Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bye bhaai

Bye Bhaai
My first goodbye. You're not supposed to have favorites when it comes to kids. I know. But I do anyway. I can't help myself. There is one boy in particular who caught my eye on the third day. He picked me first for his football team. He knows I'm no good, I think he just didn't like seeing me sitting out. He's that kind of kid. From that day he picked me every time, even though I was the reason for our losing streak.
I love all of my boys, I do. They're all special in a different kind of way. This one though, he's extra special. He's one of those people that lights up a room. He's about 12 and very smart. He helps me with my nepali and doesn't get annoyed when I ask about the same word a million times. He is teaching me to sing a popular nepali song and doesn't grow impatient when I forget the words. When we pass flowers, he always picks one for me. He's just that kind of kid.
A major goal for the Umbrella Foundation is reintegration. Kids deserve to grow up with their families. When they're sent home, they're frequently checked in on. Umbrella continues supporting them, but now they are with their family, in their village, speaking their native tongue and appreciating their regional culture.
Sometimes the kids talk to their parents on the phone and when they hang up they're teary eyed. They miss their homes so badly. I've asked a couple of my boys about their villages and they light up. They have so much to say. For all of the benefits of 33 brothers, it must be easy to get lost in the crowd. Their personal village gives them a sense of individuality. They all have a story, they all come from different places. Sometimes I forget that no one is born into Umbrella.
Today, one of my boys got to go home. My extra special boy.
We're all gathered in one room, about 60 young boys and all of the didis and all of the house parents and a few volunteers and some of the office staff. Three boys sit at the front of the room, prayer scarves (gifted from the house parents) around their necks and smiles on their faces. The group of boys that form the majority of the crowd have just wrapped up a song. One by one the staff approaches the three boys and puts a teeka on their forehead, whispering well wishes to each. The boys are brothers, blood brothers, and this afternoon they're going home. The one from my house, Kesh, is in the middle. One of the Umbrella staff is giving a speech in Nepali, so I find myself paying close attention to the scene, but filtering out the noise. The boys are smiling so wide, and it occurs to me- maybe this is the first time they've sat in front of a group and been told how special and wonderful they are. For most, every year on a birthday- groups of people sing a song publicly so that you know you're loved. I think of all of the award ceremonies, and graduations, and applause I've received in my life and wondered what it would be like if this was the first and maybe last time that would happen. I'm tearing up pretty badly and I think of my mother and how she gets choked up every time one of her children is on stage or on the field. I'm looking at him and I'm just...I don't know. Proud.
There's a woman sitting near them, someone I've never seen before. She's listening to the staff member talk and you can tell she has something to say. When he stops,she begins to speak. I think she is thanking him. She begins to cry. I think this is a relative of the boys, the one who came to pick them up. The mother? The aunt? I look at the sea of boys. They all have a mother. They all have a father. I imagine not knowing where my child was. I imagine saying goodbye and not knowing if I'd ever see them again. I imagine lying awake at night, wonder where my child is. My heart aches not only for my boys, but for their families.
Kesh and I keep making eye contact and I'm pretending not to cry. There's a pink flower tucked behind my ear and I can feel it beginning to wilt.
Right before the ceremony, me and Kesh sat outside. I was pretending to be hysterical over his departure and he was amused by my charade. We're sitting on this brick wall and I take his hand. "I'm really going to miss you." I tell him. He rolls his eyes at me, but smiles all the same. I slip my bracelet onto his wrist and say "Remember me, okay?"He pulls from his back pocket a key chain that has cards attached to it, each is a picture of a Hindu God. We've played catch with this before and he's taught me their names though I still refer to all of them as Shiva. He presses it in the palm of my hand. "I'm going to miss you too." He winks at me and hops off the wall. I wonder if he'd have given it to me if I hadn't given him the bracelet. Something tells me yes. He's that kind of kid.
We walk silently next to each other, headed to his departure ceremony and begin joking around. He's making fun of the way I walk when he notices a bed of pink flowers. He pauses mid joke and picks one. He tucks it behind my ear and says, "Last one." He flashes me a smile and we go into the ceremony.
I'm sitting there listening to this speech the staff member is giving but I'm not listening, I'm studying Kesh. I'm looking at his face and trying to picture him as 16, as 25, as 60. I'm wondering what his wife will one day look like. I'm wondering if he's going to be okay. I trust Umbrella. I know he will be. The ceremony ends, everyone leaves.
The boys say their goodbyes and help carry Kesh's belongings to the taxi. He has one metal box about the size of a briefcase and one book bag with hardly anything in it. This is everything in the world that is his. I reach into my pocket for the keychain. This is one of the only trinkets he owns. And he gave it to me.
The tears are coming and I'm trying to keep it together. A few of the boys are teasing me and I'm trying to explain: I am just so happy. I want to send all of these boys home. I love them so much, I want to send them home and I hope they never have to come back. My heart hurts for the boys who won't be going home.
Today, like every day here, I have gained more faith in Umbrella. They get results. I've seen it.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned
*Picture credit to the Umbrella Foundation, these are my boys with a rugby player about a year ago. Aren't they handsome? Raamro chha

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Wendybird and the Lost Boys

I don't know what part of the goat I ate but I'd have to guess it was the tentacles. I made a point to ask but was met with laughter so for the rest of the meal I chewed in silence and tried to think of anything but what was in my mouth. When I came here I promised myself that I would do as much immersion as possible. So far so good. I have dal bhaat with my boys twice a day, and Tiffin in the afternoon- nothing else but with the portion size here it I plenty. My first night of it was a challenge...you Just have to ignore how spicy it is and stretch your stomach. These children are al very small but somehow they manage to eat about 50 times as much as me.
I'm lucky, I'm not a picky eater. In fact, after getting used to the taste, I find myself craving the stuff- especially the Tiffin, the sweet ,milk tea. Dudhchiya.
I've begun taking Nepali lessons and think I'll go on to have private sessions. I'm getting pretty good. Ok. That is a lie. I'm doing okay though. I'm actually picking up more Irish slang than anything and I fear in the states I'll be slagged over it.
Blog posts are long overdue, but I just keep adding things of talk about. I can never cover it all but somehow I have managed to leave out the biggest part of the story. The reason why I'm here at all. It isn't to flush the toilet with a bucket.
Wendybird and the Lost Boys
I have a lot of shortcomings. I have a lot of things that I struggle with. My capacity to love total strangers is neither of these. It's actually my greatest strength.
I have been assigned to one of the boys' homes, Kanchajunga. It houses 33 boys between the ages of 10 and 16 (roughly.) I say roughly because age is a funny thing around here- a lot of times you can never really know. So much of these boys history is shrouded in mystery. Some of them have been at Umbrella for so long, it's most of what they remember of their lives. Some of their histories are too dark to ever be talked about. But I don't want to talk about that. I don't want to tell you what has happened to them (as if I'll ever really know.) I have done my homework, read their files. Most of it isn't pretty. But that isn't who they are. What has happened to them, what they have gone through, what they have or have not seen or done- it isn't who they ARE. You can't read who they are, you just have to see it for yourself. You cannot take a person and put them into words- not when that person is magic like these boys. What has happened to them- it's really no reflection on them. Shame on the rest of the world for allowing it, shame on the rest of the world for not even noticing their pain, but these boys- they are fighters. They are triumphant. They are thriving despite the cards they were dealt. I am so humbled to be a part of this family. Family- that's what Kanchejunga is.
The boys call me sister and I call them bhaai (brother). They don't call me sister because of a special bond we share, but rather they call all white females sister. They laugh that my name is Maggie, so close to Maggi, a popular brand of just-add-water noodles. Like being named Ramen stateside. Affectionately, they call me chow chow sister.
What's probably the most remarkable is what good care they take of each other. There is a hierarchy within the house that I am slowly learning. Though there is plenty of hitting, it is all in good fun. The smallest one gets the worst of it and always gets back up, and jumps in the middle for more. This is a tough kid. They all are. Wiry and agile. There is plenty of banter but they love each other like brothers and aren't shy about it.
My first encounter with the house was in my induction ceremony where I was welcomed. I was given two prayer scarves, one by the house mother, one by the live-in tutor. A few of the boys, speaking no behalf of the group stood up to say that I was welcome here, they were happy to have me and they look forward to our time together. This is customary for all new volunteers but I was touched none the less. They pulled out the guitar and serenaded me with a few popular Nepali songs and an English song they knew I'd know- "Jombie" which half way through I figured out was "Zombie" by the Cranberries. After each song they'd become silent and one would say "And now Maggie Sister, we will be pleased to hear a song from you." Looking back I don't know why this embarrassed me as much as it did. When they asked I just froze, unable to form words. This, of course, made putting me on the spot a lot more fun. It's not that I'm shy in front of crowds, though I suppose musically I am. I could have at least faked it and sang the Oscar Meyer Weener song or SOMETHING. They didn't expect me to be brilliant, just to participate. On the spot I was drawing a blank. I just turned red and shook my head. Why was I so anxious?
I think it's because a part of me is very young. A part of me is desperately seeking their approval. For some reason, I don't just want them to like me, I want them to think I'm cool. This is an embarrassing revelation. A short coming I was so sure I'd grown out of. Fortunately they were able to laugh at my reluctance rather than be annoyed or offended.
The next day was my first real day with them one-on-one.
So, I'm standing on the porch, just standing and they're all busy with their own thing. I'm not really sure what to do. I'm wracking my brain to think of a hilarious joke to tell or a creative game to play but all I'm getting is cold feet. My initial novelty has warn off and none seem bothered to entertain me. It's the worst feeling. It's that feeling when you've already gotten your food at the dining hall and you realize you have no one to sit by. You take a few laps and then dump your plate and leave. It's that feeling. I come from a small town. I'm no good at being the new kid.
And then a sweaty hand grasps mine. One of the younger boys. "Ok sister, we play football now. I show you where." He holds my hand the whole way there. I can never thank him enough for this. If you ever see some one taking laps around the dining hall, invite them to have a seat. On the walk I learn his name and age. I notice how remarkable his English is. I notice how he carries himself, how familiar it is. I notice how much he reminds me of every other ten year old I've ever met. How remarkably normal he is. Another boy follows us-he catches up to give me a flower he has made from paper. This is the first time I feel myself wanting so badly to never have to leave.
I can't record everything they've done to make me love them, all of them. I can only share a few anecdotal stories.
They are always begging me to sing to them. It's not because they love my voice, it's because they like to tell me "Ok sorry sister, try out again next year." Khouse has two tutors, both former Umbrella boys who are now at University but work for Umbrella. I have become good friends with one of them, who brings his guitar to the porch to sing with me every night. This is my favorite part of the day- and I'm even learning some Nepali songs. The sun is going now and about 6 boys are hanging off of me. I'm a little out of tune and no one notices or maybe they just don't care. Everyone is winding down and we're filled with dal bhaat and the air is cooling. I think I could do this everyday.
I'm leaving out so much, like my fellow volunteer at Khouse who just left a few days ago but was absolutely invaluable in helping me adjust. Like how I ended up barefoot in Tamel. Like how I managed to seriously offend Krishna. There's too much to recount.
A few things that deserve mention. The first is how resourceful the boys are. I find myself so in love with Umbrella because of the way they run the houses. They're focused on raising Nepali children. If they pop the football, they aren't just handed a new one- no Nepali child has an unlimited source of footballs. And clothes- they each have about two pairs. They cannot grow used to being handed everything. They will soon be Nepali adults who need to learn to go without.
I watched a little one proudly stitch together his shoes, flip flops so torn that the sole was almost in half, with a wire- the type that would keep a bread bag from spoiling. I wanted to reach over, offer him duct tape or something but stopped myself. This is a skill he actually needs.
What I want to do when I see their shoes in such a state, or them kicking around a football (and by football I mean soccer. "shocker? What is this shocker sister?") is laugh, an exasperated "Oh you kids!" kind of laugh. But I stop myself. It's not something to tease about. To me, flip flops are flip flops-disposable. To them, it's one of the few things they own and wont be seeing a new pair for a long time.
Let me be very clear when I tell you that these kids are very very happy. They have very little and they need very little. They don't get bored. They have 32 brothers- how could you ever be bored? They're incredible the way they entertain themselves. Some of them use broken rubber bands to shoot flies out of the air. They never miss. They all play "rocks" an elaborate version of jacks played with rocks. They aren't just ok, they're thriving. They're also remarkably good at sharing everything they do have. There's a little area with a concrete table- they've built a net by lining up bricks and play table tennis there. No matter how old or young, they all wait their turn- sometimes for an hour. They keep score fairly and everyone gets a turn. They just do. It's the same with football. Two teams for three, one goal wins it- the victors remain and play the next team of three. Simple. I think of all the 11 year olds with cell phones and ipads and wonder how many pairs of shoes that could be bought with that.
I'm sitting there on the living room floor paying close attention. I'm kneading dough, hoping that somewhere in the world Peeta Melarch is looking down at me with approval. They're having a Momo party to say goodbye to my fellow volunteer. A momo is a dumpling- made with different fillings but today we're having buffalo. Folding a momo is an art, an art I was not built for. One of the boys, I've been watching him for a while. He's an artist. He reminds me so much of some one back home. He's very quiet, kind of blends in to the background. He is often upstaged by others in the house- so many are class clowns- dancing, and yelling, and performing slapstick comedy routines for attention. This kid is content just hanging around, but I watch him folding the momos and I'm just in love with him. There's just something so delicate about the way he moves. He's got a very slight build, just like my friend at home and he moves with grace. It's these little things about the boys that I've begun to notice that I love the most. On him , I love how he moves with ease. How when I tell him how impressed I am he just smiles and looks at his feet.
I'm writing this from restaurant in Thamel. Thamel as I've hopefully mentioned before- is the tourist district. It's crowded and busy and I can't help but love and hate it. It's wonderful for music, for going out, for meeting fellow travelers. If you need to get something, it's the place to go. But for all it has to offer, it has one thing that I can't even look at.
Street kids.
You can't not see them, they're all over. It's not so difficult to turn a blind eye- to pretend to be so immersed in the noise of Thamel that you don't see the 14 year old with matted hair and no shoes trying to catch you eye and put his hands to his lips, sign language for "food"? You can ignore it until he wraps his arms around you and calls you mama- a rehearsed but effective method. You take him into a store and tell him to pick what he wants to eat. He immediately goes to a milk product that he can sell to make money to buy more glue. He's got an empty plastic bag in his pocket from his last hit. You can't get it for him so you get his crackers, something he can't sell and will have to eat himself. You hand him the box and he runs out of the store. Just get to the taxi. Just get to the taxi so you can cry privately. The next morning you find a few small sores on your head. You've given him crackers, he's given you lice.
I think to myself- my God, he looks just like one of my boys. Then it hits me with such force I can't believe I'm still standing. That was the fate of my boys. Those little knuckleheads who call me chow chow and braid my hair and bring me flowers and have a favorite color, and a favorite subject and a best friend and a dream for their future-this was the life of some of them. This and worse. These kids are no longer statistics, they're the people who I eat with, who I tease, who I wrestle with, who I sing to. In my head I call them the Lost boys from peter pan, but these are the found boys. These are the ones that got away. The ones that have a chance...and For every one that has been found- there are a thousand out there, still lost. I'm going to be sick.
I started writing with more to say but the last paragraph has made me numb. I've been sick this week, fatigued with a weakened stomach so I'll blame it on that.
I remain blissfully happy here. Happy, in love and so alive but feeling older and older with each day.
My birthday is coming up- please visit my new page. My love to you all, hug your children tightly tonight- count your blessings dear loves.
-Wendy Moira Angela Darling