All at once, the contradictory onslaught of fresh shock and numbing familiarity envelops me again. This familiar scene of emotions tugging in different directions has evolved into a programmed and predictable pattern: the idealist in me wants me to go up to them and hug them, take them out for a decent meal, spend time with them and get to know the human beings–the children–who they are. My common sense reminds me that they’re quite aggressive–and sometimes dangerous–as it replays scenes in which they’ve spit on me, cursed me out, and once even hung with their full weight from me as I walked nearly an entire block, clawing my forearm until blood was drawn (having no small bills on me at the time, I had refused their requests for money). I feel callous and cruel playing the role of another seemingly disaffected passerby as I struggle to hurry past the corner where they congregate and accost foreigners in Thamel. Ambiguity has never felt so conflicted or so pronounced, as I simultaneously grow increasingly disturbed and increasingly desensitized to the heartbreaking sight before me.
I rush past the notorious corner, trying not to make eye contact. It doesn’t matter this time, though; the familiar smell of Dendrite and the resounding crinkle of small, white plastic bags reveal why my walk down the block was a strangely uninterrupted one. Out of the corner of my eye I see tattered, soiled clothing covering gaunt, lifeless figures sprawled on their backs on the pavement. A deep, lengthy gasp escapes from one behind me; I turn around and make brief eye contact with a pair of abnormally wide, glazed-over spheres of vacant vision that are clearly on a different plane of consciousness than mine. The child lets out a feeble groan while he places the bag of glue he just inhaled on his belly, his trembling hand still clutching the source of his relief. He slowly descends backward, his head resting on a garbage heap on the filthy pavement. He is no older than eight years old.
“They”, of course, are the street children of Nepal–and in the tourist district of Thamel, are as unavoidable and conspicuous a sight as the wily rickshaw driver offering you an overpriced ride and the ubiquitous trekkers’ shop. Their painfully blatant presence begs the terribly simplistic yet timeless question: how could this happen? …To so many children? I’m paralyzed in a stupor of despondency as I witness the sight, unable to form a more developed sense of questioning and reasoning in my mind other than the most basic. I am unable to formulate specific policy-related inquiries or construct mock calculations of demographic indicators in attempt to consider the phenomenon from a scientific or academic perspective. No. Confronted by this very raw scene, I can only ask the most rudimentary questions of how and why. But it’s the simplest questions that are sometimes the hardest to address.
The unwelcome muddlement that has hit me as a consequence of not knowing what to do in this situation–short of resigning myself to futile rumination and lament of their plight–was part of why I decided to drastically change my living situation. I came across a small flier in a cafe one day, announcing a chance to live as a tenant in a family-run Kathmandu orphanage, whereby 100% of the rental fees would go toward the children’s meals and school fees. Thinking it sounded too good to be true, Morgan and I checked out the place the same day–and were greeted with ebullient warmth, lots of hugs, ceaseless smiles, and genuine hospitality from [all thirty-five of] the children and staff members at the orphanage. The large, converted house was a clean, well-kept haven filled with books, colorful posters, artwork made by the kids, photo collages, featured “awards” and stories about each child adorning the walls. It was evident that the children were healthy, energetic and well-taken care of, and the other orphanage volunteers (one of whom had returned for a second volunteering stint after a year) we met raved eagerly about their experiences. The questions in my mind–whether my living expenses should benefit these vibrant children or a tourist hostel in Thamel, whether I was to spend my evenings in a depressingly dim guesthouse room or surrounded by these infectious smiles, whether I was to keep handing small rupee denominations to street children or invest my money in a sustained effort to keep kids from ending up on the streets in the first place–were all no-brainers. Lucid certainty about this spontaneous and fortuitous opportunity led me to move into the orphanage that same week.
[continue to Part 2]
Posted By Jessica Tirado
Posted Jul 28th, 2009