I first saw Mount Everest from a 12,000-foot ridge on a trek near Darjeeling, India. From ninety miles away it was just a bump on the snow-capped Himalayan horizon, but it was a siren that drew me, by agonizing overnight bus, to Nepal. Many people I know who have traveled extensively throughout the world have had a reaction similar to the one I had when I tumbled off that bus at dawn not far from Kathmandu’s Durbar Square: I was never the same.
Kathmandu in the 70s could have defined the word “exotic.” Of course I’d heard the lore about the place, knew about Pig Alley and Freak Street, the famous pies and legendary hashish, but it was the phantasmagoric ritual of the streets, the gaudy pujas at every turn, the intricately carved temples and shrines, the flowers and incense and flashing jewelry and smiles that could light up the night. Kathmandu was a sensory overload, the kind of place you might concoct in a fantasy of a foreign land, but so real it got inside you and held on tight.
The Nepalese people, whether in Kathmandu, in the Himalayan foothills, or high in the Buddhist Khumbu, were as welcoming as any I’d ever met. Deeply impoverished, yes, but generous and thoughtful and kind, even to outsiders who were unspeakably rich by comparison. A trek into the high country sealed my fate. I was in love with the country, and as soon as I was back home in the States I yearned to return, in fact made a point of returning as often as possible, which, sadly, was not often enough.
These days the news from Nepal is seldom good. Last year a mad prince slaughtered most of the royal family and himself. A Maoist insurrection has bloodied the hillsides and made much of the country risky for travel. The government, from the perspective of many analysts who live in Nepal, is corrupt and only getting worse, leaving the hope for a solution to the current crisis a distant dream. The only ray of light on the political front is the recent statement by the Chinese government that it supports the government of Nepal and has no time for the Maoists, an irony to say the least. This policy, or perhaps some combination of factors, prompted the Maoist leadership to suggest that it would not disrupt the November elections to form a new government, a position that was later contradicted. No one knows what will happen.
But such problems aside, it is the spirit of Nepal that those of us outsiders who love the place remember most. And it is the spirit of Nepal that overcame Olga Murray more than a dozen years ago and prompted the California Supreme Court lawyer to add her voice to the chorus of those wanting to help. But she did more than that, she rolled up her sleeves and began a campaign to care and educate street children that has grown into a remarkably effective organization—Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation (NYOF)— that since 1985 has given love and opportunity to hundreds of children, both boys and girls, who were eager to achieve but otherwise would have been condemned to a life of poverty and disease (currently NYOF supports more than 800 children).
A few days ago I received the group’s newsletter, and what did I see? A photo of a beautiful smiling child who couldn’t have been more than eight years old with the caption: “This little girl has already worked for two years…now she is free.” The accompanying story was titled: “Indentured Daughters: A Desperate Trade” and went on to explain how poverty is forcing families to sell their children into servitude. NYOF now has a program to compensate the families for the lost income if they will send their children to school instead of into bonded labor, and in just two years, 329 girls have been brought back home.
It is this kind of giving that those of us who love Nepal can aspire to and participate in. Yes, we can visit the place and spend our money there, even take on our own personal altruistic projects, but for those years when we can’t get away, or that far away, helping Nepal’s children through Olga and her crew is a fine substitute. Look at their Web site for their history and current projects. They describe what they do far better than I could. And there’s no question that they love Nepal as much as any of us who yearn to return and mourn its current state of distress.
PS. Publisher James O’Reilly adds: “Two years ago I had the keen pleasure of visiting Olga’s homes for children in Kathmandu, and to say that the houses were brimming with love and the children bright-eyed would be an understatement. Even if you can’t get to Nepal anytime soon, consider supporting NYOF. The price of a piece of trekking gear can go a long way towards doing something very real in the world. I’m reminded of something my father used to say about giving: Charity comes of your need, not your excess.”
About Larry’s Corner:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.