In the narrow strip of India that separates Nepal from Bangladesh lies a tiny rural village called Chenga. The village is surrounded by fields, each a patchwork mosaic of knee-high tea trees in various shades of green.
The fields are surrounded by malarial forests, where wild leopards and tigers roam free. Village, fields, and forests, stand against what looks like a painted backdrop of the lower Himalayas in this distance. A monkey glances up at the purple mountains, draped in wispy haze. A dozen monkeys lounge and scamper on stone walls that edge a few of the tea gardens.
The adults in the village labor in these tea gardens. When we arrive they are harvesting the tea, plucking the leaves by hand, the women carrying the heavy loads on their backs. It is relentless hard work in a beautiful, primitive rural setting.
It’s elephant country. The nicer worker huts are simple structures built on stilts to avoid being trampled when the elephants run at night. The tea gardens are punctuated by flimsy towers that function as ‘scare-elephants’ (they don’t need scarecrows). Young children spend the night in these towers, tossing firecrackers at elephants in the dark to keep them from trampling the tea. We came to see the children.
Bridge of Hope, led by Prince Jeyaraj, has built a school for them and provided teachers and clothes. The children have been expecting us. They welcome us with freshly-strewn wreaths of fragrant white lilies around our necks and treat us to a tradional Nepali welcome dance the children have been practicing for weeks. We light an oil lamp to mark our time together. What a vibrant community!
Vitamin Angels, led by Howard Schiffer (accompanied by his daughter Zoe), provide vitamin A and anti-parasite medicines for the young children, and prenatal vitamins for the expectant and nursing mothers. My son Garrett and I don surgical gloves and help in the distribution on this sultry afternoon. Excitement rings in the children’s voices; warm gratitude smiles in the mothers’.
Zoe and Garrett speak with mothers and children, taking notes to preserve their stories.
As the afternoon burned on, I examined every child I could, taught the expectant mothers, answered many questions, laughed and cried together — before our driver insisted that we leave to avoid driving through the forest in the dark. While people were loading the car, I recorded a very brief video for you – and that too was cut short by the gesticulating driver. As we traversed the rough, narrow road through the forest toward our next destination, darkness fell.
We had to stop briefly, for a bio and mechanical break. I stepped into the dense forest to answer the call of nature. As we climbed back into the car and resumed our journey, a passing motorist flagged us down, wildly warning us to flee. Not two minutes later we were face-to-face with a lone, majestic bull elephant, ears flapping slowly, long tusks gleaming in the moonlight. Singular in size, I’ve never seen an elephant that large in captivity. We were perhaps ten feet apart.
For a long moment, all was still and silent.
Then, while I dug in my pack for a camera, everyone shouting at once, the driver sped us away, lurching through the night for three more hours. He explained that a group of wild elephants is dangerous, but that a lone male is many times more so. Having seen one, though, is considered a sign of great good luck.
Agreed. But even greater good luck to have connected with Vitamin Angels and Bridge of Hope, and to have spent an afternoon together with the children of Chenga and their mothers. Near the forests are the fields, near the fields lies Chenga. There, under the gaze of the mountains, because of a partnership of parents and of friends from India and abroad, these children will be taught, and fed, and given the vitamins they need for years to come, long after the oil lamp was extinguished and our afternoon together had vanished in the night.
They say an elephant never forgets. Nor will we. The memory of that splendid afternoon will linger for all of us.