If you are reading this from your place of work, a place you happen to deeply dislike because it makes you feel overworked, underpaid, unchallenged and irrelevant, I urge you to look at these women at work and think again.
Here she comes. Hunched back and small, she makes shabby bags for tourists. The locals know better than to buy cheap sachets good to carry virtually nothing, which seems to be exactly what tourists like. So she chases any foreign-looking face. She asks a ridiculous price for a bag, then lowers it, throws in another bag for the same price, three bags, okay, okay, five bags for the same price. But the tourists are stingy today and they pass her by like she is a pocket of air. She changes the price, 50% off, throws more bags into the deal, nothing. Japanese tourists, Australians, British, Koreans, anyone with a different skin color could put some food on her table tonight. Anyone. Damn tourists aren't buying, though.
There she is. Leathery skin from decades of working around the kiln, decades of staring hard at the fire, each flame an unreliable friend. There she is, squatted over the dirt floor, oven to spot, spot to oven, back and forth until the miniature vases are arranged in exactly the way that appeals to the foreign eye. The cartilage on her knees is long gone after years of squatting, the constant contact with the heat has dried up her eyes, and the wrinkles on her neck look like stab marks. If she could just sell twenty of these useless, beautiful little clay things, she could buy some bread. Then again, the damn tourists aren't buying today.
Look at her. She hauls her sewing machine for blocks under the sun, finds an unclaimed spot on a little plaza in Kathmandu, and waits for someone in need of alterations. She knows it’s crazy because the sari makers are excellent in Nepal, and, truth be told, nobody needs their clothes adjusted nowadays. And who would hire a street seamstress anyway? But she has no option. That’s what she does, that’s her skill, to put things together, to mend and to alter, to make things fit.
Sometimes she just shakes her head and laughs at the absurdity of her mission.
Her job is to fetch water from the public fountains, the rivers, the ghats. Gathering water is a woman’s job. The metallic containers are extensions of their own vessel bodies. A vessel within a vessel. A woman made of bones, tissue and water, fetching water. All day long.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the mandalas--those symbols of the universe in the form of a circle enclosing a square--are made out of colorful grains of sand, painstakingly aligned, combined and designed according to intricate religious patterns. They take weeks, sometimes months to be finished....then, they are destroyed, the artistic epitome of impermanence. The mandalas are also drawn. Free-hand, no tools used other than her hands, her eyes and her devotion; the assurance that those who devote their lives to replicate the universe with their backs hunched over a canvas are a step closer to ending the cycle of reincarnation.
This is how she makes 25 cents a day. A woman fills another woman's basket with 50 pounds of sand. The woman straps the basket around her head and hauls it to the construction site where men make $1 per day. I don't know how much the woman shoveling the sand makes, but it's less work so she makes less than 25 cents a day. They do this in silence, hour after hour. Kathmandu has a new hotel to build and a whole 25 cents are at stake. They don't have benefits, a retirement plan, a promotion, a glass ceiling, affirmative action, unions, salary raises, vacations, sick leave. They have nothing. But they plod on.
And so it goes.