There's a mega-highway that feeds Kathmandu. It would be six lanes wide if there were lanes.
To get to the village of Bhaktapur, you wrap a bandana around your face to minimize breathing the endless cloud of dust, get on the back of someone's motorbike, and you try not to scream as trucks wheels and minivans with the side-doors open whizz by, inches from your legs. Holding onto the motorbike or the person in front of you is amateur. You put your hands on your thighs and keep them there. You breathe shallowly through the bandana. This is some form of meditation.
Half an hour later, the city opens up to the suburbs, and unfinished houses on dirt roads interlace green fields. I lived in Meg's Children's Home in the village of Bhaktapur for my four-week Nepal visa. There were 19 children, aged from 3–19.
Several years ago, a Nepalese man named Bikash was volunteering to take care of orphans who were in a house run by a priest. He found the conditions to be deplorable. Dark and filthy. The priest was taking all the donations for himself and not feeding the kids. They were malnourished and sick. The priest was a mean, evil man. Bikash commiserated with an Australian volunteer named Meg. Meg called her Australian contacts and was able to raise enough money to rent a home large enough for about 15 kids to live, bunk beds and basic amenities.
In the middle of the night, they kidnapped the orphans. Kidnapped from the priest's perspective, but rescued by any other measure. The priest was not happy because he wouldn't be able to steal donations if he didn't have a house full of sickly orphans. However, somehow Bikash and Meg succeeded, and the kids are now healthy, happy, and ready for college.
Their new home is a 4-story cement building, and Bikash lives with them. He dreamed of being a journalist. But he has dedicated his life to these kids. As they've gotten older, he has brought in more kids from the streets. His brother runs another children's home across town with another 20 kids.
Meg is back in Australia, fundraising.
The kids heard I was an artist, and they demanded henna tattoos. I had no reference material besides a vague idea of women's hands with intricate brown swirls. The Internet in the village was a 15 minute walk away, and it was usually fronted by a smoking teenager who would say, "no, today. No Internet. Sorry."
"Ok," I agreed. One of the teenage girls handed me what looked like a thin, black ice cream cone. It was similar to something you use to ice a cake: you squeeze the icing and it comes out a tiny hole in the bottom. "What kind of — "
"Just make me look beautiful. Like it is my wedding day." Her face brightened. I didn't want to let her down.
She held out her hand. I placed my hand under hers, and tried to visualize myself drawing appropriately beautiful swirls. Henna is semi-permanent — it lasts for about 10 days. So, it wouldn't be a crisis if I screwed up, but to a 15-year-old… I didn't know. I didn't want to screw up. She looked at me with piercing brown eyes, without fear, expectantly.
I squeezed the henna out slowly and began to follow the lines in her hand with the sludgy, mud-colored ink.
She looked out the window and I relaxed a bit. I was feeling a lot of pressure. I silently practiced a calming breath that I had learned in India a couple weeks earlier. I cared as much about giving this girl — I wished I'd stop saying the word 'orphan' in my mind — a beautiful henna tattoo as I did about any big client presentation. More, maybe.
"I should let you know," I said, "that I have a very modern, minimalist henna tattoo style."
"What does that mean?"
"I don't do traditional henna style. I am famous for my modern, cool New York henna style. People fly from around the world to get my New York henna tattoos."
"You are lying," she lowered her head and looked up at me from under her eyebrows.
"Usually it is five thousand dollars. Per hand. But for you, today I will give you a discount."
She watched me quizzically.
"For you, all I want is for you to find me a spoon tonight at dinner." My hand stopped shaking, and began designing more confident shapes on her palm.
"That's all?" She laughed. I was beginning to understand the squeezing and swirling, how to make thicker lines, where to fill in the little shapes. I forgot for a moment that everything is confidence. Then I remembered.
"Yes, just a spoon. I'm not as good as you guys, eating with your hands. You're professionals. Me, I just make a mess. I'm like a child, pouring food all over my face." She giggled. "And shirt. And pants. Every dinner, I'm covered in food!"
"You only eat with spoon? What's wrong with you? How you know how hot the food is? You burn your mouth with spoon. Use hands. It's better. Are you almost done?"
I looked at her hand. I could see possibilities: swirls on each little rectangle of her finger pads; I could see how to carve lines up her palm and up the forearm. Maybe I am a henna artist, I wondered for a moment. Maybe this was my calling, all along. Maybe I'm a natural.
"I can keep going, or you can be done. What do you think?"
She looked at her hand like she was examining a sick dog. She snatched the henna from my hand and began drawing over my swirls. "It's ok," she said. "But I am better."
Another girl walked into the kitchen where we were seated on one of the long, wooden benches. "I want henna! Me next?"
That afternoon, I did henna tattoos on the 11 older kids; until we ran out of henna. The next day, the younger kids were ready. They had gone to the one, dusty shop in Bhaktapur and bought out the entire village's supply of henna cones. The little boys wanted skulls on their arms and calves. One girl wanted a swirling flower on her foot. After two day, the entire orphanage was full of brown swirls.
A few weeks later, I was finally able to check my email.
Steve, a college friend, had emailed me: "So, I hear you're homeless. Perfect. I'm starting an English-language school here in Korea. South Korea. Not North Korea. That would be ridiculous. I need a designer. We need a logo. We need text books. We need beer. Oh, wait, that's just me. I need beer. I think I will go get some beer. Where was I? Oh, yes. Can I fly you out here? You can stay with me in my EPIC 41st floor apartment. I'll pay you. It will be awesome. There will be beer. I promise."