by Becky Hardy
She was not yet called Anna when I first met her, and she was so beautiful she took my breath away. Her greasy hair was in a topknot, and her filthy toes poked from her flipflops onto the dirt floor of the squatters' kitchen. Fresh evidence of a runny nose belied her recently washed face and hands, and her intense brown eyes seemed somehow bigger than her face. Even through thick smoke churning from the open fire, I could clearly see fear in her eyes. She was trying to be strong.
So was I.
[Photo: The first picture ever taken of Anna]
She had surely seen white foreigners before, as she had lived on the popular Himalayan trekking route known as the Annapurna Circuit for at least half her short life. I gave her a smile and sat awkwardly on a rock in the dirt, tucking my dusty hiking boots beneath my long Tibetan skirt, realizing that I was likely the first foreigner inside the family's humble quarters. Anna’s mother must have told her that we would be important visitors, so she must be quiet and behave.
My Tibetan friend, Sandoop Lama, and I looked closely at Anna and, in English, discussed her fate. She was very small -- I guessed around three years old. But her mother, Meera, insisted she was four. Meera knew that if her daughter were younger than four, we wouldn’t take her down the mountains, to live in Kathmandu.
Anna was uneasy with the attention of two strangers sitting so near, while her mother smiled nervously and made tea for her guests. We asked Anna to stand up and walk around and, indeed, she did seem perfectly mobile and healthy. Sandoop asked her some friendly questions in Nepali, gauging her language skills and trying to assess her age. The tension was briefly broken when she quietly answered, “Mother," to the question, “What is your favorite animal?”
[Photo: Anna’s mother Meera asks Becky to take her daughter]
We asked Meera to describe their family's daily life and, as expected, it was as grim. Her husband was fiercely drunk most days, but often slept and drank in the woods. Destitute and alone with her daughter and infant son in an impoverished Nepali village, she was forced to beg for food among already poor, displaced Tibetan villagers. She often left her children alone with reluctant neighbors, or left them completely unattended, while she ran the trail to more remote villages where begging might be more productive.
Her description matched those we had heard from more than a dozen villagers, including the semi-formal group of "village elders," who told us they sometimes gave Meera food or odd jobs, though they knew she often went to sleep with hunger pains. They said she is a simple, illiterate, low caste woman with a terrifying and violent husband, yet she’s trying to help her children all she can.
In her home, Meera pleaded with us, begging us to save her daughter by taking her to the faraway city, where she could join Sandoop’s fast-growing and blended family. For two years, she had begged Sandoop, his parents, and his acquaintances to take the girl. She had even begged strangers to take her daughter, knowing that almost certainly her life with them would be better than her current prospects.
[Photo: Meera stands in front of her home as a man passes by on the Annapurna Circuit, lower right]
As chickens pecked at my boots, elbows, and the dirt floor of the kitchen, I noted familiar features of extreme poverty I'd seen before, many times. This lowest caste family was the "poorest in a poor community" and their neighbors were embarrassed that they had settled here. The elders agreed that the head of this family was a shameful transient and they wanted to boot him from town.
Anna’s situation was bad, and I knew it, yet I doubted it was the worst in Nepal. Over the past few years, my husband and I had spent months around this country, hearing some appalling firsthand stories of abandonment of children, including Sandoop, who grew up homeless on gangland streets of Kathmandu while his parents served time in city prison for smuggling.
Now, I couldn’t stop thinking, “What would this family do if I weren’t here? I don’t even know these people! What right do I have to decide the fate of a fellow human being? What if I hadn’t asked Sandoop to guide me on a weeklong trek to his mountain village, and I had never come here? What if Sandoop had agreed to bring me here simply for my self-centered 'bucket list' aspiration, and not to consider removing a child from her family?”
Days earlier, as we made final preparations for this trek, Sandoop reluctantly revealed his ulterior purpose. My husband, Don, and I were shocked and angry that our friend had kept this important secret. Sandoop visits his home village very rarely, and when I asked him to take me there because the Maoist and political environment would be safer, I did not know anything about Meera and Anna's situation. Even before this trek, we had serious concerns that Sandoop and his wife, Furpoo, were expanding their family too quickly. His five adopted daughters had foreign sponsors, including Don and myself, but we feared that bringing more children so quickly into his family would bring stress.
Before beginning the trek, I was strongly biased to do everything possible to keep Anna with her family, if she would be reasonably safe. I figured we could secretly have money delivered to Meera on a fairly regular basis, up the trail, which might provide the relief she needed to care for her children. Maybe only $10 a month, without her husband knowing, would make the difference in keeping this fragile little family intact. I would not consider taking Anna from her mother unless this and every other avenue had been exhausted.
We knew Meera wanted nothing more in the world than to see her daughter leave with us, but we asked to meet Anna’s father. I wanted to meet the man who was locally known for representing pure evil, and to see for myself if he was perhaps misunderstood, or if this was some sort of scam, so common in Third World countries.
In response to our request, Meera jumped up, left us alone with her children, and ran into the forest in search of her husband, hoping he was passed out in his favorite cave. While she was gone, I snapped some photos of Anna, certainly the first photos in which she’d been a subject.
Less than an hour later, Meera appeared with an angry, silent little man with a dark and fearsome demeanor. He had been drinking, and listened irritably while Meera pleaded her case to all of us.
[Photo: Anna, Meera, her husband, Sandoop]
Finally he mumbled his declaration: He didn’t want anyone else taking care of his miserable little girl, and he would never let his wife have her dream of giving her away. With lip curled, he proclaimed he did not like Sandoop and me. At all.
To his wife, he quietly said that he was going to really beat her as soon as Sandoop and I leave.
Instantly, Meera shrieked and wailed in tears, while wide-eyed Anna innocently looked on, trying to avoid being noticed. She had evidently seen a lot of this in her young life, and was smart enough to know how to increase her chances of remaining unharmed.
Anna’s mother was at the end of her rope, and could take no more. First screaming distress, then easing to a blood-chilling calm, Meera played her final card.
She proclaimed that if Sandoop and I don’t take away her daughter, then she will abandon her family, right here and now. She will leave this girl and her good-for-nothing father, and run away. She would be happy to never see them again.
Meera reasoned that if Sandoop and I won’t take her daughter, then there’s no question that the child will grow up as abused and illiterate as she is, with nothing to live for. If the girl stays in this family, she'll surely be prostituted out "on loan" to drinking friends of her father, if she hasn't already, and will get married too young to a low caste loser who will abuse her, continuing her mother's path of poverty, hunger, and begging for subsistence.
The possibility that Sandoop would someday take away her daughter was the only hope she had clung to for two years.
Webster's defines "epiphany" as a sudden and intuitive leap of certain understanding. I was experiencing one.
My life had followed an extremely unlikely, serpentine path and I did not understand why or how fate brought me here, at this moment, for the purpose of altering the destiny of a tiny, foreign stranger. Yet I didn't need to understand, and this was not about me. This was much bigger than me.
Sandoop, with tears in his eyes from the struggle to restrain himself from pummeling Anna's father, said, "This woman is desperate, and I really believe she will do this. Bauju, what should we do? We will do whatever you say."
My decision was sudden, intuitive, and certain. I would lead this innocent little girl to safety in a new life. Or I would die trying.
Before sunrise, I woke to the smell of burned yak butter lamps. My eyes slowly focused on yellowed photographs of the Dalai Lama, then through the window to a looming monastery amid snowcapped peaks. I was waking in the Lama family's prayer room, where honored guests sleep. I was grateful this day had come, the "turn around" point on my trek. It could also mark the beginning of a new life for a helpless four year old Nepali girl.
[Photo: a bridge on the Annapurna Circuit]
Like my Himalayan hosts, before daylight I peed on the narrow pedestrian main street of the two-toilet village (both were clogged), then joined Sandoop Lama’s parents and elderly family members in the smoke-filled kitchen overlooking the raging river and Annapurna Circuit Trail. Before sitting cross-legged on the floor for a breakfast of instant noodles, I presented Sandoop's mother with gifts carried from Kathmandu. My porter would appreciate the weight reduction in the pack he toted for me, especially the 22 pounds of yak butter.
Breakfast conversation was about Anna and her parents, who lived in a nearby village. Everyone present knew that Anna's destitute mother, Meera, had begged villagers and strangers to take away her daughter, so the girl might escape her violent family life. Today, Sandoop and I would try to make Meera’s wish come true.
As I packed to leave the Lama’s home, in the hallway of the communal building, a neighbor was holding a tiny newborn baby. The child had been born during the night, which explained some of the strange noises I’d heard. This was the third newborn Nepali I had seen on my ten-day trek.
Sandoop's female relatives offered tearful goodbyes and blessings, and prayerfully placed "kata" scarves around our necks to protect us on our journey to Anna’s village and then down the mountains to Kathmandu. His mother blessed our trip repeatedly, and rubbed a clump of yak butter on top of our heads as she chanted in Tibetan. Always a helpful translator, Sandoop advised me not to touch it, because the full effect of the blessing would come later in the day, when the sun melted the yak butter and it ran down my head.
[Photo: Anna sees Becky for the first time]
As we walked toward the footbridge to join the Annapurna Trail, Sandoop spoke of a ritual necessary to protect me from evil spirits that haunt first-time visitors when leaving this Tibetan settlement. As instructed, I stepped over a small wall that Sandoop's father, father-in-law and other village elders had just built on the foot of the bridge. Then they waved a wickedly thorny branch over my head. When I crossed the bridge to the far side of the river, I turned to spit three times, as instructed. Sandoop congratulated me on successfully completing the ritual and said that evil spirits would probably leave me alone for the rest of our trek. I welcomed the news.
We walked to the next village, where we joined Anna, her mother and father, and the village elders in the family's tiny, lean-to kitchen. Meera spent the previous evening visiting each elder, begging for their help in giving away her daughter. Grim revelations of the previous day led to our decision that Sandoop and I would permanently remove the girl from her family, and relocate her to Kathmandu where she would live with Sandoop, his wife, and their blended family of ten.
[Photo: Meera stamps her thumbprint into the document giving away her daughter]
The elders were gathered on the floor to serve as witnesses, to force Meera's indigent and violent husband to agree to the adoption, and to protect Sandoop from any future accusations that he had kidnapped the girl. The contract prohibited the father from contacting the girl until after she marries. If he should return her to the village before then, he will be considered a kidnapper.
One condition of the adoption regarded the girl’s name. Low caste peasants in Nepal often choose names for their children that reflect their lowly social and educational status, and this had been the case here. Sandoop and Furpoo had changed the names of each of their adopted daughters, removing the low caste indicators to offer the girls better opportunity for success in their new lives. This girl, too, would have a new name.
[Photo: Anna’s father places his thumbprint on the same document]
Earlier, Sandoop had said he would prefer a western name for this newest daughter. I suggested my mother’s first name: Anna. Sandoop loved it, and later asked Meera what she thought. She lit up, repeated it several times with a smile, and gave her approval.
So Samikcha Basnet became Anna Lama.
When the contract -- in English -- was clearly understood by all, each of the village elders signed their names as witnesses, using my diary as a clipboard on their knees. I took photos to record the agreement. Sandoop had asked me to be a witness and I was proud to have won my struggle against crying while signing the life-altering document. No one else showed any emotion, except annoyance at the girl’s father.
Illiterate, Anna's mother and father pressed their fingertips into an inkpad, and made their mark on the agreement, giving away their daughter. Meera beamed with happiness, evidence that a heavy weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
[Photo: Meera smiles as Becky witnesses the document giving away her daughter]
However, I remained concerned that in the coming years she may give birth to more children who would face hunger, destitution and abandonment. I cautioned that we will never take any more of her children, and spoke with her about the importance of birth control, which was available -- free of charge -- at a mountain clinic in a nearby village. Earlier, she had told me that she regularly received injections providing three months of birth control protection against her drunken husband’s assaults. Suspicious, I sought out the lone medical worker who, upon my request, examined the clinic's records. Meera had never been there.
When I confronted her, she quickly admitted that she had lied to me, in part because she was afraid we wouldn't take her daughter. She seemed sincere when she promised to immediately start getting birth control. Doubtful, I told a fib of my own, saying that I would stay in close contact with the "doctor" who would report whether Meera received the injections. When translating my words to her, Sandoop repeatedly added that I -- a complete outsider -- would be furious if I ever returned and found that she had more unwanted children. I wasn't sure why a threat from me would be more menacing, but Sandoop used this technique throughout the trek.
[Photo: Anna doesn’t recognize the significance of the scarf her mother is tying around her. It means goodbye, and travel safely into a new life].
At Sandoop's request, the local leader of the Maoist rebel group soon arrived, escorted by his teenage bodyguards. They looked like hipster Himalayan gangsters. Maoists are self-styled, uneducated, rural militants who, over the previous decade, had essentially held citizens of Nepal hostage and created a civil war that ultimately led to the collapse of Nepal's centuries-old, godlike monarchy and the deaths of thousands of civilians. They had raided communities in the mountains, taking possession of all privately owned guns in Nepal. During the war, Sandoop had been on the Maoists' "list" because, rather than risk being forcibly recruited, he escaped to the relative safety of Kathmandu.
Today, we were asking a favor of the Maoist leader: Would he let us take Anna away? Sandoop has skills of a street-wise hustler, and I'll never know exactly what he said to the gun-toting young rebels. My only job was to attest to his good intentions, while acting disinterested in the girl so they would not force me to pay extortion money. Ultimately, they approved her release, plus granted Sandoop free passage with his family anytime he wanted to return.
We had been concerned about how to get tiny Anna down the challenging mountain trails, and the ingenious village elders forced her father to escort us down the mountain, carrying her when necessary. They lectured him as if he were a child, insisting that he remain sober by avoiding "rakshi," a homemade Himalayan whiskey. They commanded that he take good care of his daughter, and give us no trouble.
When it came time to leave, villagers assembled to wish Anna a safe journey and good fortune in her new life. They placed prayer "katas" around her neck for protection during her trek, and even gave her a few rupees. I had expected the occasion to have a funeral atmosphere. Instead, it was more like a party. Bright eyed Anna could not fully understand what was about to happen, but she enjoyed the attention of neighbors who were usually not happy to see her.
[Photo above: The villagers and Maoists require Anna’s father to help her descend the long mountain trail and into her new life].
As Anna walked with us to the edge of the village, Meera carried her infant son on her back. When she instructed Anna to go with her father, the little girl, aware of her father’s mean spirit, screamed and cried. Meera said her final goodbye and stepped behind a small tree, so Anna wouldn’t see her cry.
We departed, and Anna’s mood changed quickly. She became curious when we stopped at the foot of a nearby bridge and her father performed the “evil spirits protection ceremony,” waving a thorny branch over Anna’s head, and briefly over Sandoop's and mine. It was a "safe journey" gesture I appreciated, since our ragtag troop needed all the help we could get.
As we made our way down the Himalayas over the next four days, Anna didn't cry again. In fact, she was enjoying the positive attention of adults. She grew to trust Sandoop and me, and let me hold her hand on steep and cliffside passes of the trail. Interestingly, we watched her father transform into a sensitive, sober, and attentive parent. Sandoop and I gave him pep talks, encouraging him to be a better father to his son, and a better husband and provider. Sandoop threatened that I would be angry if I returned to the village to find that he hadn't significantly improved his life.
[Photo: Anna rides the first motorized vehicle she has ever seen].
We finally reached the trailhead and the van that my husband, Don, had brought for our drive to Pokhara. Anna’s father tied katas around her neck and quietly offered prayers. With tears in his eyes, he turned and began his long trek back to his life in the mountains. He did not ask us for another chance at being better father to Anna or ask if he could take her back home.
A week later, in Kathmandu, Anna finally received good results on her medical tests (HIV, hepatitis, etc.) and was allowed to start school mid-semester. Don and I were in the Lama family's apartment when she came home from her first day of school, and we had never seen her so happy. She loved her new life, her new family, and the chance to go to school.
[Photo: Two weeks after departing her mountain home, Anna attends her first day of school in Kathmandu].
Today, months later, Anna continues to adapt smoothly, in large part due to Furpoo's wonderful mothering skills. Anna learns infinite lessons from her loving, adopted sisters who have gone through similar experiences. We are especially proud of Meena Lama, who Don and I sponsor, as she’s really taken Anna under her wing. Already, little Anna has had more schooling than either of her parents, and shows indications of being especially bright.
If she is like other Nepali kids I know, Anna will never look back on the life she previously led, and won't be curious about her birth parents or little brother or the life she would have led in her impoverished village. She may never ponder why she was born Hindu, and is now Buddhist. Or that she used to speak Nepali at home, and now speaks Tibetan and learns English in school. She may never wonder how her birthday was chosen, or her name.
Still, my life will forever be tied to hers. How could it not, when I shared her wonder as she saw and rode in her first vehicle, and ate the first banana she ever saw?
[Photo: Sandoop, Anna, Don and Becky in Pokhara].
Don and I daydream that Anna will grow up to have a fulfilling and bountiful life, and someday go to college, maybe even in the U.S. Perhaps she'll move to Red Lodge and take care of us in our old age! One sure thing is that I will love her no matter who she grows up to be. And I’ll never forget the precious little girl in the mountains, who became Anna Lama.
[Becky’s story is based on the 14,000 word log she maintained during her time on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal]