The next morning I found myself again waking at 7am, even though I had a dreadful hangover. It was this morning that I worked out where all these early starts were coming from; as many of you know, that’s not my normal pattern. Both of the double windows in my room opened out on to the road and I couldn’t close them. In Nepal, everything has shut and the streets are dead by 10pm, but it’s all screaming, shouting, tooting horns and nattering – right outside my window – from 6am. Annoying, but beneficial.
As we nursed our varying levels of toxic shock at the breakfast table, Ben reminded us of what he’d got up to during the monsoon the day before. I’d been a little worried about him when he hadn’t returned in time to meet Drew; and then still hadn’t returned by the time Drew had settled in. Eventually, once the rain had subsided, Ben stomped into the courtyard reasonably dry – he’d taken shelter as I’d suspected. I couldn’t have ever guessed where he’d sheltered though.
Ambling out of the massage parlour, glowing warm with Thai man-handling, Ben had been asked by a young woman, begging with a little boy, if he would buy her brother some milk. While earlier that day I had said, “No, sorry” to the same girl asking them same question, Ben instead said “Of course” and then in the supermarket asked her about her situation, why she was begging and where she lived. I learn more about the charity and generosity in Ben’s character every day on this trip. She showed him her hand-made shack in a shanty town over the main road (a five-minute walk) and just as he felt he’d better be making a move, what with being English and therefore uncomfortable accepting overt hospitality, the rain came in. Trapped by the weather, he ended up teaching the girl, Rena, to read the back of the packet of powdered milk he’d bought for her family. His description of this entire experience was accompanied by a light behind his eye I’d only ever seen when we were working on our project to send graduates to teach English in Syria. It was humbling; especially as I had simply passed her by.
This morning, as we moaned and groaned about how much beer we’d drunk, we talked over the fact that all the money we’d spent on beer would have help this family immensely. Ben took us to visit them and we were welcomed with open hearts and immense generosity. I was humbled further by their hospitality. We had, of course, discussed the possibility of it being a trick, us being conned, or even worse. We were on our guard.
One of the things that made the whole experience more genuine was that Ben had also met a Cornish chap called Eric who does a lot of work in this shanty town. He and Rena had just covered all the shacks with waterproofing: his money, her effort. She told us how she took responsibility for sharing food and resources throughout the town; and how Eric had adopted her and was organising for a visa for her to visit Germany with him (apparently it’s easier for him to get her a German visa than a British one).
We were cautious with all of the edible offerings that were lavished upon us, but probably not careful enough – not wanting to offend. The family was Rajisthani (Hindu) and served us very milky, very sweet tea; chipati with saag; and lassi. Then bottles of Fanta were produced, which were deferentially cap-popped in front of us. In this tiny shack, decorated with drapes and religious symbols, were gathered ten children from newborn to teenager – some with immaculate English, who had spent a year or two at school thanks to Western philanthropy, some with none at all. As well as sisters, aunties and grandmothers, we were soon joined by brothers of an older age bracket, come down from working the street to meet us and lavish us now with praise and compliments. (Apparently my hair is so silky I look like a Bollywood movie star. Shucks!)
We were slowly deciding between us that we wanted to do something for this family. Our inquiries about how we could help were met with deference and embarrassment. We insisted and were told that one of Rena’s brothers had had his shoe shining kit stolen, including the box that contained it, and where the shoe rests, which we were told was the only way he could make a living and bring in a steady income. Otherwise they had to rely on single acts of kindness. Give a man a fish, etc. If we could buy them a box with all its accoutrements, then that would help them in a way a cash donation or purchase of food would not.
We agreed to see the man who sold the boxes and my concern was aroused when he appeared quicker than expected, box and bag of bits at the ready for demonstration. We were taken in by his spiel. We asked him a price and considered it. We talked it over and felt we were doing some real good. We said we’d go away and talk about it more and return the next day with a decision. My concern was further aroused when he said he was leaving that day – the oldest trick in the book. We decided to spend some time away from the situation to try to gain some perspective. We went back to the guest house and thought it through, asking locals for advice and attempting to cynically pick holes in the salesman’s story. We did; and we were relieved to have not fallen all the way down his well of deceit. Again I was humbled by the maturity and level-headedness we all managed to mix successfully with open hearts and charitable desires.
More rain delayed our return, but Rena shocked us by turning up at the guest house. Ben and Drew (I had retired, worried about the gurgling and pain in my tummy) told her that we weren’t going to buy the box, but that we’d like to give her three month’s rent (about GBP 20 between us). She simply wouldn’t accept the money and so the boys took her back to the supermarket and spent the money on food for her and her family.
I’d felt a feeling in my gut that I’d only ever felt when I’ve been conned or tricked. I’d only felt that with the sneaky, wheeler-dealer box salesman; not with a single one of Rena’s family. We all agreed that while Rena was clearly not naive to the scam, we never felt pressured into giving them anything. In fact, they did all they could to shy away from our generosity. While it may well be that the whole thing was a set-up, we’ve come away trying not to think ill of anyone but the box salesman.
It wasn’t even a new box.