“It was well after nightfall when I realized we had gone the wrong way. The village I had been looking for was somewhere up the mountain. In my condition, it would be several hours’ walk up a rocky trail, if we could even find the trail in the pitch-dark. My two porters and I had been walking for thirteen hour. Winter at night in the mountains of northwestern Nepal is bitterly cold, and we had no shelter. Two of our three flashlights had burned out. Worse, we were deep in a Maoist rebel stronghold, not far from where a colleague had been kidnapped almost exactly one year before. I would have shared this fact with my porters, but we were unable to communicate; I spoke only a few words of the local dialect.”
Meet Conor Grennan. He had arrived in Nepal, just planning on getting a couple months of volunteering done at an orphanage so he had something impressive to tell the girls at the bar during later travels. While most volunteers aren’t able to stay or make it back after their short volunteer trip, Conor found himself being drawn back to Nepal. There he made the shocking discovery: the children he was working with were not truly orphans. They had been taken from their families by traffickers. The Irish-American decided something had to be done about it.
I picked up his story “Little Princes” because I was hunting for a quality travel memoir, and Conor’ vivid descriptions of rice paddies and trying to choke down boiling daal bhat did a fantastic job transporting me to the foothills of Nepal. I also really appreciated his sense of humor. However, it wasn’t just a quality “experience” of Nepal that made me love this book so much.
Conor tackles a difficult topic: child trafficking. He does not try to sugar-coat the sorrow and suffering surrounding the topic or his own mistakes when trying to make a difference. But reading the book, I felt more powerfully hopeful than I had in a long time because one man DID make a difference.
Ok, before you go on I have to warn you there are some mild SPOILERS ahead. I very strongly suggest you read the story because it is so wonderfully inspiring, humorous, and honest. AND if you buy the book you are actually already helping the children of Nepal since a portion of the proceeds go to their food and education.
But here are some spoilers. I just want to share a part of the book which deeply struck me:
Conor found seven children starving in a hut right before he returned to the US. While his own orphanage was already at maximum capacity he found another house that promised they would come pick up the children.
“Someone is coming,” he told the seven small trusting beings looking at him, “Someone you can trust.”
The child-trafficker, Golkka, found out about Conor and his promise. Golkka managed to make it back to the children and move them just hours before the orphanage was able to rescue them. Trying to rebuild his life in the States, Conor was horrified to hear that the seven children to whom he had made a promise had been taken. It was impossible to say where they were or what might happen to them.
So Conor pulled together money and resources. He created an organization and made the impossible promise to himself that he would search throughout Nepal until he found those seven small children. He carried a small printed photo of his children and began his search. No one had seen them. But along the way he realized that there were hundreds of children just like them, starving and in slavery.
One day, he heard a rumor. The only girl out of the seven, little Amita, had been seen in a nearby village where the trafficker’s wife lived. Perhaps she was living there. He took a bus and ended up in the village realizing he had no plan. He didn’t even know if the rumor was true. He hunted throughout the village realizing how ludicrous it was to search for seven tiny people out of millions:
“This was the first time I had searched–really searched–for the children on my own. If I doubted myself before, after that last two hours I felt pathetic, like an outright fraud for even trying. I took the path leading back to the main road and Godwari. I was going to find a way to make a different for the kids in Nepal. Just not this way.
Then I saw her.
The little girl stood on the path, twenty feet ahead of me, staring at me…. In each hand she carried a beat-up two liter plastic bottle, taken from the trash, used for collecting drinking water at the public tap.
I didn’t move. Then slowly I reached into my back pocket. I took out the worn, stained photo of the seven children, unfolded it, and studied it. The girl in the photo had a mischievous smile on her face; the girl in front of me was stone-faced. I walked to her, pausing between steps… In basic Nepali, I asked if she remembered me. She did not move, did not change her expression. I turned the photo around so she could see it. I saw her eyes drift across the faces, and stop at her own face, on the far right. I asked her again: Did she remember me?
She nodded and tears welled up in her eyes. I took the bottles from her and laid them on the ground. I took her hand and led her up to the road.”
He had found Amita. That was sometime late 2006. Like he says in the book, “There are tens of thousands of children still missing in Nepal” but Conor is proof that one man can make a difference, an incredible difference. It is powerful to watch how much he changed the lives of the children he worked with and how much they changed him. He is not the same human at the end of the book.
Neither was I.
While it is easy to see all that is wrong in the world, it is not always so easy to see the good combating it. This book was moving because it shows how completely one human can transform the life of another. It gave me a powerfully hopeful example of how one individual can change the world and it renewed my desire to try.