Nepal- The Wonders of Human Nature
Our three week visit in Nepal was planned around a "Voluntourism" opportunity at an Elephant farm and an orphanage in the dusty town of Saurah, located adjacent to the famous Chitwan National park. We discovered this with the help of the volunteer site named HelpX, and had the impression that there was one large farm that included elephants and an orphanage. We hoped that our kids would be enthusiastic about the elephants and through them would be exposed to the orphanage and hopefully have a meaningful experience there.
Our host by the name of Raju waited in the scorching heat with a horse and buggy which transported us and our bags to the orphanage where eight sweet and polite children greeted us. During Raju's briefing we understood that there was quite a misunderstanding regarding the nature of the volunteering. He manages an orphanage, and can coordinate an occasional sortie to work in the nearby elephant camps, but the elephants are a minor part of the program. We initially felt disappointed by this misconception as well as the very basic accommodations, and tried to figure out how to deal with this disappointment.
The children (the orphans will be referred to as "the children", as opposed to our children who I'll refer to as "our children") very quickly melted our hearts. We were surprised to discover the intensity of the feelings that we all had for each other. After leaving the orphanage in Peru six months ago, we felt that our presence there was meaningful, but from the very first day at Chitwan, the children's hugs expressed something much deeper. They were on their one month school vacation during our visit, and it was heartbreaking to hear that these eight kids have no relative who is able or willing to host them during their vacation. They were so happy that our family would be staying with them and spending pleasant days together , despite the 100 degree heat.
We were told that until now all the volunteers were single, so we were to be the first family to live with them and the first Israelis that they were meeting. It was painful to see how poor the orphanage is. The two story building contains 2 rooms which house 12 children in bunkbeds. An additional room serves a multipurpose role as dining, living, study and playroom. Harimaya is the name of the governess who lovingly prepares them their meals of Dal Baat, the Nepali national food, which they eat three times a day. The kitchen is equipped with one pan and two pots, and since they eat with their hands, there is no need for cutlery. Electricity across Nepal is supplied only twelve hours per day, and since they have no generator they squeal with joy when the power goes on. The children utilize the courtyard to play with a semi inflated soccer ball, bent badminton rackets and two rusty bicycles which are shared by all. Volunteers stay in two simple rooms including a bathroom, and pay a few dollars per day which is used for the day to day running of the orphanage. Volunteers are expected to work with the children for approximately four hours, but there is no formal structure, so there is much room for personal initiative and creativity. Our children taught them card games and there was mutual learning of the history and culture of Israel and Nepal. Since we both are group facilitators by profession, Orit and I did many exercises with the children which included team building and leadership. We were very impressed to see that they succeeded even more than many senior executives who we've led over the years.
We went for morning runs with the children, and watched the sunrise. Wild elephants traversed the crocodile infested water as we swam in the river bordering on the National Park.
Even though we expected to work primarily with the elephants and secondarily with the children, the order was immediately reversed and we quickly understood that working with the children was much more satisfying and enjoyable than any of the natural wonders that Chitwan has to offer.
We managed to find a wonderful balance between the two, and took the children with us to the elephant farm and prepared the "Kutchi" which is a bundle of hay tied around a lump of dry rice. The elephants returned towards sunset after a long day of trekking the park, and their mighty trunks sucked the food out of our hands like a super hoover. The highlight was bathing the elephants in the river. This is also the most enjoyable part of the elephant's day, as it receives some tender love and care. The huge elephant would roll over and lay in the shallow river as we scrubbed it down with stones which served as makeshift brushes. It's hard to describe the thrilling sensation of sitting on an elephants bare back and getting showered by the enormous amount of water from its trunk while hosing himself down.
In recent years there is much more awareness regarding elephant care in South East Asia. Even though the use of elephants for logging has been banned in most countries, there is still an abundance of cruelty towards the elephants while training them for various circus acts. Riding elephants with four people on a wooden saddle burdens the elephant with half a ton and is very unpleasant. We defined to ourselves as a family that we would take part only in activities which are pleasant to the elephant, like feeding and bathing.
(Photo: Preparing dinner for the elephants(
Twenty years ago there was less awareness, and we did an elephant safari in Chitwan hoping to spot Rhinos, but to no avail. This time we had a corrective experience while riding an open safari jeep, and spotted many rhinos including a huge one who reached within feet of our static jeep while munching on the savannah grass. Our guide warned us to hold on tight in case the Rhino would continue towards us, and which case he would order the driver to hit the gas.
(Photo: Ready to run in case the rhino attacks)
Reverting back to the wonders of human nature, I must admit that the children are truly amazing and are a tribute to the triumph of the human spirit. We lived with them in the same house for eight days, and we were struck by their outstanding behavior, which was a mixture of politeness, warmth, discipline, and a general sense of happiness. They are missing the most basic things in life like family and home but the orphanage has actually managed to fill that huge void enough for them to have a basic sense of trust and love. These children survived earthquakes, broken homes and poverty, and it's known that victims of trauma either perish or survive. Those who survive can be very powerful since they have a strong libidinal driving force. If nourished, they can channel this energy in positive directions. The children we met thrive thanks to the warmth granted to them by their surrogate family and home. They invited us to their school to see their graduation and awards ceremony. The classrooms consist of bare walls and a few benches. Amazingly, two thirds of the children finished at the top of their class! When the principal called their names and smeared red powder on their foreheads to mark their achievements for all to see, we applauded like proud parents. They barely have clothing, and we derived so much pleasure seeing them wearing our children's clothing after they decided to give them a suitcase full of goods.
On our last evening we sat together around the table lit with a dim lantern and gave them each a symbolic farewell present, a "dream catcher". We helped them hang this above their beds, and they shared what dreams they wish to catch; to become an engineer, scientist, soldier, and doctor. Harimaya's brother who is a music teacher, joined the circle and we sang Nepali and Israeli songs. The most moving moment was when he sang his recently recorded song named "Missing Home". He and Harimaya lost their parents at a young age and were raised in an orphanage in Kathmandu. He sang, "Tonight I dreamed again of my village, my home, the mountains, and of you Mother and Father and dear family", leaving not a single dry eye in the room. Harimaya cried and the children who all come from the remote mountain region, fought to hold back their tears. Orit and I have both lost our fathers at a tender age, and felt his words piercing our hearts.
These children touched our souls in a deep way, and Orit kept thinking about ways to help them. One boy in particular made an impression on us. Twelve year old Darshan has the "right stuff"; smart, inquisitive, sweet and incredibly likeable. He took our son to get a haircut at the local barber, and when they returned, Yali kept saying how talented and special Darshan is and wished that we could help him succeed in life. We tossed and turned all night with thoughts and feelings towards the children, and Darshan specifically. We spoke at length and decided together that we would be happy to become his foster family and raise him in our home. In the morning we spoke to Raju to see if it's relevant or possible and he explained that Darshan has no family that would oppose the idea, but that that it's too complicated logistically. After deeper thought, we decided to shelf the idea not because of logistics, but because we reached the conclusion that despite our good intentions, it would be very difficult for him to acclimate and find a sense of belonging within the Israeli culture. We are sure, though, that he would thrive in an Anglo- Saxon country due to his excellent English and the prevalent multiculturism.
We are still searching for a way to help him. If we find a program which could host him for a few months, this would no doubt advance him towards fulfilling his dream of becoming a scientist and help Nepal move forward.
We parted from the children in the morning, as they showered us with farewell drawings and letters. The tears on both sides were surprising, and it helped us understand that this was our highlight from Nepal, and the most meaningful encounter we had so far on our journey. Did I mention that we did a challenging trek in the Himalayas in the midst of a hailstorm? That we celebrated the Hindi "Holi" holiday and the Jewish Purim back to back in Kathmandu? That we fasted for three consecutive days without eating or drinking, with no problem whatsoever? With all due respect to the amazing things we did in Nepal, including the mighty elephants and majestic Himalayas, they all pale compared to the wonders of the human spirit which can move mountains.
(Photo: Hoping they will go far…)
The long journey to the Indian border was spent in silence while we pondered the events of the past week. Our thoughts drifted to the children we left behind, and their hearts which resemble soil after the rain- pure and soft, allowing the imprinting of the chance passerby.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------Whoever can help in any way, whether by volunteering, donating or contributing ideas to advance these children, please contact Raju: