"There was something about volunteering in a Third World orphanage at the outset of my trip that would squash any criticism. Who would dare begrudge me my year of fun after doing something like that?" - Conor Grennan, Little Princes
I love reading. I can't get enough of it. I love the way a simple sentence can expand your mind and open you up to a world of new ideas. I love the way books can inspire compassion, empathy, gratitude and understanding. I firmly believe the world would be a better place if everyone made a little time to read about other people's stories.
For this reason, I don't tend to be particularly fussy when it comes to choosing reading material. I am happy to give anything a try. Who knows what insight it could provide?
But some stories stick out among the rest. Like shooting stars or bright smiles, some stories stand up and demand attention. They are the ones that linger in your mind long after you've finished the final page. For a bookworm like me, these stories are the crème de la crème of reading. They are enough to put a bounce in my step for weeks.
'Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal' by Conor Grennan is one of these great books. And I believe that's because it's a story about the resilience and beauty of the human spirit.
A non-fiction memoir about child trafficking in Nepal, Little Princes is not based on a light subject. But Conor's recount of his journey to save lost children from starvation and poverty and reunite them with their families is remarkably upbeat. He manages to take a depressing subject and turn it into inspiration.
Conor was about to turn 30 when he decided to go on a round-the-world trip. He'd saved plenty of money and was excited to take a break from work to explore. He could have spent the entire year holidaying in the sun, but something compelled him to spend his first three months volunteering in an orphanage in Nepal called the Little Princes Children's Home.
After reading the first few pages I had a new respect for volunteers, and a new understanding of what life was like for children in poverty. I find volunteering is so common nowadays that many people hear of someone else doing it and simply shrug their shoulders and say "that's nice, good on them". It's as if we've almost become indifferent to its importance. We think of the travel opportunities, "wow, think of how much you'll see in Nepal", rather than the more important reason for volunteering - helping out those less fortunate than ourselves.
Even Conor admits that his decision to go to Nepal was a rather selfish one at first. He felt guilty for taking a whole year off to travel and thought, by volunteering, he could avoid any criticism from his friends and family.
"There was something about volunteering in a Third World orphanage at the outset of my trip that would squash any criticism," he writes. "Who would dare begrudge me my year of fun after doing something like that?"
I love the honesty of this statement. Like so many of us in a Facebook-dominated society, Conor was more preoccupied with what people would think about him than how the experience would actually affect him. He expected to finish his three months there and never look back.
When he arrived at the orphanage, Conor was struck by culture shock and most likely counting down the days until he could get back to 'normal' civilisation. In Nepal, Western toilets and clean water supplies were luxuries. Every day, Conor's energy was completely consumed by the children who were constantly vying for his attention. Every night, everyone in the orphanage ate the same meal for dinner, daal bhat (curried rice and vegetables). Heating was scarce and it was cold. And to make matters worse, Conor had arrived in 2004 and Nepal was in the midst of a civil war. Armed soldiers were everywhere, revolution was stirring and the situation was becoming increasingly serious.
In other words, Conor wasn't in his comfortable home back in America any longer. Volunteering in an orphanage was no longer just an abstract idea, a way to show his friends and family he wasn't selfish. It was now a reality. And there was no escaping the fact it was going to be hard.
Yet Conor persevered, and after awhile he found unexpected happiness. The life was simple and often tough. But the children were beacons of positive energy, always laughing and telling stories. I firmly believe most children want to be happy. And this drive, this inherent human desire, is why so many people in challenging situations still wear a smile. You often see photos of kids from third world countries, huge grins plastered on their faces after a hard day walking for hours to fetch water. A stereotypical image, I know, but one that speaks a thousand words.
This probably sounds like a simplistic interpretation. I'm slightly ashamed to admit I know very little about third world countries, and I don't want to sound ignorant or talk down the very real challenges these children do face. But the spirit of the children in Little Princes is what made the book shine. They are the backbones of the book. And all I could think of after I finished was how resilient human beings are.
Once Conor's three months were up, he had grown very attached to life at Little Princes. He did what few volunteers do - he promised the children he would return in a year's time. Many of them didn't believe him, but Conor felt compelled to go back.
Fast forward one year and Conor returns to Little Princes and begins a very different journey. The civil war in Nepal is escalating. Although Little Princes was in a relatively safe part of the Kathmandu Valley, danger lurked around every corner. And in this turbulent environment, Conor discovered the children at the orphanage were not orphans - they had parents who were alive. Parents who had paid large sums to a strange man to take their children away from their villages so they could have an education. The man promised he would put them in a good school and keep them safe from the war. Instead he kept them starving in squallor and sent them out to the streets to beg. He pocketed all profits. The children were his income. And their parents heard nothing of their lost loved ones.
When Conor uncovered this truth, he realised the Little Princes orphanage was one of many. Hundreds if not thousands of children in Nepal had been victims of child trafficking during the war. Unable to ignore this gross injustice, he sets about doing what he can to make it better.
Reading Conor's story opened my eyes to a part of the world I knew very little about. You always hear people talking about poverty in the media. I think to a certain extent I block it out - why think about something you feel you can't change? But Little Princes doesn't force the idea of volunteering down your throat. It doesn't imply that you are a bad person if you don't donate to charity. It simply - and effectively - raises awareness that not every child grows up in a warm home. Not every child is safe. Not every child goes to school. Not every child has equal opportunity.
These may seem like obvious truths, but they are truths easily pushed to the back of your mind when you are more preoccupied with challenges in your own life. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. My boyfriend Tom often uses the term 'relative poverty', meaning everything people feel tends to be relative to their own experiences.
For example, at the moment I feel anxious about not having as much money as I usually have (turns out unemployment is expensive). But in comparison to the children in Nepal (and the majority of children around the world, in fact), I am wealthy beyond words. But even this knowledge doesn't stop me from feeling slightly anxious - because my anxiety is relative to my situation. I am not that child in Nepal. I am me, with my own financial pressures and expectations.
I will never truly understand what it is like to be a child in Nepal. But thanks to books like Little Princes I am at least aware of their story. I am aware of their existence, their struggle. And this helps me cultivate gratitude - gratitude for the food on my plate, gratitude for my education, gratitude for being born into a nice family in a safe part of the world.
And I firmly believe that unless you are grateful for what you have and aware of the preciousness of life, you will never be able to truly help others. And once you welcome the warm rays of gratitude in your life, you also begin to feel compassion, empathy, love. With this shift in understanding, you are more equipped to reach out and make a positive change within your community. It's an upward spiral.
I have never been to a third world country. The closest I have probably been to seeing poverty with my own eyes was when I was an exchange student in Tahiti at age 14. Other than the occasional encounter with a beggar in Europe, I haven't been to remote areas of the world where people really do live close to starvation, with barely enough to feed their families let alone themselves.
It is too easy to forget that the majority of people in the world do not have the comforts we take for granted every day. And I think this is why Little Princes impacted me so much. Like a light bulb going off, I thought with a searing clearness: "I need to know more about how other people live". I don't want to be in the dark about the challenges people face. I don't want to be ignorant. I want to know, even if it's hard. Because we're all connected, we're all sharing this one precious world. And what happens in Nepal isn't separate from what happens here.
I didn't have any answers after reading it. I didn't know how to make it all better. But that didn't scare me as it may have before. Instead I just felt like the most important thing in the world was to simply be aware. With awareness I will be forced to remember how special and unique my life is. With awareness, I might make better decisions on a day to day basis. And with awareness, I might one day be able to make a real difference. Awareness is key. Without it, what do any of us have?
So if you're after a book that will challenge your opinions, shift your perspective and open your heart to the world, I suggest you give Little Princes a try. Please let me know your thoughts if you do.