My first adventure in Nepal led me to to the top of a mountain in one of the lesser known Rookum district in the Western Terai. With my guide Budrie (we communicated successfully 50% of the time), we began with a 25 hour bus trip and then 2 days of ferocious trekking through stunning rice paddies, mountain scape, and shanty towns to arrive to the capital city of Calalinga in Rookum, a part of Nepal that no Tourist has ever heard of.
My goal was to meet, find, and potentially rescue a family of siblings who had recently been orphaned by the annual diarrhea or cholera epidemic that comes at the outset of every monsoon season (late spring). This year's cases numbered in the thousands, and fatality rates have reached triple digits. When Papa Michael (Director of Papa's House: volunteernepal.com) shared an article in the Himalayan Times about 6 orphans, the oldest-- 13, who was left with the job of taking care of all her siblings after both parents died from cholera, I knew that I had to do something. For those of you who are pretty dumb (just kidding!, I didn't know what it was before I came to Nepal either), cholera is a disease that is pretty much eradicated in the world, except for in developing nations like Nepal. It is a water borne disease that causes a large amount of watery diarrhea. Treatment is relatively cheap and effective, but in rural regions of Nepal, there is little to no education, money, or outreach to help those affected.
Papa's House arranged a last minute trip/rescue operation to try and meet the journalist who would hopefully lead me to the orphans. If it was possible, I would bring them back to Kathmandu so they could the join Papa's House Family.
I prepared for my trip to combat cholera, bugs, by arming myself with a lot of anti bacterial sanitizer, three pairs of surgical gloves, and a laptop computer. Little did I know that none of these things would be necessary for what I encountered. After the 3 day harrowing journey just to meet the journalist, I was shocked to discover that the orphans would require an additional 7-8 day hike to reach, as they lived in a very remote part of the district.
Additionally, the journalist, who was once captured by Maoists, proved to be less than grateful for my efforts. He seemed wary of me and Papa's House and informed me that a financial donation (via him) would be a more effective way to help the orphans. And, to go into a region with such rampant cholera (where even health workers were fleeing) without medicine or money was pointless. It was devastating. The entire time, I was thinking-- This could have all been settled with a quick phone call. But we were in Nepal, a country where rolling black occur daily; why would cell phone service be any better?
However, the journalist did manage to set up a a small meet and greet with a local military official the next morning, who was able to give me some numbers and data regarding the epidemic... as well as some other interesting information:
The official had also read the same Himalayan Times article and was shocked by the story of the orphans. While he was appreciative of my efforts, having come all the way from America to rescue these kids, he too, was moved by the story and said he sent military helicopters to undergo a search and rescue for the family a week prior. However, he found nothing. Yup. NOTHING. He questioned whether
or not the orphans even existed, and implied that journalists sometimes make up stories like this one to gain sympathy or make the government look bad.
Meanwhile, my journalist is sitting right next to me (the one who met the children and wrote the story about the children) and Budrie (my translator) is sitting on the other side, probably absorbing 50% of the conversation.
I looked at my cup of tea an wondered if I had lost my mind. Later on, I asked Budrie what could have possibly happened. The two were completely negating each others' stories... Budrie looked at me quizzically and offered, Maybe the kids disappeared? Thanks, Budrie. That's helpful.
So that was my final explanation. A mysterious disappearance, an potentially unethical journalist, a shady government official, and me at the top of a mountain, wondering just how this story was going to end.
It turns out, that was my ending. After being asked for official documents that I didn't have, I was expected to leave politely, and head back down the mountain, empty handed without kids and answers.
As painful as it was to feel a sense of failure and confusion, it was eye opening and remarkable to learn and experience what communication is like in Nepal. With limited email, phones, cell phones, and mail, people make must make pain staking efforts to get information, which oftentimes, is still marred with inaccuracies.
What I learned from my adventure is that information is the key to solving these problems. You can rescue orphans, but the true gift is preventing them from becoming orphans in the first place. Health education (especially in rural, lower caste areas) is vital and hopefully the aim of my next visit to Nepal.
In other news, I'm back and happy... and living in New York City. (Kinda like that other salsa from those old Pace Picante Salsa commercials)