My husband, Stephen, and I waited on the quiet side street outside Katmandu's motorcycle shop. It was 1972. The late-afternoon sun gilded the temple spires and soft-hued the wood buildings. In this burnished air, even the long wait to rent a motorcycle would have been pleasant - had it not been for the beggars.
They were boys, about seven to 13 years old. Their hair matted, their bodies filthy, their voices harsh, they roamed the dusty streets barefoot and in rags, aimless as a swarm of flies.
Now as they gathered near us, I looked away. "When a Western person goes East, he goes mad," an English traveler in India had once told us. "To protect your sanity, look away!"
But I failed to look away soon enough, so I saw that they were taking turns - no, fighting for turns to swing a desiccated rat by its tail. It seemed the object of their game was to see who could swing it around the fastest. When they grew tired of the game, they hurled the rat like a Frisbee across the street.
Then they noticed us.
"Mister, please! Money, money, mister!"
"Please, I am poor. You give me money!"
Their loud voices were like the poignant barks of harbor seals: crude and futile.
As the beggars came close to us, I recoiled at their lousy hair and rat-stained hands. "No!" Stephen shouted, shooing them away with his arms. "No!" I shouted, remembering other travelers' cautionary words: You can't give money to all beggars, so better not give to any. When you see begging kids, they're not really poor; their parents teach them to scam money from tourists. Give to charities, not individuals. It's arrogant to help beggars in other countries; you're disrupting another society.
We rented a Honda and, early the next morning, wound our way through the Panchkhal Valley. We zipped along a narrow mountain road through deep gorges, past snaking rivers. Towering pinnacles covered by cascading creepers loomed above us like gigantic weathered tombstones. We had entered the misty landscape of a Chinese scroll painting.
It was then that I had a revelation: The Chinese vertical landscapes I had admired for so many years in San Francisco's Asian Art Museum were not, as I had believed, stylized depictions of mountains. The artists had painted skinny, vine-covered pinnacles because they saw skinny, vine-covered pinnacles. My realization, that sometimes a reality defies preconceived notions and turns out to be precisely as it appears, exhilarated and humbled me.
On our return to Katmandu, we went for a walk in one of the villages, where a mangy dog bit me on the back of my leg. The dog bite forced us to stay in Nepal another two weeks. Taking full advantage of our extra time, we bicycled through the countryside, took tea with Tibetan refugees, and visited storybook temples.
One afternoon, in front of a small temple, we watched itinerant performers juggle pots and pans while crossing a rope strung between two poles. Weaving among the spectators, a group of boys was selling something. They had short, combed hair, were dressed in clean shirts and trousers, and wore shoes and socks. The boys passed through the crowd holding large enamel plates covered with tea towels. "Crpes, monsieur?" they asked. "Crpes, madame?"
The little beggars.
The same day we arrived in Katmandu, two young men arrived from New Caledonia, a French island near Australia. They were traveling through Nepal, intending to stop no more than a couple of days, for they were intent on trekking. The day they arrived they noticed a group of orphan boys begging. That night they followed the boys and discovered that they lived on the wind-swept roof of an abandoned building. The next day the men rented an apartment. Then, bribing the boys with food, they deloused them, bathed them, and bought them clothes. Discovering that the boys had never been to school, the men rented another apartment for a classroom.
The week my husband and I had been sightseeing, the boys had become schoolchildren. The young men were giving them daily lessons in reading, writing, and math. They were also teaching the boys to make crpes so they could earn a living. The men vowed that the boys would never beg again.
During the rest of my stay in Katmandu, each time I saw the boys with their steaming plates of homemade crpes, I marveled at their seemingly enchanted metamorphosis.
Soon, however, we heard that the Nepalese government and the New Caledonians were in a tug-of-war over the boys. The government charged the men with meddling by teaching Nepalese children a useless language: French. The New Caledonians argued that they had also hired tutors to teach the children Nepali and English. Then the government accused the men of cultural imperialism by educating beggars above their caste. The men said their goal was to find adoptive parents for the boys, and that might happen outside Nepal. The government branded the men as kidnappers and threatened to deport them. The young men appealed to the United Nations.
On our last day in Nepal in mid-May, one of the boys handed us a flyer. It read:
YOU ARE WELCOME TO VISIT
OUR SCHOOL. COME EAT
DELICIOUS FRENCH CREPES!
That evening we climbed rickety stairs to the apartment classroom to attend this back-to-school night for the orphans. The day had been hot, and the walls still radiated warmth in the small room. The children's art was everywhere. Math problems were chalked on the portable blackboard. One of the younger boys had drawn an elephant and, in a patchwork manner, had colored it with every crayon in the box. When I admired it, he wrote his name on the picture and gave it to me as a gift. An older boy who had picked up a lot of English from travelers sang a song he'd written. The boys sold a lot of crpes that night.
A year later, in New Zealand, I opened the Wellington Post and saw the headline: "Now They Have a Home." Beneath it was a photo of the boys when they were beggars. The article explained that one of the New Caledonians who had rescued the beggars was in town raising money for them. The boys were living in a Jesuit monastery and learning the restaurant business.
I have returned often to San Francisco's Asian Art Museum. When I stand before the sublime Chinese landscape scrolls, my thoughts return to Nepal and that afternoon when I realized the truth about these paintings, that they represent exactly what the artists saw. And I remember, too, the beggars of Katmandu and the young men who saw what should have been shockingly apparent to me even then: that the filthy beggars were children.
Precisely what they appeared.