By Elizabeth Jaeger
I followed twelve-year-old Anup through the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal, into a tangle of broken down, dilapidated apartment buildings. We had met in Durbar Square and he wanted to show me where he lived, convinced that if I knew the truth I would invite him to trek with me through the Himalayas. I was new to traveling, fearful and certain that he was trying to embroil me in some sort of scam. Looking around, I noticed that windows in the majority of buildings were either cracked or missing, doors had rotted off of their hinges and paint, that which remained, was severely chipped. Women haunted the alleys either doing laundry at communal water basins or digging in plots where the dirt was either too rancid or too depleted of minerals to grow anything they planted. Their clothes were so old and worn they looked more like rags that may once have been colorful but were now faded. Hands were dirty, faces exhausted and the few eyes that darted up to catch a glimpse of me were numb. One girl who said hello to Anup looked to be about twenty-five, but Anup said she was only a year older than him.
When we reached what could loosely be described as a courtyard, Anup turned right and bounded up three steps to an open door. Raising my eyes to appraise the building I was about to enter, I felt ill. Neglected wouldn’t even begin to describe the state of the building in which Anup lived. Bricks had been torn from the walls and the holes they left looked like giant pock marks. Seven windows were shattered and jagged glass still stood in the frames. The front door was cracked, and could no longer be closed without scraping the floor. I was horrified to discover it was actually inhabited. In the States, it wouldn’t have passed a single inspection and it would have been condemned a long time ago.
However, Anup entered with the same ease, the same sense of familiarity that I used to have entering my parents’ house every day after school. We climbed up two flights of stairs, each step whining beneath the weight of our feet. I held my breath as best as I could, aiming to block out the foul stench that permeated the air; the smell of decaying flesh and bodily waste. The stairwell was lit by nothing more than a few holes in the wall. There was no banister, and I doubted any one had painted the walls in the past two decades, if they had ever been painted at all.
Reaching the second floor, Anup turned left down a dark narrow hallway and stopped about half way down in front of a door no thicker or sturdier than a sheet of plywood. As far as I could discern, there were no numbers or any other mark to differentiate it from any other room. There was neither a doorknob nor a lock to ensure privacy and security. Jabbing it with his foot, Anup easily pushed it open. My horror upon entering the building was nothing compared to the revulsion I felt stepping into his cell. I won’t even dare to call it a room, since the word itself radiates an element of warmth of which his cell contained none. It was no longer than ten feet and no wider than six. The floor was made of cement. There was no window to provide either light or ventilation. He had no bed, only two blankets spread out over the floor and a sleeping bag so thin I wondered how it could keep anyone warm.
Curiously, angrily, my eyes scanned the rest of his room, and the more they absorbed, the more repulsed I felt. There was not a single lamp, not even an outlet where one could be plugged in. There was no dresser, no desk and not a single appliance. Hung on a solitary nail punched into one of the walls was a t-shirt and plaid flannel shirt. In one corner was a small wooden table that stood about as high as my knee and spread out across it was a pair of socks, a toothbrush and a black comb. That was extent of his possessions, all he could call his own. I looked again to make sure I hadn’t missed something, but the inventory didn’t change. He had no television, no video games, no football or baseballs, no bicycle and not one chocolate bar. What kid back home could survive in that cell that Anup called home?
Outside the clouds broke and I could hear the rain lashing against the building. I wanted to turn around and run away despite the rain, but I was rendered immobile by a lightning bolt of guilt which ripped though my consciousness and burned through my body with such recklessness I’d never forget it. Not once had I ever gone to bed cold. Not once did I ever know what it was like to go hungry. Not once was I ever deprived of a summer holiday. Yet how many times as a child did I have a temper tantrum in a store because my parents refused to buy me a toy I wanted? How many articles of clothing did my mother buy me that I ended up hiding in the back of my closet to prevent her from pestering me to wear them? How many times did my parents ask me to do something but I refused because I was too busy? And how many times did I declare that they hated me simply because I felt cheated in one way or another? I expected everything I was given and not once did I ever consider the fact that there were those who went without simple necessities. Sure there were the commercials — “For the price of one cup of coffee you a child for a week”; the clichÃ©s — “You know there are people starving in Africa,” but how could they compete with the unpleasant reality in which I was submerged.
“Where is your family?” I finally found my voice, appalled by the realization that this young boy lived alone, far removed from the loving and sheltering arms of a family.
“My father was a drunk,” Anup explained, his face twisted in bitterness. “He went out one day to look for work and never came home. My mother has three sons and could not all of us. Since I was the oldest, she told me to leave.”
“How do you support yourself? Where do you get money to eat and pay rent?” I asked, even though it seemed absurd that anyone should have to pay rent to live in such a cold dreadful place.
“I give tours of Durbar Square and if I’m lucky tourists will pay me.” So that’s what he was after from me — money to survive. But could I really blame him? What would I have done had I been twelve and all alone on the streets in New York? But the greater question was — Could I trust him? Could I trust him up in the mountains where he had every advantage over me? “That’s why I had to learn English and German.”
“Did you learn in school?” I asked, amazed that this poor child — disadvantaged in so many ways — could speak multiple languages, whereas I — a privileged white American — could speak only one.
“No,” he scoffed. “Here school is only for people who have money. I learn from talking to people like you and from reading books that others have thrown away or given me out of pity.”
“It doesn’t seem fair,” I spoke aloud but the words were addressed to myself and my friends back home, friends who complain they are poor because they can’t afford to stay in a five-star hotel or go out to dinner every night.
“It’s not so bad,” Anup frowned, his eyes straying to the bleak walls. “Someday I’ll have a room with a window and I’ll be able to buy enough candles to light up my room to read when it gets dark.”
His words called me out of my cocoon of guilt, forcing me to further confront the hypocrisy of my life. “How do you manage?” I asked trying to envision what my childhood would have been like if I had been him.
“It could be worse. I could have to sleep out there,” he tossed his head towards the spot on the wall where a window should have been. “It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but at least I can stay dry and sleep without worrying about who might try to steal my shirt.” His optimism was astounding. He was looking at a nearly empty glass, and yet somehow managed to see it as half full.
“If you could have anything you wanted, anything at all, what would you ask for?” At that moment I could think of about a half a dozen things that would make his life better, easier, even happier, but I regret to say that not one of the things I thought of matched his response.
“I’d want to go to school.”
“School?” I spoke the word as if I hadn’t heard him correctly. I could ask a hundred kids back home that very same question and their responses would range from horses, to Playstation, to trips to Disney World. Many of them would probably even be happy to exchange school for one materialistic object or another. And I was certain that not one American kid, at least none that I knew, ever looked upon school in the same light as the boy standing before me.
“Yes,” he sat down on the cold cement floor, pressing his back to the wall and pulling his knees up into his chest. Instead of looking at me while he spoke, he looked at his feet. “If I could go to school, I’d never have to ask for anything ever again. If I went to school, I could get a real job and with the money I made I could buy anything else I might want.”
Completely and totally flabbergasted, I stared at Anup, wondering how at his age he came to the same realization that most Americans didn’t make until after high school, if they made it at all. There were still things I wanted, things I wished for every night, yet I stood there in that lonely cell doubting I’d ever have the means to acquire them. Perhaps, I had just been conditioned to want too much. Growing up spoiled I took the little things for granted. When you have a parent cooking dinner and tucking you in at night, I suppose it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really important.
“We should go shopping,” I suggested, turning to the door, having experienced enough squalor for the moment.
“What for?” Anup looked at me with round questioning eyes.
“Boots,” I smiled. “It doesn’t look like you have any and I’m not taking you into the mountains without a decent pair on your feet.”
“Boots are expensive,” his face fell. “I don’t have any money.”
“But I do.” I might end up regretting my decision to take him trekking but I feared regretting it more if I left him behind. In the short while I had known Anup, something in me had changed. My friends laugh at me, but for the first time in my life, I felt God speaking to me, or at least opening my heart so that I could understand what he wanted me to do. Anup’s story — the story of thousands of children worldwide – would haunt me until I found a way to share it with others, because, as a teacher, I knew that only through education and awareness does anything ever change.
Elizabeth Jaeger is a restless soul who enjoys traveling.Â Traveling for her is the keystone of life because it not only expands the mind, it expands the heart as well.Â More of her writing and some of her photography can be found on her .
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