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Story Behind the Story: Ethos Magazine Guest Post

Ethos Magazine recently published my second guest blog for them since I graduated from the University of Oregon. The article titled “The Responsible Traveler: Understanding Beauty and Ugliness” explores what it means to understand the good, the bad and the ugly while touring a foreign country. I wrote about how before I came to Nepal I pored over magazine articles and the Lonely Planet guidebook pictures and formulated a kind of image of Nepal that was completely idealistic and overly majestic. How could I not? The Lonely Planet showed pictures of the Himalayas and small rural villages, Buddhist monks and Hindu city shrines. I came to Kathmandu expecting all these things. I found them, but I also found another side of the picture: glue-huffing children, trash everywhere and extreme poverty.  (Please read the full story to find out more.)

For my Ethos, I also must provide pictures to accompany my articles. I wanted to provide a picture of the “ugliness” that I am taking about in my article, i.e., extreme poverty or the glue-addicted children. As I wrote about on a recent blog, I am opposed to taking pictures of people living in extremely poor conditions or in fragile situations, like beggars, because usually I find that sort of thing to be patronizing and inappropriate. So, I suggested to my Ethos editors that we use a Creative Commons picture of a beggar on the streets of Kathmandu instead. They replied that it would be better if I took my own pictures. I rationalized that taking photos of the homeless children would be okay for journalistic purposes because I was trying to bring awareness to the problem, so I equipped myself with my Canon and hit the streets. I think I was originally resisting taking my own photos of the homeless kids because I was intimidated. As I walked from my home in Sanepa to Thamel, where most of the homeless kids congregate, I tossed around the idea in my head. I wondered why I was intimidated by these kids, because after all, they were just that: kids. But the homeless, glue-huffing boys always exude a sort of hard outer shell, that is often aggressive. Their sickly condition is also so startling to me that I shy away, avoiding their eyes and their pleas for money or food.

I arrived in Thamel, took a deep breath and surveyed the scene. I quickly approached a homeless 11-year-old named Suraj who was stumbling around high on fumes. Although he was one of the homeless gang, he was perhaps the least sickly looking one of the bunch, therefore, the most approachable. He still looked like an innocent kid, while many of the others who are slightly older have a disturbingly hard look in their face and in their eyes. I struck up a conversation with Suraj and asked if I could hang out with him for a while and snap some photos. I told him that in return, I would buy him a meal. Suraj and I roamed around together for a while and he introduced me to a few of his friends, also homeless boys who were permanently attached to their glue bags. I didn’t want to prolong the whole event, so I took some photos of them and did a few short interviews. After I decided I had sufficient material to accompany my article, Suraj led me to a local supermarket so I could buy him some biscuits, as he requested. His friend came along too, a 13-year-old who looked especially gaunt and unhealthy, and I told him I’d treat him to some food also. At first the boys asked for biscuits and I told them to pick out which ones they’d like from the supermarket. I was surprised that when I allowed them to pick out what they wanted for themselves, instead of picking out biscuits, they headed straight for the bags of milk powder. The only thing they asked for were large tins of powdered milk, which I purchased for them. I’m not sure if they knew that powdered milk has at least some nutrients, or if it makes them more full for longer than biscuits, but they obviously had some reason for picking out the stuff.

I waved goodbye to them and they very politely said thank you and requested that I come again whenever I wanted to. The two sauntered off down the street, cradling their powdered milk in one hand, huffing glue from bags in the other hand. I watched them go and felt a heaviness in the pit of my stomach. After three years of traveling and living in Asia, I feel that I’ve gained a certain hardness or immunity to things I see, but no matter how many times I see these sickly, young homeless boys, I feel an indelible wave of sadness.

Although I was dreading this assignment when Ethos asked me to take my own photos, it ended up being just what I needed to prompt me out of my comfort zone. Photography is still an art that I’m learning, but I think good photographers are adept at being out of their comfort zone all the time. With a camera, you are inherently crossing a personal line and stepping into someone’s life and often into someone’s problems.
Above: Suraj, the 11-year-old boy I followed for the afternoon, huffing on the streets.

Above: Suraj and his 13-year-old friend beg outside a supermarket in Thamel. They say their main complain is hunger and safety concerns when sleeping on the street at night. Because of their young age, they are often targets for robbery or violence by the older, stronger homeless people or gang members on the Kathmandu streets.

Lost Childhood in Kathmandu

I had seen the boys many times before on the city streets.

The first time we spoke, I was sitting on the steps near a street vendor cart, eating doughy chapatis in the tourist district of Thamel, in Kathmandu, Nepal. The city’s hectic nightlife pulsed around me as he and his friend approached, shuffling bare feet under the glum lights of late night restaurants and bars. They quickly cram small plastic bags down the back of their pants.

“20 rupees?” they ask me in broken English, pointing to the street cart.

I refuse.

“We’re hungry!” they persist.

“No,” I reply.” If I give you money, you’ll use it to buy glue, not food.”

“We don’t do that!” they retort, glaring at me. “That’s bad.”

I stare at their protruding cheek-bones and wonder if giving them a few rupees would really hurt? But I know that it could hurt because I’ve witnessed it before: tourists give them money for food and they spend it on inhalants.

When I first moved to Kathmandu, the homeless children alarmed me. They gaze with hollow faces. Their hair comes out in chunks. They wear no shoes, only ripped pants and once-white T-shirts now heavy with dirt from picking through garbage dumps. Now, I’m accustomed to their ragged state. Gangs of them swarm the darkest corners of the city, surviving on garbage scraps and sleeping under cardboard tents.

The duo continues to deny my claims as absurdities. I scan them up and down, and judging by their stature, guess they are between 7 and 9. I ask them how old they are. They say they are 13 and 15.

Their small size is a result of malnourishment and inhalant abuse from an early age. I work in a Kathmandu city hospital where the street boys are regulars. They hardly come in on their own accord though. Frequently, foreign tourists drag them to the ER after witnessing their appalling physical condition. The children suffer from pneumonia, skin abscesses, and pink eye as a result of their glue addiction.

After asking me again for money, the boys deem it a lost cause. As they walk away from me the plastic glue bags appear from their back pockets, and taking a few pulls, the boys quickly forget my existence altogether. A cloud of hash smoke floats past me as the boys dissolve into the crowd.

The street boys of Kathmandu stand in huddles, playing cards and telling jokes, like I did when I was a child. But after I notice the crumpled plastic bag in each boy’s grip, I know that their lives are nothing like my own childhood. A shock jolts through me when one young gang leader squeezes a tube of glue into the bags of his cohorts. When I realize that these children are inhaling fumes, I feel bewildered, angry and depressed at the same time. A cheap and easy high never even crossed my mind when I was a child. I used glue for art projects. They use glue to subdue their hunger pangs.

As months pass, I see the same routine everyday: The street boys with glue bags pressed to cracked and dry lips, small chests heaving in and out as the bags expand and contract over their mouths like lungs. Soon, their eyes glaze over as they stumble around the dark streets with heads full of glue and vapors. No longer able to walk straight or speak coherently, they momentarily forget their homelessness, hunger, and poor health. Huffing glue is their escape from life on the street.

A week later, as I walk to work, I see the 15-year-old boy I had met near the street vendor cart. He lies on a piece of cardboard, tucked away between two stores. Another boy, curled into a ball, shares his cardboard bed. The boy I met appears to be sleeping until I look a little closer. He lies on his back, staring up into the hazy sky. His eyes are halfway open, glazed over and glassy. A look of pure desperation paints his face. It’s a look of raging anger at the world, yet, at the same time, a look of submission to his fate. Never before had I seen such a hardened look on such a young person.

Later that afternoon, I spot the same boy again. The Kathmandu streets buzz with more fortunate school children in crisp white uniforms, street vendors frying fresh batches of samosas, and business people running to catch the mini-bus. I wait on the corner of the busiest traffic intersection in the city, where the roads are paved and have fully functioning, but largely ignored, traffic lights. The sidewalks pulse with the flowing crowd as the streets teem with cars, taxis and rickshaws.

The boy stands on the corner next to me, wailing uncontrollably as tears stream down his face. He holds a brick by his head, looking as if he aches to throw it at someone. I shrink away a little, unsure of what to do.

He just holds the brick, ready to hurl it, but doesn’t. I glance around to see if there’s someone he might be aiming at. There is nobody.

He stands on the street corner, holding the brick, tears streaming down his growth-stunted face. They forge clean rivers down his dirty cheeks. Twin waterfalls of yellow mucus connect his nose and mouth. No one notices him.

Kathmandu’s residents hurry past him through the approaching evening. Dogs stop to lick their mangy fur. The boy with the brick continues his tantrum, watching the people go home to their families. He has nothing but a brick, a ragged T-shirt, and a bag for huffing. This boy, like hundreds of others in Kathmandu, has lost his childhood to a tube of glue. His eyes burn with hopelessness. As he decides whether or not to throw the brick it looks as if he wavers on whether or not he can make it through another day on the streets.

As the sun disappears and night spreads over Kathmandu, he won’t go home; he’ll go to his piece of cardboard on the sidewalk. He won’t go to his family; he’ll go to his street gang. Garbage scraps from the back of tourist restaurants will be his dinner, and his solace: the crumpled plastic bag. Another huff and none of it will matter anymore.