Sophie was a rare gem, a sparkling soul. A pioneering anomaly for progress in her own right, she made a fitting guide, on a brief tour of choice, that will always continue to appall and inspire me. As a young, independent, female entrepreneur, exuding kindness, and passionate about her business, it was an easy choice for me to select her, when searching for a manufacturing partner in Nepal, to collaborate with on an upcoming wool accessories run in Kathmandu.
I was put in contact with Sophie by an internationally renowned fair trade practitioner and friend, so I knew her methods were handled responsibly, before having a chance to make my first trip onsite. Arrangements made and beginning preparations underway, Sophie and I planned a visit to her center of operations, an older building on the other side of the city. We drove there together, parked out back, and made our approach to the front.
Before entering, she paused, looked at me with strange purpose, and asked me how much time I had today. I could tell she had something serious on her mind, and told her I was available as long as she needed. She pulled out her phone, dialed a number, spoke for thirty seconds in Nepalese, and then said follow me. We quietly walked together for a half block or so, and then turned into an alley. Sophie gently whispered that she wanted to show me something, as we approached a particularly foreboding cinder block structure. As we got closer, the barbwire across the top of fence became visible, and the bark of the guard dogs audible. A man was waiting for us at the gate, quickly let us inside the compound, and escorted us into the main building.
The day was hot, it was pungent inside, and the air was thick. A different man quickly met us inside the entrance, and promptly began to take us down some concrete stairs. At the bottom of the flight was an old, heavy wooden door, locked from the outside. The man pulled out his key, turned the bolt, and lurched open the creaky beast.
The stench hit me before the sights, ripe body odor massed with strong fumes, so bad it literally stung my eyes. Upon rubbing them back open, and peering into the dimly lit room, my stomach turned and heart sank. Inside the small windowless coffin, were packed a few dozen men, in varying states of nakedness, all working with dyes, and all dead in the eyes.
I was standing in the cruel heart of a sweatshop. During the haunting few minutes we were there, whether through delusion and/or fear, the men did not engage us. Not one word to me, Sophie, or the minder at the door. Before we departed, a young man with an expressionless face, locked eyes with me for a brief moment of eternity. It was all written in his pupils; the pain, the hopelessness, the acceptance of his fate.
The gatekeeper motioned to Sophie that it was time for us to go, and we began our way upwards. As I heard the door close and latch behind me, I wondered when the poor men inside might also make their eventual ascent.
The dogs growled fiercely as we proceeded back towards the entrance. We left the sad hell behind, and with no words between us, walked slowly back down the short and dusty road back to Sophie's establishment. This time we did not pause outside, but entered directly.
Walls freshly painted in a maternal pink, open windows, spacious working areas, even a makeshift daycare room, with happy children playing inside. Sophie's workers were quick to smile, laugh, and introduce themselves, men and women, old and young, of differing creeds, all alive, and happy together.
Sophie's lesson is one I will always remember. The vast difference between these two alternate realities, just a stone's throw apart from each other, remains candidly with me to this day. Our choices have more meaning than we often realize, the power we wield is vast, and the ripples of our decisions are real. In almost every choice we make, transactions included, we create or destroy. Know which side of the table you sit on regarding your full existence, and always act accordingly with those values, as much as every situation allows.