Alone in the Land of Milk and Honey

Nepal, Tibet and people of Buddhist societies are often admired, even venerated by Americans of certain demographics.  I, myself, find the idea of a life guided by mindfulness, compassion, and simplicity attractive (at least conceptually).  After a trip to Nepal, however, I am less inclined to glorify any particular country or group of people.

Throughout Kathmandu, I encountered many children living as street urchins, usually moving in packs but sometimes on their own.  Ragged, dirty and thin, they reminded me of Dickensian waifs - not menacing (as their counterparts in Latin America sometimes are), but prone to stealing a loaf of bread from a counter or extracting an unsecured item from one’s person.  

One of the most moving scenes I have ever encountered (because of the precariousness of the two beings’ existence, their love for each other and symbiotic bond) was just outside the part of the city where tourists sleep, eat, explore ancient architecture, and prepare for treks into the Himalayas.  Sleeping in an inconspicuous doorway was a boy, left to his own devices at 11 or 12 years of age, under a worn blanket, with a dog nestled in his arms.  Only their heads protruding from underneath the covering, one beside the other, it was still clear that they were completely relaxed in one another’s presence.  Loath to disturb their slumber by hovering over them to take a photograph, I opted to leave my camera in its bag, and prayed that both dog and boy would succeed in protecting and providing for one another.

According to more than one source, the explanation behind the plethora of street children in Kathmandu is heartbreaking.  Apparently, sometimes when women remarry (after leaving or losing the father of their children), they are pressured to dispose of their existing offspring.  In other instances, parents from the countryside simply do not have the capacity to eke out enough sustenance from the earth to provide for all of their children.  Since the capital of Nepal is thought of as the “land of milk and honey” by those living in the unforgiving mountains, it’s perceived as an ideal place to abandon children.  Hence, many boys, in particular, but also girls, are left to wait in markets during family excursions to the city by parents who will not return, or are “accidentally” separated in busy intersections, not to see their loved ones again.

The first of these photographs shows the very edge of a small town with an expanse of landscape extending behind the Buddhist prayer wheels.  The second photograph depicts a young child haunting a busy area of Kathmandu.  Due to the language barrier, I do not know the particulars of the girl shown nor her provenance.  Maybe she did have a family she returned to at the end of each day and perhaps she spent her entire life in Kathmandu. Yet it is certain that there are many, many children like her who HAVE found themselves alone in the city after an early childhood in the country is abruptly cut short, who will never be reunited with their families.