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Kids, Katmandu and Courage

What the heck do I think I am doing? This is the question I ask myself as our motorcycle careens through the streets of Katmandu. There are no traffic lights and, from what I can tell, no traffic regulations of any sort. I grab my driver a little tighter and try to root myself into the seat of the motorcycle. Become one with the vehicle, become one with the vehicle I recite to myself. I figure if I can create some sort of attachment to this scary creature, perhaps it will not buck me off. We near a checkpoint. Barbed wire blocks the road and a surly gentleman in Royal Nepalese Army garb approaches us. As soon as he discerns the color of my skin, he waves us through without a word. All thoughts of being bucked off the motorcycle fade away when I see the man’s semi-automatic machine gun. We are traveling during a Bandh, a strike, in which all transportation is illegal in Katmandu. People are forbidden to work and forbidden to travel, that is, unless you are a tourist, which I obviously appear to be.

We pass the guard and I begin to chuckle. I am on the back of a motorcycle, traveling to the outskirts of Katmandu, Nepal – a country engulfed in a civil war. I was the kid who couldn’t go to sleep-overs due to homesickness and couldn’t ride Space Mountain in Disney World because the yawning darkness would incite a panic attack. So what am I doing half way around the world on the back of a motorcycle? When the motorcycle stops we get off, and walk to an open field. Then I see it; a two story pink building sits in the middle of four hay fields. Newly constructed, it is pristine. The indoor squat toilet is fully functional; the rooms are spacious and airy. The roof holds a cistern that can continuously store 24 hours worth of clean water. On the roof we look out over the Katmandu valley and watch six happy kids roll down haystacks in the adjoining farm. We’ve found a home for 20 orphans. And that is why I am here.

I turn and listen to Emma Cahilog-Rahman and Joe Brady talk about the specifics of the home. Emma is the Executive Director of a volunteer service organization in Nepal and Joe is one of their most dedicated volunteers. Just two days earlier Emma took me to visit 20 kids in an orphanage in Katmandu. The kids were living in squalor. The children had sores all over their body from their filthy bedding. They had no electricity, no running water and no heat. The lake behind the orphanage, their primary water source, was thick with green algae. The ‘Director’ of the orphanage is corrupt and steals almost all of the income meant for the orphanage. Emma and Joe have devised a plan to get the kids out and move them to this new home. They calmly discuss the logistics of moving the children to this home, and the economics of getting them set up in this new environment. I dumbly stare at them in admiration, and thank God they are on the ground and fighting for those with no voice.

Not seven days earlier I was hiking our last breathtaking (literally breathtaking) leg to Mount Everest Base Camp. As people vomited and labored to breathe, I found myself strangely exhilarated. I could see Base Camp in the distance. Blue helicopter wreckage marked the spot where thousands of people had begun the arduous ascent to the summit. Through a haze of low oxygen, even our lighters wouldn’t light, I found a quiet stillness within myself. Not only was I the kid in school that would become too homesick to go to sleep-overs, I was always grossly out of shape. I preferred reading indoors to any outdoor activity and was, therefore, always the last to be picked in gym class, the last person to crawl, wheezing, over a finish line, and the only girl on the team who never scored a goal. During a break I smiled quietly, I was determined to reach Base Camp. One hour later I, and four others, reached it first. I dissolved into tears when I called my family on our satellite phone. I believed that that moment could never be replicated. I was wrong.

Six days later we made it back to Katmandu and the real reason we were all in Nepal revealed itself.

Each person on the trek had to raise $2,000 to donate to orphans in Nepal. This money would be used to build an orphanage for 15 very needy children. We visited those children when we returned to Katmandu. As the kids played with our hair, wore our sunglasses and graced us with hugs and kisses, many of us felt like we were back at Everest Base Camp. Due to the funds raised on this trip, these kids will have a brighter, happier future. Even better than conquering mountains, I discovered there is no better gift than realizing you can change the world.

A month after my visit, the youngsters I mentioned initially were taken from their squalid orphanage and are now living in the pink building. They are happy and thriving. The 15 children we raised money for will move into their brand new orphanage this summer. Our volunteer service partner in Katmandu saved the 35 children I met during my time in Nepal, but many more children still sleep in the gutter each night.

The mountain has changed me. I find I crave hiking and the outdoors and adventure now. Physically I feel strong and confident. But the 35 children I met are what inspired me on this trip. I’m now convinced humans can do anything they set their minds too. It just takes a little bit of courage and a great deal of heart.

Courtney is the Executive Director of the non-profit GVN Foundation.