Needles and haystacks: My search for a person I lost in Nepal

I almost didn’t open the email. The message field held four words, two I didn’t comprehend, two in English: “something something from Nepal.”

At first blink, I took it for one of those foreign “send in all your money” scams. But I’ve been to Nepal several times, so there was a thin chance it had come from someone I’d met.

I clicked it open, read the first line, yelped with surprise and then burst into tears. I did know the sender. He was a young man I’d given up for lost years before. Worse, I was the one who’d lost him.

I’d met him nearly a decade ago, when I was staying at an old hotel in Kathmandu. He was a porter there, the youngest of a half-dozen men in maroon jackets who waited around the lobby to carry luggage or fetch a drink or run errands for guests. He stood out from the others because he was tall for a Nepali and spoke — very softly — good English. His name was Shyam.

Near the end of my visit, he asked a favor: Would I look for his American mother?

Your mother is in America? No, no, she wasn’t his actual mother. He explained that he came from a poor village, and when he was a boy, an American charity had sent money to him.

It was one of those charities that refers to its donors as parents and its recipients as adopted children and encourages them to write to each other.

School children in Nepal
MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
Children living in rural Nepal face difficulties getting to school.

He showed me his American mother’s letter — cheery girlish script on school-notebook paper — but he didn’t know if the address was still good. He wanted to write to her and ask if she would help him again.

It was the kind of hope that always makes my heart sink. I’ve heard versions of it in poor countries all over the world, always for the same reason:

I made a promise
No matter how ordinary our incomes seem at home, any American who can afford to travel overseas is rich. So are Americans who donate to foreign charities. Richer, anyway, than whoever is asking for help. Since Americans also like to be kind, we tend to make promises we can’t keep. I made one now.

OK, I said, I’ll try — aware as I spoke that finding this girl would be like looking for a needle in a haystack and that I might end up making things even worse, since now the boy was counting on me, too.

I read the letter, and my heart sank further. The girl had been a college student in California, and it sounded as if donating to the charity was a school project. Nothing wrong with that, except the young boy in Nepal had taken it so seriously.

When I got home, I did try to locate his American mother, but I drew a total blank. Even her college alumni office couldn’t help. She’d graduated long before and must have married and changed her name. I didn’t have the heart to tell Shyam. 

Years passed, during which a Maoist insurgency swept through Nepal ‘s countryside, frightening international tourists away, all but destroying a mainstay of the country’s economy.

Many small tour operators closed; well-established trekking companies laid off their guides, and hotels shrank their staffs. Shyam wrote to me at my office during that period, to say he had lost his hotel job but was continuing to study in Kathmandu.

Then I let go of my own job, and in the chaos of packing the heaps of paper that journalists inevitably amass, I lost his letter and, with it, his new address.

When my personal smoke cleared, I decided that if I ever got back to Nepal, I would track him down in person and at least apologize. It would be, of course, another needle-in-the-haystack search. Nepal has 26 million people, and Kathmandu ranks as one of the densest, most labyrinthine cities in the world.

Finally, in November 2007, I had a chance to go back. I went to the Kathmandu hotel where Shyam had worked and asked at the front desk if anyone knew where he was. Another blank.

Nobody — not clerks, not managers — recognized his name. They said he hadn’t worked there. I argued that he had. No, they said, sorry, nothing they could do.

No answer, until…
Several porters were clustered at a discreet distance — still in maroon uniforms — and I realized that they’d been listening to every word. One older man, whom I recognized, said he remembered Shyam but didn’t know where he’d gone. I handed out my business cards. If you ever hear from him, I said to them all, give him this and tell him to contact me.

Before I left for home, I stopped at an office of one of Kathmandu ‘s bi-lingual newspapers and wrote a “hoping to find” classified ad in English; the ad taker kindly translated it into Nepali and ran both versions. Nothing came of that, either.

Until now. Twenty months later, out of the blue — or at least the blue of cyberspace — came this email. It did not contain a plea for help. Instead, it told a bootstrap success story.

Annapurna South
MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
The summit of Annapurna South in central Nepal.

“I was always inspired and encouraged by American people,” Shyam wrote. “That’s why after I get done with bachelors degree in Nepal, I applied for further study in the United States of America and got visa.” He was now in Maryland, he said, pursuing an MA.

We talked by phone the next day, and I finally got to apologize. “It is OK, ma’am,” he said, in the same soft voice I remembered. He had lost my address too.

I asked how he had gotten his student visa. “Very difficult,” he said. But he had always been persistent, even in childhood. “Always, I try,” he said. With the visa, “I do not get success the first time.” He kept trying till he did. 

The link to me was through his younger brother: With tourism reviving in Nepal and jobs coming back, the brother is doing what Shyam did — going to school in Kathmandu and working as a porter at that same hotel. One of the other porters gave the brother my business card, and the Internet closed the circle.

This outcome, after so many years, over so much distance, seems marvelous to me. Whether it illustrates the power of technology or of old-fashioned business cards or simply of human memory, I don’t know. But I keep thinking about haystacks. Sometimes — however improbable, no matter how long it takes, or even if you give up — sometimes the needle finds you.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Danny McConnell on 08/18/2009 - 11:17 am.

    Great Story! Keep up the excellent work.

  2. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 08/18/2009 - 02:40 pm.

    Beautiful story, Katherine, and you are so right when you say “No matter how ordinary our incomes seem at home, any American who can afford to travel overseas is rich.” But we overseas travellers are rich in another way, distinct from our American co-horts – Rich in experiences that show us the world. I wish that all Americans would travel more so they could understand the world better. Thank you for sharing this story.

  3. Submitted by Ronald Shulstad on 08/18/2009 - 10:12 pm.

    Such a heartwarming story! By her simple act of kindness, Ms. Watson has done more to further American-Nepalese relations than a lot of our foreign aid to that country. How wonderful it would be to read a future story that Shyam has found his American “mother.”

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