An Invasion of Space

When we decide to press into people’s pain, we quickly learn that feeling helpless is part of the deal.

It was the last hour of sun on our first day in Nepal when I stopped near the Indrapur Temple in Kathmandu to look over a selection of handcrafted purses. The rectangles with long paracord strings shimmered with stiches of color and were draped over a woman’s arms, held out for my perusal. As we discussed prices, I quickly found myself hemmed in by two new vendors.

Street vendors approach the author in the streets of Kathmandu.

There was a man with an ornate chess set, and another with something hidden under a cloth. They leaned in close, reminding me of the exchange rate and nodding their approval as I haggled for a better price on the purses. When I had paid 500 rupees for six purses, I stepped away from our little huddle, only to be blocked in by a woman with a necklace stretched over her fingers. As I declined, the man with the chess set entered my personal space. Shaking him off, I turned to the right, where the man with the cloth made a showy move, revealing a carved elephant. Then someone offered a flute, and finally, a colorful guitar.

There was no way of stepping free. My only choice was to shuffle forward as new prices were offered for the necklace, chess set, and flute. I looked over their shoulders for a lifeline from my colleagues, who laughed as they gave me a wide berth.

Just when it looked as if I’d shirked the elephant seller, he’d scurry ahead of me, and with the flair of a showman, uncover the elephant again. I crossed a street, putting the durbar square behind me, but my new friends followed, offering their goods. I tried darting into an alleyway, but my entourage followed, lowering their prices.

I began to laugh, and so did the vendors. It was becoming a frustratingly good time—right up until the moment a motorcycle came buzzing along, on a direct course for the nucleus of our circle—me. I’d become so distracted by my happy traveling band that I’d failed to notice that the wide foot traffic of the marketplace had given way to a free-for-all of cars, trucks, motorbikes, and people. But my gang of vendors was there for me—tugging at my arm and shooing me to safety. It was then, as my antagonists became my heroes, that they slid away together under the orange sky.

A large stupa, or domed temple, sits atop Swayambhunath.


The following day, we visited another must-see cultural site, the Swayambhunath stupa, commonly called the Monkey Temple. This Buddhist religious site has multitudes of monkeys, clambering along the edges of the 365 steps we take to reach the top. We marveled at the architecture and ancient symbols, and having seen our full, we made our way back down.

As I descended beneath the canopy of large trees near the bottom, a young girl came up to me. Her hair was tangled and thin, and she held a nearly naked boy to her hip. Her dark eyes stared blankly into mine, and her mouth drooped, making a small, peeping sound. With a bony arm, she stretched her hand forward asking for bread, pinching her fingers together and shoveling air toward her lips.

Prayer flags fly at Swayambhunath, an ancient Buddhist site.

Like the vendors the day before, there was no walking past her. She clung to my shadow, staying with me as I crossed a busy street toward our car. Her eyes remained fixed on mine, and I worried that she’d need rescuing from a racing motorbike. She kept on with her gesture of feed me, feed me, as the boy looked on with vacant eyes. At the car, we gave her packages of travel snacks and a granola bar, her mouth still making that small peep of need. As we pulled away from the curb, I watched out the back window as she shuffled back to the entrance, her figure becoming smaller against the backdrop of trees.


Two days later, I was moving slowly between the metal beds of a women’s leprosy ward, keenly aware of my encroachment. Some sat up on beds, their hands and feet wrapped in gauze, covering the ulcer wounds formed by pushing themselves too far during a long season of planting. Others navigated wheelchairs with the palm of a half-missing hand, lining up for wound care of their own. Most don’t need pain medication—they’ve lost all sense of feeling in the affected areas. The last in line was a woman in a red winter coat, a yellow croc on the end of one foot, her other leg nearly gone.

Lepers receive education during a health training.

On the next level is the men’s ward, and I say hello to a man who will be losing his foot to an amputation this week. The other foot will go soon after, and he’ll be fitted with prosthetics and learn to use his muscles to compensate for the loss.

The third floor is the reaction ward, for those experiencing immunological complications from their disease. These may look like skin discolorations or be residues that appear years after the patient has been cured. I saw a young man sitting up, reading a newspaper, his legs kicking happily off the edge of his bed. His mother was attending to him, a rarity in this area of the Himalayas where so many hands are needed at home or in the fields. Everyone else had seemed alone, somewhat resigned to the endless cycle of waiting for treatment, giving their bodies time to be healed.

A woman sits amid the bustle of Kathmandu Durbar Square.

Within the concrete walls and among these beds, I felt like I was pressing into their space. I had nothing to give, and I couldn’t speak their language. All I could do was take—as I watched, listened, and invaded their space. If only they’d offered to sell me a necklace, a chess set, or an elephant, it may have been enough to give me an escape from the helplessness I felt.

But I have to wonder, what’s wrong with feeling uncomfortable? For far too long I have looked the other way, or just given a pittance of my resources as a salve. What I really need is to be the Samaritan that Jesus described in Luke 10, who saw and had compassion. Maybe there wasn’t much I could do during a walk-through at a leprosy hospital in Nepal, but there’s much I can do back home to align myself with the hurting, as the kind of neighbor Christ has called me to be. Naturally, some of these will be unexpected opportunities for compassion, but there must be also be seasons of service and sacrifice that require more of me.

Outside the leprosy ward, I watched a man with gnarled, leprosy-affected fingers work with a group of soon-to-be-released patients. His eyes were lit up, his voice brimming with joy, as he demonstrated how they must soak their limbs and check for splinters and hot spots. And though his words were foreign to me, I could see that they carried a special hope to this group about to face uncertain days back home. It wasn’t because he cared more than the others employed at this hospital, but because he knew the road so well and could guide them as one who had been there, too.

I think of that man, many months later, in light of the opportunities I have to teach and encourage others along the way. So I’ll keep watch and stand ready with the compassion that God has poured out on me. Through valleys and over hilltops, I’m slowly learning to count it all joy. And that’s something I can share, as I get to know the road a little better.


Photography by Ben Rollins

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