I came to Nepal with walls. My mom. My brother. New Canaan friends Conor and Liz Grennan. Even a business associate, photographer Keoki Flagg. I jumped on board late (literally, missing the first flight), and made it known that despite my involvement, this was my brother’s 16-year-old experience.
When Keoki Flagg and I sat down for the Hyatt’s continental breakfast halfway through the trip, he told me it took a soul-bearing conversation to convince his business partner to let him come to photograph the trip. He came for me, he said. And he came to support my book idea about Nepal.
“What are you talking about? I don’t even know if there’s a book yet!” I said. This is for you! Think about what this will do to help you branch out as a photographer!
This wasn’t my trip. It was Next Generation Nepal’s. It was my brother, Jackson’s. It was Keoki’s.
But in the still night, as thick tears spread across my pillow, it was just me. Just me. And while everyone else went off to dinner at night, the experiences of the day chipped away at my stonewalled heart.
Of course, I had my expectations. I read about the pungent smells of hot urine mixed with fire-burnt garbage, and I read Little Princes, so I knew about this generation of trafficked “paper” orphans, who were forced to forget their real families. I was ready and eager to give big hugs to Next Generation Nepal’s children staying in an orphanage before transitioning back to wherever their lost families might be.
But I was not prepared to meet an actual orphan.
Subha renamed me. “You Tiger now!” he said, pointing his soft little finger to my stomach.
“I like that!” I said.
My brother Jackson (16 yrs old) and I were sitting by a water fountain, waiting for the rest of the group before lunch with nine-year olds Subha and Samir. In an hour, the four of us, plus Jackson Freed (12 yrs old,) had gone from strangers to secret nickname-clubmates.
“Feel this!” Subha said. He must have noticed my abs, because he decided to flex his own. He lifted his shirt and bared his best scary tooth Gladiator sound.
“And this!” he said, as he flexed his arm muscles with a tight grin.
Jackson and I laughed, and then forced our best serious awe-struck look. Such a strong man!
This banter was radically different than the the bus ride over to Godawardi a few hours earlier; Subha didn’t talk at all. He sat in the front seat in between the legs of an older member of the orphanage and pressed his head as close to the window and as far away from the group as possible. When we got off the bus, he kicked around a palm-sized soccer ball by himeself.
“Do you want to play?” I asked. Subha hid behind a skinny tree, and peaked out to shyly nod yes. He brought his own ball and tossed it to me.
“How about the ball the group is playing with?” I asked, encouraging him and his best friend Samir to join. He turned his back and went back to talking to Samir.
Taking cues from my mom, I kept trying to interact with Subha. Frankly, I didn’t have much else to do. I walked along side him on a narrow path past couples hiding their love in tree branches, meandering silently. At a brief pause in the group hike near a beautiful lake, I asked Subha if we could take a picture together. His whole face smiled; his thin lips reached both sides of his wide eyes, as his round swarthy cheeks filled the camera lens. It was impossible not to keep the shutter clicking at this first moment of revealed personality.
Then, Subha held my hand.
Jackson Freed was walking with Samir, and the four of us quickly started walking ahead of the group. We were all walking with hands held like a sentry line of bonded soldiers. Freed brought out his video camera, and asked us questions that we answered casually like we were best friends. Favorite food? Dal bat, of course! Favorite drink? Coca Cola! Except Subha- Fanta, the orange flavor, is his favorite.
This video documentation lasted all of five minutes before we had to run. I determined I had the energy of a nine-year old, and decided to race in cowboy boots and a long inhibiting gray skirt. We were racing towards nowhere, just running together, proving nothing. I was reveling in the moment, then I tripped on a rock and fell on my butt. My brother Jackson sprinted over and lifted me up. Subha ran over and dusted the dirt off my back.
Neither of them said anything, they just wordlessly picked me up, cleaned me off and kept walking. Two brothers.
The group caught up to us just next to a tin-covered rectangular gazebo with cement flooring and bench seating on the edges. “Dance, dance!” someone cheered to the older boys. Subha came and sat on my lap. We clapped together at the boys dancing the the Macarena, and he nestled his face into my neck when I suggested he get out there and dance too.
Five minutes later, Liz Grennan walked over to me.
“I talked to Subha’s sister on the bus,” she said. “I said, ‘where are you from?’ and she said she didn’t know. She said she didn’t have a mom or dad either.”
“They’re street orphans,” she said. “They were living on the streets and were rescued a few months ago. I almost broke down right then on the bus when she told me.”
Subha? An orphan? The kid with the unfortgettable smile, just sitting on my lap and snuggling against me lived on those ratty, dusty streets corrupted by greedy vigilantes? It was too dirty, too ugly to think about. What did they do to the kids? How could those precious souls, who smiled so wide into the camera have been abandoned?
I walked slowly behind the rest of the group, processing. As tears welled in my eyes, I passed a boxcar home, with two kids playing outside. As I looked into the home, I saw at least 20 people crammed into it, squatting on the unswept floor, with bright eyes looking directly at me.
Separated significantly from the group, I walked past more little Nepalese children wandering on their own, turning to look at me with deep needy eyes as I passed. Suddenly everyone looked like an orphan. Every little kid’s eyes looked at me like they had 20 years on me. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know anything, at all.
I wasn’t supposed to get this unrestrained emotion. I wasn’t supposed to get attached. This wasn’t my trip, after all. I was supposed to be a chronicler. An observer. And one afternoon, I tripped and fell. I fell, and got up covered in the dirt I now carry with me. Subha tried to wipe it away, but it has stayed. I’ve got its dry red dust with me in San Francisco, and will continue to write about it for those who reason with themselves that Nepal is someone elses’s story. Hopefully it will trip them up too.
A few things of distinction between Nepal and San Francisco:
Here: Laundry Machines
There: Clothes and linens are brought to a spout by the side of the street for washing. Cars and motorcycles drive by and kick up putrid trash and auburn dust into the mix, like detergent. The children at the original Little Princes were fortunate enough to launder at a running river an easy walk away without dams of trash.
Here: Finished products
There: Beginning of the production cycle. Walk by bean stalks and rice sifters, taking advantage of post monsoon harvests. Nothing is packaged. Clothing stores just have rows and rows of raw material, unsewn and made to order. Rachel, who manages the new NGN children’s home says that they never really get the sizing right. Buying clothing becomes a fun game of chance.
Here: Size and girth
There: Doors reach a height of 5 foot 5. Cows are smaller and skinnier than Harvey, Adam’s Tibetan mastiff, and I could probably pick up 5 goats in one arm.
Here: 5-minute lunch breaks
There: The children at the Karnali House sit cross-legged on the floor of the kitchen (some on bamboo mats) and pray before eating. They then sip milk tea and dip biscuits in it for lunch. Mint tea is passes around after, before running off to do homework or do flips in the living room.
If I were one of those sixteen children waiting on the 70’s-style cloth-curtained bus, I would have asked the eight white Nepalese culture-idiots from America, What are your intentions? There is a good chance I would have been like Sera, who sat with with her eyes closed to our entry, or like Subha, who sat in between the legs of an older “orphan,” staring indifferently out the dusty front seat window.
“How many months are you with us, sister?” said the older orphan, Benjamin.
“Three more days,” I said.
My stomach lurched in guilt. What can I do, really, in three days? I scooted to the front of the bus next to the two of them, sitting on a worn carpet with a scissored hole for the manual gear-shift, and didn’t know what to say next.
Outside the window, three-wheeled tin box cars moved with the same entitled misdirection as the brazen brown cows that crossed with it. Honk! Moooo! It was like watching a black-and-white reenactment of 1908, when traffic lights and yellow lines didn’t exist, and the road masses swerved in the wayward patterns of an uncoached football team.
We were on our way to Godawardi, where the Little Princes orphanage used to house rescued children from traffickers. It was closed down, due to the incessant intervention of a well-known trafficker, and the children were moved—to a beautiful home in the countryside—which we saw the following day. The children of the orphanage weren’t actually orphans at all, but children with parents. Mothers and fathers who’d been tricked by traffickers to give money—sometimes life savings— for their child’s education in Kathmandu. Once the money and kid were handed over, the child was given a new name, new age, fake “orphan” papers and tossed aside into corrupted orphanages. Next Generation Nepal, founded by Conor, and Umbrella Foundation, are two of the few which care for the children and reunite the families.
“You must meet a lot of people like us,” I said to Benjamin.
Benjamin was one of the original boys in the original Little Princes orphanage, written about by Conor Grennan. His skinny arms and face, worn and shiny like a traveled penny beguiled his elderly diplomatic demenor.
“I meet a lot of people, and I miss a lot.”
Quiet nostalgia. Another wrench to the gut.
I didn’t know what to say next. Age? Favorite color? I asked about Manchester United, pointing to the sticker on the bus. You like football? I asked. “Yes, sister,” the two boys in the front seat replied.
Looking for a little guidance, I turned about face to the rest of the bus. My mom and her new beloved friend, an 11-year old girl with a ruggedly impasse cool-factor and pierced nose was playing with mom’s Prada green sunglasses. They touched, giggled, and intertwined hands as the warm sun filled the gaps in language.
Mothers. They just know.
The young Sera hadn’t spoken, to anyone for months. She had recently been rescued from traffickers, and didn’t trust anyone—except my mother. My mother, who talked and talked and talked and didn’t let foreign silence intervene. Who traced the lines of henna on Sera’s hand, smiling and gesturing. Who pointed to the own holes in her ears, and pointed back to and the pierced hole in Sera’s nose.
They were the same. A mother knows.
It was the best day of the year for Sera, who regularly hides under her bed. The laughter, started by my mother, spread contagiously to all of us on the bus. It spread to our impromptu outdoor volleyball games, soccer games, and hand-held hikes on the way to the orphanage. It spread to the dancing under a tin gazebo, and under the shade from the afternoon sun as everyone laid next to eachother, touching shoulders, sitting on laps.
A mother’s love. Even for the afternoon, it can change a life.
Stay tuned for the next post on Ganesh, a 9-year old who rocked my world!
I couldn’t understand what was going on outside the gun-guarded wall surrounding our hotel. The Boudnath stupa, the largest in the world, was only 347 meters away. In 347 meters at 7:30 a.m., there were 10 rabid starved dogs, 5 bicycles with 50 pounds of produce pushed by frail men, one furrowed woman sticking out the bone of her lost arm in plea, and no Americans.
I didn’t cry. I didn’t speak. “I need to sit,” I told Keoki, standing next to me.
How do you react to loss? How do you react to the view of perpetual poverty, literally, at your feet?
I took out the notepad and pencil in my auspicious red Camelback, sat on a bench, and drew. I drew the satin aprons that adorned every woman circling the stoupa in midst of morning prayer ritual, I drew the undulating painted eye at the top of the stoupa, I drew a woman braiding purple fabrics into the long hair of her Tibentan men. In the still silence, I let the world I was in come to me.
In my reverence to whatever it was that was happening, someone touched me.
A monk diverted from the swirling brass scrolls on the stupa, and walked over to me. He took both my hands in earnest, and brought them up to his wrinkled oval face. He pulled me in, bending his head down to touch my forehead with his. Our foreheads remained together for about five seconds, and it was the most endearing moment I can remember. As he left, he bowed his head again and put his hands together in prayer, looking me in the eye as I did the same as I was overcome with grace from a man who’s name I’ll never know.
I’m sitting in Taipei, with an Illy coffee, my anticeptic wipes, scented candle (just propped it on the table to get rid of that airport smell,) and a warm croissant sitting placidly on the clean red table. “Freak,” said Keoki.
I laugh, then triple check the location of my passport and ticket, safe as expected in my worn jean pocket. All prepared— except we weren’t supposed to be in Taipei. We were supposed to be in Hong Kong, yesterday.
Keoki Flagg and I had tickets for Nepal, leaving at 1:20 a.m. on October 6th, where we have a few short days to interact with children at the Little Princes orphanage, just enough to come home with a clear picture of the lives of these trafficked children. We arrived at 10 p.m. on October 6th, prepared and early for the flight. We were abruptly shocked to find it left 19 hours earlier.
Keoki laughed, giving up control and living in the comic of it all while I was silently self-flaggelating. Within an hour, we rerouted through several different airlines. Fortunately, we’ll make it to Kathmandu, albeit a day later. Keoki’s now sleeping peacefully on the rafter of the A6 seating area, arms open to the alchemy of adventure. Me, well, I’m learning to roll with it.