From a Central Coast school girl with a fascination for new places to trekking, cycling and building adventures for good causes around the world, let’s meet Laura.
Sat in the sun, overlooking Paddy’s Channel from her parent’s beautiful Saratoga home, Laura Maya Frot, could be mistaken for any other 30-something year old daughter, returning home to study after years of travelling around the world. But, as Laura talks of her travels, including journalist work in Latin America, a road trip to Romania to deliver supplies to a refuge for trafficking survivors, and a visit to slum schools in the red light districts of India, it becomes clear that she likes to take her travels off the beaten track.
What started out as a fascination for people and places beyond her comfortable Central Coast childhood, quickly developed into a passion that saw Laura pack up her school books at just 13 and head to the desert in the USA to experience a cultural exchange, followed by a year studying in Norway at just 16, au pair work in Spain at 21, followed by aid work in Honduras and Ecuador.
“When I was 7, my Valley View Public School teacher started a pen pal programme with her nephew and his fellow sailors who were sailing around the world on one of the tall ships for the 1988 Bicentenary. I remember devouring their letters about different places around the world and thinking to myself that I wanted to go exploring!”
Fast forward 25 years and, staying true to her word, Laura has definitely had her fair share of exploration. But, unlike the majority of young travellers, Laura’s travels have always had a philanthropic element to them, and together with her French husband of seven years, David, she is about to embark on the most challenging adventure yet.
“For some reason, I always knew I would end up in Nepal. The work we are doing there is much more about us learning from them, than us giving to them. They don’t have the usual trappings of a Westernised culture and we can learn a lot from their approach to life. Those who have so little seem to be the most generous. It’s very humbling.”
Back in 2010, when Laura was about to turn 30, instead of planning a big party to celebrate this milestone, she decided that she wanted to do something a bit different (a common theme in Laura’s life it seems). What started out as a pre-turning 30 bucket list (30 things she wanted to do including learning to play the guitar, belly dancing in Morocco, and getting married – to the same man – in ten different countries), led Laura to realise her true calling in life; to make a real difference in the lives of others.
After a year of fundraising $10,000, Laura and David headed to Mount Everest Base Camp as part of an Australian Red Cross charity challenge and subsequently spent four months living in a remote Nepali village on Panchasee in Kaski district. They taught English to kids – kids who had never seen books before, and set up a modest library and resource centre with art supplies. Thinking they had done their good deed; they left the village to head back to their families in France and Australia to work, and earn money to support themselves for their next charitable adventure.
Returning to the same Nepali village three years later however, Laura and David were dismayed to see that the library and resource centre had been damaged by floods, and the books had been a feasting ground for rats. Another thing was noticeably missing from the village – half the people.
“It is estimated that up to 10,000 people – mostly girls and women – are trafficked out of Nepal and sold into Indian brothels each year. It is not uncommon to hear of girls going missing or being lured overseas on the promise of respectful employment, only to never be heard from again.”
In a pursuit of a supposed better life, many men and women had left the only place they had ever known and taken crippling loans to pay recruitment companies for the flights and visas to work in the Middle East.
“A recent report revealed that more than 400 Nepalese migrant workers have died on Qatar’s building sites as the Gulf state prepares to host the World Cup in 2022.”
As Laura and David would soon learn, though, the better quality of life the villagers were seeking was far from the reality that faced them in their new country; with little English, the men were forced to work long hours on building sites or food stalls for very little recompense, had their passports confiscated, and sometimes communication with families back home was cut off. There were reports of women being lured by the promise of domestic or childcare work, but instead were sold to brothels and subjected to unimaginable abuse.
“It’s easy to think these problems are someone else’s to solve; to go back to our comfortable lives and forget about what goes on beyond our own back yard. But slavery is like any business – it is driven by supply and demand. For example, Nepali workers are dying building football stadiums because people like us want to watch our national teams kick a ball around. We can’t separate ourselves from this issue, so we have to work together to fix it.”
So what can be done? Acknowledging that it’s a problem is the first step. Raising awareness, sharing stories and information, especially on social media, means that we can create momentum to put a stop to such atrocities. For the village in Nepal that has become Laura and David’s second home, they are working with the local community to create viable businesses that mean the locals don’t need to travel overseas to provide for their families and they can support them by staying together. Initiatives such as bee keeping and training the community on honey production gives locals the skills and confidence to run their own business.
Tourism is also a big part of the change Laura and David hope to see increase even more; opening their doors to travellers means that local jobs are created that keeps families together. They have helped one family to advertise their accommodation on AirBnB and plan on doing more when they return to Nepal in July.
“Instead of staying in the well-established tourist bubbles, you can explore the ‘real world’ of the countries you visit and support local communities at the same time.”
Education, or lack of, is one of the biggest preventions to freedom, and in Nepal it’s a real problem, particularly for the girls who are often required to work from a young age while their male siblings are chosen to go to school. Thanks to Laura and David, and a lot of fundraising, the library and resource centre in Nepal has been re-opened, and after months of government red tape and technical challenges, the village now has wifi. Being connected to the outside world for the first time is, hopefully, a big step towards bringing education to more people in the village, and creating a two way cultural exchange with primary schools around the world; starting with the Valley View Public School on the Central Coast.
Coming full circle, Laura recently returned to her old primary school, the place where her passion for travel was born, to talk to the primary children there about life in a Nepali village. These inquisitive young minds, a world away from their counterparts in less privileged parts of the world, bombarded Laura with their questions – “How do they play video games without internet?”, “Why do some girls have to get married at 13?” and “What do they use if they don’t have toilet paper?” – and reminded her of her own intrigue and thirst for knowledge at that age. Valley View Public School has kindly committed to fundraise for the librarian’s salary (almost $1200 per year) so that the resource centre can stay open and support the local children to learn.
“When travellers encounter people who seem less privileged than they are, they might feel guilt or pity because it looks like they have nothing. But we’ve always found the Nepalese to be, for the most part, happy and intelligent people with big hearts who are rich in family and community. They just need an education and an income; they don’t need pity.” So what’s next for this travelling couple? Back to Nepal to pick up where they left off and to officially launch their charity Sukarma Australia; via a fundraising bike ride across Vietnam, of course! They have spent their time in Australia fundraising to continue the work needed on the library and resource centre and hope to bring more initiatives to the community to ensure that families stay together, and get the education and support they need.
Laura knows the life her and David lead isn’t ‘normal’ and she’s happy about that. When things get tough and they lack funds or support for their work, they have momentary thoughts of ‘should we just go and get corporate jobs, a house and a car like everyone else?’ But those thoughts don’t tend to last too long, because they know that roaming the world, living their dreams, volunteering for causes close to their hearts and working jobs to top up their funds brings them so much more fulfilment than a healthy bank balance ever could. Plus, as Laura so simply puts it “…once you’ve seen children living in rubbish dumps in Honduras, and girls snatched from school and sold to brothels in Romania, there’s no going back to normality.”
“We believe in having the freedom to live our dreams while helping those whose greatest dream is freedom.”