The Long, Cramped, Wonderful Return to Nepal

07 November 2010 by Published in: Little Princes, Nepal, Next Generation Nepal, Travel 1 comment

I went back to Nepal a couple of weeks ago. And as always, I forgot how crazy far away that place is.

Look at a globe, you’ll see what I mean. Using my fingers as precision calipers with Finn’s inflatable novetly globe, I discovered that if started digging a hole in that empty lot behind the Food Emporium and didn’t stop, I would pop up in the momo shop on Durbar Marg street in Kathmandu, where that weird three legged dog hangs out.

(Of course, if I actually did this I’d end up covered in dirt and mud and lava, and my eyes would be all bugged out from the dark and I’d probably have enormous biceps from the months of digging, and so the momo people might scream that I was the devil or whatever the Hindu devil is, coming up from the netherworld to claim their souls/eat momos, if they’re already on the stove and it’s not too much trouble.)

I traveled with my friend and NGN colleague Larry Closs, who was coming over to shoot a bunch of video and take photos and stuff like that. Hallie, our Executive Director, was already there. Larry and I got off the plane and were met by the kids – the older ones who are still in Kathmandu. And even though we’d been traveling for something like 30 straight hours, it was pretty much all worth it for that moment.

We walked out the door of the airport and into the parking lot, cutting through the throngs of people offering us taxis and hotels. In Thamel, the backpacker district in town, you get offered everything from trekking tours to drugs to tiger balm to sewn silk purses; at the airport, though, there are only two things of any interest to anybody: a hotel, or a taxi to get to that hotel.

“We have a blue minibus,” Julien said, with Larry’s backpack slung over his shoulder.

Julien is our French country director, based in Kathmandu. He looks like a 26 year old George Clooney, which is annoying. He’s been with us in Nepal for about two years now. He’s like Farid part deux. He’s passionate about the work and very close with the kids. We love Julien.

“Or we had, at least…” he said, looking around. “It was parked right here. Hallie?” (He pronounced it ‘Allie.’) “Hallie, where is our minibus?”

Hallie is NGN’s Executive Director based in NYC, and, together with Julien, is another Godsend. She is a great strategist, and something of a motherly figure to our staff in Nepal, which makes her and Julien an excellent team when they are in Nepal. She also happens to be uber-fit, so they can walk through the villages together at the speed of sound.

She also has an extraordinary passion for Nepal and the kids. We got about a hundred applications for the position – this was last year, when we could finally hire somebody thanks to the money we received from the book advance of LITTLE PRINCES – and Hallie stood head and shoulders above the finalists, both literally and figuratively. From the moment we met her in October 2009, she was pretty much NGN’s Executive Director.

Now, she turned slowly in a 360 degree turn around the small parking lot, which could hold maybe a hundred cars. “It was here. I thought.”

“Is it that?” Larry asked, pointing to a car slightly larger than a smart car, that would fit a driver and, if the driver was particularly small, a bag of groceries. It was a rich blue color. He peered inside.

Larry is NGN’s Director of Communications, and he works, gloriously, pro-bono, as has for much of this year. That means he also has another life back in NYC, but you’d never know it from everything he does. Larry and I started talking a long time ago over email, since he is also passionate about Nepal.

“No, I am afraid ours is a bit smaller than that,” Julien said. “It is really quite micro.”

We found the kids at the edge of the parking lot, waving and cheering at our arrival.

“The police would not let them come any closer to the airport. I’m surprised they let them come this close,” Julien explained. The implication was, of course, that the police had let he and Hallie come all the way in. In Nepal, foreigners with confidence can talk their way into about anything.

I hurried over to them and was mobbed by the seven older boys, plus the oldest girl, who were the kids still in Kathmandu. The rest of the kids, the younger ones, had moved to our new children’s home in Humla.

Julien was looking around while we were hugging and handshaking. “Babu, where did our micro go?” he asked.

The boys looked around, as if it had suddenly occurred to them that the driver of the micro that we had hired for the day was no longer parked beside them. They chatted together for a second in Nepalese.

“We don’t know, brother,” Santosh said, shrugging, as if this was a perfectly normal occurrence.

“He say he going for small drive,” said Dawa, waving vaguely toward the other cars in the parking lot. “Police say he cannot stay.”

Everybody was uncomfortably silent for a moment. Then Hallie turned to Larry and me.

“Welcome to Nepal!” she cried, and everybody cheered.

Julien sent Krish in one direction and Ram off in another to go look for the driver and our micro while the rest of us sat in the shade of a small tree. Carly was a young Canadian volunteer who has been with us for a few months, and Yangani, the eldest (and now only) girl at Little Princes, leaned against her, clearly grateful for some female presence in the testosterone filled house.

They all looked older and taller, and the boys were growing a bit of facial hair which was pretty awesome. We had some time to chat. To make conversation, Larry asked them how old they were. They shrugged – they had no birth certificates. So we spent the time guessing at everybody’s ages, and came to a consensus that most of them were around fifteen or sixteen now.

After about ten minutes Ram came running back to say that he had found him – the police, with their long sticks, had chased the driver off, away from the parking lot, which was apparently designated by the police for VIPs only – i.e., anyone except Nepalese people.

Now, they said they had hired a blue microbus. Microbus can mean a lot of different things in Nepal. Sometimes it means a kind of 18 seat van. And sometimes it means what we hired. Which is this: a tiny van, where the door is about four feet high, you climb into it like a cave on wheels, and into this little pocket of space.

These particular microbuses are used for public transportation. You sit crouched, pressed against everybody else, on the metal benches that go around the edges, knees all touching, barely space for our backpacks stuffed between us on the floor. Floor to ceiling it was about four feet. Luckily the kids, while big, are not adult sized, and we fit about 10 back there, six boys and four adults, our heads a few inches apart, plus two more squeezed into the front with the driver.

We had a full day ahead of us – we would be going down to visit Godawari, the village where the original Little Princes home was, where I lived with them for about eight months in 2004-05 and part of 2006.

The kids have since moved to a small village just north of Kathmandu. The name of the house changed to Karnali Home, named after the river that runs through Humla, the district in the far northwest part of the country where they come from. They named it.

I was worried about being tired – Larry and I had literally just gotten off a plane from Delhi. We had gotten on a plane in NYC exactly thirty six hours earlier. We had spent the previous night in Delhi, which had required a transit visa to get out of the airport.

Getting a visa to get outside the airport transit lounge and into India for a grand total of ten hours was a staggeringly difficult process. It is a four page application and a day-long process at the Indian consulate in NYC.

And even then I almost didn’t get it. I walked in, having commuted down from Connecticut on the train, papers and photos and everything in hand, waited online, only to find that I only had one page left in my passport. They needed two.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.

“No sir, I am not making a joke,” the Indian woman behind the counter said, slightly confused, handing back my passport.

The passport was only four years old and I didn’t think I had traveled so much in that time, but Nepalese visas and Indian visas take up full pages. My previous passport had been a piece of work – I’d had it between 1996 and 2006, when I lived in Prague and Brussels and went around the world, and I had to get pages added twice to it. It was the weight of a dictionary and stained repeatedly with both Coke and Diet Coke.

I used to think it was super cool to have to get pages added to a passport. I used to carry around my old passport, pulling it out at every opportunity and hoping people would comment on how cool I was because I had this rank, stinky stained passport. But in that moment, with the Indian woman telling me I couldn’t get my visa, my heart sunk. It would mean trying to spend the night at the Indian airport, after having spent the previous night on a plane, and that was going to be just so lame.

I ran out of the Indian Consulate, jumped in a taxi, quickly went to the Rubin Museum for an event for Little Princes set up by my publisher, then jumped in a taxi downtown to the US Passport office where I attemped to convince them that they absolutely had to stitch new pages into my passport, not in the six weeks that it normally took, but in forty five minutes.

And miraculously, they did it, and rushed back to the consulate just as they were closing, and I got my visa.

So, hooray for that.

The drive down to Godwari was wonderfully familiar. It was the sounds and smells more than the sights; we were sitting slightly crouched so it was hard to see out the windows. Our heads were next to the bars running along the ceiling that we held onto to avoid getting flung into each other’s laps, though we were crammed in so tightly that the bus could have flipped over a few times and landed upside down and we would still all be stuck in our seats, thigh to thigh, in our space that was a little smaller than a queen-sized bed.

Even with the traffic it went smoothly. We left the little door open, and Dawa sat next it, trying to explain to everybody that tried to get on that this was not a public micro – though Santosh, sitting beside him, tried to convince him to let people on and charge them.

“Don’t let anyone on, Santosh,” Julien warned.

“We make money, brother!”

“They can’t fit! And we are going to Godawari, they would not be so happy to be taken there I think.”

“Godawari very beautiful brother! They more happy this way!”

“No, babu.”

“Conor brother – you say we can bring people with us and make some money to buy presents for all children, no?”

“What? When?”

“I think you say, when you got off plane,” said Santosh.

Dawa nodded vigorously at Santosh, then turned back to me. “True, brother! I also think you said this.”

“Dawa, if you let anybody on, then you have to ride on the roof,” I said. “If you want to ride on the roof, it’s okay, no problem.”

“There no roof rack on this micro, brother!” Dawa protested, but Santosh seemed to consider this a fair proposal.

“Yes, Dawa stay on roof!” he said happily. “No problem brother!”

Soon the boys were arguing amongst themselves as to who would have to cling to the slippery roof at high speeds so that they could make a few cents on paying passengers, and Julien and Larry and I went back to catching up on the latest developments in Nepal.

It was a wonderful day in Godawari. Slightly surreal, because the kids were so much bigger now.

They get older, those kids, which always kind of freaks me out. Better than the alternative, maybe, which would really freak me out, but I suppose at some point they’re going to be real live adults. As it is, they’re still, in a way, pretty much the same kids I’ve always known.

One of the things I worried about was whether or not the kids had seen the book, and if so, what they thought about it. I needn’t have worried. They loved it.

And in retrospect, why wouldn’t they? They’d had a book written about them! They were the stars! Of course, they skipped over all the parts without them in it, which, frankly, is probably what I would have done too, but I assured them that the parts they had not read were the stuff of literary legend.

We spent the day and night with them at their house in Kathmandu, and the next day went over to visit the Umbrella kids, some of the children I knew who used to live in Dhaulagiri House. I walked into the girls’ house, and a couple of the girls jumped up in excitement, which made me feel pretty awesome.

“Liz sister!” they cried.

I looked over my shoulder. “What? Oh- actually it’s just me, she wasn’t able to…”

But the girls had already sit down again in disappointment, and given me a stern look.

“I do have photos of our son, though?” I said, which got them excited again and cuddled around me, since I was the holder of the iPhone which contained the coveted photos.

One of the girls, Sunati, had a suspicious look on her face.

“Conor dai – your son has a name?”

“Of course, his name’s Finn,” I said.

She leapt up and pointed accusatorily. “You say we name!”

I put down the phone. “I say you name what?”

“You say we can name your son! When you and Liz sister say you have baby we ask if we can name and you promise yes!”

Uh-oh.

The problem was that this was pretty much exactly the kind of thing I would promise. In a world where kids are constantly asking for things and you are constantly telling them no, promising them something like the naming rights to your first child is a no-brainer, especially when you’re nine gazillion miles away.

Unfortunately, they tend to remember this kind of stuff.

The rest of the girls were also suddenly indignant, and I had a bit of a riot on my hands. Until I came up with a brilliant idea.

“You know, Liz is expecting another baby,” I said. “How about if we let you name that one?”

This immediately placated them. So I took a short video of the girls coming up with names so that it would seem more official – boys names and girls names – and promised I would show it to Liz.

Which I did. And which I am praying that those sweet little girls will promptly forget about, or we may have to have a third baby.

I had just over two weeks in Nepal, and the challenge was getting into Humla to visit our new children’s home, where we moved all our little kids. It has been a dream of ours for years to be able to get the children back into their home region, to open a children’s home for them so that their parents could visit them easily.

It was not the easiest of journeys, but I can say that it was so incredibly worth it to see the children living as village children again, reconnecting with their own cultures, the own communities, and most importantly, their own families.

NGN is focused on protecting them and supporting the local school, to ensure they get a good education. And as always, we are looking toward the future to see how we can begin to permanently reunite the children with their families. That will really be something.

I returned to the US exhausted and fulfilled. The kids had read and loved the book. They are doing great. We are giving them the future we feel they deserve. And we have big plans.

Of course, all that depends on whether or not we get donations: to find more families of trafficked kids, to hire more local monitors so that we can permanently reunite more children, to support education in the villages to combat the root causes of trafficking in Nepal.

We would love to hear from you. Our website has some awesome images from a phenomenal photographer.

And critically, we’re not far away from the release of LITTLE PRINCES, which by most measures looks like it is going to get a lot of nationwide and international attention. That’s exciting for us and the kids. Join us in this cause and you’ll be helping to launch some great initiatives. I’ll also forever think of you as an uber-cool humanitarian.

Thanks for listening, you Uber-cool Humanitarian! (Nice ring to it, right?)

Visit us online at Next Generation Nepal!

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