Travelling has brought me good fortune, as much as it has been about the places I’ve been it has also been about the people I met along the way, this is my recollection of one of those people.
Sitting on the balcony of my little Nepali homestay in the early morning looking out towards lake Phewa, it glitters in the morning sunshine with a thousand points of light sparkling across the surface of the water. A temple dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Durga is built into the lake bed, Durga is often depicted riding a lion, she is a warrior goddess, representing determination & power, she symbolises shakti, the female power, creation, invincibility.
Absentmindedly I gaze out onto the sparkling surface of the lake, and despite being a Godless man I daydream that Durga is entertaining herself by sowing diamonds across the lake for no other reason than her own pleasure.
In time my eyes move from the water to the hillside behind the homestay.
If I climbed up hill those few hundred metres through the trees at the top of the ridge I would see the horizon filled by the Annapurna range, rising to more than 26,000 feet, covered in snow despite the balmy sunshine of June. Immediately below my balcony on a patch of grass mown bare by goats a makeshift cricket match is in progress. Nepali youngsters are playing happily with a lump of wood for a bat and sticks for wickets.
And so here I am in this splendid place, feeling sorry for myself and I loathe the feeling and myself for feeling this way. My problems are no problems at all.
Looking at the cricket game I see a whole slew of ages, from preschool to teenagers, boys and girls, all playing together. I find myself wondering at the joyfulness of these youngsters, here they live in a country that is ranked 162/187 in terms of domestic product, in other words amongst the poorest people on Earth. And yet in this country of hardships, of earthquakes, of poverty, and political uncertainty I still find a sense of so many people having happiness and indeed hope. Or are these just the impressions of a first world tourist, with no real concept of the reality of life here for the vast majority of people. I’ve learnt enough to understand that it is not all light and bright here, there’s real hardship here, real suffering and yet how do these people seem to be happy, without a proverbial pot to piss in?
Perhaps this is no more than my illusion, perhaps its more about how I see myself, I have all the advantages of a western upbringing, money, education, freedom, time. Here I am free as a bird travelling the world and still with all these advantages that so many lack I am dissatisfied.
I draw on my cigarette, irritated with myself, at that moment I hear a door creaking and as I look to my right along the walkway of the balcony I see a figure stepping out from the adjoining room.
A woman stands there, stretches and raises her arms upwards, an out loud yawn accompanies the stretch, hands raised high in the air and it makes me think of a sun salutation, a greeting to the morning & I feel as if this woman is celebrating, just being here. She turns towards me, a broad smile breaks out across her face. “Good morning” she says.
I sit there, fag between my lips, smoke curling upwards and into my eyes and I am lost for words.
This then was my introduction to Leonie, over the next few weeks I spend a good deal of time with her, on that balcony, or in cafes, we talk for hours, respective histories, experiences, about yesterdays & todays & tomorrows. Now something curious happens sometimes when you are travelling, you can meet a total stranger and something clicks, tongues freed you open up, maybe it’s simply being in the moment, or the freedom of the place and the time, but you open up to a stranger in a way you might never otherwise do even to your best friend.
In our conversations our stories are brought to life and in a curious kind of way in the process we set them free in the sharing. Little by little Leonie tells me her story. As with all our stories they really begin before we begin. Leonies story in Africa & Switzerland.
Her father was Swiss, born in that landlocked country far from sea, he grew up in a rather a Swiss kind of way, maybe you might call it a cliche of ordered, organised, on time, cosseted boredom.
But from the beginning her father wanted to escape the confines of Switzerland and as soon as he was able he left home to travel the world. His travels in time took him across Africa and to what was at the time an apartheid Rhodesia. He found work as an Engineer on a dam project. One day out in a local market this young blonde European met an African girl. Nature as it likes to do took its course, they became an item, a couple, the young African girl became pregnant and in time as a family they returned to Dads homeland of Switzerland.
Now Switzerland, in the early seventies, is an old fashioned kind of a place, an insular land where a black face marks you out. Leonies father doesn’t cope well with being a family man. There are also problems with his blood family who will not recognise either his child or his partner, it all gets rather complicated. In time Dad does a runner, maybe its the pressure, maybe its the responsibility, but he can’t hack it. He leaves his partner alone with her child and goes off travelling. He never returns to Switzaerland.
Perhaps this man is selfish, or weak or both, who can say, but Leonies mother is a young woman trying to make a go of it in a country thousands of miles from home and everything she knows, now that’s tough enough, but with a newborn child harder still. Add to that a skin colour marking you out as different and suffering racism it makes it darned near impossible. In time Leonie ends up in care, she is shuffled from one foster home to another. When she is around thirteen Leonies mother dies, now losing a parent at a young age is hard, death is always hard, but losing your mother in a fire is all together more brutal and senseless, in a fire at her home. Leonie is for all intents and purposes an orphan, mother gone, father nowhere to be found. Foster homes are tough, she ends up fostered in a large family, only she is not a part of the family, not from a place of compassion, but as a way of making some money, for the grants offered by the state for offering a foster home. To add insult to injury in time the foster mother grows jealous of Leonie, because she does well at school, she is a bit of a star whilst her own daughter is far from the brightest, she continually puts Leonie down, makes her life hell, every possible opportunity to belittle and denigrate her ward. Despite all of this Leonie keeps going, she’s made of strong stuff, one of lifes survivors, one of lifes fighters.
Old enough to fend for herself she makes her way in the world, gets an apartment in Zurich, a job, she begins to carve out a life of her own, but all through her adolescence and teens she is treated as different, because she is black. Theres an underlying theme of racism towards her, one night on her way home from a night out with friends she is accosted by a man in a back street of Zurich, he racially abuses her and then attempts to sexually assault her, but Leonie is a tough cookie, this young women fights back and gives better than she got, she flies at him like a banshee, punching and kicking, drawing blood, she beats the shit out of him and he ends up on the ground a crumpled mess.
Her spirit and her guts get her through. She talks of that period of her life, about having to quite literally fight to make her way through.
Life went on in Zurich, Leonie in time moved in with a boyfriend, who turned out to be a class one shit. Eventually once again she had to look out for herself and moved out.
Then she heard from an Aunt in Switzerland, her estranged Fathers sister. This aunt had seen her maybe once a year, on a birthday, or at Christmas, but there was no closeness, no relationship. Leonie later found out that the Aunt was in regular contact with her Father, she would let him know how his daughter was, but there was never contact between Father and Daughter, no news exchanged, nothing. Until Leonie was in her thirties, when her Aunt contacted her to let her know that her Father was terminally ill, with cancer.
Leonie packed her bags immediately and went to see her father who was living on a boat in Australia. After decades without news or contact Leonie nursed her father through his remaining months. I thought that having been abandoned by her Dad Leonie would be angry with him, but on the contrary she talked of her happiness being able to reconnect and spend time with him, she talked of it as precious time, of how much she loved it, and loved him.
After his death she took his ashes on a journey across Australia and scattered his remains in places that she felt he would have been at peace, she described the process as a spiritual and cathartic one.
One evening we were sitting up on the homestay roof, Leonie picked up a guitar resting against the wall and plucked away at it. She began to sing, a rather beautiful song, I couldn’t quite place it, but it sounded familiar, and the end I asked her who the tune was by, I’m sure I have heard it before I added……………… It’s mine she said, I wrote it for my Dad.
What surprised me so often listening to Leonie was how often the people that she loved had let her down, admittedly this wasn’t by design but more by circumstance, but nevertheless time and again the people that Leonie needed to be there for her were not, through her childhood when she needed parents they weren’t there for her, the care system failed her, the boyfriend, society, all let her down. What surprised me most as we talked and as I listened was the warmth that came from Leonie. All of these let downs could or should have broken her, they could have made her a bitter & deeply unhappy person, she had every right to be that, But, on the contrary there was something very bright & light about Leonie. She had this way of looking at the world that was endlessly positive, how could that be? After all she had experienced? As time went on I began to realise that what Leonie demonstrated was a great capacity for love, not a need for it, but the capacity to give it to others.
There was also something incredibly strong in Leonie, belied by her five foot four frame and her gentleness. She had learnt through experience that the people she loved could not always give her their love. Rather than becoming damaged or angry as one might have expected instead somehow she had gone beyond her experience, not become a product of it.
Time marches on, Leonie was due to leave one morning a couple of weeks after we first met to continue her travels, to be honest I’m not a big fan of goodbyes, particularly to people I’ve grown fond of, so I set out for walk on the morning of her departure and then took a boat out onto the lake. Out there on the water close to the little Temple I think of Durga & in turn of Leonie, despite having no place for Gods I muse on the thought that perhaps we can all cultivate aspects of a divine nature within us, Leonie showed me that we need not be a product of our experiences, we can go far beyond them, that in turn we sometimes need to fight for ourselves, maybe even with our fists if necessary, but that most importantly that we can love another person and expect or need nothing in return, that if you are able to do this then truly you set yourself free.