So I unboxed a parcel and made video. It seemed fitting to publish another guest post by Sally Jane Smith the day after that video went live. Since her last article for me she’s published her own book, you can see her links at the bottom.
“Aama scoffs and turns back to the burnt pot to see if any rice can be salvaged. ‘Imagine how much money I’d need to fly to France. I’d have to sell Baba!’
The whole family cracks up, including Baba, and our raucous laughter slices through the quiet Himalayan night.”
What happens when an idealistic young French-Australian couple invites two Indigenous Gurung elders from a remote Nepali village to stay with them in France?
Laura and David have lived in their Aama and Baba’s Himalayan home for more than eighteen months, spread over a period of five years. In this time, their relationship with their host family has evolved from awkward house guests who don’t know how to use the toilet facilities – let alone boil buffalo milk over an open fire – to trusted (albeit slightly inept) members of the household.
Now, the unusual foursome travels together through France, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Their adventure takes the culture-curious lens that mindful travellers engage on their journeys, and directs it back on our own ways of life. Seeing Europe through the eyes of two Nepali elders is more than an education – Aama’s keen observations, particularly, inspire the reader to question much of what we have always taken for granted.
This is an important book that reads easily while tackling serious issues such as human trafficking, caste divisions, the sustainability of subsistence farming, and how the Western model of large-scale consumerism might not be the ideal.
Despite its thought-provoking themes, the book is funny! There are plenty of laughs, although I always felt I was chuckling with the protagonists, not at them. There are also moments of heartrending poignancy, reminding us that Aama and Baba are not bit players in someone else’s story. They are multi-layered individuals who have weathered the decades together to support each other, their family, and their village.
Australian debut author Laura Maya turns the volunteer tourism trope on its head. She’s no “white saviour”. Instead, she comes across as someone deeply aware of her own privilege who constantly works to make sense of her place in a problematic world. Avoiding the pitfalls of condescension, smugness or belittling stereotypes, her narrative overflows with love and trust as the four travellers forge ever-deeper bonds. Tell Them My Name manages to be both dignified and entertaining, which is no mean feat.
And she sums up the joy of wanderlust in a way that resonates with my own insatiable urge to cross borders:
“That’s one of the reasons so many people jump on a plane to somewhere foreign or escape into nature when times get tough. It’s not running away. It’s running towards the feelings that remind us it’s wonderful to be alive.”
Tell Them My Name, titled after a request from the author’s Aama to share their story, was published in February 2022. It became my favourite read of that year, and one I later shared with my book club. Then the paperback got pushed to the back of my shelves, buried behind a pile of Lonely Planets. A few weeks ago, I was scrolling aimlessly through my Facebook feed when a photo of Baba in his colourful topi caught my eye. The news was sad. Baba had passed away.
In a small tribute to this courageous man – to his strength and his humour – I dug out the book and opened its covers for the third time. Immediately, my sense of Aama and Baba’s personalities came flooding back. She is the undisputed star of the show. But his presence is like a deep pool of water that holds treasure in its depths.
Baba’s name is Nar Bahadur Gurung.
Aama’s name is Dar Kumari Gurung.
Information about Tell Them My Name, including a Behind-the-Scenes reel that captures the joyful feel of the story as well as Maya’s approach to voluntourism and anti-human-trafficking initiatives, can be found at www.lauramaya.com/TellThemMyName. The recording of my conversation with the author for the JourneyWoman travel book club is available here.
Sally Jane Smith is the author of Unpacking for Greece (published 2023) – named by Greek government website Greek News Agenda as ‘Reading Greece Book of the Month’ – and Repacking for Greece (coming April 2024). Subscribe to her free newsletter for readers, travellers and writers at www.SallyJaneSmith.com/newsletter or find her on social media as @JourneysInPages.