Overlooking Lake Thun in Hilterfingen, Switzerland, Monika Schaffner stands on the balcony of her quaint little hillside flat. Lost in thought, she takes in the scenic view before her while casually sipping from her teacup. To most people, it’s the stuff of postcards, but to her it’s nothing out of the ordinary. She points towards a mountain peak on the opposite side and says, ‘That’s the Niesen over there in the Bernese Alps.’
Not long before Monika was born, her family moved to rural Nepal where her father, a civil engineer specialising in eco-friendly road construction, was tasked with establishing a comprehensive road network. This led to a transitory life on the road for the Schaffner family who would gradually make their way further and further into the pristine wilderness of Nepal – the country that, in every sense of the word, would become Monika Schaffner’s home.
There, on the precipice of civilisation, where social and cultural expansion was yet to take its toll, mountains would become the permanent backdrop in a childhood otherwise characterised by change; a soothing constant of sorts.
In developing the infrastructure of Nepal, Monika’s father and mother, a PhD specialising in bioengineering measures in connection with road construction, lived out their shared passion to the fullest. They saw it as their duty to minimise erosion and preserve the untouched nature that they encountered on their way into the wild.
This sense of obligation was passed on to Monika, who would eventually take the academic route, just like her parents, and become a PhD herself – but in the field of Integrative Geography, specialising in Hydrology (the study of water in connections with environmental measurements). Following in her parents’ footsteps, working towards environmentally conscious solutions, Monika would go on to land a job in the Swiss Ministry of Environment, linking data with the European Environment Agency to ensure water protection.
From the outside, everything seems to be going according to plan, but on the inside, Monika was starting to realise the plan wasn’t for her.
Just prior to the Gorkha earthquake of 2015, this gradual realisation prompted Monika to travel to Nepal as she had done so many times before. But this time with the intention of recalibrating her course in life.
Monika had done everything that was expected of her, followed every convention and played her life by the book. Notwithstanding, she was unable to identify with the person she had become because the ideals she was living her life by were not conducive to personal fulfilment. So she took to the Himalayas for a month-long journey in search of clarity and the courage to take action.
Monika found both.
A few weeks later, the earthquake shook Nepal while Monika, who had returned to Switzerland, ended the relationship she was in, moved out of the house and quit her job.
Born into a life that was transitory in nature, a contained life with hollow values simply did not satisfy her inherent yearning to be just that; transitory in nature.
Today, Monika divides her time between Switzerland and Nepal, and with one foot planted in the West and the other in the East, she has taken it upon herself to bridge the gap between the two. That is, between the intellect and the spirit; rationality and mysticism; the seen and the unseen; between that which can be perceived and that which cannot.
Monika sees the wisdom of the East as not contradictory to but, rather, entirely compatible with that of the West. In order to fathom phenomena within one realm, one must sometimes resort to the language of the other. Why shy away from either science or mysticism when they are able to inform each other and, ultimately, promote positive global change? This has been Monika’s credo ever since the seismological period of change within herself as well as in her home away from home.
As an integrative geographer, Monika worked for the betterment of the planet through environmentally conscious solutions. Despite changing her career path, this key objective never really changed. What did change, however, were the methods she applied, having finally understood that the tools and insights she had honed and harnessed throughout her formative years in the East, and those she had obtained through her education in the West, amounted to a unique disposition towards improving the planet and, with that, her own sense of purpose.
‘I don’t think it’s either/or. I think we, as a society, naturally turn to the intellectual domain, so we believe only that which we can understand with our minds, but there’s a whole other domain with just as much justification. If we can combine the two, I think that’s the way forward. Integrative geography is about connecting different levels, different dimensions – all these different aspects that make up our world, planet earth. The fact that I’m now working on different levels in different countries and am on the move between these domains has a lot to do with integrating different perspectives, different cultures and different ways of looking at problems in order to find solutions. It has a lot to do with integrative geography.’
"ECCO’S HOLISTIC APPROACH TO SHOEMAKING IS A MANIFESTATION OF POSITIVE GLOBAL CHANGE BECAUSE THE COMPANY IS ABLE TO ENSURE DUE PRACTICES THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE SUPPLY CHAIN."
With the tectonic shift in Nepal came a personal shift in Monika, the outcome of which is her company Connecting Spaces. Through it, Monika operates on two levels: the individual and the global, which can be viewed as micro- and macrocosms that mirror one another.
According to Monika, the individual level is where everything starts: ‘We can’t accomplish global change if we don’t work on ourselves individually. We must find wholesome ways to live, work and interact in order to take responsibility for the whole.’ Meanwhile, the global level concerns how we conduct ourselves as human beings. On this level, which Monika also refers to as the collective level, it’s all about evaluating the methods we apply within our focus areas – be it in relation to economy, business, travel, sustainability … or shoemaking.
‘I chose tourism in the Himalayas because over the past forty years, I’ve witnessed the change Nepal has gone through. I’ve seen positive aspects to this change – a growing sense of well-being, more opportunities and less hardship – but I’ve also seen how nature is getting eroded due to ignorant ways of developing certain areas. Tourism is a way for me to help ensure best practises when people who appreciate Nepal come to visit. It’s a means to promote awareness about the need to take care of the landscape, culture and value of the Himalayas.’
Through Connecting Spaces, Monika has established a network of local partners with whom she is developing an infrastructure for sustainable tourism that makes sure the outside interest for Nepal does not run amok and become detrimental to the values and nature that made the country attractive in the first place. While promoting awareness and using her diverse skill set to make sure tourism is navigated with a moral compass, Monika also walks the talk, quite literally.
On an individual level, Monika offers what she calls ‘mindwalks’ to visitors who, more often than not, are westerners in need of solitude and clarity. They go to the Himalayas to detach completely from materialism, technology and the never-ending barrage of options and choice to be made from one second to the next. The goal is simply to be present, look inward and sense the core of their being by getting in touch with the awe-inspiring nature.
‘Mindwalks are time outs; regeneration, inspiration, figuring things out, clearing your thoughts, defining your path while acknowledging that it develops as you go, reconnecting to your essence by reconnecting to nature. It’s about being aware of the space that you travel through in unison with your inner journey. It’s moving consciously through a space and opening your inner channels to heighten your sense of who you are, while appreciating the landscape and people around you.’
The mountains hold answers to the questions that we, as mere physical beings navigating our way through the human condition, struggle to comprehend with our pragmatic sense of logic. Monika knows this, because not long ago she, too, was caught in a web of worldly matters. Luckily, she found her way out and eventually came to appreciate that her ability to look at the East through the prism of the West and vice versa gave her a rare and valuable vantage point. Monika found a purpose that resonated with her entire being and now does exactly what she is meant to be doing: reconnecting with her roots while embracing the transitory state of never quite having arrived as an integral part of the journey that is her life.
As an avid walker throughout this journey, Monika has come to understand the importance of treating your feet well. As she says, ‘Our feet are our main point of contact with the earth. You feel the earth when you walk. This sensation runs through the cells of your whole system from the ground up.’ This speaks to Monika’s relationship with ECCO’s shoes and the values from which they are crafted: Innovation, Heritage, Excellence, Passion and Care.
‘Innovation is about finding better ways to improve what we focus on – whether it’s tourism, shoemaking or leather tanning. It’s about evolving towards positive change. This links to heritage. I believe that if we ground our work in the wisdom derived from the experiences of our ancestors, we will have the best circumstances to grow, evolve and strive for excellence. Whatever you do, you should always do the best you can, guided by a sense of personal responsibility. It has to be done with passion – the fire and energy that drive you to achieve your purpose. You can only strive for excellence if you have passion. Without it, it’s an empty endeavour. You need to care and open your heart to that deeper level of why it is that you do something. Care is what we ultimately need here on earth so that we can develop in a more conscious way.’
‘To me, ECCO ticks all the boxes, but I also wear ECCO shoes because they are comfortable, functional, elegant and natural. The shoes I wear for trekking are also suited for business meetings. The way I live my life, I need shoes that are robust and make me feel in contact with the earth. In ECCO’s natural shoes, I feel more at home and much more at ease. ECCO’s holistic approach to shoemaking is a manifestation of positive global change because the company is able to ensure due practices throughout the entire supply chain.’
‘Shoes are a necessary and an important part of life. They’re our vehicles, where we stand and walk. We simply need shoes. That’s why it’s encouraging to see a company conduct their business the right way. We can’t go back; we can only go forward. We have to apply everything we’ve learned and experienced in a smart way so as to push the envelope and come up with more sustainable and wholesome ways of living while remembering who we are.’
Monika, still standing on the balcony of her hillside flat, smiles and says, “If we forget, the mountains are there to remind us.”