel bills, asked questions about why we were being held hostage during a political strike, and how long our next car ride would be. She could also herd us into our scheduled timelines, and have time for a nice chat along the way. Then there is Stephen. Getting his PhD in Mythology, he was nothing like I had expected him to be. Throw all of those influential credentials away; forget about his long list of business successes. Highly curious and adventurous Stephen just wanted to have fun, and with him, we all did. Even at our worst moments, like when the cars would not traverse well over the mud encrusted cliff-hugging roads. Are we disbanding our car? Oh well then. I shall walk and see what I find along the way! And that he did. Several times.

Tea Plantation

Kurseong, early morning. photo by Mikma Lepcha Kurseong, early morning. This photo by Mikma Lepcha.

photo by Vikram Rai

Darjeeling Communications Students

Our first night here, we met the director of a Communications school

and I quickly asked to sit next to him at dinner. After hearing about what he is trying to do with his students in photography, we arranged for me to spend some time teaching the photography teachers about advanced techniques and composition. This was one of the most fulfilling days I have had in a very long time. Mikma Lepcha and I set off for the town and I gave him my camera to use. We talked about choosing subjects, lighting, composition, tips for breaking down barriers between photographer and subject, storage ideas, and many other things. I was saddened to see that he does not have a laptop, and must keep all of him images on his one flash card. I gave him a CD and also transferred his files to the Communications Director’s

“Seeing Mikma’s passion, coupled with his extreme lack of resources is very difficult to witness.” jump drive for storage at the one old laptop that has a failing battery. Seeing Mikma’s passion, coupled with his extreme lack of resources is very difficult to witness. I vowed to do something about this and already have several ideas. Darjeeling has no studios, and if one wants to get a semi-professional camera, they must travel far away to get it. I went to the photo store and met the owner who was an absolute delight. Das Photo has been in business for many years, and I was able to purchase some images his father took around 1930 of Tibetans outside of the

photo shop. We talked about their lack of resources, and ideas on how to stimulate the photography business in Darjeeling. I just can’t wait to come back here.

excerpted from:

Political Strike in Kurseong

After leaving the tea factory, we hit the road

to get to our next hotel in Kurseong. We had noticed some increased unrest in the area, with people packing into and on top of jeeps, chanting and yelling for their political causes. When we arrived at the Kurseong Tourist Lodge, we were quite cold and hungry. During dinner, we heard that there might be a strike the next day and that it was in our best interest to leave very early in the morning. We awoke before dawn, and miraculously, all of us were ready to go on time. Most of us did not shower, because this hotel did not have hot water, and we were already very cold. We got into four four-wheel drives and headed out. Soon after leaving, we were making our way down a narrow and dark road when, all of a sudden, a woman jumped in front of us. Before we could register what was happening, several men

started yelling and came over to the windows of the vehicles, screaming something in a language we did not know. They reached in and grabbed our keys and we knew this was more than just a little delay. After a while, our driver finally negotiated with the men, and got our keys back. After a long delay (with us passing Cliff bars around for breakfast) our Darjeeling contact was able to talk with the head of the political striking party and we were set free to go back to our hotel to wait out the strike. Armed men guarded our door, and we were not permitted to leave the town. Besides feeling very cold and tired, we did remarkably well with keeping our heads calm. The guide books came out, and we all boned up on the history of the countries we were visiting, among other restful activities. Steven kept us alive with humor, while Tom and I exchanged thoughts on tech gadgets.

Kim, Margaret and Jean took a wisely needed nap, and Fred read books. Joe and Sharon took a few walks when the coast appeared to be safe. Later in the day, as I was looking out of the padlocked gate, I saw Mikma! Twelve hours later, we were allowed to leave the hotel.

photo by Joe Barthmaier

“There is much political unrest in this Indian state, as they are trying to separate from India. Because there are few roads into Darjeeling, and no airplanes or other means of transportation, the city is vulnerable if there is a separation and it is not a friendly one. Cutting off the road would devastate this lovely and magical place.”

Kurseong, Jan 21–The Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJMM) burnt copies of the memorandum of settlement of the 1988 DGHC accord across the Darjeeling Hills. photo by Mikma Lepcha

Akasebhangyng, Nepal

After hours of traversing severely

poor roads, we finally reached our next base camp and the cardamom farms in Akasebhangyng, Nepal. Tired, hungry, sore from bouncing on the roads, and frustrated from several schedule mishaps along the way, we were ready to rest. Little did we know that we were in for a succession of Nepalese greetings that rocked our whole evening and stimulated the senses like no other party! Hundreds of Nepalese were waiting for us, and as we walked into their village, music was played, traditional blessings were made, and dancing filled the center space. Tears were shed by more than a few of us.

Cardamom Farm

Faces of Nepal

“I won’t ask for more than you have already given, and I will work hard at my new job to show you that I want to make this country a better place.”

I saw our faces often grimace at the thought of

how these families live day to day, searching for their next meal, trying diligently to find ways to educate their children in traditional schooling, and to practice 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. Is the road too difficult to climb? I will walk behind you until you make it. We traveled to high elevation peaks, hiked into the hillsides and learned about the virtues of pink hued cardamom, drank fine tea

from Darjeeling tea plantations and bowed our heads several times to receive a traditional village blessing. We visited Mother Teresa’s village for old people, drove in madly aggressive and chaotic traffic, averted the dung from frequently seen sacred cows wandering aimlessly (though purposefully) through city streets, and ate momos, papad, aloo matar, roti and chutneys. As we ended our rural travel, we found ourselves coming down from our campsite where we shared a small tent with another travel companion, and entering into a beautiful Hyatt Hotel in Kathmandu. Tired from traveling the hundreds of miles over back breaking poor roads and going several days without a shower and good meal, we were quickly immersed back into our fa-

miliar style of comfort as we entered the hotel doors. Soft Nepalese music played by three men in the lobby soothed our tired and challenged spirits. We quietly stood in line to get checked in. We knew the comfort of a hot shower in a marble tiled bathroom was just around the corner.

A question in all of us dominated the table discussion that night:

“How could we return home and deftly be able to communicate what we had experienced? � There was a quiet acknowledgement around the table that we would never be able to fully relay how it felt to see a village take a small amount of money and transform their lifestyle into stable living conditions, with a level of drive, pride and responsibility that is hard to comprehend in this privileged society within which we live.

When the US Customs agent whispered those comforting words, welcome home, I felt an overwhelming gratitude from the realization that I came from a country that had the means to extend a hand to those who are living on the extreme edge of this earth’s bounty. I urge us all to reach within—and beyond—our borders and look deeply into the eyes of our less fortunate brothers and sisters who have gifts to share with us as well; two come to mind that we readily take for granted: perseverance over the most difficult level of existence, and appreciation for the smallest offer of comfort.

Together we can make this world a better place.

Credits and Contacts A heart-warming gratitude is extended to all of the Mercy Corps’ staff in India and Nepal for opening their doors to their beautiful countries and for taking precious time to coordinate the travelers’ stay. In addition, we thank the donors for permitting us to use their images, their photos, and especially to tell the story of their travels.


Joni Kabana

Read more on Joni’s blog: All images except where noted © Joni Kabana, 2008

Additional photography by: Joe Barthmaier, p. 19 Vikram Rai, p. 17 Mikma Lepcha, pgs. 16, 17, 19

Be the change through Mercy Corps:

Fuel the dreams of entrepreneurs through the Phoenix Fund:

Thanks to all the students in the GD249: Digital Publication Design class at Mt. Hood Community CollegeGraphic Design Program who participated in this project. Contact: Christina Maier,

Book layout and design by: Christine Keep

Special thanks are extended to ProPhoto Supply who loaned photography equipment for this trip and other trips when Joni has been involved.

All proceeds earned from the sales of this book will benefit Mercy Corps media-related efforts in India and Nepal. On-demand printing and publishing through

Christine Keep's MercyCorps Phoenix Fund book  

MercyCorps book

Christine Keep's MercyCorps Phoenix Fund book  

MercyCorps book