Having overstayed the expected three days in sleepy Sahura village, the locals had begun to suss our familiar faces. Word had gone round that we were volunteers. Shopkeepers smiled. Stray dogs wagged their tails. Tour guides had given up trying to entice us with jungle trek packages. For rather than resting at one of the tourist lodges and getting up at sunrise to spy tigers and rhinos, our mornings were spent playing with the children from OCWC- the Orphan Children Welfare Centre.
There are thirteen children altogether. They scramble. They climb. They kiss. They hug. They squeeze, tug, shout, pull, skip, giggle, tickle and run. Now, I am the oldest of five very boisterous siblings. I babysat an equally boisterous little boy and his clingy baby sister for six years. I had just finished a fifteen month teaching contract, including kindergarten classes. Nothing could have prepared me for the relentless energy of these Nepali children. We swung them round, juggling two, three children on an arm. I remembered ‘a leg and a wing, to see the king’ and spent hours bouncing them into the air and onto the grass. We chased the boys, blew kisses to the girls, caught kisses from all of them and danced on request. Nothing was ever enough, and introducing ball games opened a whole new can of worms!
Jyoti. Jaya. Jyomi. Babita. Sangita. Sanju. Kamari. Nabina. Jeet. Samir. Bimala. Susma. Salina. Thirteen children, one bedroom and four beds. Four stone walls and a stone floor, with one ABC poster hanging from the door. Down the corridor they also have a kitchen, and nineteen year old Jyoti spends day after day preparing roti and dhal bhat for the family. Mousas scurry about in the rice barrels and cockroaches swarm from behind the sink whenever it is time to watch the dishes. Jyoti can operate a rolling pin like no-one else I know. One hand smooths perfect chappatis while the other stirs masala chai in the pot, and always she talks. Her voice cracks with worry about when she might find a husband. I tell her, in a firm voice, that not only is she beautiful but she makes the best bread I have ever tasted. Any man will be lucky to have her.
Three years her junior, Jyomi is better at maths than cooking. Too old for the ball games outside, she spends her mornings bent over text books because she is in her final year of high school; exams are fast approaching. She can’t make the extra revision classes because they are before school hours and she can’t ride a bicycle. No buses run early enough past the orphanage to get her there on time. A rich Japanese tourist pays for her to attend state school but these pre-paid fees expire in March 2013. Without another sponsor, Jyomi won’t be able to attend college. The house mother says she will join Jyoti- mother figure to eleven and distributor of daily rice onto tin plates. With sponsorship though, she’ll be able to study Economics at a college in Naranghat.
Babita knows the moves to every Bollywood dance routine there is. Sangita is top of her class in every subject and last night learned how to play chess. Sanju is trying to learn a new English word every day. Samir is very quiet. He gets the most impatient if we are ever too hot or tired to play ball and will often sleep in the day, face to the wall. Jeet is beautiful. All hollowed out cheeks and dark, in-set eyes, he laughs more than he talks. Bimala is just about the clingiest child I have ever met. She lolls, lounges and leans, pushes, pulls and pinches. Nabina is the tiniest and most tomboy like six year old I have ever known – her legs like matchsticks under her over-sized and bottle green school skirt. She is my guilty favourite. Kamari, at thirteen, is silent and sad. She sits cross-legged on the carpet with the other children but to be a teenager in this stone room must be so, so hard. Susma is just two years old and breath-takingly, lump-in-your-throat, heart-stoppingly adorable. Jaya is eighteen and learning guitar. He wants to be a tour guide, a waiter, a rickshaw driver, everything. Salina reminds me of my teenage sister back at home. She calls us ‘beautiful darlings’ and asks to borrow lipstick.
Living with this family for three weeks was harder than I ever imagined. The conditions are dire and, as a result, the smells are pretty awful too. Perched right on the very edge of Chitwan National Park, Sahura village is intolerably hot. The humidity can get so bad that walking feels like wading through soup and breathing means swallowing warm, stale air. You sweat just sitting still. Rats, mice, cockroaches and ants split their time equally between the bedroom and the shared kitchen. The children all have headlice, the two boys have scabies and all of them suffer terribly from skin infections. At 7pm, when the power cuts out, the orphanage and the village around it are plunged into pitch black darkness. Usually, the water runs out simultaneously. Going to bed by candlelight, blind to any lurking rodents and reeking of not just my own, but fifteen other people’s sweat, demands a good sense of humour and a lot of perspective. As does eating the rice, after we have just fished out the resident rat from the barrel!
Backpacking anywhere, and particularly around Asia, does of course give you a pretty thick skin. Cockroach hunting and knee-sweats are all part of the fun and waking up to views of the Himalaya certainly make it all worth it in Nepal. What we were not prepared for was having all of our stereotypes about orphans confirmed on day one. The children really do have nothing but the clothes they stand up in. Those clothes really are patched together with bits of other material. They really do sleep on soiled, filthy bed sheets and there really isn’t any running water or electricity for most of the day. Coming face to face with that situation is something I will never forget. Getting to know each wonderful, ball-of-energy, giggling child was equally unforgettable. Putting them onto the school bus and being there when they got home, asking about their day and playing with them until dark filled me with a sense of something I’d never felt before. As clichéd as it sounds, volunteering really did teach me more than I could ever teach them. For, no matter how dirty her uniform is, Jyomi gets up and goes to school. No matter how long it has been since baby Susma was even acknowledged, she greets everyone with a smile. However hormonal Jyoti is feeling, she still gets up at 5.30am and makes thirteen people breakfast in a dark kitchen. Being a part of their life, if only for a short while, was truly humbling.
On our last night in Chitwan, the children regaled us with crayon drawings and cards and decorated the whole orphanage in leftover Christmas tinsel. Babita showcased her very best Bollywood moves and the whole family partied together to the beat of Hindi soundtracks. We danced like I’d never danced before and went to bed that night sweatier and smellier than ever. In the morning, the children walked us to the bus stop and we all cried buckets. Waving goodbye to them from the window was one of the saddest moments of my life. Telling Jyomi that we’ve raised enough money to send her to college will, I’m sure, be one of the happiest.