Kathmandu is not necessarily the easiest place to spend time, but it’s awe inspiring none the less. A bustling sprawl of shops, pedal rickshaws, Suzuki taxis, motorcycles, and vendors of vast amounts of stunning metalwork. It’s a blend of people from many different ethnic groups within Nepal and many religions including Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians. And of course those in quest of another religion entirely – trekking. With a panoply of gods and demons wafting about the air, it is definitely a place which encourages you to face the demons of your own.
To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a single traffic control light or stop sign to be found anywhere in Kathmandu. Put a roomful of young children together with only 1 toy and despite initial cries claiming personal ownership they’ll almost always work out a way to share and play together. The traffic here is no exception, with vehicles commonly sharing the same side of the road with each other as well as with pedestrians (no crosswalks of course either) and the occasional cow. Aggressive merging moves with shavings of clearance are graciously allowed. My first taxi driver here was a tad trigger happy with his horn, tooting it about 30x per block generally in triplets. There are I’m sure subtle nuances of frequency, volume and rhythm which can imply any number of meanings including: you go, coming through, on your side, no you don’t, hello, don’t walk yet or you’ll get hit, give me some space I’m in a hurry, and come on dude what are you thinking. What’s it doesn’t seem to be used for is to call someone a jerk.
I’ve wandered this city of 1.7 million for a few days now and the most difficult part for me, at least in the heart of Kathmandu, is how many people start conversations only to want to be my guide. You’d think I’d have been more prepared for that after my travels in India, but something in me is again beginning to contract when someone approaches me with a smile on their face, an unfortunate Pavlovian physiological response I’d prefer to live without. On my first day here, a young man showed me a few small temples hidden away through tiny doorways in courtyards that I’m sure I’d never otherwise see. I felt privy to a secret inner world of Kathmandu. He promised he didn’t want to be compensated but later asked if I could buy him a little food. Since I felt he had been kind and provided a helpful service I agreed. As we were walking to a store he started showing off his knowledge of the capitals of various countries. A pit formed in my stomach as I recalled reading from the Lonely Planet online Nepal guide that young men who speak of state capitals are generally scammers and their modus operandi is getting you to buy something for them at an inflated price and then returning it and splitting the money with the shopkeeper. When we stopped at a store, he spoke to the clerk who quickly piled up oil, rice and dal. I interrupted the flow of goods and asked how much the cost was. $38! Probably 2-3 times the cost of the same goods in the states and these are basic staples here. I told him how disappointed I was that he was being dishonest with me but gave him a couple hundred rupees ($2) to avoid too large an uncomfortable conflict and because I still felt he had provided a valuable service. He contested but we both knew better.
I find I very much enjoy the monsoon weather. I’m just a big fan of rain I guess, especially with the intensity of the downpours here. It seems like it’s an afternoon thing more or less so there’s plenty of time to work around it, or duck under an overhang like I did here on a main square temple tower called Maju Dewal where hash smoking was the order of the day back in the 70s. I found myself sheltered here with a persistent guide with tireless pickup lines for the female tourists and with a young cotton candy vendor pictured here, also doing his best to escape the rain.
Yesterday, I meandered a Buddhist stupa called Swayambu, opting to go at sunset to avoid the crowds. Wonderful choice, just me and a lot of monkeys, a few monks and a few others. Since Kathmandu has major electricity issues, it was beautiful to look over the city from on high and have most everywhere devoid of light. There are generators of course so the city wasn’t completely in the dark, but the allowance of a true dusk made for a serene sense of stillness at this already quiet holy place.
I also visited Pashupathinat, the most holy Hindu temple complex in Nepal and another of the god Shiva’s holy homes. While there, I came upon the ghats (stone platforms with steps down to the water) on the filthiest river I have ever seen/smelled and witnessed a cremation. Most notable about the ceremony was the intensity of the grief. Women, I imagine family, were ushered to the flower adorned body as it lay along the river’s edge and they wailed, lengthy deep guttural sobs. They were then helped away and in one instance a young woman of about 20, so overcome she was unable to walk, was carried away. By the time the actual cremation began, most of the family had gone and the rain began in earnest.
I love how in the open death is in the Hindu tradition, preparing the body is not private, the burning of the body is not private, and most notably the grief is not private. The piece I wondered most about was what it was like to have your job be the person who manages the burning of the body. There are so many professions in this world. I wonder if their’s is an honorable one here or whether it is reserved labor for a lower caste. It appears to be a very important and meaningful function in their culture.
I’m moving on to Pokhara today. I want to spend some time volunteering at an orphanage there, enjoy a little time in a more beautiful and relaxing place and perhaps go on a small trek of some sort. I’ve been wanting to connect with an orphanage for some time now, one of the my personal reasons for coming to Nepal. Unfortunately there are many orphans here. For those thinking of volunteering here, many organizations try to get you to book something in advance, and even pay a significant fee for making all the arrangements. In my experience so far it isn’t necessary as I simply emailed several orphanages in Pokhara the other day and many have written back inviting me to come and help.
Those of you who know me well would know that I’m not much for planning ahead in my life. I hardly know one day what the next day will bring. As an example, I booked a flight for tomorrow for Pokhara only 12 hours before leaving (last seat on the flight BTW and don’t intend to confirm a room until there as I prefer to see the actual room first. How many days will I stay in Pokhara? No idea. Will I go on a trek? No idea. When am I leaving Nepal? No return flight as of yet. I can be plagued by indecision at times but on the flip side I also retain an immense amount of flexibility in my life. I read something from Ram Das this morning where he said “Embrace your ten thousand horrible demons and your ten thousand beautiful demons.” In this land replete with shamanism, animism, Hinduism and Buddhism, something about embracing all of our demons before we drift away in smoke naturally seems to makes sense.