WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Weary from three weeks working with the poor in the chaotic slums of Calcutta, India, 16 students from Palm Beach Atlantic College flew into Nepal Sunday, hoping for a week of peaceful respite and prayer near the top of the world.
They wound up with faces full of tear gas and a taste of the violence that has rocked Nepal’s capital since last week’s royal blood bath.
Protesters had stopped traffic, so the students’ only way to get from the Katmandu airport to their hotel was to take a 3-mile hike with their luggage in tow. On the way, they ran right into a riot.
“People were burning tires in the streets and throwing bricks, things like that,” PBAC graduate student Jared Landreth said during a telephone interview from Nepal Wednesday. “We were hit with some tear gas. A couple times we were in the midst of a stampede.”
Police in riot gear charged a crowded street, firing tear gas and sending people fleeing, Landreth said. But the students were not hurt. Landreth once worked in Katmandu for two years with a Christian ministry, and he led the stunned PBAC students through back streets to reach their hotel.
Most of them have stayed right there.
“Things are still tense here, but we’re safe,” PBAC junior Aaron Harden wrote Tuesday in an e-mail to his parents in Delray Beach. “Our hotel is safe. It has a big wall and an armed guard. I have been worried a few times, but I was never in any real danger.”
Palm Beach Atlantic, a Christian college in West Palm Beach, has about 2,400 students and frequently sends teams of them all over the world to build homes and work with the poor. This year PBAC students have been to China, Romania, Nicaragua, Belize, Honduras and the Watts section of Los Angeles.
The 16 students in Nepal are on a month-long trip to help the destitute and dying in South Asia. But this week they are witnessing firsthand a bizarre, deadly soap opera playing out in the streets and royal court of Katmandu, capital of the nation that also is home to Mount Everest.
On Friday, the king, queen and seven other members of the royal family were killed or fatally wounded in their palace dining room, reportedly sprayed with bullets by a love-struck crown prince who later turned the automatic weapon on himself.
In the ensuing chaos, the comatose crown prince was named king. But after his death Monday, his uncle, Gyanendra, became the new monarch. Gyanendra promptly blamed the deaths on an “accidental explosion” of the gun — an explanation many of his subjects found preposterous.
They took to the streets, lobbing bottles and bricks, setting fires and demanding the truth. This was the scene the PBAC students encountered Sunday as they made their way to the Tibet Guest House hotel.
“That was one of the more anxious times we experienced,” Landreth said. “We knew we needed to get to the hotel as quickly as possible and avoid large crowds.”
There was another excellent reason to get inside the hotel. Just after the students reached it, the government imposed a curfew. Several people on the streets after the curfew were shot and killed by the police, according to local news reports, Landreth said.
The students have spent the past few days holed up in the hotel reading books, playing board games, watching movies and praying that things stay peaceful.
“It’s been a little boring,” said Rochelle Bowman, a senior from Georgia. On Wednesday, the noon to midnight curfew was lifted and she left the hotel for a few hours to shop for souvenirs. “The streets were calm. We didn’t see any problems.”
But U.S. Embassy officials in Nepal have told the students to stay inside.
The students were to leave next Monday, but now they hope to catch a flight to Bangkok on Friday and return to Florida early next week.
This week was supposed to be a relaxing time for the students, after they spent three weeks helping Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity minister to the poor and sick in Calcutta. The plan was to reflect on that experience and prepare for a return to the First World while in Nepal.
Instead, the students have been e-mailing their anxious parents and monitoring protests on television. They say the hotel has plenty of food and is in a safe part of the capital.
College officials say they are in constant touch with the students and the U.S. Embassy in Nepal. The college is also keeping the students’ parents apprised.
“I’m a little concerned, but not really frightened,” said Andrea Harden, the mother of Aaron Harden of Delray Beach. Her husband, Delray Beach City Manager David Harden, said: “It’s been a life-changing experience for him, but we’re anxious to get him home.”
Three other students from Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast are on the trip: Janice Kaiser of Lantana, Valerie Meeks of Vero Beach and Kelly Vickery of Belle Glade.
Bill Fleming, PBAC’s development vice president, said the experience hasn’t shaken the college’s commitment to international missions.
“There are educational opportunities and service opportunities in the Third World that you won’t get elsewhere,” Fleming said. “We would never expose our students to a situation that is unstable, and had we known the instability there, we never would have sent them.”
“We’re on a mission trip, and we really felt God was with us and protecting us,” said Landreth, the graduate student. “Tell everyone there we’re coming home and we’re doing all right and we’ll see them soon.”
Reprinted by permission of The Palm Beach Post, at www.palmbeachpost.com. Kiehl is a writer for the newspaper.