I first met Penny in Kathmandu. As the consul in the US Embassy, I had rejected the visa application of a young Nepali woman, Luna, who did not meet our criteria: she had no money, scant education, and could not explain why she wanted to go to the US. The next morning a spirited American woman turned up in my office. She had a foundation that worked for poor children in Nepalese villages, and Luna, a staff member, needed training in Denver. How could I be heartless enough to refuse a visa? I reversed the order.
Three months later she was in my office again. She had brought in a large consignment of books, notebooks, pencils and blackboards for village schools and the customs bosses were demanding excise duty. Since I spoke the local language, I could vigorously argue to customs that the entire lot was for charity and the only beneficiaries would be poor Nepali children. It also helped that I was on first name terms with the Home Minister. The levy was withdrawn.
Penny ran a foundation that focused on women and children of Nepal. She had come to Nepal first as a tourist, but had seen first-hand the misery of women and the malnutrition of small children. She was kind and sympathetic, but she was also resolute and indefatigable. If I ever made a casual promise to attend a meeting of disabled girls or blind boys, she would make sure I did not renege even if the Heavens fell. She induced me to visit polio-stricken kids and disabled orphans no matter how long my hours were in the consulate. She would call, leave me a million messages, buy me dinner – in short, do anything that would advance the children’s cause an inch.
She lived in Colorado but visited Nepal four to six times each year and never came empty handed. She would fight her way to the executive suite of major US companies and persuade cynical but affluent fatcats to make huge gifts of exercise books, ballpoint pens, cereals, vitamins and packaged food, then sweet talk transport companies to ship them free to Kathmandu. She would go to major hospital groups and persuade top doctors and dentists to come to Nepal for a fortnight: a week of splendid vacation and, then, -- you guessed it -- a week of free treatment for Nepali children. She wangled free medicines, solutions and bandages from pharmaceutical companies.
On my monthly visits to the US commissary I always gathered supplies of Campari for me and Bristol cream sherry for her. They represented the fuel for our endless discussions, while candles flickered and cast shadows on her fair face during Kathmandu’s usual power outage. And all discussions had to end with the final question: How do we do better for Nepalese children.
No more of such discussions. Not even a call on my birthday. Just as Nepal’s capital collapsed in this summer’s earthquake, her world collapsed a year ago with the implacable advance of Alzheimer’s.