Coffee colored strokes danced across my hand like ripples. Swirling lines and accents spoke a dynamic script, narrating the setting and characters who had burst onto the scene of my life only weeks prior. Giggling girls gathered around the next candidate and watched their house-mommy paint a lattice of love with both concentration and ease. Their eyes like marbles, I wondered if it was the charcoal eyeliner or innocent delight that widened their gaze so. Sitting on the staircase below a tall, slender window, natural light spilled upon us, causing the coconut oil coating our henna to shimmer like liquid gold on the palette of our diverse skin tones.
2009. Kathmandu, Nepal.
My sister, on summer break from her graduate studies at Columbia University in New York City, had invited me to join her for a five week volunteer opportunity in Nepal. Eagerly I had agreed, only to subsequently ask, “What’s Nepal?” My life was never the same.
While studying for her masters of science in social work, my sister had become connected with the organization “Prisoner’s Assistance, Nepal” (or PA Nepal). They welcomed volunteers gladly, and my sister and I deeply connected with their mission statement. You see, due to the lack of a foster care system, Nepalese children whose parents are incarcerated are generally not provided with a new stable home environment following the imprisonment of their loved ones. It is not uncommon for children to be relocated to prison with their parent, especially in cases where relatives can only consider that child as one more mouth to feed. Indira Ranamagar, the founder of PA Nepal, established the organization so as to provide care and services for prisoners and their children. Skills are taught to individuals serving their sentence and, when possible, children are removed from prison and placed in safe and loving environments. PA Nepal has four homes across the country, allowing them to care for over 100 children. Today, the PA Nepal website reports that, despite their best efforts, it is estimated that over 50 children still reside in prison with their parents (PA Nepal – Children’s Homes). As daughters of an incarcerated woman, this reality impacted my sister and me in a powerful way.
For five weeks, we spent our days volunteering at the NayaBazar home in Kathmandu, affectionately answering to the call, “Auntie!” Morning and afternoon, we walked the children to and from local Nepali schools. This gave us a chance to see one specific goal of the organization fulfilled: to help children maintain and understand their traditional Nepalese culture. Strolling home through crowded streets, the children would stop to approach shrines and magnificent pillars. Small sculpted statues wreathed with marigolds beckoned to their inquisitiveness and they responded with affection, resting small hands on crowns of bold orange dye.
Miniature honored gods were not the only stone-faced creatures we passed, however. Tragically, another demographic of children inhabits the city: ones who no longer have family nor home. This was my first exposure to street children. Crossing paths with boys high on glue was the closest thing I had experienced to witnessing an absent soul. I was told by locals that they sniffed glue to stave off their hunger. This heartbreaking observation allowed me that much more respect for Indira’s vision for PA Nepal.
The staff of Prisoner’s Assistance Nepal loved their resident children fiercely, and talking with the “house-mommies” instilled in me an admiration for the Nepalese culture. After escorting the kids to school one day, I followed behind a house-mommy on a sprawling dirt pathway. To our left, the busy city. On the right, a grassy field. Gracefully she landed her finger on the prick of a barbed-wire fence – mid-stride and sentence. It was as though the action correlated with her pondering the perfect, most-fitting word for our conversation; calculated landing, momentary pause, and immediate flight. Today I still find myself imitating Mama Gita, reaching to connect with a pine bough or hole on a traffic post. It was this education through exposure that allowed me to deeply contemplate:
“We can never obtain peace in the world if we neglect the inner world and don’t make peace with ourselves. World peace must develop out of inner peace.” -Dalai Lama
Cross-culturally speaking, how better can we know one another than in the breaking of bread? Most certainly my time in Nepal included delicious cuisine: dahl bat and momos and drinking milk tea. There was the falafel man in Thamel who put french fries inside the wraps, and I will forever have an affinity for his technique. We stayed at Tibet Peace Guest House, and the proprietor and his wife hosted us at their home for a most memorable meal. The owner of a restaurant extended to us an invitation to join in celebrating a relative’s wedding. We delightfully attended. Rain pelted the courtyard, a sign of good luck; on the bed were meticulously placed gifts, and the beaming bride wore red. During our brief shortcut trek on the Annapurna Circuit, tea houses and villages offered generous hospitality and respite from the journey.
Our Nepalese hosts earnestly poured their devotion to love upon us, and the most sincere of welcomes were extended. Today it seems so long ago that my twenty-one-year-old-self was cultivated with such patience. I knew little to nothing of the world outside my own, but I was greeted with smiles and like a child taught to count, “ek, ḍui, ṭin, char, pāṅch, chha, sāṭ, āth, nau, ḍas.” When I committed to traveling to Nepal with my sister, I watched a YouTube video to get some sort of grasp on the nation, and I’ve never heard a translation of the greeting “Namaste” quite as delicate and culturally defined as this: “I bow to the common spiritual divinity in you. I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light, and of peace. When I am in that place in you, and you are in that place in me, we are one.” (LINK: Namaste: One Teen’s Look at Nepal )
Wherever you are, may you observe with delight. Whatever your rite of passage, may you embrace it and not retreat. However you see the world, may your eyes be opened even more. I bow to you and the journey on which you’ve embarked. Namaste.
Read more about Thirty by Thirty here.
P.S. If you need to “visit” Nepal, this video gives insight to Kathmandu culture and provides a comforting soundtrack to any reflection you feel you may need.