Welcome to Nepal: home to the momo, a rather large mountain, and about 30 million incredibly friendly people. (As well as a few bad eggs not caught out on corruption charges often enough.) It’s also a place of extreme poverty; where half the country lives on less than $1.25 a day, i.e a third of a cup of your morning soy latte. Suffice to say that, with so little spare change floating around, homelessness is more than an issue.
Some of those who end up living on the streets of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, are children.
The majority are boys – some as young as seven – and they’re estimated to number into the thousands. Some leave home early due to abuse, poverty, or generally shitty parenting, but others are simply escaping the restrictions of a world too old for them: child labour is endemic. For some of those that end up on the streets, at least, one solace can be a little tube of glue dubbed ‘Dendrite’.
First emerging as a Nepalese drug trend in the late 90s, today the valley’s street kids have evolved past the popular glue brand, Dendrite, to pretty much anything involving solvents or strong fumes. There’s Max Bone – another big brand name – through to Vat, Foxciban, and Naitroson, as well as household paint thinner. All of it can be bought at the local street stores. At as little as 12 Rupees a bottle (about 13 cents) glue does a roaring trade, despite the efforts of NGOs to prevent vendors selling it to children.
Chroming is most visible when walking through major precincts, like the tourist hub, Thamel. Most street kids wait for night time before whipping out their tell-tale brown paper bags, soiled rags, and empty milk pouches scrounged from the gutter. They then huddle like puppies, sniffing together in rounds, before dispersing like wild dogs to scream, laugh, hit things, and generally terrorise Japanese travellers with giant SLRs and Swedes with brown bum-bags.
More confronting is when you see children sniffing in daylight. Last week one kid – he looked about nine – approached me for cash while still holding his little tube of glue. According to one nationwide study by the Child Protection Centre and Services (CPCS) in Nepal, more than ¾ of street kids are now sniffing regularly: weekly, daily, or pretty much non-stop… and “it’s getting worse”, says one CPCS case worker, Inge Bracke.
Of course, anybody back home even vaguely familiar with Jungle Juice will know why these kids sniff: it's a cheap thrill of hallucinations, visuals, and basically tripping balls. One street kid – Prashant, an 11-year-old from the valley who survives by picking up trash and begging – calls it getting “stoned”. He says it lets him see what he wants to see. “Most often we’re flying in the sky, it’s so much fun,” he says. And, seriously, when your life consists of sleeping in doorways and begging for coins, who’s to say you don’t deserve a little fun?
My CPCS case worker’s analysis of glue’s attraction is a little more Sociology textbook: she says they do it to escape life on the street, to starve off days of hunger pangs, and to fit in with their peers – bigger kids who initiate them with the help of a brown paper bag and other freebies. “At first they say sniffing glue made them feel unwell but then it turns into something pleasurable for them,” says Bracke. Addiction soon follows along with an incredibly harsh effect on their little bodies.
Constant nose bleeds, brain damage, burnt lungs, organ failure, and death: a cliché list to your average party girl, but a reality for the Kathmandu valley’s street kids. And then there’s that glue-induced aggression. “Gang fights are normal on the street,” says Bikash, a 14-year-old kid who ran away from home when he was in the third grade. There’s been reports of high kids run over by the valley’s notorious traffic. Others have jumped off buildings while tripping.
There is a visible camaraderie in the children's drugs. “The big boys love us,” says Bikash. “We take dendrite, smoke cigarette, and drink alcohol in a group.” For a wide-eyed tourist, there’s something almost… affable about these little street parties. Until you realise that nobody else is dancing, and that instead they’re stepping over the little lone boy on the street huddled with his brown crumpled bag in the daylight. Which brings us back to that textbook yet resonant reason they sniff to begin with: society. "They hate society and society hates them," says Bracke of Nepal's glue sniffing street children.