Kathmandu. It’s magic. Pure Magic. And this is only day two! After my 22 hour flight here, I got to my hostel but I couldn’t sleep. I was so excited to be back in the old city! I walked out to Durbar square and spent the afternoon there. It’s the old part of town with narrow alleyways, cobbled streets and a big open square surrounded by ancient wooden temples. It feels absolutely medieval except for the motorcycle rickshaws. I feel like I’m one of only a handful of tourists here right now. It’s clearly the off season. I honestly feel like I’m on a different planet or in a different era. I love this feeling of being off balance and overwhelmed as I tread through the colorful chaos.
The ‘living goddess’ of Nepal was out for a few hours and I saw her from a distance. She’s about 7 years old now and is believed to be the incarnation of a goddess that protected the Royal family. Since the royals were deposed, she is less important politically, but a big part of the history of Durbar Square. I spent a lot of time talking to two Sadhus visiting from Varanasi, India. Later on, I kept running into them while I was walking around town. It was almost comical. They come back into the story later on.
The next day, I got up at sunrise and went to Boudhanath, the largest stupa in the world in the Tibetan part of town. I met a monk named Dorje who was from Lhasa originally but escaped to Nepal over the mountains twenty years ago. We talked for awhile about Lhasa as we walked among the throngs of pilgrims spinning prayer wheels on the kora around the stupa. It felt like I had been transported to the Barkhor in Lhasa. Incense, drums, shafts of light, the spinning wheels, the hushed prayers of the pilgrims, it was all there. Then suddenly he decided to invite me into the monastery. The public does not go inside, so I could tell this was an honor. He took me to the roof where you could look down over the the people walking the kora and then inside a special room where he placed a kata over my neck, lit some candles, and sprinkled some yak butter on my head. He gave a blessing to me and my family. Other monks walking by lowered their heads and gave me approving nods. I have no idea why he picked me to go up there, so I asked him and said some things that I didn’t understand in his broken English and something about karma. We then walked around the giant stupa again and talked about Lhasa some more and we talked about his family. Then we sat down, said a prayer together and then he left. Suddenly I was standing alone again amid a sea of walking pilgrims wondering what all of this was supposed to mean.
Then I decided to walk to Pashputinath, a sacred Hindu site, and like Varanasi, there are cremation ghats on the river there. A cremation was occuring when I arrived and it was quite a moving scene. Unfortunately I was being constantly pestered by people asking to be my guide and they would not take ‘no’ for an answer. I was the only westerner there and they seemed to be fighting for my business, even though I constantly told them ‘NO’ I don’t want a guide. These guys were incredibly persistent. I would walk away and then they would demand money for their ‘guiding explanations’ even though I was photographing, talking to the sadhus and ignoring them the whole time. I walked away with an entourage of four guys yelling to give them money when around the corner appeared the two Sadhus I had met in Durbar square the day before. They smiled, shook my hand and said something in Hindi that made my ‘entourage’ go away. Our frequent random meetings the previous day had become comical and it almost seemed like fate that I would run into them again here, especially at a Hindu holy site. We walked around and they introduced me to the other elder Sadhus at the site and they all posed for some fantastic portrait photographs. These are the famous guys that wear only a loincloth, have 4 foot long dreadlocks and very stoic faces that are painted white, orange or red. When you walk up to them they raise their right hand to you in a blessing. One of the temples has a ‘hall of mirrors’ that is actually 11 doorways lined up perfectly giving the illusion that you are looking through an infinite number of doors receding away from you. The Sadhus would playfully lean in and out of the different doorways while I photographed and it was all pretty hilarious. These very serious looking guys actually have a great sense of humor.
The two Sadhus that had become my friends said they wanted to visit Boudhanath, the buddhist stupa I had visited earlier in the day. They told me that if I went with them, they were less likely not get hassled at the entrance gate. I guess there is a little animosity between some of the monks and the sadhus. So we walked across town back to the stupa. They taught me some key phrases in hindi that seem to keep the touts from hassling me, since I appear to be one of the 10 western customers in Kathmandu right now. We walked the kora around the stupa and they showed me many of the similarities between the Hindu Gods and the Buddhist Gods and I asked them a lot of questions about what it’s like to be a Sadhu. How strange it was to walk around a sacred buddhist temple with the red robed monks with their shaved heads while listening to articulate dreadlocked sadhus teach me about buddhism! We walked right past the same spot the elder monk had said a prayer for me earlier that morning. This was turning out to be one of the strangest, most memorable days I’ve ever had traveling.
We still had almost two hours of sunlight left, and they wanted to see the famous Monkey Temple that overlooks Kathmandu. It’s a buddhist temple as well and it seems they wanted to use the advantage of walking with a westerner again to see it too. They said they knew the way. We walked for an hour along the river through a slum that rivaled the one in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Trash was everywhere, the people lived in shacks made of tarps and currogated roofing, and women dressed in beautiful orange and green saris were washing clothes in the stagnant river. Everyone smiled when we walked by. Kids came up to us and said ‘hello’ but it was quickly apparent it was the only English word they knew. The sadhus spoke to them in hindi and they laughed a lot. We took turns kicking an old soccer ball around with the kids. I felt very out of place, but also very comfortable. The sadhus were introducing me to a world I would not have seen on my own.
It was getting late and we decided to hop on a local micro so we could get to the temple before dark. The three of us squeezed in with three other people on a three seat bench in the back of the micro. Then a professional looking older man in a suit got in and seemed very amused by the fact that I was squished in between two sadhus on a local micro. When I actually introduced the sadhus to him, he was even more surprised. He was a bit stiff, spoke like a professor, and I was detecting a big ego. He told me a little about himself, and that he said he was forced into early retirement by the banking crisis and scolded me a bit saying that it all started in my country. I was polite and acknowledged that. Then he asked what I was doing with these guys. I told him that I was learning about Hinduism and Nepali culture and gave him a few examples. He scoffed a bit and said, ‘next thing you know you’ll be just like them’. I was a bit shocked by the comment so I asked if he could think of a better way to learn about Hindu and Nepali culture than riding a local micro with two sadhu friends that were actually taking me to the the most famous Buddhist temple in Kathmandu. ‘I’ll grant you that’ he said. The other people on the micro were listening and gave me quick smiles. Then before we could say anything else, the micro stopped and we all got out. He was walking the other way so I told him it was nice to meet him and I was sorry we didn’t have time to talk more. He smiled, turned away and then the sadhus and I walked up to the Monkey temple.
The moon came up at sunset, but I never got my camera out. I just didn’t want to break the momentum as a very memorable day was coming to an end. The sadhus and I said goodbye, joked that we would probably see each other again, and they headed back to Pashputinath temple. I walked down the hill alone back through the crazy narrow streets back to the tourist ghetto in Thamel.
Suddenly there were a few westerners around again. Then came the souvineer shops, internet cafes and restaurants. There was no power in the city tonight. The Maoist insurgency has crippled the power infrastructure. Shops were lit by candles or dim light from generator power. I sat down in my favorite Italian restaurant in the tourist district to have an Everest Beer and contemplate the events of this extraordinary day. I was remembering the remarkable conversations I had with the monk, the sadhus, the people in the slum and man on the micro. Then it hit me. Sitting there in the quiet ambience of the restaurant, enjoying the smell of my wood fired pepperoni pizza, I felt a strange sense of guilt. I felt a little out of place in my sanctuary from the chaos. I was back to being a tourist again. For a brief moment today, I had been part of the fabric of Kathmandu. Part of the magic. Now I was insulated again and it felt strangely uncomfortable. So I left my beer, gave my pizza to one of the kids on the street and walked down a candlelit alley. The old city had become quiet and dark. Sweet Sai Baba incense wafted out of the wooden doorways. And the stars had returned to the skies over Kathmandu.
Do you ever feel guilty in the insulated travel cocoons that have sprung up all over the world? Do you feel like they prevent you from having the authentic travel experiences you went there for in the first place? Share your thoughts in the comment section.
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