I spent the month of April this year in Kathmandu. I love to travel, and after a two-week stint in 2014 doing volunteer pediatric massage in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I jumped at the chance to join the same volunteer organization, Buds to Blossoms, for their first foray into Nepal.
Most of my fellow volunteers combined their time in the region with treks to Himalayan base camps or around Lake Pokhara, side trips to Bhutan, elephant rides in the rainforest. I did none of that – my focus was on the children and I stayed in Kathmandu and participated in all three weeks of the program.
Four mornings a week, we went to an orphanage where the children ranged in age from six months to about 16 years. All children need loving touch, orphans more than most, but we had to narrow our range, there were so many children. We concentrated on the babies and toddlers.
Since the earthquake of 2015, the orphanage could no longer occupy the grand old crumbling blue wedding cake of a palace it had formerly been housed in, but next to it were smaller concrete buildings and a generous yard with a vegetable garden and small playground. Every morning we walked through the garden where some older children hung back shyly or smiled boldly, all meeting us with palms together and the ubiquitous Nepali greeting, "Namaste." When we reached the building where the babies and toddlers lived, they would often be blasting a Bollywood tape from a giant speaker, and barefoot preteen girls practiced their dancing in the courtyard in a row, hands on hips, glancing over one shoulder, pointing at an invisible audience. As everywhere in Kathmandu, dust was rampant and uncontrollable. We left our sandals on the racks outside and stepped into chaos.
The room was divided between babies and toddlers by a row of painted wooden boxes. On the toddler side were two rows of little wooden beds. On the other side were the babies, eight girls and one boy. Each had their own metal box crib with a pad and blankets, and each wore a cloth diaper folded and tied in a special intricate manner that we volunteers tried and mostly failed to replicate. Like all the children, they were dressed from a huge pile of communal clean laundry. One bottle was passed from baby to baby, and swallowable bits of plastic toys were strewn about the floor.
We started with the babies. Each volunteer would go to a crib and pick up an infant, then we sat on the floor. Our function was not only to provide therapeutic massage, but sometimes just loving touch, cuddling, singing, rocking. When I teach infant massage to parents my goal is to help them become adept at massaging their own baby, so I mostly demonstrate and rarely get the chance to massage a baby myself for a full hour. It was delightful!
Although the caregivers on staff at the orphanage were attentive and could be affectionate, there were precious few of them – usually only two women were on duty, supervising nine babies and about 23 toddlers (!) Wary of us at first, the ladies soon realized that we could be trusted with the children and the temporary influx of loving foreigners meant the children got some much-needed attention while the staff got an extra break.
The plan was, the first hour we would spend with the babies, then move next door to the toddlers. All good, except once the toddlers had experienced the lap-sitting, caresses, and therapeutic touch on offer, they were desperate for it to happen immediately, and by our second visit they began to climb over the low partition to the baby side, jumping like raiding warriors into cribs, onto our heads, stealing oil bottles and baby wipes and generally terrorizing the baby-volunteer populace in their eagerness. They were so cute and so starved for love it was impossible to blame them, but it they also made it quite difficult to both safeguard the babies and give them their hour of attention. I soon learned to keep my glasses in my bag by the door, because they would be snatched from my face.
Once the baby hour was up, we moved over to the toddler side, and anarchy reigned. One day I had a little fellow on my lap and was continually assaulted by his needy, crusty-nosed peers trying to push him off and take his place, occasionally snaking in a punch. That is, until he fell asleep as I sang to him. After that, for the rest of the hour, they left him alone, somehow respecting his right to nap.
Later, our schedule was changed so we came in later when the toddlers were in school, and from then on we spent all our mornings with the babies. Although I missed the toddlers and dearly wished we could have given them more time, the oxytocin-soaked atmosphere in the baby room was overwhelming, moving and beautiful then, the only sounds the soft singing and cooing back and forth. The babies came out of their shells. At first not making eye contact, distant and emotionally unconnected, they grew to love looking into our eyes, mimicking faces, raising their voices in delight and responding with enthusiasm, their nervous systems awakened to relating.
When we left on the last day of the program, the toddlers stood in the door of their classroom and waved at us adorably, not holding any grudges. I wanted to stay and hold every one of them, infinitely, protect them from whatever their futures held, grateful to them for letting me express and receive such a richness of human love.
Happily, we were told that all the babies and virtually all the toddlers would be adopted. I like to think we helped prepare them to relate and communicate with their new families. I like to think the time we shared will live in their hearts as it does in mine.