How many times in your life will you be invited into the slums of a tent-city for tea or lunch? Even though the 500 rupiah ($6) I’d given Raj two days before was six times more than the average daily wage here in Nepal, Ashlie and I both knew there would be more monetary expectations approaching by the date’s end. We’d discussed arriving with a fat bag of rice and plump bottle of oil, but were deterred from doing so by a Nepalese friend who told us taking food to someone’s house who has invited you to eat with their family could be considered disrespectful. But, I knew we weren’t leaving this once-in-a-lifetime situation without making a small, charitable family donation, and frankly we were both ok with that. Again, if it were not for encounters and experiences like this, my relationship with traveling wouldn’t be the same. This is travel for me.
During the bumpiest, neck-jolting taxi ride to Raj’s side of town we’d made three fruitless stops at cash points. So not only did we show up with no rice or oil, we also needed to hit an ATM just for our own (needing of money) sake.
Tent-city is literally across the street from Kathmandu’s holiest of stupas, Boudhanath. The ancient stupa is one of the world’s largest and a rather incredible sight to see. It was in front of this stupa where Raj and his “brother”, Sunny, were side-by-side waiting for us to exit the cab.
After exchanging hellos they proposed that we go in and explore the stupa. I’d read online that this place was one of the most peaceful getaways from the noisy ruckus that is Kathmandu. I was really looking forward to being there in peace and not feeling the need to talk or the need to listen.
Is it possible to have lunch now and Ash and I visit the temples on our own later? I asked.
Of course, why not? Come let us take you to meet our family, says Sunny. Whose English was miles ahead of Raj’s.
Dodging the weaving motorbikes, the four of us cut across the road’s traffic. Walking down a dirt road riddled with ten year’s worth of pollution, it was here where we were able to get a bird’s eye view of tent-city. Now I knew that seeing a collection of impoverished people living under the conditions of tarps and dirt floors would be powerful, as I’d witnessed poverty before, I’d seen packs of orphans in Nicaragua rummaging through fields of garbage looking for something to eat and it was only six weeks ago while having my morning coffee when I’d watch homeless clans of Cambodian children huffing glue out of brown paper bags until they were unconscious. Internally, I’d tried to mentally prepare myself for just about anything. But, sadly, nothing could have prepared me for the sights, smells and way of life tent-city was about to introduce me to.
Approaching the fragilely strung-together tents, the humidity and odor swelled, so much so that I had to stop breathing in through my nose. Never in my life had I seen so many swarming gangs of flies. The amounts of bottomless, barefooted infants wandering around with snot crusted between their nose and upper lip was alarming. Filthily-dressed and rail-thin men and women began popping out from their respective tents, grinning and greeting us in their mother tongue, Namaste!
With my defenses and senses heightened and on guard, I looked around and could feel my heart beginning to crumble. This was their life. This filth and poverty stricken community all have fight, kick and scream just to survive. I couldn’t help but think to myself, What is going wrong, why in the hell does any human being have to live like this?
Sunny and Raj patiently waited for us while their neighbors surprisingly asked for their photos to be taken. Something you rarely to never find in SE Asian countries.
Somehow, someway this community seemed mildly happy. But how? Their humble smiles and welcoming eye-contact helped tame the pity that began threatening the entire experience. Yes, I wanted to be there, I signed up for this remember? But, what I was seeing and what I was feeling were cutting straight to the core.
Come, come! It is this way to our home, Sunny eagerly announces.
Ducking under the worn out ropes that held this entire deck of cards together, we followed he and Raj through puddles of murky, green water that suctioned with every next step. As we approached their tent the mother, sister and Sunny’s wife greeted us with huge smiles, bowed heads and their weathered hands pressed together in prayer form, Namaste!
As noon’s sun began to bake, no running water, toilet or electricity meant that any sort of fan or air circulation was out of the question. Just being out from under the blazing sun, under the tarp roof, allowed the confines of their humble home to provide some relief.
Over the next two and a half hours Ashlie and I completely immersed ourselves within that village. Walking from tent to tent, exchanging Namaste’s and smiles. Ashlie played and took photos of the kids while the mother and daughter made us tea and prepared lunch. Sunny and Raj insisted that I join them for an impromptu walk through the village – a ploy so that the two brothers could inconspicuously go guzzle a few plastic glasses of homemade alcohol, Rice beer.
Once the three of us meandered our way back to the tent, lunch was to be served. Over a hole dug into the ground, a tiny fire boiled vegetables and rice. As our filled plates were passed to us Ashlie and I unconfidently stared down at the steaming plates of rice. If there’d ever been a moment during our travels when we undoubtedly questioned the sanitary conditions of what we were about to eat, this was it. We nudged our knees together, said a small prayer, and blessed away the bacteria. As fate would have it, this turned out to be one of the most flavorfully enriched meals since the streets of Thailand.
Passing around plates of sliced onion and cucumber, suddenly English was no longer the language of choice between between Raj and Sunny. The angles of their bodies began positioning themselves towards Ashlie and me. Out of nowhere the sister was now sitting right behind me, fanning me cool with a torn out piece of cardboard. Energetically I could feel the shift – the hustle was strategically being put into motion.
I’m sorry, Adrian, sir. Can we ask you something?
The mother, no longer smiling, took cue and scooted closer to me. She began rocking back and forth, unexplainably motioning like she was hungry and suffering.
Every family member immediately stopped eating their food and the puppy dogged eyes were now staring in my direction. Without having to look at Ashlie, who was sitting directly to my right, I could feel her discomfort.
Verbally, I didn’t respond to Raj’s question. I simply nodded my head and continued to shovel the steaming yellow rice into my mouth.
Sensing my disappointment and distrust, Sunny confidently took over.
Adrian, sir, we are the only ones who can support this family, sir. We were wondering if at all possible you want to help change the lives of every person here and help us buy a shoebox?
How much? I interrupted Sunny.
Because we are Indian shoe shiners without a shoebox, we have a difficult time making business. We are happy family, but we are also…
How much? I interrupted again.
Oh, I don’t know the price, Raj replied.
Come on, Raj. You know how much a shoebox is if that is indeed what you are wanting from me, right?
With pathetic looks still hung on all their faces – and the mother still rocking, motioning like she is in agonizing pain- everything beautiful that had transpired during our time in that village instantly felt like one big set-up.
There had been a few glaring discrepancies in things that Raj and the family had said, but again, I’d known from the start that we’d be exchanging a small cash donation for this rare experience, so I was ok with knowing that some things, in all likelihood, might not add up. But, I also wanted that exchange to be on my own terms, not on the terms of any trickery or manipulation.
Raj suddenly darted out from the tent, only to return a few minutes later with another Indian man. An Indian man carrying a very weathered, yet professional looking shoebox, equipped with every tool a shoe shiner could dream of.
The family’s faces instantly lit up like Christmas trees. The Indian man methodically began unpacking the box and showing off all its blackened treasures.
This man’s father is a shoebox builder. He is building his son a new shoebox so he is willing to sell us this one, Sunny announced.
How much? I jabbed back.
A box like this could give our family a much better life, not just for today or tomorrow but for a very long lifetime. Because he knows our family, he will sell it to us with all the tools for only 5,000 rupiah.
Wow, 60 bucks, I said to myself.
With this family of impoverished Indians semi-circled around me, an unavoidable emotion of sympathy began to gain momentum. Sixty dollars is a lot of money in this country. A LOT. However, it’s really only one day’s worth of our own travel budget. And, what if $60 really would be giving this entire family the opportunity of a better life? I’ll never ever be able to repay to travel what travel has given me, might this be just another opportunity to give back? Absolutely. Yet, something felt off.
My head and heart grappled feverishly. Somehow they’d done unbelievably good job of making feel as though the future and well being of every Indian within that tent rested upon our shoulders.
Sunny, Raj, Mama, we are greatly appreciative of you guys opening up your home to us, we are happy to buy a bag of rice and oil for this family, but 5,000 rupiah is just too much for us. I’m really sorry.
For a family that didn’t understand much English, they clearly had no problem digesting my decision. In unison, the entire tent heartbrokenly exhaled as if being informed that a loved one back home had just died. Their body language shifted away from Ashlie and me and there was an undeniably darker energy in the air.
Rice and oil will only feed us for a short time. This shoebox can change our lives forever, Sunny desperately explained.
I’m sorry, Sunny. I can’t.
The sister and Sunny’s wife looked angry. The mother, swooping her hand over the meal she’d cooked for us, wore a look distrust.
Listen, we are happy to process the photos we’ve taken of you and your family and meet you back in the city tomorrow to give them to you, Raj. Until then let’s go up to the main road and get you some rice and oil.
More just wanting to remove us from the fly-infested bad energy that filled the tent, nothing inside my body was excited about going to buy rice and oil, but at that point, it felt like my best out.
On our way up from tent-city I was surprised to look back and see Raj’s mom following close behind. Back up on the busy street, I still needed to pulse out some cash. After I walked out from the closed doors of the bank machine, Raj’s eyes swelled with tears. My insides immediately cringed.
Please, Adrian, sir. We don’t want rice or oil. This box is a new life for me and my family.
His mom was now in my face motioning her hands in the form of a small box. Box, box, small box. Feed family. Please, please, she begged.
There’s another box, a smaller box, says Raj. It’s cheaper, maximum 3,000 rupiah ($35 bucks). Please. I promise this shoebox will change the life for me and my family.
I felt confused and cornered. They both knew that I now had a stack of fresh cash in my pocket and with his mom still positioning her hands in the form of a small box, I look to Ashlie for some sort of help.
Raj, we need a minute, Ashlie asserted.
We both knew we could afford it, and we both were moved and endeared enough by Raj and his family, up to a certain point. But, we also questioned everything. Something just didn’t feel right. Were we getting conned by this entire community? There were a few things that just didn’t add up, and those questions, compounded by the guilt Raj and his mom were shoving down my throat, made it all feel as though my head was about to explode.
Where is this small box, I angrily asked Raj.
Come. I will show you, he said now smiling.
During the of sheer confusion and emotional frustration Ashlie and I exchanged a few choice words. But, in the end, there we were once again, following Raj back down into the belly of tent-city.
Rounding the corner back down into the slums, a rough-looking, intoxicated Nepalese man staggeringly stood – seemingly waiting for our return. Being so emotionally wrapped up in the moment, I didn’t even recognize him.
Back in the family’s tent Raj says he will go to fetch the small shoebox for us to inspect.
Then, as the dangerous yellow-shirted Nepalese man stumbles up to the door, it all clicked.
Ho-ly sh*t. My heart dropped and I began scanning the tent for something to grab and knock his ass out with.
To be continued … (part 3)