I had a lot of time to think now that I was alone, especially at breakfast time. I had a chat with guesthouse chef Sudhan to understand more about Nepali life. He’s a hardworking 20-year-old man, who visits his family once-a-month but has lifelong aspirations to be a farmer. He told me nothing would make him happier. It made me think about living in a Western world, being a kid I wanted to be a wrestler and then a footballer. We couldn’t have been any more different. But this was good preparation for the days ahead.
My placement was with SERC – a centre for children with severe mental and physical disabilities. But at first, I didn’t think I was going to make it. I was arriving by motorcycle for the next week! I put my mask on to protect myself from the air pollution and wore my sunglasses to prevent my eyes from burning. The sunglasses lasted ten seconds as the dust had covered the lenses to the point I only saw darkness. Having big eyes doesn’t help either, so keeping them barely open at first was my strategy. There was something liberating about being on a motorcycle too. I felt exposed and vulnerable, yet free at the same time.
Back to my placement, I was introduced to the staff and given a quick tour. They had three dedicated classrooms for varied abilities. There were rooms tailor-made for improving senses, a group for kids with cerebral palsy, severe autism and a dedicated physio centre equipped with apparatus to help improve movement. It was heartbreaking to see. Especially the physio centre. The idea is to build the children’s physical condition to a point where they can be somewhat independent with the eventual hope of being integrated into a classroom.
After the tour I was introduced to my class – the Sunflower Class led by ‘Miss’. The class of of ten, aged from 9-16 belted: “Good morning Sir,” upon my arrival. I was taken aback by their politeness, being an obvious outsider.
I took an empty seat next to Yashu, who has Down’s syndrome and speech difficulties. She was excited to meet me and immediately pulled out her English Grammar book, after she found out my origin. She was very keen to learn and picked things up really quickly. Not because I was helping her, but because she wanted to finish all of her exercises. She wasn’t done with me, she wanted me to go through Maths with her too! Without the aid of my calculator, I used my fingers successfully to indicate the figures.
During the break, they all approached me in Nepali. Baffled because to them I looked Nepali, spoke the odd word well but said I was from England. Once it registered that I wasn’t Nepali, they wanted to play a game. So I got a piece of paper and played an impromptu round of noughts and crosses. Of course I won, I was going to go soft on them!
I mentioned their politeness earlier, but they showed me an incredible level of respect throughout the day: “Sir, may I go the toilet please…Sir, may I have some water please…Sir, may I come in?” I’d never met such well mannered children and they didn’t need to ask my permission. But I guess that’s the way here.
Lunchtime came and this is where I saw togetherness amongst the children. They sit in turns on benches, some help the staff bring food from the kitchen and then serve up dhaalbhat for their classmates. It was admirable to see.
Later on I spoke to a girl called Manisha, who was sat on the side whilst the others played football. She wears braces on her legs and pushes a frame to support her walking. She told me she’s adapted to the situation and hopes to walk one day without any support. Her classmates help her remove the brace each time and assist her too. They all help each other. If one sneezes, the other wipes their nose with a tissue. That togetherness felt like family to me as an observer and it remained all throughout my days there. That level of respect wasn’t just a one-off either. Day-by-day I started to form bonds. They mocked me and I mocked them.
On my final day I gave them all a pack of Oreos. They were so grateful and individually thanked me. Rithika, who sits opposite Yashu, has hearing difficulties but is the classroom chatterbox. She knew it was my last day and wanted to play games rather than work. I duly accepted and I managed to teach her ‘give me five, on the side…’, which she found entertaining.
Omir, who’s 13, lies at the back of the class. I say lies because without being too graphic, he has missing limbs and is on a wheeled mattress. His main focus is arts and music. I could see why quite quickly. He draws and writes with a pen in his mouth. He is extremely gifted. Seeing what he could do, inspired me. At times I say I can’t do things but I have options. Omir for example, like the others has no options but they all find answers. He also sings so gracefully, it gave me goosebumps.
My last day came to a close and I was asked: “Sir, when are you coming back?” I intend to go back next week to deliver some gifts. I wish I could do more for them. They face a challenge every day of their lives and despite this, continue to smile. Little things like queuing traffic feel like a challenge to me, I’ve definitely been given a reality check this week.
My second experience was quite a contrast. I was high up in the mountains. It was so far up, the clouds seemed close enough to touch. It became clear to me that I was heading into the sticks literally. It was a very different reception as I’d walked into a home unannounced. Peeping eyes, but no words just stares. The home itself was a large tin shed at Buddhalinikantha, in picturesque surroundings.
The children were lined up by the firewood collecting their meals. I didn’t want to disturb them. I was introduced to Robindra, the owner of the home and his partner, whose name escaped me. Robindra showed me around the land, his crops, his hens, his guard dogs…there was even a cow! It was obvious to see what the home was lacking – no electricity, no hot water and no windows for a start. It was hard to imagine these children living like that. What was even harder was to see the construction of a three-storey private home directly next door. Two homes side-by-side but couldn’t be more worlds apart. The divide was clear.
The kids lined up to wash their plates one-by-one after their lunch. A little girl waved and smiled at me. I’d made a breakthrough. Then a young chap walked over and introduced himself as Umesh. He told me to watch a card game that was set to start. Something looked familiar, they were WWE cards! They were shocked I knew the wrestlers and were so excited. They all lined up to do the John Cena ‘you can’t see me’ salute. It cracked me up.
In amongst all the laughter, I felt a tug, it was the little girl who waved at me. She touched all parts of my jacket and then my beard, like I was an alien from Mars. She introduced herself as Nirmala. She touched my hand for a few minutes and told me they were soft like a girls, Umesh translated that part whilst giggling. I couldn’t explain the concept of cocoa butter, so I said it was because of chocolate, which delighted her. The kids then queued up to touch my hands. I’d made a connection in the most unlikeliest fashion.
In the distance, there were some other children chopping radish in the fields. Something I never imagined to see a small child do with a sharp knife. But they were experts. Shortly after I was asked to have a kick about with the boys, followed by a game of ‘bomb blast’. A game where you have to avoid getting hit by a giant ball of elastic bands. They were all screaming with laughter. I was exhausted and starting to show my age. They all bathed thereafter and I was the one that needed the shower!
Robindra then took a few of the boys into the forest to chop some firewood to be used for cooking. I looked around to see how I could help, but they were all fully independent and doing everything for one another. I was speechless. They just don’t stop working – chopping, dusting, collecting litter, they were well beyond their years.
Again, this group couldn’t believe that I wasn’t Nepali and started to name objects in Nepali and asked for a Bangla translation which was funny to them.
I bought some chocolates and biscuits for them as a treat later on. In unison they echoed: “Thank you brother.” It wasn’t much, but I just wanted to give them a smile and a meaningful memory on this day.
As it reached the afternoon, they wanted me to take part in a special game of football, further high into the mountains. It was a spectacular surrounding. Again, I reached failure quicker than them. Nirmala wasn’t going to let me rest though, she wanted to be lifted skywards, which she giggled uncontrollably about. Umesh and her told me earlier in the day that they wanted to be dancers when they’re older, so I urged them to show me their moves before I left. They really got into it and had lots of fun.
It was time for me to go and Nirmala soon became upset and said “don’t go brother.” It was a difficult moment because she wouldn’t let go. I had to lie and say I was returning shortly, which made me feel terrible. But it was the only way I could get her to let go.
I was leaving on a high, no pun intended. I couldn’t have wished for a better finish. I was buzzing when I returned to the guesthouse. I’d had so much fun and the week just flew by. I ordered a plate of ‘momos’, the Nepalese version of dumplings. I stuffed myself, sat back and sipped an ice cold Mirinda to collect my thoughts. I’d had the best day to round of my experience, ‘the best till last’ as they say. I was now beginning to understand the meaning of N.E.P.A.L. – Never Ending Peace And Love.