‘Who are you here for?’
KATHMANDU, Nepal – It was almost two years to the day after we started taking adoption classes that Yogendra first pointed his smile directly at us.A human sunbeam.After flying halfway around the world, we were jet-lagged, over-caffeinated and jumpy. After two years of frustration, filling out forms and riding an emotional roller coaster, we were finally in Bal Mandir orphanage (pronounced “Ball Mandeer”).When you climb out of the car at the orphanage’s front doors, adorable children rush up to you shouting, “What country? What country?””America,” we responded.”Ah, America!” they replied. “Who are you here for?””Yogendra,” we answered.”Yogendra is going to America!” they shout excitedly to each other, bouncing up and down.A child brought to Bal Mandir the same day as Yogendra was on his way to Italy. Another girl they know is on her way to Spain. A girl from another orphanage, whose adopting parents were on the same flights to Kathmandu as we were, is in Oklahoma. She seemed happy to go. They all seem happy to go.Chatting nervously with orphanage director Rabin Shrestha in his office, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye: A tiny boy appeared from around the corner, materializing all eyes and smile. He stood smiling for a moment, crawled into my lap, put his head on my shoulder and whispered, “daddy.”We hugged and I passed him over to my wife. He put his arms around her neck and whispered, “mommy.” We passed him over to our 13-year-old daughter, Morgan. He wrapped his arms around her and whispered “diddi,” the Nepalese word for older sister.
I was a puddle, everyone was in tears, even Rabin who sees this every day. I looked at Yogi and said, of all things: “What color car do you want?”Adopting an older child from a foreign country is a little like picking up a lay-away package. You pay some fees, fill out a couple final forms and they hand him over. From that moment on, he’s yours.The problems this one came with were medical and minor, not emotional, though all the experts tell us he’s supposed of have a bunch of abandonment and attachment issues. About an hour and a half later, my daughter, Morgan, was carrying him in her arms out Bal Mandir’s front doors while I followed, filming the event. He smiled and waved to the camera, he smiled and waved to the other kids, he smiled and waved to the staff. He jumped into the car to leave forever. Moments later, the driver motored out Bal Mandir’s front gates with Yogendra in the back seat facing forward toward his new life. He did not look back. He did not stop smiling.Bleak choicesAbout 10 days later, the night before we were to fly to Colorado on the other side of the world, we struck up a conversation with a bellman in our hotel.He asked Yogendra if he knew what was happening the next day.In Nepalese he replied, “I’m getting on an airplane and going to America with my family.”That bellman was about the only Nepali Yogendra would talk to, so we asked him to prod the boy for a little of his life’s story. It’s not a happy story. As close as anyone can place it, he’s 5, which means he’s not old enough to remember much of the turmoil engulfing the country – the Maoist revolution to overthrow Nepal’s government. His home province, however, was one of the first places the Maoists swept through.He said his parents are old, although it’s not clear if he’s talking about his Nepali parents or us. He said his mother is dead, and that a man – some sort of male authority figure – brought him to Kathmandu.
He told the bellman, in Nepalese, that he’s from a part of Nepal called Jumla. He said it took a long time to travel. “Days,” he said, although he is not sure how many.We scrambled for a map and with the bellman’s help we learned that Jumla is both a province and a village in remote western Nepal. The bellman patiently explained that the village is at least a two-day walk from the nearest passable road. Yogendra and the man who hauled him had to get to that road, where they could catch a bus. They rode that bus at least two days to reach Kathmandu.It took a day or so for the man to learn the best part of the city in which he could leave Yogendra so the boy would be found quickly. With a Himalayan winter approaching and unrest all around, the choices appeared bleak: freeze to death or starve to death.Whoever this man was – maybe his father – he did the tough thing: He transported this boy to safety and a chance at life.No one knows how long it really took them to get to Kathmandu, how long it took to find the correct part of the city, how long they were there together, how long Yogendra was alone – or if that’s what happened at all. No one knows what happened to that brave man.No one will ever know.All anyone knows for certain is that when the police finally found Yogendra, huddled in a concrete corner, he was crying, screaming and all he could tell them was his first name. And we know that he is ours, and that we’re just as lucky as he.The police picked up six other kids the same day in the same part of the city. That was Nov. 1, 2003. Winter was looming.We’re the lucky onesIn the Himalayas, in the country that boasts Mt. Everest inside its borders, winter will do everything it can to kill you. Food is difficult to come by for many people.The average lifespan is just over 40 years. It’s not difficult to see why.
The sheer reality of life in Nepal is far different from the silly-headed romanticizing about attaining enlightenment through various Eastern religions. Our lives are easy, but complicated, because we make them so. Their lives are hard – hard is worse.The average income is around $350 a year, and all those people huddled under a blue plastic tarp are not camping. That’s their home. Everyone in Nepal is trying to get to Kathmandu. It’s where the jobs and money are – what money there is.A few days after we landed in Kathmandu, the Maoists blockaded the city. Traffic had a tough time getting through.A woman who carried vegetables to the market every Saturday was told her bus would not be allowed to cross the blockade and enter the city. So she carried her vegetables seven miles into the city center, sold them and walked the seven miles back to catch the bus back to her village.She was thrilled to have saved the equivalent of the extra dollar she would have spent on bus fare, and was unconcerned that she had to walk 14 miles to get it.It is from this world that Yogendra and the five other kids were taken the day the police collected them, on Nov. 1, 2003. By the summer of 2004 they had all been placed with families in the U.S. and western Europe, where there is a good chance they will never be as cold or hungry, and they will likely not be imprisoned or killed for their political views.We have no idea how much the tale of Yogendra’s travels is factual and how much we’re conjecturing; we can never know. We know he was completely and utterly alone when the police found him.Until we started connecting some of this information, filling in the blanks with stories that could be true, we were constantly told what a wonderful thing we were doing. Compared to someone walking for days with a scared, squirming kid in his arms, dodging terrorists and assassins, finding the best possible place to leave him in a sprawling city, then having the courage to actually do it, hoping he’ll be found by someone who will have his best interests at heart and take care of him, and not someone who wants to sell him into slavery – compared to that, over-indulged Americans like me filling out forms, writing big checks and riding an airplane for a couple days doesn’t seem like such a big deal.Yogi laughs easily and honestly, his eyes sparkle. He’s bright and charming. He is not shy. He plays tricks on anyone and everyone. In a few years, when he and buddies are sitting around trying to think of what they can do, and to whom, he’ll be the kid who pops out with, “OH! I know what we can do!”While we were in Nepal, people who were not being brought to America kept telling us how lucky he is. It took less than three minutes with Yogendra in our arms to realize we’re the lucky ones.Staff writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Vail Colorado