I'm Going to Ka-Ka-Kathmandu
Getting there is half the fun
"I've been here before," I thought to myself, "I've taken this picture before."
That sharp tang of deja vu salted my mind twice - once when, as I raised my camera, a Hindu ascetic covered his face with a bright orange veil and once as I watched children spin a room-sized prayer wheel. I'd never been to Nepal, or Asia at all, before this trip. Or had I? Such was the feeling of disorientation I felt after the long series of flights that lead me from Seattle to Kathmandu.
Such was the disorientation I felt navigating Kathmandu's many litter strewn unmarked streets that ended in tightly enclosed warrens, inhaling the thick miasma of dust rising into the air, dodging the cars and motorbikes that treated every road like a NASCAR event.
Such was the disorientation I had at witnessing the many partially crumbled buildings, in the wake of the 2015 earthquake, held aloft by cheap wooden beams.
Such was the disorientation I had upon learning that there was a massacre within the Nepali royal family in 2001, followed not long after by the advent of democracy and a hopeful yet weighted uncertainty.
When I booked this trip, disorientation was the intended goal. I'd visited many places, whether in North America, South America or Europe. Throughout those trips the languages might be unique, the cultures might be different, but in each case, it didn't feel so much different than home.
The menhir-crowned Salisbury Plain, for all its wonder, could have been the rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania. Wandering the cubicle-haunted hallways of the Kafka museum in Prague was like paying a visit to the patron saint of open floor plans in corporate America. Certainly, the malbec of Mendoza tasted wonderful, but malbec of good quality could be found in Eastern Washington as well. Sarcastic customs officials in Frankfurt enjoyed telling me, with a smattering of glee, that I was in the wrong terminal and far from my plane. In short, somewhat like home.
Nepal was not like home and for the first time in recent memory, I was left unbalanced. Where would I eat? Was I brave enough to wander the city on my own? Would people know English? What would I do if I got lost?
I arrived late Monday night, groggy from the flights - flights that took me from Seattle to San Francisco to Hong Kong to Singapore and then to Kathmandu. The wonder that welled up upon approaching Hong Kong and seeing the islands laid out below like green checkerboard pieces across a watery expanse. The excitement of seeing shiny Singapore and marveling over its almost impossible sense of newness and cleanliness. Surprise and joy at landing into the Kathmandu International Airport, barely larger than a bus terminal and equally chaotic, under the duress of extreme exhaustion and being told by customs that a prior customs agent, some 50 feet away, overcharged me for my visa, suggesting I ask for a refund, as I shook my head wearily and instead staggered outside to look for my taxi, hoping to get to my hotel before it closed for the night.
The hotel. Sometimes those of us from what we could, almost callously, call "first world countries" don't appreciate the economic conditions we take for granted. Lunch cost 10 US dollars? Not a problem. But casually dropping 1000 Nepali rupee notes felt, in retrospect, stigmatic. Spending 2000 rupees for three pints of Guinness, fries, and a surprisingly good shepherd's pie at the singular Irish pub in Kathmandu and doing so casually - equally so. Sitting on the steps of an ancient temple in Patan, an Australian wandered over and said our general monetary casualness was bewildering to Nepalis. That included staying at Hotel Shankar - formerly a royal palace.
Hotel Shankar was an oasis from the dense waves of noise awash over the city. From its spacious tree-lined front yard, through to its pool and pool bar, little from the outside could be heard. It was possible to watch the eagles whirling overhead and parakeets dart around. Inside, porters carried luggage to and from rooms. At breakfast each morning, they'd eagerly ask what the plans were for the day and what I'd seen so far, showing evident pride in their mastery of English, all while quizzing me, doubtfully, whether I'd really eaten enough and that perhaps I'd like more.
Immersion isn't always easy
I didn't intend to remain in the hotel, of course. On the first day I'd scheduled a tour of the major sites in Kathmandu. That included Swayambhunath - the Buddhist temple, that the widely reviled "Hippies" back in the early 70s, called the "Monkey Temple" - a moniker that stands to this day and is widely used by Nepalis and foreigners alike; Boudhanath, the Buddhist stupa with an expansive mandala, and Pashupatinath Temple, the major Hindu temple complex within Kathmandu.
The tour was made up of Canadians, Europeans and Americans, all - aside from me - beginning a trek to Everest base camp the following day. Our first stop was the Monkey Temple. Perhaps some context is required about the Nepali feelings to the Hippies of yore. In the early 70s, long haired Americans and Europeans arrived in this exotic corner of the world, wishing not only to see the sites, but to partake of Nepal's permissive rules about marijuana use. It was all seen as a bit louche. After several years, Nepal banned all drug use and implemented dress codes to ensure the rakish Hippies either didn't return or at least did so as adults.
Many of us would laugh at that attitude. A number of states in the U.S. and all of Canada have recently legalized marijuana. Amazon consultants may have long-hair and sport more tattoos than Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man. Today, though, many Nepali still frown on this behavior. So as I heard descriptions of those damned "Hippies", I didn't look askance at it, however amused I was. Cultures view all forms of permissiveness in different ways.
The temple itself was amazing, but the attraction was the monkeys. Monkey mothers would carry their children. Monkeys chased each other. Monkeys fought. Monkeys watched people, interestedly. As someone who had never encountered monkeys, outside a zoo, it was both mesmerizing and somewhat worrying. In truth, I couldn't get enough. Later in the week, I walked back on my own to take additional pictures. There was a nagging feeling, though, about the uncertain behavior of wild animals and the diseases they might carry.
Then it was off to Boudhanath. I have a certain degree of sarcasm about this. While the stupa itself, from a photography standpoint, is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, there really isn't much to see. More entertaining was lunch at the restaurant over the square. The tour group was becoming more comfortable with each other. There were discussions about their upcoming trek. There was talk of how to visit Tibet and the benefit of doing so. We compared the volume of vacation time Europeans enjoy versus those of us from the U.S., Canada and Australia. The chicken masala was fantastic. At one point, the woman from Holland asked what I, and other Americans - such as I could speak for them, thought of Trump. I nearly choked. The Canadians quickly jumped in - "are we allowed to talk about politics?" Both questions were valid. I hadn't traveled halfway around the world to be the standard bearer for the "yes, the United States may be undergoing a touch of what we hope is temporary insanity at the moment" message. Neither did I shirk the responsibility either. I said: I'm worried. The Europeans nodded sagely and replied: so are we.
The last stop of the day was Pashupatinath. This also marked the first time in Nepal I considered the beliefs I take with me, what happens when local beliefs run counter to them, and how I accept that discomfort. A common Hindu practice in Asia is to mourn loved ones along a riverside, with the body just a few feet away, followed by an outdoor cremation and a pouring of the ashes into the river.
Death is not an easy topic among Westerners. It's something we think about only when forced to, and no more. Mourning is something that happens in private. Here, on the riverside, there was a man crying on the steps with the body of perhaps his wife, covered in a veil, on a lower step. Several feet away, on a pyre, another body was being burned in preparation for those ashes to be placed into the waterway.
I had trouble even looking in that direction. At the same time, a cat-like instinct encouraged me to take pictures, even through my discomfort, revulsion, and fear. Even while considering the environmental impacts of placing ashes into a river, I kept reminding myself that not all beliefs are the same and beliefs that don't match ours aren't inherently "wrong".
So that's what Everest looks like
As I think back to the trip, there's one aspect that can't be glossed over. There are few government services. In certain neighborhoods, specifically Bhaktapur, I was told not to even touch the local water for fear of disease and bacteria. Garbage is visible and overwhelming. It was unusual not to see streams and rivers clogged with detritus. Mounds of garbage piled up along roadsides. Dogs roamed wild, defecating everywhere. People wore masks to block out the pollution. Back home, we often debate how much government is too much. In Nepal, I considered how much government is too little.
I had long since made a promise to see the Himalayas. I didn't need to get close. It was important to just get a view of the mountains that drive the dreams of mountain climbers everywhere - Cho Oyo, Lhotse, Makalu, Everest and many others.
An early morning flight, through the low elevation fog, lead the twenty of us into bright sunshine and along the mountain range. Snow crackled off cliffs in the distance. Glaciated towers loomed on the horizon. A native Nepali on the opposite side shouted: I know that mountain, I can see it from my apartment! When Everest came into view, there were fist bumps. The stewardess gave us each a flute of champagne to celebrate the sight. I crossed an item off the bucket list and returned to the hotel in time for breakfast.
Ok, let's get something out of the way. We're being honest here, right? Seeing these mountains, many looming well over 25,000 feet into the air, was inspiring, but for a plane flying at nearly the same altitude, the effect is lost. During mid-winter, on those rare sunny days, the view across Elliott Bay towards the Olympic mountain range can be equally inspiring. When flying into Sea-Tac, the view of Rainier, often floating above the clouds, is nearly as impressive. The truth is that mountains are often considered in terms of "prominence". If a mountain, such as K2, starts on a plateau at an elevation of roughly 14,000 feet - as massive as the mountain is, its true size rather than elevation is just over 14,000 feet. That doesn't make it any less amazing to behold. But this effect can sometimes dull the impact of the highest mountains in the world, at least from a distance rather than up close, next to lesser mountains which appear just as spectacular.
Who am I kidding, though? I got to see Everest!
To Thamel and Back
If you're anything like me, you grew up with the sport of baseball. If you're also like me, you're now intensely bored by it. Games are delayed by endless timeouts, commercials, replays, and walks. I have trouble enjoying the game when watching it in person at a stadium. On TV, I'm likely to change the channel after an inning or two. Say one thing for mid 90s steroids - they made the game fun. There's little now to recommend what was, at least, the first U.S. pastime.
To this, I'd give a thought to cricket. Imagine baseball if balls hit behind the batter were considered in play. Imagine baseball if there were no gloves. Imagine baseball if every at-bat was akin to a home run derby. That was my impression of cricket. During quiet moments back at the hotel, I'd watch re-runs of matches between countries from prior years. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan. The names alone seem to conjure an image of World War III. But it wasn't war. These were matches, not unlike the baseball conclusion we inaccurately call the "World Series". It became so much fun to watch, there were moments when, after judging the trajectory off the bat, I felt impelled to yell "that's a six!" while watching the cameras swivel and the ball sail into the stands.
As mentioned earlier, navigating the city of Kathmandu is intimidating. Aside from the very real noise pollution - by comparison, Mexico City seemed blissfully silent - the act of street crossing felt like a life and death adventure each time. There were no rules, no crosswalks, no walk signs. Instead it was about picking the right moment, walking fast, and dodging cars and motorbikes. How many times was I nearly hit by a motorbike? I counted twice. For anyone old enough to remember the game Frogger, that's exactly what the streets of Kathmandu were like, except with far more motor vehicles, all moving at a much higher rate of speed.
I couldn't let fear distract me from seeing the city, though. I planned my first sortee to Thamel. Thamel is the famous commercial district of Kathmandu. Narrow alleys are tightly cropped with stores. Buildings crowded together, blocking sunlight from filtering through. Dusty shadows crowded around each corner. Motorbikes sped down alleys no more than a few feet wide.
Tourist shops advertised shirts emblazoned with phrases like "Life is better at 8000 meters". Overpriced Patagonia gear hung from storefronts. Restaurants and bars engaged in pitched battles for attention. Signs and billboards shouted to passerby, in both English and Nepalese, offering discounts.
Once within Thamel's maze, all sense of direction was lost. While the hotel had given me a map of the city, it was often useless. Every alley, street and roadway within Kathmandu was usually loathe to display their names. Thamel, itself, was far more complex than the basic map could accommodate. I kept twisting and turning. One alley looked like another. Surely, that's the one I'd taken previously, as I attempted to backtrack. Maybe it was that one. I stumbled across small temples among the broken and breaking buildings. I couldn't tell what cardinal direction I was heading in, whether that was towards the hotel or further from it. Someone whispered from the shadows, asking whether I wanted hashish.
The feeling of claustrophobia grew. The further from the core of Thamel I wandered, the denser the shadows became and the more it was clear I was no longer in the commercial district. No more could I periodically hear sharp Australian accents. Finally there was light up ahead and I stumbled into Kathmandu’s Durbar Square - relieved to find a landmark, relieved to find an open space in which to breathe and confused about where exactly I was.
A UNESCO site, ancient temples fill the square. People bustled about. Incense and scented smoke filled the air as people congregated for prayer. As this was Dashain, a celebration - among many things - of the end of the rainy season, schools and offices were closed. In what might otherwise be a fairly quiet square, families had lunch on temple steps. Groups of kids ran through patches of tourists.
I was still lost and my map wasn't sufficient to guide me. There was no wifi in the city and Verizon's travel plan didn't work in Nepal. With some trepidation, I activated my phone and called up Google Maps. Thirty minutes later, I approached the hotel as my phone sent me a warning: the roaming charge had been $50. I wouldn't do that again unless absolutely necessary.
Kali ma...Kali ma....Kali ma
The tour desk at the hotel suggested two trips for me: one to Dakshinkali Temple and another to Namo Buddha. He thought I might like to see the animal sacrifices at Kali's temple. Ethically I was unsure, photographically I was sold. Like many people from Western countries, I'm cognizant that I need to eat and that food needs to originate from somewhere, where that "somewhere" probably isn't the plastic wrapped containers at the local grocery store's butcher counter or the patties of questionable provenance sold by McDonald's.
It's all removed, though. I don't need to think about the squalor in which that animal lived or to the chemicals to which it was subjected. I don't need to think about ensuing slaughter that results in my hamburger or chicken sandwich. Deep down, I wonder whether my ignorance is part of a larger problem, but I'm not a vegetarian. There are riddles I can't solve at the moment, and starvation isn't an option - especially if one considers that plants might have feelings too.
I also remember watching Indiana Jones as a kid, watching Indy's heart ripped out and turned into an unthinking zombie. "Kali ma! Kali ma!" Of course I had to see the temple.
The guide, a devout Tibetan Buddhist, corrected my language. "Whatever the tour desk told you, this isn't about animal sacrifice, this is murder. If you killed me in the name of some god or goddess, would you consider that a sacrifice? No, you'd call that murder. No deity deserves murder." In telling me that, I was empowered to view the temple through my Western eyes, specifically the eyes of someone for whom religion doesn't hold much sway. I didn't need to be open minded to the beliefs of others. I didn't want to approach Kali's temple without judgment. I wanted to question not only the beliefs of those who felt wholesale slaughter was acceptable and in the process, to question my own beliefs about the origin of that hamburger.
At the entrance to the temple, stalls lined the dusty unpaved road. The guide explained - people do bring animals from their farm for slaughter. That food may then feed their family for months. In the process, they're also being devout towards Kali. But remember the other reason people are here. Look around at the stalls. If you don't have a sacrifice ready, you can buy a chicken to take into the killing grounds. If you're a vegetarian, you can buy a coconut. That can also be sacrificed. Remember, too, the underlying purpose of Kali's temple. People are sacrificing to Kali so that she will take their greed, selfishness, violence and lust away. Kali survives on those impulses and by giving them to her, it reduces the unhappiness in their lives. This isn't so much feeding one's family, it's as much about not being truthful regarding their base instincts. Imagine what the Buddha would say to this.
Priests, for a price, offered prayers. Blood seemed to be everywhere. Where there wasn't blood, there were worshippers taking selfies. A family took a soon-to-be married daughter for pictures in front of the litter strewn pond. Within the killing ground, a member of the temple dragged what might have either been a dog or a goat.
I'm no angel and I can only be so hypocritical. On my return trip home, I visited the McDonald's in the Singapore airport. I enjoyed the Big Mac. I then sat next to an African American girl from Maryland and an old Jewish man from Germany, as he joked: "you know what the traditional Jewish pastime is? Hypochondria!" I immersed myself into all those things that remove us from the world of blood, from the truth about where our luxuries come from. At no moment, though, can I lie to myself. I don't intend to bring despair, hatred, or violence in the name of any deity.
Kali ma... Kali ma... Kali ma, shakthi deh!
Are those spiders, in the canopy above, all the size of my hand?
In very much the same way as visiting the Jewish Quarter in Prague made the Holocaust, and all genocides, visible to me, I found Kali's temple unbalanced me again. Kali is everywhere. The only question is whether we'll listen to her. In Prague, I fled to a couple liters of truly great Czech beer soon afterwards to numb the sensation. In Kathmandu, I fled to the pool bar, while reading Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude.
It was clearly time for something lighter. That lightness would be Namo Buddha. Namo Buddha is a Tibetan temple 50 kilometers north of Kathmandu where a prior incarnation of Buddha was said to have sacrificed himself to a starving mother tiger, giving her the strength to hunt on behalf of her starving cubs. There is a monument in a cave at the top of the hill. The guide and I walked a spiraling set of railroad ties leading up the hill, towards the temple. Monks passed in the other direction, smiling and waving.
Whether or not we believe in any form of the Buddha or the miracles ascribed to this individual, the site was peaceful. There was a place to buy bottled water. Tourists quietly sat under the fluttering flags - the flags emblematic of the elements of the universe: air, fire, etc. The more the flags waved in the breeze, the greater the well-being delivered to us.
Under temple walls, I saw a young monk walk by, peering into his cell phone. I asked the guide about this. I'd have thought the whole intention of joining a monastery was to remove worldly concerns in order to focus on prayer and asceticism. The guide smirked and in surprisingly good English replied: I bet he's surfing for porn.
In a thoughtful frame of mind about the unusual ways of the world, we began walking back down the hill. This time I wasn't focused on the effort. That allowed me a chance to look around, peering into the jungle. Something caused me to look up at the cloudy sky between the tree branches. My blood froze. In what should be no surprise to anyone who knows me, I suffer from arachnophobia - not necessarily little daddy longlegs, but those spiders with enough heft to invoke months of nightmares. Covering the tree canopy were dense spider webs. Those webs were infested with huge black orb spiders. Spiders whose bodies were easily several inches across. If they weren't tarantula-sized, they were certainly close. I turned to the guide and said: that doesn't look so good. He replied: it's just spiders, spiders are good! He, perhaps, didn't understand when my pace down the trail suddenly accelerated.
Since the monsoon season had ended, the harvests had begun. The hills north of Kathmandu are covered in rice fields and terraces. It could easily have been a scene from Vietnam. Machinery isn't necessarily used for those harvests. Instead, it involves manual labor. Whole families and villages would be involved in the harvest, with the rice then placed in the sun to dry.
Those aren't big birds, sweetheart! They're giant vampire bats!
Guides are great. They provide the historical and religious context I wouldn't otherwise have known. They provide vehicles for getting from one site to another. At a certain point, though, I don't want to be told what I should know. I want to wander. I want to take pictures without being shepherded. I already know that Vishnu’s bull is still waiting for him. I don't want to be rushed or adhere to a timeline.
With my last travel day, I decided to walk to Patan and I'm glad I did. It was almost certainly the best location I visited in Nepal. According to Wikipedia: The palace, within Patan's Durbar Square, was built on the site of a fort that stood until 1734 and served as the residence of the Malla rulers of the then Patan state. More important to me is that it had a vast and well kept network of temples, even those crumbling from the 2015 earthquake, and a nice little museum - certainly the best museum I saw in the greater Kathmandu area.
The journey to Patan was my test. I still harbored fear over dodging traffic, crossing streets, and navigating roads without signs. Google suggested it was roughly three miles from the hotel. I mapped out a path, hugging close to a large open area that included cricket grounds, and following the landmark as long as I could.
I started by following alongside Kathmandu's old royal palace. As I walked under the trees, a sudden strong mammalian smell washed over me. It reminded me of the Bronx Zoo when I was a kid - watching the mammals in their enclosures. It was never a good idea to stop on a Kathmandu sidewalk. There was always a sensation that other walkers, rather than cars, might run me over. But I slowed and peered up into the trees. Something was up there. Then I saw them - huge fruit bats were hanging upside down from the highest branches. Each bat was easily the size of a small dog.
Walking on, I passed utility poles covered in dozens of power lines, in some cases slowly pulling the poles to the ground. Most of Kathmandu seemed like a fire risk waiting to happen. The utility poles just enhanced that opinion.
After about 45 minutes, I arrived in the Patan district and wandered into the old medieval area. Temples seemed to be everywhere. Work crews were trying to stabilize those that were crumbling. I sat on the steps of one temple, enjoying the weather, allowing myself a moment to slow down and if not smell the roses, certainly smell the dust. It was extraordinarily peaceful. And as is common, and welcome, at moments like these - a harmless American enjoying local culture encourages others to stop over. In this case, it was a couple from Australia who'd last visited in the early 70s and wanted to see how Nepal had changed.
Those are the moments, as a traveler, I live for. Those moments when the fourth wall is broken and strangers, whether locals or other travelers, want to share stories or invite me into their circle. It reminded me of being asked for directions in London, being pulled into a bachelorette party in Reykjavik, discussing how to play golf in often chilly and dismal Norwegian summers, having a taxi driver in Copenhagen rattle off all the benefits - including "free" education and healthcare, having another taxi driver in Prague tell a story about driving the wrong way around a circle in New Zealand, nearly crashing the car.
I felt like I had achieved everything I wanted to. I wandered into the museum, learned (and subsequently forgot) about a vast array of gods and goddesses, admired the metalwork, took more pictures, and returned to the hotel for my flight home.