In Kathmandu, Nepal, my 19-year-old niece and I sat around the dinner table and bowed our heads in gratitude for the food placed before us by Dundu, the ten-year-old son of my Nepalese Buddhist friend. Our bow was in return for his, done with reverence. Every evening 12 or more Tamang family members shared this ritual after aunts, uncles, and cousins prepared the traditional Nepalese meal made from organic homegrown vegetables, tended and picked by yet more relatives, all living at the house.
The Family-Home-Stay is part of a life-changing experience organized by Destination Nepal, a Kathmandu community-based tourist company. For us this included volunteering at a local school and helping 21 at-risk and orphaned children living at a nonprofit home called Chhahari.
Daily we walked the polluted dusty streets that led to the children’s home where we painted a series of wall murals with matching words to improve their vocabulary. Here, we learned that children expect little and ask for nothing. A cold wash, hand scrubbing their clothes and hanging them on the roof to dry, dal and rice, and two hours a day of controlled electricity is accepted with joy. Showing interest and showing up is everything.
Each day, dressed in their grey school uniforms, we’d help straighten collars and ties, secure white bows, and wipe dust off their not-so-black shoes. Then off we walked to Sagarmatha Educational Academy, a school where fees are kept to a minimum and the desire to learn at a maximum. Teaching five classes a day in life-story writing presented an unforeseen challenge in a culture that rarely encourages children to ask questions. Once asked, nothing prepared me for the traumatic tales that unfolded. Poverty, beatings, and death lingered on each written page.
More cultural surprises unveiled themselves at Chhahari when founder Christine Casey, a slender 65-year-old American woman with short white hair encouraged the children to ask her questions. “Are you a man or a woman?” asked one boy who’d known her almost two years. “What do you think,” she inquired. “A man,” he said. “Who else thinks I’m a man?” she asked. Ten hands reached up. “Why?” she continued. “You don’t wear a nose ring, earrings, or necklaces. You don’t wear a kurti (a long blouse over pants), your hair is short, and you wear a man’s watch,” came back the responses.
Without a doubt my Western heart and mind has much to learn from all these amazing children, so next year I plan to return with more school volunteers. In the meantime I will do my best to help raise the $13,000 per year needed to keep all 21 children at Chhahari. (www.chhahari.org, www.destination.com.np) INGRID HOFFMEISTER