Lost and Found – Barbara Weibel

Barbara Weibel is a full-time traveler and expat that – after 36 years of jobs she detested – escaped the corporate world in order to fill the “hole in the donut” and find purpose in life.

Nepal –

After giving hours and years to her various jobs and achieving success, Barbara was left lost and sick. She pursued to understand what gave her joy and found herself traveling the world, writing and as well as capturing things around on camera. Engaging with people and cultures of the world ever since, Barbara has been traveling to numerous countries but her heart is set in Nepal. Emaho caught up with Barbara Weibel and discussed  the joys and pains of traveling.

 

Emaho : You have advertised, sold real estate, worked in a retail store, owned a public relations firm, sold snow cones in a water park in Puerto Rico and then you traveled the world. Tell us more about the joy you found in traveling which was missing from each of your jobs.

I’ve done a lot more than that. I was marketing director for one of the largest enclosed malls in the country, for a residential development company owned by two corporate giants (Westinghouse and Goodyear), and for a chemical company that recycled hazardous wastes from the electronics industry. I sold advertising for daily newspapers in the Chicago-land area, managed a bar and restaurant in Puerto Rico, sold timeshares in the U.S. Virgin islands, managed a small airline charter and flight-seeing operation, and was General Manager and Broker-In-Charge for the RE/MAX franchises on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, among other things. Driven to succeed, I threw myself into each new position, working up to 80 hours per week. Yet no matter how hard I worked or climbed the ranks, I soon grew restless and began looking for another job that would challenge my abilities and occupy my mind so I didn’t have to face up to the reality that I was terribly unhappy. Trapped by the idea that I needed to work hard and save for my retirement, and by fear that my family (and society in general) would not approve of me wandering the globe, I continued to deny my true passions of travel, writing and photography. Thirty-six years later, after recovering from chronic Lyme disease that was exacerbated by the stress in my life, I finally decided to be true to myself. I walked away from my corporate life and set out on a round-the-world trip, determined to recreate myself as a travel writer and photographer. So you see, it wasn’t the jobs that were making me miserable; I was miserable because of a lifetime of selling my soul for all the wrong reasons. These days, I work as many (if not more) hours than I ever did in corporate jobs. The difference is that I now love what I do.

 

Zanzibar Stone Town – Forodhani Night Market

 

Emaho : Before you started this journey you saw yourself as a “hole in the donut”- solid on the outside, but empty inside. After so many years of travel and the experiences you have absorbed, how would you describe your present self?

I like to say that today my donut is stuffed with delicious jelly filling.

 

Emaho : The help exchange programs offered by various websites allows travelers to exchange short-term work for food and accommodations. This can serve as a boost especially to newbie travelers, short on cash and in need of some support. How has your experience been with help exchange?

Although I have not personally worked with any of the exchange organizations, I did research this means of traveling and subsequently wrote a story about Help Exchange, because they seemed one of the better organizations and I knew several people who had used them. For a small fee (20 Euros for two years) travelers can register and connect with organic farms, non-organic farms, farmstays, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels and even sailing boats who invite volunteer helpers to stay with them short-term in exchange for food and accommodation. There are many things I like about this model. Travelers are able to vet potential hosts by reading reviews posted from others who have stayed with that host. Once a traveler finds a host that seems a good fit, they can contact the host directly to discuss the amount of work expected in return for accommodations and meals. This model ensures a true cultural exchange that allows travelers to experience what it’s really like to live and work in that country/area. Finally, it is by far one of the most economical ways to travel. While most travelers I know who have arranged for hosted stays through Help Exchange have been extremely happy with the experience, there have been occasional situations where hosts have not performed as promised, so it is very important to be specific about your expectations before entering into an agreement.

 

Botswana – Chobe National Park Elephants

 

Emaho : What are your thoughts on the numerous Volunteering and Voluntouring packages offered by companies on the Internet? How do you think this affects fellow volunteers/travelers and also, those in need of genuine support (orphanages, schools, NGOs etc)?

I am extremely conflicted about the benefits of volunteering/voluntouring, especially in third-world countries where corruption runs rampant. However, there are significant differences between the two. Voluntouring occurs when tour companies incorporate opportunities to “volunteer” into an itinerary that is otherwise focused on activities such as sightseeing or trekking. I have talked to many young people who have opted for such tours and have heard horror stories about their experiences. In most cases, the fees for these tours are exorbitant – I have seen voluntours that are priced ten times higher than it would cost to do the same thing independently. In many, if not most cases, the schools, orphanages, women’s health groups, etc. that these companies purport to help do not receive one nickel from the proceeds of the tours.

Volunteering is slightly different, in that the whole reason for the travel is to volunteer at a local orphanage, school, NGO, etc. As more and more travelers sought out this kind of experience, tour operators emerged to meet their needs. Unfortunately, many of these firms also charge eye-wateringly expensive fees for the privilege of volunteering, while returning little or none of the fees to the agencies they claim to help.

Alternatively, it is possible to arrive at a destination and meet with local agencies to provide direct help rather than going through a middleman, however this also presents challenges. Many local NGO’s are also corrupt and, lacking the ability to speak the local language, it is impossible for most foreigners to learn the real facts. I have witnessed this type of corruption in Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, and Tanzania, among other countries.

 

France, Paris – Latin Quarter

 

Emaho : You have written openly about your and your fellow travelers encounters with the women and children of Nepal, from street kids to orphan to students of government schools or women training to become trekking guides. You have pointed out their loopholes and appreciated their profit-oriented, yet somewhat significant efforts. What do you think is the reason for such inadequacies?

Soon after Nepal opened up to the world in 1950, money began flooding in from foreign INGO’s (International non-governmental organizations) that set up shop across the country. Because the cost of living was so inexpensive, managers and foreign employees of these INGO’s lived in luxury, while locals in their employ were paid a pittance. This naturally resulted in animosity, and Nepalis quickly learned that opening an NGO was an almost guaranteed road to riches. The problem, in a nutshell, is lack of governmental oversight. There are no legal regulations that define what an NGO is and very little in the way of transparency or accountability is required, thus almost anyone can choose a name, print a glossy pamphlet, create a slick website and begin marketing themselves as an NGO. Although the exact number of NGO’s in Nepal is unknown, estimates range from 40,000 to 60,000. Well-meaning tourists, trusting these pamphlets and web sites, make generous donations that provide a luxurious lifestyle for the owners and managers, but do little to help the disenfranchised citizens of the country. And with a government in disarray and driven by corruption, there is little hope that this situation will be resolved anytime soon.

 

Canada – Banff Icefields Parkway Peyto Lake

 

Emaho : You are very well aware of the unfortunate scenario of NGOs and charitable organizations in Nepal. Apart from a few deserving charities in Nepal, you have researched and disclosed the interests and the accurate workings of many local NGOs that solicit donations from foreigners. How should travelers make sure that the organizations they contact are legitimate and their contributions reach where they are supposed to?

Again, this is a difficult question to answer. I spent an extensive amount of time in Nepal before the depths of the corruption became apparent to me. The normal tourist who is visiting the country for a week or two might be taken to an orphanage, introduced to a sea of smiling faces, and told stories of how the children were “rescued” form horrible situations. In reality, many of these “orphans” are just as likely to be local children whose parents have dropped them off for the day. In the presence of the managers, children will say wonderful things about the NGO, but when questioned outside the facility, they often tell stories of poor treatment, lack of appropriate clothing and food, etc. Frankly, it takes time and a deeper understanding of the culture to begin to understand which agencies are deserving and which are not.

 

Mexico – Chichen Itza

 

At the very least, tourists should be wary of Nepalis who hand out pamphlets in the street and offer to arrange visits to orphanages, schools, or women’s empowerment. Those who have a strong desire to help should research the various charitable organizations prior to arriving. Legitimate organizations should be completely transparent, offering financial statements that show the total annual income, the sources of that income, and how it is spent. Does the organization have a board of directors? Are the bios of those directors shown on the website? Be suspicious of boards populated with members who all have the same surname as they could be extended family. Finally, show up unannounced at the facility for a visit. If the managers are not willing to show you around unless you have an “appointment,” that should raise concern. If you know a Nepali whom you trust, ask them to help you speak to the children or women outside of the facility to determine if it is truly legitimate.

Finally, I want to stress that there are some very fine charitable organizations in Nepal that are doing wonderful work. But most of these tend to be small entities, run by one or two individuals who are passionate about and devoted to the work they do.

 

Nepal, Kathmandu – Pashupatinath Temple

 

Nepal is very close to your heart. You have your adopted family there and you spend most of your time in Nepal in comparison to any other country. Tell us more about your bond with Nepal and what you want for Nepal.

People often ask me which country is my favorite. Before visiting Nepal I had no answer. I liked different places for different reasons, but no single place was special to me. Three and a half years ago I went to Nepal for the first time, scheduled for a three-week stay. Three months later I was still there. Exhausted and suffering from chronic hip and knee pain, I found a Yogi who would agree to work with me, Narayan Dhakal. His Yoga healed my body but his family mended my spirit. As the Hindu festival of Tihar approached, they invited me to attend the brother-sister tika ceremony held on the last day of the festival. After helping apply rainbow tikas to each of their foreheads, I thanked them for allowing me to be a part of their family for the day. Narayan gently corrected, “Didi (older sister), now that you have participated in our brother-sister tika ceremony, you are a part of our family forever.”

 

Nepal, Kathmandu – Woman Lighting Candles at Swayambhu Temple

 

I return every year for two or three months and I live with my adopted family. I eat what they eat (Sara is one of the world’s greatest cooks!) and am learning a bit of the language. I help the girls with their homework each night and Bhai (older brother) with his business. From the moment I first set foot in Nepal it felt like home. I can’t offer a rational explanation for the way I feel but as a practicing Buddhist who believes in reincarnation, I just assume I’ve spent many previous lives in Nepal.

I love this country but life in Nepal is hard. As summer wanes, the rivers begin to freeze and the hydro plants cannot supply enough electricity to meet demand. By October, the power is off for 14-16 hours per day. Dinner for six is prepared on a tabletop LP gas stove with two burners. There is no refrigeration. City water is available, however it must be pumped up to a holding tank on the roof, which is not possible without power, so many days there is also no water for showers. Even when water is available the only heat is solar, so more often than not I take cold showers. And these are only micro problems; on a macro scale, the country is dealing with lack of decent infrastructure, political instability, abominable health care, and extreme corruption. Yet even with all these challenges, and in the face of unsettling poverty, Nepalis are some of the happiest, kindest, most giving people I have ever met.

I pray that Nepal will tackle the issues of corruption and the caste system that holds so many down, however no matter how much I am accepted in Nepal I am aware that this is not my culture and it is not my place to judge. I do what I can to help, but change requires time. In the meantime, I just enjoy the love of my adopted family.

 

Peru – Machu Pichu

 

Emaho : You have expressed your amazement about how very few Americans travel abroad, possibly holding on to the belief that overseas travel is dangerous. Also, upon learning about your travels, you have been frequently asked “Aren’t you scared?”. This doesn’t seem to sit right with you. How do you respond to this?

I do meet Americans who travel abroad but more often than not they are staying at an all-inclusive resort or an international hotel chain where they can have their comfortable American experience and eat their familiar American food. What I see very few of are independent American travelers who are interested in having a true cultural experience. Many Americans are convinced that overseas travel is dangerous. Nothing could be further from the truth. In all my years of traveling abroad, I have never encountered a situation where I felt in danger. We may speak different languages, wear different clothes, eat different foods, and practice different religions, but I have come to believe that people the world over are more alike than different. At our core, we all want the same things: a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our backs, a safe place to live, and a better life for our children. Fear dissipates when we get to know one another on a personal level and travel, more than any other enterprise, provides an opportunity to make those connections. All we have to do is stop being afraid.

 

Thailand – Chiang Mai Wat Phra Sing

 

Emaho : Traveling for a profession is definitely not a cakewalk. Its not always rainbows and butterflies. You, as a matter of fact, were once robbed in the island of Kauai. Did your determination to travel slacken after this incident? How does one overcome such setbacks and still continue with their travel, more safely for that matter?

I find it amusing that with all the concern about traveling overseas, the only problem I ever was in the U.S. I was camping on Kauai and some kids hopped up on crystal meth slashed my tent while I slept. They grabbed my backpack purse, which contained all my money, ID, credit cards, checkbook, eyeglasses, cell phone, passport, airline tickets, and keys to my rental car. Nothing was ever recovered and I wasn’t harmed, but it was a horribly unsettling experience. I was a bit anxious when my next trip rolled around but the experience had taught me a great deal. I never again kept all my valuables in one place. I learned techniques like scanning all my important documents and emailing them to myself, so that they would be available online in the event of another disaster. Most of all, I learned to pay attention to my gut. A little voice in my head warned me not to stay in that campground but I ignored it because I wanted to fall asleep to the sound of waves braking on the shore. That robbery in Hawaii made me the adventurous, yet safe, traveler that I am today.

 

 Thailand – Chiang Rai Wat Rong Kuhn (White Temple)

 

Emaho : Your passions are Travel, Writing and Photography. Do you think you would have still  been able to write if you weren’t a world traveler?

Business writing and communication were a significant part of my corporate life, however even in those years I was dabbling in creative writing. I journaled for years and wrote a short memoir for my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, so I suspect that I would have found a way to write no matter which path I followed.

 

Vietnam – Hoi An Market

 

Emaho : Since your travels are mainly focused towards engaging with people and their cultures, has there ever been a certain culture in some part of the world that has amazed you or perhaps a person you have come across, who you thought was incredibly interesting? If yes, then why so?

In 2011, I took the Buddhist Kalachakra Initiation given by the Dalai Lama in Washington, DC. I had an opportunity to meet His Holiness at the end of the event. I bowed and held out a khata (silk scarf) for him to bless and place around my neck. Instead, he grabbed my hand. Startled, I looked up into his twinkling eyes and found I was unable to utter a word. My speechlessness amused him; a grin spread across his face as he squeezed my hand one last time before moving on. Though the Dalai Lama claims to be “just a simple monk,” when he looked into my eyes I felt as if he saw straight through to my soul and I am exceedingly grateful to have had the opportunity to meet him. 

 

Art & Culture Interviewed by Saraswati Banerjee

Photographed by Barbara Weibel

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