It’s the Little Things

buds1Recently a photojournalist from Spain (but based in Asia) contacted me out of the blue after he read an article I wrote about mental health services in Seoul. He is on assignment here and wanted to meet with me to find out more for a project he is working on. We met over coffee and I think I may have unwittingly performed my first act as a stringer – the person who hooks up journalists with sources and contacts.

The photojournalist (let’s call him Albert, because that’s his name) and I talked about his work in Asia and the high profile newspapers and magazines that publish his work. He likes to document life as it is in all its gritty realness (in fact, you can check out his work here). Attracted to both the beauty and the tragedy of life, he showed me a series of photos he’d taken recently when he was based in Beijing of a pair of women. However, they were not your typical skinny, pale, fashionable Chinese girls with fine features and long black hair. No. These women were plump and homely. One isn’t even Chinese – Lina hails from Eastern Europe. But one thing both women have in common is that they are blind.

A chance encounter with the women led him to spend time with them and capture their story. I was moved by the scenes of the pair relaxing in their basement apartment, walking arm and arm outside and touching the delicate buds of trees growing alongside the polluted canals in Beijing. Both women work for an NGO that helps blind people, so neither earn much money. But the message of the photo essay, Albert tells me, is that you can be content with very little, as long as we have companionship and a roof over our heads. Everyday, these women overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and face discrimination and stigmatization, but take comfort in the others presence, in the platonic love and sense of family they have for each other.

Seeing these photos reminded me of how lucky I am and also how special yet fundamentally important having that human connection with others is.

Props: Raul Cabrera and Nomad-A

My amigo Raul, shredding some waves in France

My amigo Raul, shredding some waves in France

The purpose of writing about my friend Raul’s venture is two-fold. First, I want to publicize the amazing journey he is on, and second, I want to actually figure out what that crazy surfing-all-around-the-world journey is about exactly.

I met Raul in Japan several years ago as we were both traveling on Peace Boat. He was an English teacher. I was a reporter. Originally from Ecuador, he had been studying in New Zealand for the last few years before moving to Japan. We became friends because we found out that we had lived in the same city (Dunedin), studied at the same university (Otago) and that one of my lecturers was his best friend. Small world indeed.

Among our Peace Boat family, Raul became known for his cheeky and mischievous charm. He also had a knack for picking up languages really easily and already spoke at least five. He was also the alpha-male daredevil who would run out of the ship at each port, surfboard under his ripped arms, ready to jump straight into colossal waves that were five times taller than him. As we learned more about him, we dubbed him the International Man of Mystery because of all the adventures he’d had around the world – remarkable for someone so young (mid-20s), and even more remarkable for someone from a developing country who didn’t come from money.

Over time, we lost touch, except that I see a lot of his posts on Facebook about his new life as a husband to a beautiful Danish woman and father of an incredibly cute baby who is the face of Denmark’s largest baby food company. I’m most curious, however, about his life as a member of Nomad-A, a small tribe of surfers who are traveling the world surfing, meeting like-minded people along the way, and making a documentary from it.

According to his statement on his Facebook page: “I am originally from Ecuador a small South American country. When you are a kid from a third world country (I know not PC) and you are exposed to western TV, movies and all the crazy media. You are made to believe that the world is your oyster and that all your dreams will eventually come true…. just like in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210!!! But that is far fetched from the truth. The reality is that, as you grow up in any developing nation you realize that life is no longer a soap opera and your dreams are nothing more than a VIRTUAL REALITY! This is one of the main reasons why I started working as a teacher. ….I want to inspire the youth. Every human being should know that no matter what the dream is, you can make it happen. All you have to do is….see it , visualize it, feel it and do it…..and foremost don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. I know this probably doesn’t make any sense to you cos if you are reading this, you are among the luckier 8% of the world’s population who can access the net. Also just by reading my statement, you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world that cannot read anything at all. SO BE GRATEFUL and keep inspiring people. You never know who the next Einstein might be.”

According to the group’s Website: “In Latin America as well as many other parts of the world, financial opportunities are scarce. Sometimes we are made to believe in conformity, and that our dreams are limited but this is a fallacy! If you really believe in what you do, you can achieve it. No matter how tough or difficult it might seem, with perseverance, willpower, dedication and determination you can make it happen.”

OK, so far we’ve gathered that what these self-described ‘Nomad-A’s’ are doing is traveling around the world surfing and meeting people who are making a living out of doing crazy, nomadic dare-devilish things – world class skaters, BMXers, skateboarders etc, most of whom had to overcome insurmountable hurdles to get where they are. Their core message is to follow your bliss and never give up. And I suppose that while not everybody can just up and take off, I do admire his courage and have to admit that after watching the video below, I was ready to quit my job, and get rid of my few worldly possession, except for a surfboard and a plane ticket. Buena suerte Raul!

See their awesome trailer below!

Props: Rachel Faller and KeoK’jay

The Incredible Rachel Faller

The Incredible Rachel Faller

When I was in Cambodia earlier this year, I had the pleasure of briefly meeting American expat Rachel Faller who resides in Cambodia running an ethical, socially responsible fashion business. Her business, which is called KeoK’jay, means fresh or bright green in Khmer. Although I didn’t get a chance to speak with her much that night at a dinner for a mutual acquaintance, I did stop by her boutique in Phnom Penh and buy two eco-friendly dresses which are made from recycled fabrics. I also did some research into the back story of how the business and label came about.

Long story short, Rachel studied Fibers (is that a major?) in the U.S. and went to Cambodia with a friend who was thinking of starting a textile business. That business never materialized but Rachel fell in love with Cambodia, won a Fullbright Scholarship to return and research the textile sector and then moved there permanently to start her business. What is interesting about her approach is that she trains and employs women who have HIV/AIDS to make the clothes and pays them an above average wage so that they can support their families and send their children to school. It is not a charity or an NGO.

As Rachel recently told the Huffington Post:

KeoK’jay is (in some ways) a traditional, sales-supported business that can compete in the international fashion scene, but without all the labor violations and environment trashing. By creating high quality products that resonate with the ever-changing fashion market without sacrificing our principles, we aim to combat the traditional victim mentality that leads to dependency by building a business model that does not rely on charity to sell products.

While I admire Rachel’s business model and her commitment to her chosen community, I am in awe of the fact that she is but a 26 year old whippersnapper who is incredibly mature and ambitious. She has sacrificed a lot to make her vision a reality and has sustained that through hard work and passion. To say that she took the road less traveled is a massive understatement. Because of her drive and courage, hundreds of lives have been transformed. Her commitment to social justice is inspiring. Props to you Miss Faller!