As we made our way back to Pokhara from Hemja, back from our evening with the Lost Boys in the mountains behind the Tibetan refugee camp, I couldn’t help but think what an incredible day this turned out to be. Totally unplanned and unexpected. One of the best.
Once we got back to our room, we cleaned up and gathered up our things again to go eat. We were starved. We quickly decided on curry at David’s, and headed out.
Half way there, we realized we didn’t have enough money on us. We had given the rest of what was in our wallets to the horse boys. We (and our grumbling bellies) cursed ourselves, then lazily drudged back to get more cash.
After night falls, it is pitch-black dark on the streets. The power goes out often, typically a few times daily, and at this moment we could tell it had, as indicated by the absence of the annoying, repetitive blinking of Christmas lights that usually shone from our hotel.
One of the only things that lit our way back was a candle glowing from small street food cart around the corner of our hotel. We passed it, and I think Jordan and I were thinking the same. We had never tried it out, even though we see these carts everywhere. And at this moment, the delicious smells allured our hungry senses.
We didn’t communicate this to one another out loud, before a young boy’s voice called out to us.
“Namaste!” A young boy emerged from behind the cart. He urged us to come try.
We had been sick of vendors heckling us each and every day, but this was different. Not just because he is a kid, but his demeanor was different. There was an energy of honesty, of warmth, his wide brown eyes welcoming.
“Basnoos! Please, sit!”
We took a seat and ordered, and chatted with the boy as his mother prepared the food.
“What is your name, my friend?” he asked, and that’s where our friendship began.
His name is Avaya, 11 years old. He and his family are Indian, but they came to live in Nepal when he was very young. His family primarily speaks Nepalese to one another, but all speak Hindi as well. Avaya is the only one in the family who speaks enough English, which makes sense that he is the main one who greets passers by at the food cart, as Western tourists walk by quite often. He is a great little business man.
We were so thoroughly enjoying ourselves, chatting with Avaya as we ate our food. He asked us where we are from, what we are doing here in Nepal. He asked us how many siblings we had, about our families. And as we were getting to know Avaya and his family, his sweet mother, who didn’t speak much English, was constantly laughing. A language we could all understand.
Jordan and I continued practicing our Nepalese language skills, and Avaya helped us to learn a few more phrases. He told us that he attended an international boarding school, which explained why he spoke English so well. We asked where he lived.
“Around the corner, come. Come see, you come to my home, yes?”
How could we say no to that face?
We followed Avaya and his mother around the corner. It was so dark and my vision is already so poor, so I did my best to stay close and follow their footsteps, so as not step into puddles of mud or heaps of cow dung. The dirt roads are also full of randomly dispersed, large rocks. I have come close to falling on my face more than a few times. I extended my toes slowly and carefully, feeling for any sharp, sudden obtrusions.
There were a few different entrances to the left.
“Here?” Jordan motioned to the first gate, which beyond the bamboo fence, led to what looked like a motel-style arrangement of small cement rooms where several families lived.
“No, no, no,” Avaya said, and I could see the silhouette of his head wagging in typical Indian fashion, “my home is very large. Come, come.”
He led us to the next entrance. We climbed over the bamboo fence which led us to homes similar in arrangement to the first, all cement with fabric hanging at the entrance of each as the door. The only light that shone came from a fire burning in the center, communal area. A few children were playing near it, and a woman was squatted, washing dishes. Avaya led us with those wide eyes, his mother trailing behind us, eager to show us where his family lives.
We pushed back the fabric which hung in the doorway, and it revealed a tiny room with faded, pink walls. There was a kitchen area straight ahead, and nearby, large bags of rice and other non-perishable foods. Many pots and pans and dishes cluttered in a cupboard to the right. A table in the far corner with Indian television playing on the small monitor. And one bed to the far right side, where a baby boy slept cozily in a colorful knit hat.
Sitting on the floor by the stove was Avaya’s father, who was busily rolling and patting dough into small circles. He was preparing a batch of chapatti, Indian bread. He glanced up nonchalantly and kept working, clearly not stirred by the entry of these strangers in his household.
A beautiful little girl sat in front of the TV, and looked over to us with Avaya’s same large, brown eyes. She had thick lashes, and long, dark hair braided in pigtails. It was his little sister, two years his junior, Aakriti. Amik, their 3-year-old brother, was the one sleeping soundly in the bed.
As a family of five, they live in one of the most humble manners we have ever seen, yet treated us like family that they’d known and trusted for all their lives. They served us the best black pepper tea with ginger, fed us the most delicious homemade Indian vegetarian curry with fresh roti, kept refilling our plates, and in the end, wouldn’t let us pay them even for the food we had eaten outside as their patrons.
Not only that, but they asked that we come again the following night for dinner.
“Please come tomorrow to eat, at eight. Please, please come,” Avaya said. Even after we accepted, he reminded us again and again, with the signature head wag, every few minutes until we were finally on our way.
“Tomorrow, OK? You eat here? Do not eat at your hotel. You come here and eat. Eight o’clock, OK?”
We agreed, and offered to bring drinks. We returned the next night and had such an amazing time: Great laughs and great conversation—their broken-yet-impressive English and our simple, shattered and limping Nepalese. Over chicken curry, chapatti, whisky and beer, it was fun to see us all open up, to laugh wholeheartedly and really come alive with no common denominator: ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, even age. And of course, we fell in love with the kids, who are so loving, cute, fun, sweet and polite.
They would motion for us to sit on the bed, but seeing everyone else take their place on the floor, Jordan and I would join. We didn’t mind sitting on the floor, and in fact, preferred it. They would freak out, though: “No, no, no! Sit, sit,” they would plead, motioning to the bed. When we assured them we were fine on the floor, the children would scramble to find us something to sit on, be it a mat or small stool. They were such proper hosts.
Aakriti kept asking me to sit next to her. If ever I would move, she would say to me with the same sense of urgency, patting the empty space next to her, “Noooo, sit, sit!” It was so cute.
They would sit close, hover near as we read through my Nepali/English language book, going through the basics. They showed me how to properly annunciate, and laughed when I would butcher the next word. When I would pronounce it correctly, they would nod and smile with approval. From time to time I would ask them to write the phrases for me in my notebook. Aakriti, with her beautiful penmanship, was so thrilled to write her name and her family members’ names in my notebook.
I wanted to know more about their interests. At one point, Avaya told me he enjoyed volleyball, basketball and soccer. I got so excited – I had seen a lot of boys in the street playing soccer and have wanted to join in numerous times.
“Let’s play football! Do you want to play some time?”
His response made my heart sink: “Yes, but I don’t have a ball because my father is very poor.”
It’s a very delicate situation when you meet locals who lead a very different lifestyle as you, or grew up in a very different way than you did. As Westerners, we have this hero complex. We assume that because an individual or family does not have everything we have or had, that they are missing out. We pity them. Though it may be, deep down, with generous intentions to want to give them everything that we had or have, it’s not always doing them any good. And at times, can come off as disrespectful.
We must ask ourselves: Are we truly adding happiness, improving the quality of their lives? Or are we “improving” their lives to our own standards?
Just because they don’t cloud their lives with all the meaningless shit we do – video games, iPads, social networks, etc. – doesn’t mean they are poor, or worse off. In fact, maybe they are the rich ones, and better off. They appreciate the things in life that matter. The bond they have with family, with friends. Human connections.
I thought back to our Lost Boys in Hemja. They were excited to experience all the cool features on my iPhone, yes, of course, because it’s something they’ve never seen—but they would never view it as necessity. They would have had no desire to keep it, and really the only thing they could have done with any of the equipment we had is maybe to sell it. Other than that, they don’t need it. They run around with their best friends in the mountains, by the river, exploring, playing, tending to the horses, all on their own terms. They are free.
They are not slaves to technology. Not bound by the rules of their parents. For the most part, not victim to the brainwashing of a society, not bombarded by the principles of establishment. Sure, we observe that parts of it all have trickled in here and there, but for the most part, they live with little stress. Compared to their American counterparts, they live a life with much more freedom.
The world has shunned them, and they are perfectly content.
Avaya is only 11 but watches over his family fiercely. Even just the way he walks with his mother, his arm around her petite body, holding her close, is beautiful. In the way he carries himself, there is this sense of duty; it is clear the immense burden he places on his own shoulders to do everything he can for his family as he hustles outside at the food cart every day. He is so young, but it is clear that this love for his family, the sense of responsibility he so instinctively feels, is shaping him to be a great man. He is well on his way.
Aakriti is only nine years old but does just as much work in the kitchen hosting us as their mother. She is a good big sister, and I see her turn to check on baby Amik often, as the adults get loud from the whiskey; I see her tenderly pull the blankets closer to his face, tuck him in tighter, as the night gets colder.
She is just as sharp as her brother with her developing English skills. As much as she is polite and sweet, she has a bit of an attitude; a strong personality, with a bit of sass and animation. Reminds me of a little girl I used to know, 17 years ago.
As a family, their bond is strong. Of course it is. They live in a tiny room together, share one bed. The kids are gone at school during the day, but when they return, they do not have devices to get lost on all night. They finish their homework, then play with friends and spend time with family—maybe watch a bit of TV. The parents are not gone all day long and long into the night, working feverishly with aims at a lifestyle outside their means. They run the business together, as a family, to raise what they need. They eat together, they talk, they share.
They are not just content, they are happy. Their smiles and their laughter and their love reflect this.
Giving is always a good thing. Of course. And if you are in a position to give to those less fortunate—something that is necessary, relevant to their lives—it is always a good thing. But why infect them with the disease of Western excess, the mentality that more is better? Maybe we are the ones who need to reevaluate what we consider “necessity”; what in life makes us rich, what happiness truly is. I have thought long and hard about this myself.
Of course, as the night wound down, Avaya would ask us over for dinner again, the next evening. We knew it would be a chaotic day since we were leaving for Kathmandu early the following morning, so we agreed to come over just for tea.
We stopped by the next night, as promised. The mother greeted us, and led us into their home. The baby, Amik, was asleep as usual, but so was Avaya, and even Aakriti greeted us with a weak smile and tired eyes.
“We will only stay for a short time,” I assured them, “we will let you sleep.” We told them we just wanted to stop by and say hi before we headed to Kathmandu for a week or two.
And when I pulled the soccer ball out from behind my back, their sleepy eyes lit up.
“When I come back, we will play, OK?”
They laughed, and accepted with those sweet, wide, brown eyes. I can’t wait to return and play.