Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Nepal 1; Kathmandu; Why Not?

Why not? Not only is this an interesting question, but it is the theme of Nepal. When asking a salesperson if a jacket is real or if it is the right size, his or her automatic response is "why not?" I realize this is a clever sales tactic that isn't intended to spark philosophical introspection but so be it if it does. This concept comes up time and time again. Is there a legitimate reason why I shouldn't have a certain experience? Given, many times the answer is yes but more times than I'd like to admit I let misplaced fear and irrelevant excuses taint my response. I want this question to be my automatic response to the sales pitch that life throws at me.

Kathmandu is a fascinatingly hectic city. Within my first 10 minutes of wandering through the maze of streets, all of my senses were overstimulated. My first day, I left my hostel (in Thamel) with the goal of getting completely lost. With painfully little effort, I succeeded. Because very few of the street signs are in English, most directions were vague, yet surprisingly consistent: "go down this street then take a right, pass the kids sniffing glue and then take the 2nd left at the street lined with tour agencies, keep going straight until you see a sketchy ally, go down that ally, refuse buying scarves and Tiger Balm about 4 times and then you will see the best momo cart in town. It's right next to the chickens and candles...you can't miss it." Toes are at great risk while walking this city as the the very narrow streets are shared by motorbikes, a wide range of animals, cars, bicycle rickshaws and people walking. Temples, incense, scarves, faux brand name outdoor gear, spices, street food vendors, litter, crowds of people, cows, goats, chickens and pigeons composed the streets. I was constantly approached by undercover tour guides who would take me places with the intention of earning my trust. I used them for their knowledge (which I quickly forgot) and then politely excused myself before they could give me their pitch; it worked out quite nicely. The food was never disappointing (especially the classics: dal bhat, momos and masala tea) and my hostel was a collection of free-spirited late-to-middle aged hikers, eccentric volunteers and downtown earth travelers/vagabonds who were very supportive of Colorado and Washington's recent legalization of weed. The main attractions I visited were Basantapur Dunbar square, Boudhanath, Pashupatinsth, Swayambhu (Monkey Temple), and Bhaktapur.

Basantapur Durbar square contains the renovated palaces of the Malla and Shah kings who ruled over the city and palaces dedicated to different Hindu gods and goddesses. The entire Palace Complex is named after a monkey god called Hanuman, who is said to protect Durbar square. The Kumari or living goddess also resides here. In Nepal a Kumari is a pre-pubescent virgin girl selected from the Shakya or Bajracharya clan of the Nepalese Newari community. She is believed to be the incarnation of the goddess Taleju, at least until she gets a visit from Mrs.Flow (menstruates). The Kumari is worshiped by some of Nepal's Hindus and Buddhists. There is a rigorous screening process to determine the new goddess and once selected she performs many rituals and must be carried everywhere outside her palace in a golden palanquin (her feet must never touch the ground). People believe that even a glimpse of her will bring them good fortune. She is pretty much everything that encompasses a big deal. Durbar square is also a good place to set up camp to eat momos and do some quality people watching from above.

Boudhanath (lord of wisdom) is a sacred Buddhist stupa that is one of the most significant Buddhist monuments in the world. It is a major destination of pilgrims from the Himalayas because of its energy. It is said to be a protective, purifying, and wish granting stupa and has a long history of Buddhist worship. Although I didn't witness it, there are dawn and dusk ceremonies where the stupa is worshiped by walking clockwise around it, turning the mani wheels, and reciting mantras; people also pray to the 3 jewels (it's most effective on the 10th, 15th and final day of the lunar calendar).

Pashupatinath temple, near the banks of the Bagmati River, is the most significant Hindu temples of Lord Shiva in the world. It is a square shaped pagoda temple built on single platform; there are gold doors on all the four sides of the temple and it stands in the middle of an open courtyard. Only Hindus are allowed to enter and they are restricted from bringing cameras, cell phones, binoculars, tape recorders, shoes/sandals and leather goods inside the premise. Similar to most holy sites in Nepal, monkeys have taken over (from what I saw when I peeked in over the wall).

At the nearby ghats (stairs where you can descend to the river), plateaus are made that are used for the daily open air cremations. Cremations are part of life and death and in Nepal (and India) and are far from a private event. As soon as I approached the Bagmati River (which will eventually feed into the Ganges) the air was filled with the smoke from a cremation. In Nepal, much like people's lives, the death of people are not equal. There are several cremation locations, one for the royal family, one for rich families with prestige and several others for the "normal" people. The cremation places for the "normal" people are located on the other side of the bridge, out of sight from the places that are used by royalty and the well-endowed. From the opposite side of the river visitors can observe all the activities. People prepared for the cremation by accumulating wood on the plateau. Then, the close relatives carried the stretcher with a body covered in white cloth to the temple for a last visit. Next, the close relatives discreetly undressed the covered body and threw the cloths into the holy river (where others were bathing in because they believe it releases them from the cycle of rebirth). Following that, the close relatives (only men) picked up the body from the stretcher and made 3 rounds around the pile of wood that was prepared for the cremation (in a clockwise direction). After they put the deceased on the pile of wood, the oldest son walked around the body 3 times with a lit piece of wood. Afterwards, he kindled the pile of wood near the mouth of the dead body (Hindus believe that the spirit of the deceased leaves the body via the mouth). A few hours later, the ashes were then swept into the holy river. Unlike many of the other tourists, I didn't feel comfortable snapping photos while families mourned the loss of their loved ones. It wasn't the dead bodies that shocked me most, it was the complete lack of sensitivity that people had. I can't comprehend what possesses someone to shove a telephoto lenses in the faces of mourners. Death is not a photo op.

Immediately after purchasing my ticket, a 26 year old tour guide clung to me like white on rice. No matter what I said or did he remained my Siamese twin for the day. I spent a solid 7 hours talking with him and his friend, the tourist police, on the steps opposite the cremation ritual. Throughout the day I listened to the prayers and chants of families while the smoky essence of their loved ones danced in the air before them. Maybe it was because most of my attention was spent learning about my two Nepali companion's lives, but I wasn't appalled in the least bit. It was a beautiful ritual that was unexpectedly serene.

Swayambhu (Monkey Temple) is a Buddhist temple where hundreds of holy monkeys (they are holy because they originate from Manjushri's head lice) scamper about. The legend behind this site is that Swayambhu told people about a miraculous lotus planted by Buddha in a previous life that gave off a brilliant light. Holy people like saints traveled to the lake where it blossomed (that once covered Kathmandu valley) so they could get power from the flower to grant enlightenment. At the same time Manjushri was meditating at a sacred mountain and had a vision of the light so he flew across the mountains of China and Tibet upon his blue lion to worship the lotus. With a sword, Manjushri cut a gorge in the mountains surrounding the lake to drain the lake for greater accessibility for pilgrims. The water, draining away, left the valley of present day Kathmandu. The lotus was then transformed into a hill and the light became the Swayabhunath Stupa. Today, the stupa is a Buddhist pilgrimage site. The big pair of eyes on all four sides are symbolic of God's all-seeing perspective. There is no nose between the eyes but rather a representation of the number one in the Nepali alphabet, signifying that the single way to enlightenment is through the Buddhist path. The third eye signifies the wisdom of looking within. No ears are shown because it is said the Buddha is not interested in hearing prayers in praise of him.

Bhaktapur (the city of devotees) is the third largest city in Kathmandu valley and was once the capital of Nepal. It is the home of traditional art and architecture, Buddhist and Hindu religious sites and beautiful ponds. In order to avoid the excessive entrance fee I snuck in on a side road. I then spent the entirety of the day wandering through the maze of alleys and sitting back to observe.

As much as I hate to admit it, I am a sucker. I fell victim to my first big scam: the milk scam. It all started when on the previous day when I ran into a "volunteer" that told me if someone asks me for money then I should not give it to them because they will use it for drugs,etc. ; instead I should buy them something like food. I didn't think much of it but cataloged it as good advice since that is what I do back home. The next day I was approached by a young woman and her baby who begged me to help her by buying milk for her baby. As my heart strings were being pulled, I ran into the "volunteer" (note I was about 40 minutes away from where I met him the day prior). This must have triggered his advice and I went into nearby store and bought her 2 big boxes of powdered milk, totaling about $25. The terrible thing is that I knew it didn't feel right as it was happening but I let my desperate need to do something blind me. After I fled the scene the woman inevitably sold the milk back to the store and pocketed the profit. Sure it could have been worse but it never feels great to be taken advantage of (or make her situation worse). Hindsight is always 20/20...

Negatives: thick pollution turning my snot black, being scammed, the never-ending "hello, looking free" and "taxi, taxi" I had to ignore, severe poverty (including limbless beggars laying on the streets) and the consistently inconsistent electricity.
Positives: the chaos, fascinating culture (cremating bodies in the river on the right, monkeys on the left), a lot of interesting folk, cheap and delicious food (most dinners were less than $2) and low prices made Kathmandu a city that was strangely enjoyable....I mean, why not?

After only 3 days of sightseeing and going on hunts for trekking gear, I set off for Pokhara to begin my 10 day journey into the mountains.

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