A vibrantly enameled tray of steamy, glass cups came round the corner and I was offered the first sign of friendship: Nepali milk tea. Aromatic, I could pick out notes of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and ginger all steeped to the perfect shade of brown in yak milk from the local market. I had never tasted anything so smooth and divine. Perhaps it was the company I kept that day which added to the matchless flavor I could never reproduce in my kitchen at home. It was also worlds away from the brothels these women once called home where chai is served in terracotta cups.
This rescue home had not yet welcomed westerners leaving me uncertain that I would step very far beyond the entry. The housemother met me at the gate. Her smile embraced me without even a touch and her broken English, with overtones of a Nepali accent, invited me in.
Savoring every drop, as the cups only allowed for a limited number of swallows, I pressed the soles of my bare feet against the cool of the marble floors bringing relief in the thick, monsoon heat. Mostly our communication consisted of smiles and sideways nods of the head and pointing. They spoke very few words of English and I had only gotten as far as counting to ten in Nepali, a greeting and please and thank you. Shy faces would come and go and upon returning they brought with them more bashful beauties. Their faces glowed like children, innocence in their eyes had been restored and despite the AIDS virus, which tormented their bodies with no medical care, their spirits seemed to soar.
The rains were torrential outside the open window causing us to raise our voices to speak above the resonance. Occasionally drops would splash against my back mingling with sweat that had already soaked through my punjabi top. As our awkwardly translated conversations progressed through the afternoon a woman found her way to my side and her hand found a place in mine. I spoke to her about the beauty of her delicate embroidered punjabi though I knew she could not understand my words. All the while I began to unpack boxes of supplies I had brought to share and enjoyed seeing them carry armloads of strawberry cream shampoo, coconut body wash, toothbrushes and make-up to their rooms.
The housemother stood to her feet and after a few words to the women she invited me in to the rest of the house. An absolute surprise to hear as it appeared I had won their trust. Accepting without hesitation I followed for the rescue home tour.
A collection of concrete walls formed a living room and a kitchen with a cook top stove but no refrigerator. Some of these walls needed a fresh coat of paint or a good scrubbing as pollution had fallen from the air dusting them with a black film. The wash area was garlanded with saffron colored saris adorned with block printed marigolds and draped over drying lines. Indigo peacocks danced with paisleys across a dupatta shawl.
Several women shared a room together where their tightly made beds and bamboo tables displayed modest earthly belongings. Bright, clean, fresh, “what a contrast”, I thought, “from where they had spent half their lives”. A part of me desperately wanted to know and understand the darkness, depths and disease from which they’d come; yet I was unsure that I could bear the weight of their stories and this made me feel like a coward.
We found ourselves towards the end of the visit 3 stories up on the rooftop overlooking the expanse of Kathmandu. The rains had washed the concrete city as far as my eyes carried sight. I was already contemplating plans to return and making a mental list of supplies I could bring back to the women: fabric, first aid kits and tampons.
4 more times I visited and watched their children grow. Some learned to sew, while others were studying cosmetology. Yet sometimes reality took a hard, cold stare at my face as I was told that one had passed away from complications of the AIDS virus. She had no mother or sister to mourn her or to bury her. Her family believed she was living the life of a married woman in India, or as a movie star or making exceptional wages at a rug factory. For the price of a tin roof she was purchased from her father. But as it turned out, for the price of a few terracotta cups of tea in the brothels any man could have his way with her.
After my journeys to Nepal the friction was great inside me, struggling between the unimaginable reality of trafficking and what I knew to be just. I had determined that to understand what these women had endured I would have to travel to the heart of the trafficking industry in India. I must walk where they walked.
We entered Sonagachi, Calcutta’s largest Red Light District, though a lengthy and obscurely lit alley, which was only a breath wider than my shoulders. We stomped our flip-flops with every step to scare off curious rats since we could not see them well in the shadows. However, one brave rat did scurry out among our feet and interrupted our stride. We were visiting during “business hours” and on our short trek to the main street my friend instructed us not to look any man in the eyes, nor engage in conversation and to let them have the right of way. The alley emptied into a bustling one-lane street, all foot traffic and rickshaws. I was suddenly distracted from shooing rats as my eyes rose to take in the sights.