A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Beginnings and Endings in Kathmandu

First, the magical beginnings...

We returned to Kathmandu on Ring Road and saw the most unexpected sight - an enormous golden Buddha glittering in the sun. It was at the entrance of Swayambunath that we had previously visited, but since we had walked the winding the streets to the temple instead of taking the tour bus we somehow bypassed it.

This time around, we stayed at the famous Kathmandu Guest House. There are many levels of accomodation to choose, but as we were in the cheapest, our room was only a modest upgrade. The real draw, however, was the surrounding décor and hotel grounds - so atmospheric they made an ordinary breakfast interesting. As is eating while sitting cross-legged.

Krishna, our Annapurna porter, invited us over to his humble abode for dinner. He lived in a two room apartment with his wife, son, and mother-in-law that graciously welcomed us. We brought a bottle of our favorite rum: over which we drank, shared pictures, and stories of our life and in the process became good friends. I call Krishna my Bai (which means little brother in Nepali) and he calls me Didi (or big sister). We ate dinner, a sumptuous feast prepared by his wife at nearly midnight, which made me realize that eating late must be traditional for this part of the world. Note to self: eat a snack before attending any hosted dinners in Nepal or India lest you will be ravenous (and certainly a bit tipsy) by the main course!

We made our first (and potentially only) major purchase of the trip - a Thangka painting. We must have visited twenty shops in two days in a search, no a mission, for one piece that spoke equally to both of us. In the process we became quasi experts with the ability to spot sloppy work, pieces cranked out in production line fashion, and the true hallmark of a master: the intricate details of Buddha’s facial expressions made with hair follicle sized brushes.

We stumbled into Gauri Thangka Center, a popular gallery in Thamel, where they showcased exceptional buddhist art. Some were not even for sale and others fetched enormous sums like a recent purchase by Elton John. Fearing we were out of our price range, we were shown a few reasonably priced pieces in our range (like maybe three), but one was “the one“. It was a Buddha mandala painted in blues and bright pinks by Llama and master artist Bos Badu. We immediately resonated with it but to be sure, we ran back and viewed our second and third choices again before making the big decision to buy it. With the sun nestled behind the hills and our stomachs rumbling from lack of nourishment, we still took a jaunt to the tailor to pick out a silk brocade frame in deep purple. It was an exhausting day, but every detail had to be worked out.

Now, the sad(dest) endings...

We visited Pashputinath Temple: one of the holiest temples in the world, dedicated to Lord Shiva, and worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. The river that runs through the temple complex is where the Hindu funeral rituals take place. The corpses are covered in marigold and carried out on a metal stretcher to the river steps, where family gathers to pay their respect. The body is lit upon the pyre, burnt to ash, and eventually returned to the river. The cycle of life.

It was the first time I’ve seen a dead body up close and it was spooky. His bloated face had a curious resemblance to Tattoo from Dynasty. His body was immeasurably stiff and unyielding, like a piece could be broken off without disturbing the rest. He was on the paupers side of the river, where it cost but pennies for a funeral. The smoke that filled the air seemed noxious and full of death. Wait, it was full of death. The thought made me more ill than I was already feeling. Facing mortality and our nonnegotiable end is never a pleasant affair.

I wasn’t feeling altogether myself so we took a taxi back to the hotel. The driver was cordial enough at first but then tried to drop us off at least a mile from Thamel. We had taken many cabs so I was definitely rubbed the wrong way and offered him half the fare for half the ride. He was pissed with a capital P and started swearing at us in Nepali. Screeching through the narrow streets like a bat out of hell barely avoiding pedestrians and rickshaws unwittingly in his path of terror. I got out of the taxi while we fought in the simplest English he could muster. “You are not nice!” To which I replied, “No, you are not nice! Very bad man!” and stormed off. Only later did I realize that my camera must have come out of my pocket in the backseat of the taxi. I could imagine him smirking in my minds eye, with my camera and almost as worse, the last word.

In our leisurely pace of travel to and from Pokhara for our trek, we completely forgot to renew our 30 day visa! We were already 10 days late and had to burn two afternoons and $60 in late fees at the visa office across town. Fortunately, Nepal is lenient towards tourists and we were not deported from the country on the spot.

All tolled we will have spent six weeks in this beautiful and diverse country. From the highest peaks in the world down to the bustling Kathmandu valley, from the garishly decorated rickshaws to the simplest hillside monastery, from the serene Buddha eyes atop the stupas to the smiling eyes of the Nepali locals, it was indeed one of our favorite countries.

Pheri bhetau laa - we’ll see you again, Nepal!


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