“…I packed my bag, threw caution to the wind and set out on a walk that became one of the most important journeys in my life."
After five days of sweaty thigh-burning trekking, I had yet to see the majestic peaks of the Annapurna mountain range in central Nepal. For the past four mornings, before consuming my daily dhal bat, roti and hot tea, I had opened the shutters in my quaint guest room for a potential prized look of the mountains. Each day, however, the gray skies left me guessing whether the mountains were a reality or a figment of my imagination. I was 28-years-old and had always felt a need for accomplishment, especially when I traveled. If Lonely Planet told me I had to see it, it was on my to-do list and no one was getting in my way, but what if my travel guide had it wrong?
My overall experience in Nepal started out with similar uncertainties. I landed in Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal with the primary objective of performing volunteer work for a local charity and exploring the mystical country surrounded by the Himalayas. Why Nepal? I had eight weeks off between business school and the start of my new job and figured I should use this unique opportunity to travel as far away from home as possible. With ten immunizations injected into my bloodstream and 80 Cliff bars packed in my EMS travel bag, off I went.
The trip I purchased was part of a nonprofit package that included a week or so of hospitality and rudimentary language training in Kathmandu, followed by four weeks of hands-on charity work. My fee for the trip was a donation that included food, lodging and educational training. In reality, the only inclusions were unsanitary living conditions, parasite-filled drinking water and a mild case of giardia that almost sent me home in the first week. In fact, an Irish girl had signed up for the same trip and made it only a few days before flying back to her homeland for medical treatment. What had I gotten myself into? I decided that I had to get out of this situation and fast. Even if I hadn’t yet learned how to say “How are you?” in Nepalese (it is Tapailai Kasto Cha? by the way), I needed to move on or go home. Having learned that one of the orphanages needed a volunteer, I packed my bag, threw caution to the wind and set out on a walk that became one of the most important journeys in my life.
The destination was just inside Ring Road on the western part of Kathmandu. In spite of the major highway being riddled with obstacles like cows, motorcycle exhaust and bystanders, I made it. As soon as I arrived, several young children ran to my side and guided me to their home. I walked with them to the second floor of the apartment building where I was greeted by many more children. In fact, 35 total children from ages two to 15, were all living in a three-bedroom apartment with one bathroom and a partial kitchen. In addition to the 35 children was the chairman of the orphanage, his wife and a didi (a sister who helped out with the house). I still don’t know if they were even expecting me. Regardless, the smiles on their faces told me I was welcome, and in an instant, I knew why I had come to Nepal.
For six weeks I lived in that apartment and experienced how conflict-displaced children deal with impoverished conditions, sicknesses and hunger. Too young to even know the difference, they cherished every slice of life they could, every morsel of nourishment, every opportunity to smile. One child in particular, Santosh Khatri, fascinated me. Santosh was one of the older boys in the house who led and helped the others. No more than 14-years-old, he demonstrated the heart and soul of a lifelong philanthropist. He gave his time and energy to make sure the group was taken care of and that they listened to the adults in the house. I was fortunate he helped me by guiding me around the city, making sure I felt comfortable in a foreign place. His and the other children’s selflessness blew my mind. I remember giving them a basket of apples one day, expecting them to grab and compete with one another because of their hunger. Rather than grab them, they passed them around, waiting for each child to get one before they took a bite. Wow! One day, I gave the group a tennis ball. That damned tennis ball lasted the entire time I was there. It was shared by all. We had so much fun with it. For me personally, each day was a wakeup call to my own perception of life. I had never experienced so much unconditional loving, giving and sharing before. I had never been around a group of people, kids no less, with greater appreciation for each other.
After my surprising experience at the orphanage, I started the final leg of my trip: a hike to see the spectacular sunrise vista of the Annapurna mountains. On the fifth and final morning, with yet no views, I finished my dhal bat, chugged down my tea and headed up to Poon Hill in the dark predawn. After an hour-and-a-half climb, the sky had lightened to a hazy gray fog. I reached the top of Poon Hill and immediately searched the cloud cover. I stared straight ahead, left and right—no mountains. That’s it? I remember asking myself. At that moment, the wind picked up slightly and the clouds started to part. Out of the clouds came the most magnificent view I had ever seen in my life. I lost my breath and myself in the Himalayan sky.
I’ll never forget that moment in my life. It was truly amazing. As with the unexpected lessons I learned from the orphans in Kathmandu, the journey was more than worth it. My experience in Nepal taught me how to give and how to appreciate life’s blessings. I was forever changed. The shirt I am donating to elovate.us is one I have held onto for more than 15 years now. I wore it during those times with the kids, helping and giving. To me the shirt is so much more than just clothing: it represents how I want to live my life. Thanks to Santosh and my Nepalese friends, I can now share this experience.
Thank you Bryan for sharing your awesome story. We've repurposed Bryan's donated shirt and created "Story Tags" like you see below to be sewn on new elovate.us t-shirts so that we can connect with each other and make new stories to share.