Did I ever tell you about how I met Punam? It’s one of those stories that I’d like to tell my grandchildren.
It was January, 2012. After about a month of backpacking through India, I took a small detour through Kathmandu. I was taking a stroll from my hotel in Thamel towards Swayambhunath, or the “Monkey Temple” (for those who can’t pronounce the Nepalese name), one morning, when I heard a whining puppy. I kept trying to shoo it to the side of the road so it won’t get run over by a car. I didn’t want to touch it. I was afraid it had rabies or some kind of parasite. At one point, it ran onto the middle of the street, where a bus was heading right towards it, so I leaped to grab it. The bus driver swerved to the right to avoid running us over and started shouting. I was glad I didn’t understand what he said. It sounded like he was cursing.
The puppy in my arms was shivering. It was so small, with beady black eyes and soft black fur. It was such a beautiful creature that I started toying with the idea of taking it home with me. It awakened my deeply buried mother instincts.
I asked a nearby shopkeeper and his customers if anyone had seen it’s mother. They said they hadn’t but there was a family living down the street that took in stray dogs. One of the customers then led me to their house. That is when I first met Punam.
When we arrived, I saw her brother, a teenage boy, was feeding cooked rice to a white dog and her litter in the yard. He examined my puppy and said it might have lice. (I suddenly started feeling an itch all over my body.) He said he had some powder that might help and that the stray female dog they were hosting could adopt it. I was speechless. This family was living in a tiny hut with a tin roof, one small tap with running water and one lamp. Yet they were so generous to nurture a family of stray dogs, selflessly sharing their food and shelter with the homeless.
Punam was 17 years old at the time. She had long black hair, brown eyes and a dark tan. She was quite short, she only came up to my waist. In her defense, I have to admit that I am pretty tall. Yet despite her small physique, she seemed so … powerful. (I can’t seem to find a more suitable adjective). She was full of energy and had so much self-confidence, it made her seem taller… She walked with such pride and had a captivating charisma.
The family offered me masala tea and we started talking. I told them about my backpacking tour through India and Nepal. They told me about their lives. Punam’s father was a carpenter. Her mother lived six hours away in the countryside. She had two little sisters and a younger brother. One of her sisters looked like the famous Afghani girl on the National Geographic magazine cover, with the piercing green eyes and sun-tinged skin. Her brother was a year younger, with remarkable English and an impressive knowledge of world history, geography and math. We discussed foreign politics, from the EU economy to the Mao Tse Tung regime. He showed me his calculus homework and other school books.
I spent the next couple of days with them, passing by to check on the puppy (which turned out to be a girl), to bring Punam’s sisters chocolates and to have an interesting discussion with her and her brother. The better I got to know this family, the more I admired them, their unconditional kindness and their overwhelming hospitality.
Punam offered to show me around and give me a tour of the temples in and around Kathmandu. She would tell me to wait around the corner, while she hailed a taxi and bargained a reasonable price with him. Then she’d wave to me to join her. The disappointed expression of the taxi driver’s face was always the same when he saw me. One even tried to bargain a new price with Punam because of the foreigner accompanying her, but she started arguing back and I could just see the intimidation of the man behind the steering wheel. I ended up paying a small fraction of the taxi fare than if I had been on my own.
Punam told me about her life. She had graduated from high school, but couldn’t afford to go to college. So she worked as a maid to support her family and save some money to fulfill her dream one day. She wanted to study Business Administration to be able to work at a hotel one day. The Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu accredited several private colleges in the city to satisfy the high demand for education. These colleges were not only difficult to get into but also quite expensive.
After I got to know her better during the couple of days we spent together, I offered to pay for her college tuition, but I wanted to know more about the whole process first. We visited one of the colleges she was interested in and spoke to the administration. The Tribhuvan University requires the students to pass an admission exam. I promised Punam that I’d give her a scholarship if she passes the exam and managed to get into a college of her choice. In turn, she promised me she’d try her best to excel in her studies. A few months later, we both kept our promises.
I have to admit, I had my doubts at first. I took some precautions, called the college, requested all the paperwork and wired the fees directly to their account. Punam also sends me a receipt for every payment she makes from the financial support I’m providing her for books and supplies. The thought of Punam getting a college education prevailed over the risk of losing the money.
Today, two years later, Punam is successfully studying Business Administration in the third semester at the Universal College in Kathmandu. We regularly keep in touch. She sends me updates on her progress at school and well-being of her wonderful family. I never had any regrets.
On my last day in Kathmandu, Punam and her family invited me over for a farewell ceremony. They painted my face with red powder and yoghurt. They tied a white scarf around my neck, sang some traditional songs and wished me a safe journey home. It was a very touching ceremony and I was sad to have to leave.