You Can't Save Everyone
© Copyright 2020 by Steven Stilwell
2021 Travel Contest Runner-Up
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
In February of 2018 I left my home in Vancouver, Washington in the United States for a thirteen month long backpacking trip across the globe. The first country that I flew into was Kathmandu, Nepal where I stayed for roughly a week during which time the events of this story occurred. Though this was not my first time traveling internationally or experiencing developing nations it has stuck with me.
It cost me less than two hundred American dollars to learn that I couldn't save the world. I was in Kathmandu, a few years after the earthquake and the city still hadn’t recovered.
I was visiting a friend who worked in the city. She lived in Thamel, the expat district and when I arrived she met me at the airport to help me find my way around.
We found a taxi and our driver zipped through the unpaved roadways, stopping for nothing, be it human, motorbike or bus. Dust billowed from the rubber tires eroding the dirt paths. The pollution seemed alive, it stuck to you, choked you.
We stopped next to buildings, broken, jagged, still damaged from the earthquake three years ago. Now they were full of bamboo scaffolding which held Nepali workers equipped with t-shirts and flip flops who welded and poured cement for one dollar a day U.S.
I thought that cab ride would be enough. A crash course into the developing world, a shock treatment to protect myself against the poverty and sadness that was part of travelling abroad.
At first it seemed to have worked. Those first few days I was accosted by “mothers” without children who would shake baby bottles in your face, while groveling for money to buy formula. Then there were the fake sadhus who rubbed colored powder on the foreheads of anyone with white skin in a mock blessing and then demanded money.
Once, while taking a taxi down the Kantipath I saw a teenage boy with no legs propel himself on a skateboard with his hands down the sidewalk while begging for money from passersby.
A few minutes later when the taxi stopped to let me out I saw the same boy beaten and kicked out of Thamel by the police so he would not disturb the tourists.
It all became routine after a while. Each unfortunate thing sets the bar for the next and if it doesn’t rise over it then you shrug it off and it turns mundane. It builds up a false sense of confidence that makes you feel more experienced than reality reflects. As long as the next situation doesn’t cross over that baseline then you can handle anything. That was my mistake.
I had only experienced Nepali poverty from behind the rosy lens of a tourist living in Thamel. Seeing as eighty percent of Nepal's economy is based on tourism that is exactly what the government wants: for the foreigners to stay in their place of comfort and spend money on overpriced baubles and beer and not be bothered by the dirtiness that surrounds it. I was not ready to leave my gilded nest, and when I did it broke me.
The day I met Vrish I was walking down the street outside my hotel with no particular goal in mind. At this point I had been in Kathmandu for a while and was used to being stopped on the road by the locals.
When I was stopped by a man in his mid-thirties, I was fully prepared to brush off whatever scam he was pedaling. Instead of begging for money the man introduced himself as a mandala artist who worked at a local art school.
“There was a festival going on,” this man said and “if I was interested he would like to show me the festival as well as the artwork that students at his school had produced.”
I was game. There was this idea in the back of my mind that if I could make a genuine Nepali friend, then I could transcend the traditional tourist stereotype and become a man of the people.
For the next hour we walked through the Old District of Kathmandu. The buildings here had all been devastated by the 2015 earthquake and still not repaired. Most were standing thanks only to concrete support beams and guide wires anchored to the ground.
Our tour culminated in Vrish’s art school where I paid less than one hundred dollars for a mandala which had taken him and his classmates weeks to complete by hand.
Vrish walked me outside the school which was a cramped building inside a concrete courtyard that was only accessible via a narrow corridor leading out from the main street.
Once we had reached the dusty bustling street side Vrish bowed to me low and said that he was honored that I had chosen to support him and his school. To show his appreciation he invited me to have tea with his family the following day.
I accepted without hesitation and after agreeing to meet him in front of my hotel at ten o’clock the next day I strutted back to my room, ecstatic with my abilities to make friends.
The next day dawned cold. It was February in Kathmandu and the valley still had the chill of winter in the morning air.
I left my hotel at nine o’clock, an hour early, in the hopes of having some breakfast before meeting Vrish’s family.
As soon as my feet touched sidewalk I noticed that Vrish was leaning on the wall of the building across the street. His clothes were crumpled and he had bags under his eyes.
He noticed me right away and rushed over, dodging cars, almost as if he was scared that I would run away.
“You ready?” he asked, voice shaking.
“Sure, it’s early but why not,” I said. The time didn’t much matter to me even if I was a bit hungry.
Vrish hailed a taxi and we were off, winding in and out of the busy throng of Kathmandu traffic, swerving to avoid motorbikes, stray dogs and potholes while zipping between buses and cargo trucks.
Vrish’s family lived in an area of Kathmandu called Bouda, which had been all but destroyed during the earthquake. The terrain is mostly dusty dirt fields without grass, interrupted by the occasional pile of concrete rubble, bricks or lone single story structures made from recycled cinder blocks and rusty sheet metal.
Bouda is so close to the airport that the grinding roar of jet engines becomes background noise, mixed into the crow of the rare scrawny chicken or morose bray of a lone goat.
Vrish led me through these rubble strewn meadows, down alleys with cracked buildings and unpaved dirt tracks until we reached a rust covered gate set in an unpainted concrete wall.
He pushed it open and we wound our way through rows of squat single story buildings with tin-metal roofs.
Women clogged the walkways, scrubbing laundry and dishes on the hard ground and then throwing the clean, soaking garments to children waiting on the low roof tops to spread the clothes out to dry in the sun.
We walked further on into the maze dodging the clotheslines and toddlers until we reached the outside of Vrish’s home. His wife greeted us first, smiling and stooped over a bucket of suds. She stood up at once and led Virish and I inside.
Their entire home was a single ten by twenty concrete box with foam mats on the floor for sleeping and sitting with a gas stove pushed in a corner to prepare meals.
Vrish took a pillow from a pile of bedding, and setting it on the mat, gestured for me to sit. His wife walked over to the stove and started boiling water for tea.
I took off my shoes and walked across the family’s home in a few short strides and sat down. Vrish sat down next to me and smiled.
We sat facing the window and I could see out into the narrow dirty street. From the house across the way one of Vrish’s neighbors had a radio playing an upbeat hip hop song in a language I couldn’t understand.
Sitting on a stool outside was a small girl playing with a wooden paddle that had a bright green rubber ball attached to it by a string.
The door to the house banged open and two small boys ran inside. They were both shirtless and covered in dirt. The oldest looked ten years old and the youngest was five or six with dried mucus around his cracked lips and nose.
The boys rushed over to us, teetering with a lack of coordination found in the young.
Vrish smiled and introduced me to his two sons. Akal was the older one. He was shy and kept his distance. After Vrish spoke his name he nodded with his eyes to the floor and took out a pink plastic flute and began blowing on it. Four of the six keys on it were broken so that it couldn’t hold a note. The shrill sound filled the room while Vrish waved toward his younger son. Veer was too young to be timid and crawled over and sat so close to me that he was almost in my lap.
Vrish’s wife walked over with a metal tray and two cups of steaming beige tea. I thanked her and took a sip. Before the liquid scalded my tongue I could taste the creamy sweetness that is characteristic of Nepali tea.
Next to me Vrish was also drinking his tea, smiling between short slurping sips. Akal was still blowing on his plastic flute and Vrish’s wife had seated herself behind her husband. Little Veer was still seated next to me and now he was coughing. It was an odd accompaniment to the pink plastic flute and the hip hop music that was still drifting over from the neighbors radio.
They were all staring at me.
To alleviate some of the tension I started to bob my head back and forth pretending to dance with the music.
The whole family broke into smiles, even Veer who was still coughing.
“You like the music?” asked Vrish.
“It’s a Punjabi song. Everyone here,” he gestured in a big circle with his hands, “is from Punjab in India.”
Akal had stopped playing his flute. Now both he and Veer were on their feet bobbing up and down, dancing with the music. They were so small that even sitting down I was taller than either of them.
Vrish finished slurping his tea. He pointed at my still full cup.
“No, no it’s very good,” I said. “Too hot. It burns my tongue.”
Virish smiled and then said something to his wife in Punjab. She started laughing and then said something back to which he chuckled. He turned to me and said, “she’s very glad you like it. She wants to know if you will stay for lunch?”
“Of course. I’d be honored to eat with you and your family.”
When Virish finished translating to his wife she was beaming. She fired off a few more rapid words in Punjab and he came back with, “she wants to know if chicken is alright?”
“Actually I’m a vegetarian.”
Vrish’s wife nodded at me with a serious face while he handed her some money, which she tucked into her sari before rising up and heading for the door.
Akar and Veer had lost interest in pretending to dance for me and were now throwing a blue ball back and forth between each other.
The hip hop music had stopped playing and now Ed Sheeran was echoing through the concrete complex.
Veer had missed Akar’s last throw and had dived on the concrete floor to try and catch it. The ball rolled past him and hit my leg.
I picked the ball up and with an underhand toss sent it back to Akar who caught it and grinned before sending it back to me.
Veer jumped up off the floor, coughing, his scuffed knee forgotten in the excitement of the new game, and closed in to form a circle around us to get a turn in.
Vrish scooted across the floor next to Akar and closed in our circle.
For the next twenty minutes we threw the ball back and forth between the four of us. More often than not little Veer would miss and then go pattering after it. On one of these occasions the ball rolled out the door and into the alleyway. Veer jumped out after it, coughing, followed by Akar’s laughter which was tinged with the fond cruelty that is exclusive to siblings.
Moments later Veer burst back inside the house triumphant, holding the ball above his head, which he threw at Akar.
The ball hit him just below the temple. The two brothers dove at each other and in a flash were a mass of arms and legs rolling on the ground.
The scuffle was short lived and moments later was broken up by their mother who walked through the door carrying two plastic bags of food.
She sat one of the bags which contained peas and carrots in front of Vrish and then went to work boiling water for rice.
Vrish grabbed a dark iron knife and began chopping carrots while Veer started shelling peas.
I scooted myself across the floor next to Veer and grabbed a few pea pods.
With everyone hard at work the small one room house was quiet for the first time since I had been there. The radio had stopped playing and the only interruption to the silence was the occasional pitter-patter of feet on the sheet metal roof as young women still walked back and forth, laying wet laundry to dry in the sun. I could see the runoff droplets from the wet clothes drip through the holes in the rusty roof.
Next to me Veer was coughing and shelling peas with a grin on his face. Over on the far side of the room Vrish had finished with his carrots and was now using a mortar and pestle to grind peppers and garlic into a curry while his wife squatted next to him pounding barehanded on dough that would eventually become flat bread.
It was gritty, it was dirty and the majority of it was a morose counterpoint to everything I had known growing up. There was beauty as well. The love and warmth between Vrish and his family would have been obvious to anyone with eyes.
Seeing this tenderness surrounded by stark poverty I felt betrayed, let down by the image of the Nepal I had built in my head. Even though they were refugees from India this family had more in common with the skateboard amputee than bright Thamel, gilded with prayer flags and rasta.
They existed in the same space, in the same city and were still worlds apart. Yet still, somehow they were both Nepal.
The little family was industrious and had the food finished in a matter of minutes. Before I knew it Virish’s wife was serving me rice, flatbread and curry on one of the two plates that the family owned.
I felt guilty as Vrish and the boys shared food off of the one other household dish. Vrish’s wife sat down by the stove and fried up more bread.
The peppers in the curry were fierce and sent tingling stabs of pain through my tongue and up through my sinuses, which culminated in tears forming at the edges of my eyes.
For all the pain the food was delicious. The garlic and spices I couldn’t name mingled beautifully with the rice and greasy flatbread that we used in place of silverware.
The room was quiet except for the sounds of slurping, chewing and sniffing coming from my running nose.
Across the alleyway Virish’s neighbor had turned the radio back on and was playing the same catchy hip hop music from before.
Vrish had finished his meal and was smiling at my head bobbing in time.
“I am glad you like the music. You know it is Punjabi.”
“Ya, that's what you said. It’s really nice. Catchy too.”
Vrish’s eyebrows furrowed together. “My wife's parents died in the earthquake. That is why we came here. To work. For two days me and my family were on a bus.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Two days is a long time to be on a bus.”
Vrish nodded and looked at the floor when he said, “Yes, very long ride. Someone stole my shoeshine box.”
“Yes. I was shoeshine in India. Someone stole my box and now I have no job. No work.”
“I thought you were an artist?”
“Just for festivals. I help sell. Other times there is no work.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to this. So I just stared guiltily at the empty plate of food in front of me.
“My friend.” Virish looked up from the floor and into my face. His brown eyes were wide and the sides would twitch after each word that he spoke.
“Would you support me?”
“What do you mean?”
“Would you help me get a shoeshine box?”
I broke eye contact with him and looked back down at my plate. Behind us I could hear Veer coughing.
“Um, well, um how much is a shoeshine box?”
Vrish spoke a few rapid words to his wife, who nodded and then left.
“She went to ask.”
No one in the room spoke. The silence made the air in the room feel thick. Vrish and both of his boys were staring at me which made my skin itch. I was doing my best to look anywhere but at them. The wait was short, at most five minutes but the intense atmosphere made time drip by like lazy molasses.
At last Vrish’s wife walked back through the front door and following her was a tall thin Nepali man carrying a wooden box and a duffel bag.
He smiled at the room and sat down across from me setting his wares between us.
“This is everything a shoeshine needs. It is a very good job. Seventeen thousand rupees only.”
While he was busy showing me the various brushes, shines and tools in the box I did the math in my head. Seventeen thousand rupees converted to about one hundred and seventy U.S. dollars.
It was too much. I had the money but I wasn’t working at the time. I looked at Vrish. He was blinking after each word the salesman spoke. It made his moustache twitch causing wrinkles and odd lines to form and then disappear from his face.
I was opening my mouth to tell him that I couldn’t help him when Veer let out a coughing fit that interrupted the shoeshine salesman mid pitch.
I looked once more around the one room house and then glanced back down at my empty plate. It’s not that much, I thought to myself. Hell there were times in college were I spent close to that on a night out.
“Alright, I’ll take it.”
Vrish’s lips stopped twitching and a broad grin broke out on his face.
I handed the salesman the money and he bowed to me before leaving the house.
All of the energy seemed to desert my body and in that moment it was all I could do not to slump against the wall.
Gathering myself I stood up and told Vrish that it was time that I went back to my hotel. He came and gave me a hug. I recoiled at his touch.
“Thank you. Thank you for supporting my family.”
I nodded and turned to leave. Looking over his shoulder I could see through the window the little girl sitting in the chair across the alleyway. The wooden paddle was laying on the filthy street and she was staring at us. Her hungry brown eyes, wide and glazed over, seemed to bore a hole right through me. I didn’t have the courage to meet them.
Shuddering, I left Vrish’s house and turned right down the narrow street, away from the little girl. The clotheslines were still full of drying garments and dirty water was pooling on the dirt walkway. I splashed through it, ignoring the wrinkled brown hands that reached toward me, begging for money.
Finally I had what I wished for. I was inoculated, hard, a man experienced in the suffering of the world but I was also heartbroken.
It was hard to care about anything at that moment. I didn’t care that I was walking through a refugee slum or that Vrish and his family were friendly with me because I was white and had a bit of money. I didn’t even really care about the money or that in the big picture I hadn’t helped anyone.
I was tired of Kathmandu. The constant hustle and bustle, the poverty and pollution and the clueless tourists with dreadlocks and baggy pants who wanted to pay for the chance to feel enlightened, while ignoring the segregated slums and jobless families that were a result of a corrupt government that was almost as impotent as I felt.
I had to walk a ways to find a taxi, but when I did it cost only three hundred rupees for him to take me back to Thamel. The first thing I did when I was back at the hotel was go to the receptionist and pay seven dollars to book a ticket on the first bus to Pokara in the morning.