Participatory Tourism: Nepal Trekker Sponsors Orphans
In a recent interview with Dr. Voigts, I mentioned that I thought it would be a good idea to promote a new tourism paradigm, which I call "participatory tourism" (or partourism, if the world can stomach another pompous portmanteau). I don't mean that we need to invent a new way of traveling, or impose new guidelines, or anything like that. On the contrary: partourism as a concept should remain vague, precisely because we don't need someone laying out rules as to how we should spend our money or interact with natives or minimize our ecological footprint. I just mean that it would be good if, in some of our traveling, we managed to interact with our hosts in ways that involve us as more than voyeurs, ways that provide the basis for long-term relationships and return visits.
Partourism opportunities are everywhere, and range from studying to volunteerism to commerce and beyond. You don't have to formulate a specific plan before you leave home, although it helps to do some research. You just have to ask yourself, How can I improve my chances of stumbling on an opportunity that appeals to me?
One partour-op that I only recently became aware of is volunteering at an orphanage. I interviewed Marc Osborn about his experience with an orphanage in Pokhara, Nepal. Marc is a mechanical engineer, working currently for a night vision camera manufacturer in Santa Barbara CA; he likes to spend his vacations in Third World countries.
Seth: What brought you to Nepal in the first place?
Marc: I first went to Nepal in 1993 and spent seven weeks, mainly trekking. I loved the open friendliness of the locals, the beauty of the landscape and of course, the prices.
In Kathmandu, I met Hari, an eighteen-year-old orphan rickshaw driver; we hit it off so I decided to hire him as my guide. We traveled to Pokhara together and then did a three-week trek up the west side of the Annapurna circuit up to Muktanath and back. At the end of the trek I gave Hari US$200, which he said would be enough to buy a house and a wife.
Marc Osborn and his friend Brooke Wilson with their six Nepali children.
Seth: How did you get connected with the Rainbow Children Home (RCH)?
Marc: In Kenya, the year before, I had visited an orphanage run by an Italian guy that was specifically for HIV+ orphans. Wow, was that an experience! To see these kids playing happily, going to school, living their lives and taking their drugs was amazing. I also visited an orphanage in Peru and found it a worthwhile experience.
In November 2007, I returned for my second visit to Nepal, this time with the intention of finding a child to sponsor. I asked the manager of the hotel where I was staying if there were any orphanages in Pokhara, and he took me to two -- the Namaste Children Home and the Rainbow Children Home. Namaste was well established, with a bed for each of their roughly seventy children, a few television sets and even a Landrover with the Namaste logo on the door. Across the street was RCH, which had just been established six months earlier. They had fourteen kids, a few beds, a Honda Hero motorcycle, and a whole bunch of love and dahl baht (lentils and rice). Rainbow is run by Goma Dhakal. She lives in the orphanage and she is the one who treks for days on end to retrieve children from their nasty living places. I had no doubt that she is a good person, someone I would trust to make good use of any donations.
I fell in love with one boy, Ashish, who had too much energy and a total love for life. I decided to become RCH's first sponsor.
I went on a trek for a week and when I returned I was given a tour of the public school that Ashish was attending. It was total mayhem: kids running around all over the place, no books, no teaching going on -- in fact about half the classrooms didn't even have a teacher. When I got to Ashish's classroom, he bolted to the front and started leading the class quite boisterously.
Subsequently I visited the private school that Ashish now attends and the difference was like night and day. College-educated teachers, lots of books, and complete order. I was so moved that I just told my orphanage escort, "I'll take another." That's how Sudip became my second sponsee.
Last year I returned and realized that my monthly contribution was enough for three kids, so I picked Ashish's older brother Kamal to be my third sponsee.
Seth: Is there some kind of class system, with distinctions between sponsored and unsponsored kids? It seems odd to me that only sponsored kids would go to the private school.
Marc: All the kids that are of age go to the private school - except Kamal, who didn't want to go because he would be in a class of kids five years younger than him if he did, and his pride won't go there. I am sure that the money I send monthly doesn't aid only my three boys, but it's fun to have the relationship that naturally occurs by sponsoring specific boys. It is sad to see some of the kids who really want a sponsor and no one has stepped up to the plate so far.
Ashish and Sudip with the photos I gave Ashish. In this shot, taken two years ago when I first met them, Ashish and Sudip were both seven years old.
Seth: Could you elaborate on your personal experience at RCH?
Marc: Returning in 2008 was a wonderful experience for me because I had the realization that I am much more than a check in the mail each month to them. I am considered their surrogate father and they all really, really want to have a father figure in their life. In 2007 I left a few pictures of myself with Ashish, one of me driving my Beemer convertible and another of me flying a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. I was told that for weeks before my arrival in 2008 Ashish had been showing my picture around and telling everyone who would listen that "I have a father and he is a pilot and he is coming to visit me soon." For the first few days after my return, Ashish spent a lot of time in my arms, asking over and over, "Marc, you my father, ok?"
This year on my first day back in Pokhara I ran into Kamal as I was walking up the street to the orphanage. When he saw me, he dropped what he was carrying and ran into my arms weeping and saying, "My father!" Pretty cool, huh? As I arrived at the orphanage, Ashish and Sudip gave me a wonderful greeting. I really enjoy their company and the feeling is obviously mutual.
One of the nice things for me to think about is that just a few months before I picked up Ashish and Sudip, they were on the street begging for food. Now Ashish wants to be an engineer and Sudip wants to be a doctor, and they are consistently in the top five in their class test scores. It's fun to remove the financial barrier to their dreams.
Ashish and Sudip in front. Next to me is Mark, my porter last year.
Seth: Why did you decide to sponsor Sudip rather than Asmita, the third Kanal sibling?
Marc: If the sponsors are single, the orphanage favors same-sex sponsorships... sort of like the Big Brother program here in America. The theory is that boys bond better with men and girls with women. When my girlfriend showed up and offered to sponsor three children, Goma said that she MUST sponsor Asmita first.
That's me with Ashish and Sudip; Machha Puchhare ("Fish Tail") towers in the background.
Seth: Are Rainbow kids adoptable? If not, what's the explanation?
Marc: Nepal has a very strict foreign adoption policy. You need to have been married for at least five years and be able to prove that you can't conceive as a couple. As I understand it, in a typical year, fewer than thirty children get adopted from Nepal.
Seth: With only nineteen kids, and you covering three, it seems they could run out of sponsees. What then? Multiple sponsors? Multiple "fathers" and "mothers"? Did you run into other sponsors there? I raise those issues because orphans have traditionally been a lucrative stock-in-trade in Nepal and India as beggar-slaves.
Marc: RCH now has 27 kids and continues to foster more children as it gets more donations. I have run into a few sponsors during my visits, but the orphanage is definitely not running out of sponsees. The typical visitor spends an afternoon with the kids and leaves saying, "I'll really think about sponsoring a kid when I get home," and then is never heard from again. No one's getting rich off this orphanage. I do trust the management. The kids are in a loving environment, and not being used to generate funds.
Here I am (center) with (from left to right) Kamal, Ashish, Sudip, and Mark (my porter).
Seth: Is the orphanage equipped to accommodate visiting volunteers and sponsors?
Marc: RCH has a separate room for visiting volunteers to stay. Sponsors get hotel rooms nearby. Dahl baht is always available twice a day to anyone who shows up.
Seth: The Rainbow Web site proposes "trekking with orphans" as a sort of recreational option. What do you think of that? Did you do it or talk to anyone who did?
Marc: I think the concept of trekking with orphans is actually trekking for orphans. One of the guys who works at the orphanage makes himself available as a trekking guide for hire, and then he gives half of his salary to the orphanage. I like to spread the "wealth" that I spend in Nepal, so I hire a private guide.
Seth: Do you have plans to return? Do you think that having made a Rainbow commitment will limit your flexibility to discover new destinations?
Marc: I expect to go back next November for a few weeks. Having the boys does limit my exploration opportunities, but it's a fun tradeoff. Luckily, I just started a job with five weeks of paid vacation per year so I should be able to go back to Pokhara and still have two or three weeks for a new destination.
Seth: Do you have any advice for prospective visitors to Nepal?
Marc: I would recommend reading the Lonely Planet Nepali phrasebook before going.
I always bring photos of my life here in California: my house, my dog, my car, the plane I fly, and so on. People in developing countries are always interested in seeing them, and I have found that they can be used as an easy way to make new friends if you know how to explain them to someone in their native language. The night I spent with a Masai tribe in Kenya got off to a good start when I was able to show my photos and describe the contents totally in Swahili.
In Thamel (the tourist center of Kathmandu), the Evergreen restaurant across from the Thamel Supermarket, has the best Thai and Indian food in all of Kathmandu. Try their Penang shrimp with garlic naan and a cold Carlsberg and you will get a preview of heaven.
In Pokhara, the Nepali style fish at the Elegant View restaurant along the lake is an amazing treat.
From Pokhara, I would recommend two must-visit places: Sarankot (a taxi ride away) at sunrise; and Ghorapani, which is a two-day trek. The views from Ghorapani are fantastic and the two day trek is wonderful.
Despite State Department warnings, I feel really comfortable in Nepal and can't think of a place to avoid.
Remember that giving a child a chance to to become all he or she can be costs less than a cup of joe at Starbucks per day ($60/month). To find out more about sponsoring a child, or simply making a one-time donation of any size, visit the Rainbow Children Home Web site at orphancarenepal.org; you may also email the RCH director or Marc Osborn (marc_osborn[at]yahoo.com)
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Whether or not you have a coffee habit that you can sacrifice, sponsoring a child is a long-term financial and emotional commitment. There are lots of other partour-ops. Take a course at a local dance academy or language school. Commission a painting or sculpture from a local artist. Volunteer to plant saplings on a forestry project. My wife and I helped a Tibetan refugee family set up a pashmina export business (sunrisepashmina.com; see WE.com article referenced above). Even the simple act of learning enough of the language to be able to explain a few photos will help you make friends ... and in most countries, that can mean friends for life.
In coming months, I'll be writing on these and other options. If you've got stories of your own, or just suggestions, please email me: sicroff[at]gmail.com.
The Khanal Family Story
[adapted from the RCH Web site, by permission of Director Goma Dhakal; the three photos are also courtesy of of RCH]
The heartbreaking story of the Khanal children, Kamal (10) and the twins Ashish and Asmita (both 7), was the final deciding factor behind opening Rainbow Children Home.
Four years ago, their father Bhuwan was cutting grass from a cliff-face to feed the animals when he fell breaking his back. He was left in a critical condition, subsequently requiring intensive medical treatment.
To cover the huge medical expenses the family sold everything they owned - their house, their land and their animals. They had nothing left, often not even enough to eat, all they had was the hope that their father would survive. Tragically, after a traumatic nine-month battle, Bhuwan Khanal died.
The stress and strain of the whole ordeal eventually took its toll on their mother Mathura. She developed a severe mental illness and was no longer capable of caring for her children. She often disappeared for days at a time, wandering away and sleeping in fields, sometimes not wearing any clothing.
Fortunately, the new owner of their house allowed the family to stay until he needed to move in, so the Khanals had temporary shelter. They did not however have any food, so they relied upon begging for the leftover scraps from neighbors. Living in such an environment fostered an “every man for himself” mentality in the children. They became wild and would fight viciously over what little food they managed to scavenge. They were living in squalor like animals. So unaccustomed were they to normal life that when the Director of RCH first went to investigate the children’s situation, the children were so afraid that threw stones at her and ran away.
Kamal, the eldest sibling, had a very difficult time adjusting to life at RCH, often displaying aggressive behaviour. Having adopted the role as the head of the family at home, he continued to play the role of disciplinarian with his younger brother and sister when they arrived at RCH. He was always very strict, hitting them whenever he thought they had done something wrong or upset him. He is now far less aggressive and does not beat his siblings at all. He is a quiet, strong boy who loves his job as monitor of the vegetable garden, a position that harnesses his disciplinarian propensities in a positive way.
Ashish is a very bright and talented boy. He loves to sing and dance and has recently won the third place prize in a dancing competition, even though he has never had any formal dance lessons. It is our hope that, when the time comes that we have enough money, we can nurture this obvious talent by sending him to dance classes. Not only does he excel in dance, he is intellectually very capable. Even though he is only in Class One, he often helps the children in Classes Two and Three.
Sadly, as is the case with his siblings, Ashish is still suffering psychologically from his traumatic ordeal. When nervous he becomes extremely agitated and fidgety. It is our hope that the more accustomed he becomes to normal life, the less nervous he will be.
The change in Ashish's twin sister Asmita at RCH has been incredible. She is certainly the biggest and loudest personality in the house!
Although she does not grasp ideas and concepts very easily, Asmita has shown her natural talent when it comes to dancing and entertaining. There are still some traces of her hardship present in her behaviour. She has never properly learned how to deal with anger; when she becomes angry she shuts down completely and will not, or cannot, function.
Asmita, like her brothers, eats large amounts of food when she can because she is not yet used to the idea that food will now always be available to her.
Seth Sicroff is the Nepal Editor for Wandering Educators.
All photos courtesy and copyright Marc Osborn, except where noted.