The last three months of my life were spent in Nepal and India, almost exactly on the other side of the world from my home in America. While there, I spent about half of my time in a foster home for 24 kids in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Somewhat to my surprise, I established myself as a storyteller among the younger kids and was frequently pestered for stories, whether during mealtime or chore time or free time. Thus one of the traditions we established was telling the kids a story every night before they went to bed.
As I pondered how to share about my time in Nepal and India, I remembered those betime stories. So in honor of those kids, who I grew to love, here are three stories from my travels in Nepal and India.
How I Stretched Out My Stay at Mendies Haven
Mendies Haven — that’s the name of the foster home in Kathmandu. More than 50 years ago, a young Canadian woman named Elizabeth was asked to serve a Christian mission in India. She sacrificed much and did remarkable service, including some time working with Mother Teresa in Kolkata. While in India she met a young man named Tom Mendies, a descendant of traders from Western Europe. He had been invited by the king of Nepal to set up one of the first hotels in the country, which until that time had been closed to all foreigners, and being much in love they married quickly and moved to Kathmandu. But though she left her work, Elizabeth soon found a new way to serve. She noticed dozens of children on the streets working or begging, kids who had either been orphaned or abandoned by parents too poor to take care of them. First she began taking them into her home for a few days. Before long she and Tom had adopted ten of the children for whom they could find no other home. They then decided that they couldn’t adopt more children, but they continued taking them in and created a foster home. The kids called her Mummy Mendies; the home was called Mendies Haven.
I was led there by a coincidence — or perhaps providence. While working at a refugee camp in Greece, back in September, a volunteer named Daniel Mendies joined us. He told us a little about his home in Nepal and the children’s home his grandmother Mendies had started, now run by his own mother since Mummy passed on. I had wanted to visit the Himalayas for years, and the only thing I knew about Nepal was that it contained Mount Everest, therefore it must have part of the Himalayas. So I suggested to Daniel that I might visit Nepal sometime after Greece and — as befits one of the most hospitable people I have ever met — he warmly invited me.
I initially arrived at Mendies Haven only to drop my bag off and spend a couple of days before my two-week trip to India. Then I would return after India, perhaps for a week, before heading to the Himalayan mountains to hike and explore. But I was immediately enchanted with the people at Mendies Haven, both kids and caregivers. So while in India I decided to ask if I could stay until Christmas, to enjoy that lovely holiday with the Haven family. Then a few days before Christmas, both kids and caregivers said I really should stay until New Year’s to see the big bonfire that they have every year. Then a few days before New Year’s, Daniel Mendies said he would be coming home and staying until January 5. I had to see him again.
So it was that, between one thing and another, I ended up staying more than three weeks that first time. The 24 kids, aged 6 to 23, captured my heart. We persevered through the daily 5:30am prayer meeting together. We watched movies — both American and Indian — on Friday nights. We ate sausage or candy when I could get it. We did homework together in the evenings. And the Mendies family was just as delightful, sharing their food and their home and their hearts with me.
Finally, in the beginning of January, I pulled myself away to see the beautiful Himalayas. But by the time I did, I found I loved the Haven so much that I decided to return at the beginning of February to spend two more weeks with the kids. Daniel and his entire family continually assured me that I wasn’t a burden, and I have to believe them. They were generous and hospitable. And I am so grateful to them for allowing me to stretch… and stretch… and stretch my stay at Mendies Haven.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love India
When I arrived in New Delhi, India, I was sick — the normal stomach sickness derived from traveling in a developing country. I stepped off the plane and asked a taxi driver to take me to a travel agency so I could book a hotel for that night. The fast-talking travel agent, taking advantage of my tiredness and lack of familiarity with India, convinced me to book a 6-day package through various cities before the meditation retreat I attended. Within a day or two I learned that he had charged me several hundred dollars more than necessary for the trip. In those 6 days, I was overwhelmed by the poverty I saw everywhere. Then I flunked the meditation retreat.
By that time, I had reached my limit. I remember walking out of the meditation compound and thinking, “Why did I ever want to come to India?” I considered buying a bus ticket directly back to Nepal and finding refuge at Mendies Haven. But steeling myself to one more stop along the way, I booked a train to Varanasi, India.
Varanasi is the most sacred city in Hinduism. It is built on the shores of the Ganges River, where believing Hindus from across India (and other countries as well) come to throw the ashes of their loved ones after they have been cremated. It has one of the holiest and busiest temples in Hinduism. And it has a plethora of delightful foreign travelers.
On my other stops, I had been somewhat secluded from other travelers because the travel agent had booked me in single hotel rooms in out-of-the-way parts of town. In Varanasi, I booked hostels and was surrounded by other travelers. We didn’t always talk much, but it’s pleasant just having like-minded people around. In addition, I met a delightful woman named Christina, from Germany, on an early-morning boat tour and ended up accompanying her to several sites throughout the city. She even convinced me to stay in Varanasi one more day, something I could not have imagined happening two days before.
That last day I visited a sacred Buddhist temple with a group of travelers from Brazil, Australia, and the UK; saw the beautiful “sunset ceremony” on the river’s edge; and enjoyed the madness of the city’s holiest Hindu temple. By the time I left for Nepal, I had finally learned to love India.*
How I Became Infamous in a Himalayan Village
When I took to the Himalayas in January, I had been told it would be cold. Nepal is in the northern hemisphere, so it’s winter here. But I hadn’t really processed the fact that Kathmandu is farther south than Orlando, FL. Hiking during the day, even on cloudy days, required no more than a light sweater. And nighttime, while it sometimes got below freezing, was never unbearable with a good sleeping bag.
So, in that light sweater, on day 16 of Himalayan trekking, I arrived in the village of Ghorepani. It is seated on a ridge in the Annapurna range, one of the most famous mountain trekking sites in Nepal. Now, half of the reason that I was hiking was to see the mountains. But the other half was to spend time reading and writing in that beautiful landscape. While in those small mountain towns I read some collected speeches of Abraham Lincoln, part of the Bible, the Chinese ‘Taoteching’, and more. I also practiced writing short stories for my own amusement. But all of that took lots of time, so I stayed in several spots for more than a week.
I had tried this once before Ghorepani. I stayed with the same lodge for a whole week, and while it was really sweet to get to know the family it also got complicated — was I their client or their friend? So for the stay in Ghorepani, I resolved to avoid such attachments. Instead I decided to switch lodges every one or two days, depending on how I liked each one. But this created its own problems — when people asked where I was headed when I checked out, if I said I was staying in Ghorepani they immediately asked why I wasn’t staying at their lodge. “Can’t you just stay here another day?” And of course they all needed the money, it being the offseason there. I had to refuse more often than I liked.
Then on my last night I returned to one lodge which I particularly liked, and they kind of chuckled. “Have you been staying up here since you first came?” I smiled and confirmed. Then they talked among themselves and I realized that the neighbors had been talking about me — the strange white guy who came and stayed all day in their lodges and read fat books or wrote in his notebook. I was so embarrassed by my infamy that I left the town a day early and stayed at a village halfway down the mountain.
But even with the embarrassment, and the sore muscles, and the incessant diet of coconut biscuits, hiking the Himalayas was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I will return.
*Though to ruin the India story a little, I did have some incredible experiences along the way: the Taj Mahal, the Sikh Temple in Delhi, the friendliest personal driver in Delhi, incredible forts in Jaipur, and Buddhism’s holiest temple in Bodh Gaya.