I was startled by a small hand tapping me on the shoulder, not least because I was inside a traditional Gurkha restaurant in the city of Pokhara, Nepal, sharing a meal with a group of friends. The city of Pokhara is small, and beautiful. It skirts a turquoise lake and sits at the foot of the vast Annapurna mountain range. After two weeks travelling through northern India and Nepal we seemed to have reached nirvana. That morning we’d been woken at 4am and packed into a taxi-bus. Bleary eyed we arrived in a little village set into the hillside above Pokhara, the best view-point (we were told) to ‘experience’ the sun rising on Annapurna.
We weren’t alone. Fifty or sixty other tourists gathered in awkward circles, expectant yet dubious, waiting impatiently, not really convinced this ‘experience’ warranted getting up so very early. Then the snow-covered tips of the distant horizon shimmered gold as the first tenuous sunrays touched them with fire. Chatter became hushed, cameras stood ready, and expectations grew. Gradually the rim of crested peaks bled crimson under a velvet sky. Little by little colour flooded over the mountains until they blushed pink, like something half-dreamed. Well-travelled and worldly we might be, but this was nature at her most majestic. We were awestruck.
That evening we decided to celebrate our experience and were tucking into a traditional thali meal when this small determined hand reached through the open window. Turning round to look I was surprised to find the smiling face of a local boy who, I guessed, was no more than ten years old. He didn’t look like a beggar. His clothes were shabby but his eyes shone with happiness. My friends laughed at his impudence.
I handed him a bowl of vegetable curry and he drank it down in one gulp. I’d never seen anyone so obviously hungry. When he handed me back the bowl he nodded his head. The beaming smile never left his face.
My friends passed over another bowl which disappeared as quickly but then a second boy, so alike he must surely be his brother, reached up on tiptoes, doe-eyes shy and frightened. We gathered everything that was left from our feast and handed it through the window all the time worried a waiter might chase the boys away. But when the waiter eventually came to clear our table he commended us on our excellent appetites. By then the boys had ducked out of sight. On leaving the restaurant we were given a handful of lollipops and catching sight of the boys a few streets further down the road, we handed them the sweets.
They were the only beggars we met in Nepal and their beautiful smiles still haunt me. I wished I could bring them home and mother them. Later, when we told the story to our local guide, he explained the boys were probably not Nepalese but Tibetan. There are many communities of Tibetan exiles in Pokhara but they struggle to support new refugees who make their way through the mountain passes.
News reports of the earthquake last week pricked my conscious. As a tourist, being able to travel to Nepal and witness the highest mountains in the world is amazing, but this awe-inspiring scenery also makes it one of the harshest environments on our planet. And therefore one of the most dangerous.
A friend, Angela Locke, travelled to Nepal in 1992. She wrote a beautiful book about her experience – On Juniper Mountain – and inspired by the people she met set up a grass-roots charity called The Juniper Trust. www.junipertrust.co.uk If like me you want to help in some small way please consider donating to them, much of their work is achieved by volunteers.