Kathmandu Questions

4 April 2008, to Jenafir

Children in Kathmandu

I’m in Kathmandu and thinking of you. I visited the Swayambhunath temple this afternoon, up on its hill overlooking the valley. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful, and it opened me up in the way only real beauty can, cut through all the jaded traveler in me. I haven’t been home since we worked together a year ago – you know that. It will be time for me to return to San Francisco soon. But what I wanted to talk to you about today is the two little boys that accompanied me to the temple and back.

You know how it goes – they sort of attached themselves to me and the one with better English elected himself my guide. Which is fine; they were lovely kids, very bright and very entertaining and fun to play with. They especially appreciated when I made monkey noises to scare off the touts trying to sell me prayer flags and singing bows. So we went up the 365 steps, and I stood on the terrace at sunset and marveled at the completely splendid Stupa, and the panoramic view of this ancient Pagoda city being eaten by its own slum suburbs. When we began the long walk back from the temple, it was very dark. Kathmandu has blackouts for three hours every afternoon.

I knew it was coming. They were shy about it.

“Excuse me, can you buy me some milk?”

“No.”

“Some milk, only.”

“No, sorry. I know this one.” You too, my international friend, you know this hustle. The milk powder turns out to be strangely expensive, and the kids sell it back to the shopkeeper later.

Some chatting in Nepali among themselves. A few minutes later, “Some food?”

“You’re hungry?”

“Yes.”

“Then you should go home. You are children, go home and ask your parents to feed you.” I  wanted so badly for the world to work this way.

“Okay… we need also kerosene.”

“Again, this is your parents’ job.”

“Kerosene is very expensive.”

“I know that.”

I must admit I don’t have your patience, Jenafir. I don’t have your lifetime of practice with compassion. Every day I try to give at least a smile to all the desperate people who ask me for help; most days I fail. It gets to me.

“Look. Are you my friends or are you beggars?”

“We are your friends!”

“Then stop begging from me.”

“Please help us. We are hungry.”

“That’s it. I’m leaving.” And I walked away. I sure showed them a lesson. It felt terrible.

I calmed myself, turned around, motioned them over. I asked them to sit with me on some steps as night fell. Unhealthy dogs wandered in the street, and a kerosene lantern glowed red inside the shack across the road. Still no power.

“Listen,” I began, “what do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do?”

No answer.

“Do you want to, um, build buildings? Or be a policeman? How about flying an airplane, would you like that?”

It took a long time for him to answer. I had to repeat the question, give more examples.

“I want to be shopkeeper.”

“A shopkeeper! That’s great… but, are you sure? You sure you wouldn’t rather be an airplane pilot?”

“I don’t know how to fly an airplane.”

“No. But you can go to school and learn.”

A flash of a smile. That’s all I wanted. Just for a second I wanted him to believe that he could be whatever he wanted. I don’t even know if it’s true, but I wanted him to believe that.

“You can learn anything you want,” I pressed on, probably uselessly. “You can choose to be anything you want.”

Silence.

“So why do you choose to be a beggar?”

“I am not a beggar.”

“You keep asking me for things without offering anything in return. That makes you a beggar.”

Silence.

“Will your parents be angry that you did not get money from foreigners today?”

“No.”

“Do you do this every day?”

“No. Only it is finished school exams now. Sometimes we have holidays.”

And that was it. The two children chatted amongst themselves but wouldn’t speak to me further. I told him I was going if he didn’t want to talk to me. He wouldn’t meet my eye. Did I shame him? Did I go too far and crush that spark I hoped I saw?

I walked off into the gloom, over the unpaved unlit roads, dodging rickshaws and bicycles and scooters, with that same old fury. Furious with the world, with him, with myself for handling it so badly. Empty and opened and full of ache at the same time. Realizing that I know very little about communicating with children. Wondering what you would have done, my friend. Wondering, again and always, what might actually make a difference in their lives. Wounded to see a spirit so young already crushed. Wondering if they would ever burn like I was burning right that second. Beginning to cry in the dark.

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