Talking Travel with Conor Grennan

I first learned of Conor Grennan when I happened across his ridiculously good travel blog, “How Conor Is Spending All His Money” (now called “Conor’s Mildly Thrilling Tales“), which chronicled his first round-the-world trip. The blog struck me (metaphorically speaking, of course — it was actually quite gentle) because of Conor’s wit, charm, and ability to turn even the most boring train ride or trip to the local market into a compelling, hilarious story.

When first I emailed him to be a part of Talking Travel, he sounded genuinely excited. After all, he had just recently founded the non-profit organization Next Generation Nepal, dedicated to “reuniting trafficked and conflict-displaced children with their families by searching remote villages for parents.” After our initial conversation regarding the interview, Conor seemed to drop off the face of the planet. Emails went unanswered, and I was starting to wonder whether or not he was serious about doing the interview. A week later, however, I got a response.

“Hey Justin! Sorry about the delay,” the email went. “I’ve been really psyched to do this for a while, just been away looking for parents of trafficked children up in the mountains for the last 10 days – how’s that for a kick ass excuse?”

You can’t argue with that. I mean, what am I supposed to say? “Sorry, Conor. You’ve got your efforts pointed in the wrong direction, buddy. What about Gadling? What about our feelings?” I don’t think so.

With that, I give you my interview with Conor Grennan: a man who has travelled the world, written for Lonely Planet, and Travelers’ Tales (to name a few), and now spends his days trekking through the Himalayas, reuniting trafficked children with their parents.

How did you get started traveling?

Going back, I guess it started when I graduated college in 1996 and didn’t have a job. I figured I better get the hell out of town so I wouldn’t be the unemployed bum in my group of friends. That landed me in Prague, where I stayed for almost six and a half years, then Brussels where I was for almost two years.

I distinctly remember one day in the summer of 2004 deciding that I was going to leave my job to travel, maybe for a couple of months. By the end of the day it had evolved into a year-long, around the world trip, and I’d hung a huge world map up in my office, hoping people would ask me why I’d bought the map and I could sound really cool. Nobody did. I bought my RTW ticket anyway, and ended up traveling for about eighteen months.

How did you first learn about the trafficked children in Nepal?

My round the world trip essentially began in Nepal – I had decided in advance that I was going to volunteer in an orphanage for a few months. Not for any reason grander than I felt like it was probably something that I should see and experience once in my life. I was steeling myself for three months of depression, of walking from sad child to sad child and maybe patting them on the head to comfort them. I was completely off-base. The kids were the happiest kids I’ve ever met in my life – they jumped all over me when I walked in the door; it took about three months to disentangle myself from them. I loved every minute of it.

I grew pretty attached to those kids– I lived in the village with them for about three months. As I finished my official year-long trip, I extended it by heading back to Nepal to be with the children for another few months. I learned more the second time around, how this particular type of child trafficking works in Nepal and how these children came to be separated from their parents:

In the most remote parts of the country, areas which have no roads, not a single wheeled vehicle, no electricity or toilets or even glass in the windows, you have villages scattered throughout the mountains made up of a few dozen mud huts. These areas are where the Maoist rebels had their strongholds for the last ten years of the civil war, terrorizing the defenseless and uneducated local populations, abducting one child per family for the army, abducting children from schools, controlling the people through relentless violence.

In this environment, parents were desperate to save their children. So when a man came along offering to take their children to the safety of Kathmandu, to put them in boarding schools and care for them and keep them safe, they parents leapt at the chance. The catch: his fee for this service was extortionist. Villagers had to sell their animals, their land, sometimes their houses, just to pay him. They did, because he was a well-known figure, a brother of a local politician. They sent their children away.

What they did not know was that the man was a child trafficker. Having taken their money, he would dump their children in a destitute orphanage in the city, abandon them, and cut off contact with the families. Children and parents were lost to each other. This was the case with tens of thousands of children during the civil war.

So what exactly is Next Generation Nepal, and what is the organization doing to save trafficked children?

I started Next Generation Nepal (NGN) as a response to this crisis. (The crisis of children in conflict in Nepal was named by the UN as one of its Top Ten Stories the World Should Hear More About in 2006.) We are doing two things: rescuing children and reuniting them with their families.

To rescue children, we opened a children’s home, called Dhaulagiri House, to rescue these children from these dangerously destitute orphanages, where they were not being cared for. Working with the government’s Child Welfare Board and the local police, we rescue the children from these homes, then take them into Dhaulagiri House, make sure they have access to medical attention, are properly fed, and can go to school, often for the first time in their lives. The children we rescue and care for are as young as five years old.

But we do more than this – we are one of the few organizations in Nepal who are looking to actually reunite trafficked and conflict-displaced children with their families. This is not an easy job. It requires venturing to the most remote corners of this Himalayan country, into places where there is not even a single road or wheeled vehicle, and walking through the mountains, from village to village, armed only with a photo and basic profile of the young child. Remarkably, we’ve had a lot of success with this. The look on a poverty-stricken mother’s face when you show her a photo of a child taken from her years ago is a beautiful thing.

We determine if the village is safe and if the family can support the child, then we work to bring the child home again, offering enough support so that the child can be healthy, well-fed, and educated with his or her own parents for the first time since he or she can remember. It is a huge project – thousands of children – and labor intensive, as getting into the villages isn’t easy, but we are determined to give these children back their mothers and fathers.

What is an average day for you like?

Each day is a bit different. If I’m in the mountains looking for parents, the days are extreme – lots of difficult trekking. But while in Kathmandu, where I’m based, a typical day will start from about 7 a.m. on email. Emailing is one of the most important parts of my work here – we survive on small donations from individuals, and I like to communicate with the people who are interested in finding out how they can help the children. From about 8.30-10 a.m.., I am with the children. I head over to Dhaulagiri, our children’s home – I live next door. I go over to see the kids and help them get ready for school. I love that part of the day, getting 26 children ready for school! In that time, I walk them to school, all in a line – the school is quite close. It’s pretty adorable. I hang out in the schoolyard with them for a while, as they run around and jump on you and use you like a jungle gym.

In the late morning, my colleagues and I, Farid Ait-Mansour have the typical morning Nepali meal of daal bhat (“daal” is lentils, “bhat” is rice), which is eaten by virtually all Nepalis two times per day. We spend a lot of the morning discussing any issues related to the children and strategies for the next reunification case. For the afternoon, I am back at home and I spend the afternoon working on fundraising by contacting people and organizations. We love it when people from home offer to do small fundraisers – in the office, in their school, in a local bar – it’s great talking with these people and helping spread the word about Nepal and the children who need so much help. For the rest of the afternoon, we may also be called because a parent has found their child, one of the 300 we are working with through our partner, The Umbrella Foundation. If that happens, we do an in-depth interview with the parent to learn the history of the child and how they came to be with us.

When school is out I head back to see the children, help them with homework or just hang out playing with them outside the house – they have a lot of energy to expend! We often stay to put them to bed around 8 p.m., after the evening daal bhat (not a lot of variety in Nepali cuisine). I spend the evening writing, keeping up the blog, the newsletter, or any freelance articles on NGN that we might be doing. That can go until around midnight or so.

There are no days off, not even weekends. Typically, Saturday is the one holiday of the week, but this is a busy day for us because the children are home all day from school and that is the day parents will often visit.

Wow — so what can we do to help?

In rescuing, feeding, and educating children, what we need most are donations. These are children who have no parents to take care of them, to buy them shoes, to take them to the doctor – it is the people in far away counties in the West who will have to buy these things for the children. It is why I spend so much time talking to people about the crisis of these children in post-war Nepal. There have been a couple of instances of people writing to me and offering to hold small fundraisers at home with their friends – I love those emails! It means we are feeding the children and raising awareness for this small Himalayan country on the other side of the world.

Aside from donations and fund raisers, are you looking for volunteers in Nepal?

I love to hear that people are coming to Nepal! When we can, we help find a way for them to volunteer; if it isn’t possible, we certainly invite them to come and meet the kids – the children love visitors. You just need to be ready for a bunch of little kids to jump all over you….

Are there any events scheduled for NGN in North America where people can learn more?

Yes! I’m coming back to the US for the first time in a year to attend our big annual summer event, to be held in New York City. NGN fundraisers are always a blast, a great way to meet the people who have been involved face-to-face and a way for people to learn a bit more about it.

The fundraiser this year will be held on THURSDAY, JUNE 21, from 7-10 p.m., at Phebe’s Bar, at 359 Bowery St. (and East 4th) in New York City (map). (Phone: 212-358-1902). You can soon learn more details about this event, NGN, and the kids on our website at

Thanks so much, Conor.