On Top of a Mountain

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The Beaten Path

Bhaktapur at 5:15 AM is dark. And cold. No streetlights to illuminate the cobblestone streets and ancient wood carvings on the buildings, only the occasional headlights from a truck or motorbike. The young man at the Nyatopola Guest House was not happy that I needed to leave at that hour. Getting up and waiting in the cold and dark was worth every minute for my experience that followed.

During our day together on Thursday, Shankar invited me to attend a puja (ceremony) for the 45th day after his mother’s passing. For the puja, we needed to travel to his village high on mountain a little over 65 km from Kathmandu by car plus a 2.5 hour hike. His daughter, Swastika, skipped school that day to join us and to be my guide/interpreter during the ceremony. Picking me up at 5:30 AM we were off on our adventure.

We left the car at a small collection of shops at the base of the mountain, parked in front of the shop of someone from the village. Crossing the road, we began our trek up the mountain. Walking up and down the mountain is a part of life for most people who live in the villages dotting the lush green terraced slopes. Jeeps can make it up the steep dirt road, but the price is high and the ride is not any easier than walking. So if you want to get up or down, you walk.

The well beaten path gives testament to the thousands of feet that have traveled over it. As sure-footed as a mountain goat and as if his feet remembered the path from traveling it many times before, Shankar led the way for the beginning part of the hike. Carefully watching his foot placement in some areas, I followed closely in his footsteps. I’m not sure how many of the rests we took were for the sake of Swastika or if they were out of concern for me. Several places the path went up the side of the hill at a steep grade, other areas were a little more gentle, like the portion of the dirt road we walked along for a bit.

As we walked we talked about a variety of topics, mostly about his mother and life in the village. He talked some about his mother. How after she had passed, he and his younger brother carried her all the way down the mountain on a bamboo stretcher resting on their shoulders and barefoot. (I can scarcely imagine how difficult that must have been, especially having climbed up and down the steep slope.) And how when she was sick, he drove her up to the house in his car and at one point the whole village came to help push the car up a particularly steep part of the road. Sometimes you could see the sadness in his eyes as he talked about his mother. Even though the process of mourning is surrounded by celebration of life to ensure good things for the soul in their next life, it doesn’t change the sadness a child feels at the loss of their parent.

Along the way we encountered some kids on their way to school in their uniforms of dark blue pants and light blue striped shirts worn over warmer clothes. Some feigned disinterest me, others eyed me with suspicion or curiosity (I’m never quite sure which it is.) After awhile we had gained a very large following. Every time we stopped, they would also stop. Eventually there was some discussion about me. I told them (in Nepali) that my name was MJ. Shankar also provided some of the answers or interpreted what they were saying.

Almost 2.5 hours after we started our climb, we reach the village, left the kids at the school and made the final short climb up to Shankar’s home. As we approached the top of the road we were greeted by a welcoming party that had been eagerly awaiting our arrival. Two malas (garlands) of gold and maroon marigold flowers were placed around my neck and I was given some red flowers and some more marigolds as everyone said “namaste” to me in greeting. Everyone was extremely happy that we were there.

Shankar's village

Shankar’s village

Honoring a Mother

The particular puja Shankar and his brothers were performing is a means to offer devotion and respect for a relative, typically for a parent. Performed on the 15th, 30th, 45th and 60th day after the passing of the person and then monthly until the one year anniversary of the death, the ritual is seen as a way to alleviate any sufferings the person’s soul might be experiencing as it wanders the world for the year.

Cows are viewed as holy by the Hindus and therefore the dung is considered pure. Using a softball sized pile of dung, the ground where the puja is to be performed is purified. Shankar’s youngest brother mixed the cow dung with water and carefully spread a thin layer over the entire area. The selected area was where their mother’s body was placed when she was brought out of the house after she died. Once the area was purified, only Shankar, his brothers and the priest were allowed to step there. When the ground was dry, mats for the priest and the brothers were placed accordingly and the trays of banana leaf bowls containing rice, sugar, salt, turmeric and ghee were readied.

Amidst the flurry of ceremony preparation, food preparation, daily work and preparation for the larger fire puja set for the next day, I was introduced to the family and given the basic tour of who lives where. A tin cup containing hot milk was produced, followed by a plate of food. Everyone was very curious about me and wanted to know my history. After the 10th time and her sharp memory from Thursday evening, Swastika was very effective in providing the answers (my age, America, single, no children). And following the answers, while the men of the family chatted, I leaned over to Swastika and said “they are trying to find me a Nepali boyfriend, aren’t they?” With the Nepali side-to-side head shake, she smiled and said “yes.”

As time grew closer for the puja, the brothers readied themselves. Dressed only in a white cloth around their waist, the first step was to change the strings they wore across their chest. Following a specific pattern, the new yellow string was placed across the chest and the faded white one was removed. The old string had to be broken, because the spirit in the string is so strong that if another person tried to wear it they would have a burn left on their skin, and tossed somewhere. When they were ready, they took their places in front of the priest. Shankar sat in the middle with his younger brother to his right and his youngest brother to his left.

This puja was clearly for the sons to honor their mother and not a large family ordeal. A few of the family members gathered around for the ceremony, although most kept on with the work at hand. People were sent to gather missing items, extra small bowls and a container of water. Cell phones rang and were answered a couple of times. All while the priest continued with the ceremony I tried unobtrusively as possible to take a few pictures (with permission). Mostly I just sat and watched tying to make sense of what was transpiring and wishing I knew more about the symbolism of the ritual.

In the center of the area, three bowls made of banana leaves filled with rice were placed, the center one with a lit piece of special grass and a puri (fried bread), another with just a puri and the third with a copper bowl of turmeric. Mantras were spoken as offerings were made of the sugar, salt, turmeric and ghee. In synchronized movements, the strings around their chests were moved from the right shoulder to the left and back to the right. Tikka paste was prepared in a tin plate that looks like an artist’s paint tray.

Performing the puja to honor their mother.

Performing the puja to honor their mother.

At the end, everyone received a tikka blessing using the yellow tikka powder. The priest first gave Shankar and his brothers the tikka blessing. After all of them had their blessing, then Shankar gave the priest the blessing followed by the wives, the uncles, the sisters, and the children. When all the others had been blessed, Shankar came up to me and said that he thought it would be best for me to have one too. And with that, the ritual was done.

The brothers changed back into their all white clothing and covered their heads. Food was served in the house where the youngest brother lives. The metal plates were piled full with rice, curry, dal and pickle. The elder males had the place of respect on the slightly raised platform, a seemingly continuous flow as one would finish and another would come sit down in their place. Shankar’s youngest brother is a cook as well as my personal photographer, taking my camera and making sure there were pictures of myself and all the family eating. Shankar and his brothers were the last to eat, this meal being the first of the day because of the ritual.

Before heading in to eat, negotiations had started amongst the uncles and Shankar. Shankar’s uncle had organized a large puja for the next day, to which the whole village had been invited. A similar puja had been arranged after the passing of Shankar’s mother, which Shankar was unable to attend. His uncle wanted to know why he couldn’t attend this time. At every excuse Shankar provided, the uncles countered with some means to overcome that obstacle. First was Swastika’s school and missing two days in a row. (Uncles: Missing two days won’t make any difference on her exams.) Next was that I had already paid for my hotel in Dhulikhel. (Uncles: how much did she pay? (I’m pretty sure they would have taken up a collection if I told them).) After that was that we didn’t have enough bottled water for me to drink. (Uncles: we can have some brought up on a jeep.) Lastly was that where Shankar’s car was parked the owner of the shop was not going to be able to close his doors. (Uncles: A flurry of phone calls to confirm that there was no way to close the shop and what could be done. Resolution: Shankar could walk down the mountain, move the car, and come back up (either by foot or jeep).)

Doing the right thing and happiness is always more important than money. It was clear to me that Shankar staying would make everyone, including Shankar, happy. I told Shankar that I had no problem with staying in the village and that the cost of the hotel booking was truly unimportant. And with that, it was settled. Shankar, Swastika and I would be staying in the village. Shankar would make the trek down and back, to move the car and buy water (and an unnecesary roll of toilet paper/tissue) while he was there.

Shankar and his nephew headed down the mountain, while Swastika, one of the nieces, Shankar’s youngest brother and I headed up the mountain a little further. Swastika wanted to take me up to show me a couple of the temples in the village. The first temple was a small cobblestone wall surrounding a courtyard containing two bells and a colorful shrine. The next temple was down in a valley, bright with green crops and yellow mustard plants. After that we went to visit their other grandmother, a beautiful 81-year-old lady worn by sun and farming. She commanded that I sit, and sent the girls to go and fetch some sugar cane. The girls came back with two large stalks of sugar cane that were about three times as tall as they were. The cane was proficiently cut into smaller chunks and peeled so that we could chew on the fibrous mass to get it to release its sweet goodness. Before we left, we had to have a cup of warm and spicy tea flavored with a touch of black pepper to give it an additional bite.

Returning to the house, we joined in with the food preparation for the next day. The amount of food preparation that goes into feeding over 200 people is pretty impressive. The first job they let me help with was making the puri (round fried bread made using corn flour). My job was to help make balls of dough that the remaining 5 people were rolling out into flat perfectly round circles for cooking. At one point, Amrika asked me if I wanted to try rolling them out. To put it simply, I’m not very adept at rolling and flipping the dough in the right way so that it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin and ends up in a perfect circle. Being taunted with fresh hot cel roti (circles of dough like a doughnut but with the flavor of a funnel cake made using corn flour), I relinquished my rolling pin and block. After my snack, I went back to rolling the balls of dough.

As we worked, Amrika worked on learning a little English which actually involved a great deal of laughing. One of my habits that I picked up in Thailand is to say “ok, ok”. Amrika started mimicking me when I would say it. Through Swastika she was able to say a few other phrases by the end of the afternoon, including that she wanted to come to America with me. In between laughing, the kind old gentleman that looks a lot like Grandpa Walton from The Waltons, would smile his toothless grin and admonish her to work more and talk and laugh less.

While most of the family worked on food preparation, the rest tended to the evening chores. At one point, it was suggested that I try milking the cow or buffalo. While I would have been game for it, I opted not to. Which I think was a preferable choice for both myself and the buffalo.

As dusk started to settle, Shankar returned from his trek. Car was moved and I had two more bottles of water.

Life on the Mountain

As evening settled on the mountain and the temperatures began to drop, all the activity moved inside. The cheerful noise of people eating and talking resonated off the mud brick walls insulating us from the cold. The happiness of family and community apparent in the tenor of the talk and the smiles on the faces. Shankar was certain I was bored and many times offered that I was welcome to take a rest whenever I wanted to. Even though I couldn’t understand a single word, I was fascinated and warmed to be in the presence of such genuine love and didn’t want to miss any moment of this experience. After dinner, we moved to the other house where a wood fire was built in the cooking area and most the people went to work peeling and cutting the vast quantity of squash that was need for the curry the next day.

Finally it was time for sleep. Even though it was only probably 8 pm, I was exhausted from the long day of rising early, hiking up a mountain and meeting the family. My bed was in the youngest brother’s house. A solid Newari bed made of a wood platform and an inch thick mattress covered with the thickest blanket I’ve ever come in contact with. (Shankar’s youngest brother had brought it back from Saudi Arabia where he has been working.) I snuggled into my bed, head covered with a scarf that had I had been lent, and sank into a sound sleep in the pitch black room. The warm heavy blanket and the warmth and insulation provided by the mudbrick walls made for one of my most comfortable nights sleep of the whole time in Nepal.

Without electricity, life rhythms definitely flow with the rising and setting of the sun. Once I could see a faint thread of light around the wooden shutters and was sufficiently sure that other people were stirring about, I decided it was time to get up. Watching the day get started filled me with a sense of contentment. Each person efficiently and happily performing their chores. Large pots of warm mush (flour and water) was made for the cattle. Cows and water buffalo were milked. Goats were brought out to their stakes and their bundles of food hung from the posts. The embers from one fire being used to start the other. People washing and brushing their teeth with the cold mountain water. Shankar said it must seem strange to me. Just because it is not my normal doesn’t make it strange. In fact, at the heart of it, watching the rituals just enforces how similar all humans are despite their culture or where they live.

Of all the sunrises on the Himalaya that I saw during my week in Nepal, the sunrise from the village was by far the most beautiful. For the first time I was truly able to appreciate the height of Mt. Everest. Instead of being a small triangle on the horizon, its height a victim of perspective robbing it of the respect as the tallest mountain deserves, it appeared as a peak that truly stands above all the others.

Removing Obstacles

Preparation for the Fire Puja was a furry of activity, each person doing their part to make certain that everything was as it should be The main preparation was the area where the puja would be performed. The eldest uncle was in charge of building the altar, a 20″x20″x4″ two-tier square built out of cow dung. Once it was made, he proceeded to decorate it using white flour and red and yellow tikka powder. The white representing peace, the red action and the yellow perfection. At each corner were three flower petals. On the east side, was the name of god (Rama). On the south side, was a conch shell. On the north side, was the weapon of Rama. In the center was a wheel with spokes going to each corner. Along the sides was a scalloped pattern looking like a garland made out of powder.

Fire puja preparation.

Fire puja preparation.

The jovial priest with his effervescent personality arrived wearing a bright orange jacket with silver reflective strips and began his process of setting up the rest of the altar. Several people helped to find ways to string the cloth banners with Sanscrit writing on the wall as another altar was set up for Shankar’s mother and the images from the pantheon of Hindu gods. Music was playing on a loudspeaker, and every now and then at the appropriate moments, the priest would throw in a “hare Krishna” or just a “hare”. When I asked what I could do to help, he said to dance. In demonstration he put his hands in the area and spun around sounding a solid “hare”. My version was a much weaker attempt.

The blowing of the conch shell indicated that the ceremony was beginning. The recorded music that had been playing was replaced with a 3-piece band comprised of an accordion, a pair of drums and cymbals. Once the playing and singing began, it carried on continuously throughout the entire day. Listening to the music, it was easy to become mesmerized and start chanting Hare Krishna along with the music. The men of the village took turns filling in as one needed to go do something or just to give them a break. The constant mantras of hare Krishna filling the air, carrying the praises down into the valley and up into the heavens.

The Fire Puja is considered to be very powerful and has many benefits. For the living, the ceremony fulfills wishes, removes obstacles, improves health and increases merits. For the deceased, the ceremony is a method of purifying negative karma in order for the soul to attain a higher rebirth. During the elaborate ritual, the offering is made by tossing a large number of specific substances into the fire. Among the substances offered during the Fire Puja were barley, sugar, ghee, cel roti, and coconuts.

One of the more interesting offerings was the mound of cow dung covered with flowers. Shankar explained this to be a traditional offering to honor Krishna for saving the people from Indra’s wrath. A long time ago, the ancestors used to make offerings of their crops to Indra. Krishna came along and told them to not make the offering to Indra. This made Indra angry and so she ordered the god of rain to send furious and relentless rains and the god of wind to blow mighty winds. The ancestors went to Krishna and asked what they should do, so he told them they must lift the village to make it a mountain. All the ancestors worked together and with the help of Krishna’s little finger, they lifted the ground and were able to be protected from the wind and rain.

Offering to Krisha.

Offering to Krisha.

Shankar was absent for a good portion of the fire puja, as he isn’t allowed to celebrate through singing or clapping of hands for the year while he is honoring his mother. Mostly I again just watched and tried to take in all the detail, wishing I knew more about the symbolism. Prayers would be said by the uncle and the priest over a substance and it would be added to the fire by the priest. This pattern continued until all of the substances had been offered. The words of the prayers being overshadowed by the mesmerizing sounds of the band playing and chanting.

Finally it came time for everyone to participate. Each person was given a handful of barley and then came to stand behind the priest. I wasn’t going to participate until the priest handed me a handful of barley. Shankar was quickly summoned to explain the process to me. While chanting the name of god, offerings are thrown into the fire 3 times. The process was repeated with sugar and coconut. Lastly was a handful of marigold petals. The petals were thrown into the fire while walking around the altar. Coming back around to the starting point at the front of the altar, each person got down and bowed. This process marked the end of the first part of the ceremony.

After a short respite while the area in front of the other altar was finished being prepared for more ritual was performed. All the time the band continued to play the mesmerizing music. People from the village had begun arriving and finding places to sit on the ground in front of the house. The uncle’s oldest daughter was in charge of giving tikka blessings to the people as they arrived. Children that arrived looked at me with that blend of curiosity and suspicion. (Looking back at pictures, I would have looked at myself the same way given the state of my hair having not been brushed and my clothes having been slept in.)

Once ready, the next part of the ritual started up. The priest began by pouring a circle of water on the ground. Next he placed offerings of sugar, salt, grains and tikka powder around the circle at the six points of the star that represents knowledge. The fervor of the celebration picked up with a flurry of spinning, chanting, playing music, blowing conch shells and ringing the bell. The cacophony of sounds meant to ensure the gods hear the prayers and send their blessings.

As mid-day approached, we slipped away from the ceremony and took our last meal with the family before heading down the mountain. Once we finished our meal and bags had been loaded with fresh spinach, squash, garlic, ghee, and fresh cows milk to take back to the city with us, it was time to say goodbye. Shankar suggested that I go over to the group and say namaste to the village. When I did, the priest came over to me and insisted I first dance, indicating that I mimic him in turning with my hands held up in the air. He then placed a mala around my neck and insisted I spin again. Then he gave me an orange and insisted on one final spin. Laughing and happy, I bowed and said one last namaste. Then off we went, accompanied by his brother and one of the uncles for a short way down the road.

Going down a mountain is much faster, although not necessarily easier on the body. We avoided one of the particularly steep areas by taking the road for awhile. With great concern, Shankar kept reminding me to go slowly. I followed him, carefully placing my feet in his footsteps. Along the way, two gentlemen from the village caught up with us. They joined us, carrying Swastika’s backpack as she was struggling with the weight and had developed blisters on two of her toes. They reacted when great concern when I slipped and plopped down on my bottom and again when Shankar also slipped. An hour and a half after we left the village, we arrived at the car.

My final night in Nepal was spent in Shankar’s home. The long drive home was punctuated by stops to buy fresh butter and pick up my belongings from his brother’s house, taking time for a cup of tea and to show pictures of the ceremony. At home, I met his father, a lovely and happy old man and we had a delicious, filling meal after our long two-day journey. Shankar’s wife and everyone ensured that I was comfortable and warm. Covering myself with a fleece blanket and then the quilt, I slipped into peaceful sleep.

In the morning, after the flurry of getting the children off to school and eating some of the most delicious rice pudding I have ever had (Shankar’s wife promised to teach me how to make it the next time I visit), we took our breakfast and I loaded all my pictures from our two days onto Shankar’s computer. His father seemed so happy to see the pictures and spent the 45 minutes that I was gone to walk into Bhouda to buy a few more souvenirs looking at them continuously. Not many people have cameras in Nepal, so seeing pictures of relatives and of the village was particularly special for him.

Finally it was time to head to the airport. Shankar’s father insisted on going with us. At the doorway, his father standing outside the door and me just inside, I was given a tikka blessing, a mala and an orange. The blessing was to ensure a safe and successful journey.

The whole family is a truly kind and genuine group of people who I am so fortunate to have encountered.

A Touch of Nepali Culture

Throughout my blogs I have said very little about some of the customs that I have encountered since I felt they deserved their own special discussion.

Eating in Nepal was one of the most interesting cultural differences I encountered. Nepali eat their food using their right hand. All the food is mixed together on the plate using fingers and then eaten. My food was typically given to me with a spoon as no one expected me to follow suit. On the morning of our stay in the village, they made me a traditional meal of dhindo (thick corn porridge) and sag (cooked spinach). Several people were concerned that I would have difficulty eating this with a spoon. So, much to their amusement and surprise, I followed by example and ate using my fingers. Eating using fingers as the utensil actually makes great sense as it allows you to enjoy the texture as well as the taste of the food. At lunch, I also used my fingers, quietly and without fuss. Shankar noticed and just gave me a nod and a happy smile. Eventually someone else noticed, followed by a warm smile and a laughing comment.

Love is also shown through food. Plates are piled full of food. When the plate is nearing empty, more food is offered. Politely I would accept additional food saying torre (just a little) so as not to offend and to accept the hospitality. The idea of just a little seems to be lost on most people out of wanting to show love and caring. By the last meal in the village, Shankar’s youngest brother actually obliged by only giving me a true little bit more.

Another cultural practice that it took me some time to adjust to was Swastika and other children asking an elder person permission before doing something. The first evening that I ate with Shankar’s family, the kids asked me if they could eat prior to going into the kitchen to take their dinner. In the village, Swastika would ask permission to stand (leave after eating) and to go to the bathroom or off to spend times with the village kids. Such a simple act that shows how elders are honored in Nepali society.

The beautiful more intimate greeting between people was another cultural aspect that I found endearing. At one point during the puja on the second day there was a brief time where people took time to greet each other. The greeting is done only between people of the same gender (with the exception of the old man who greeted me following this ritual). For this traditional greeting, a pair of people say namaste with their hands in prayer position and a bow of the head, then two hugs are given with hands placed on shoulders and changing sides left to right with each hug, then fingers are placed with the thumbs at the third eye (just between the eyebrows) and with fingers touching a final bow is given while uttering namaste and the name of god (Rama). This manner of greeting is to show that you recognize and honor the god that is within each of us. As I was leaving, I honored Shankar’s wife this way.

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Heading for the Himalaya

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Getting Settled In

From the air, Kathmandu appears as a mishmash of colorful buildings crowded into a valley. The pinks, blues and greens of the buildings providing splashes color in the otherwise tan cityscape.  Tribhuvan International Airport is by far one of the smallest international airports I have ever landed at. Without jetways the passenger loading and unloading is done directly from the tarmac. On the way to immigration, signs telling interesting facts about Nepal hung from the ceiling. My favorite: Nepal is home to the tallest mountains and the shortest people in the world. After completing my visa application, waiting in line and paying my $25 for my visa on demand, I dove into my first experience of Nepal.

True to the guidebook’s promises, a barrage of taxi drivers were vying for my business. All I really wanted to do was find an ATM so that I would have Nepali Rupees. Not that having rupees was completely necessary, as most people in Nepal will take US Dollars instead. The first two people that approached me were less than helpful. A third guy, sitting along the windows, pointed me in the direction of the ATM. He too was a taxi driver, and since he was kind enough to help me out and was going to charge me $2 less than his competitors, I accepted his offer.

As the rickety white taxi car pulled up, I almost immediately began to doubt my choice. Still, I got in and off we went into the Kathmandu traffic. Kathmandu traffic was a whole new experience for me. Traffic fills the streets in a chaos of each car and motorbike attempting to find the least bumpy spot of the road, which often means the center or the opposite side of the road. Cars seemingly go every which way and there is a distinct lack of traffic lights. At some of the more major intersections, police are stationed to help provide some sense of order in traffic flow. Honking as communication is necessary, but far less pervasive than in India.

Between two calls to the Shechen Guest house for directions, the driver assured me that he knew where it was just couldn’t remember exactly. Those rea not very reassuring. Eventually, after a trip up a slightly paved street, asking yet another person where Shechen Guest House was, a U-turn, and a trip down a small alley, we arrived at Shechen Guest House.

From the outside, the guest house was picture perfect. The rooms looked out on a lush green courtyard and the brightly colored side of the temple from the attached monastery with strands of prayer flags fluttering in the light breeze. Inside, the drab room with paint that had seen better days and the musty smell was less appealing. The people were friendly, the location was very near the stupa and the proceeds go to the monastery, so that made the room tolerable.

Anxious to explore, I struck out in the direction of Bhoudanath to see one of the largest spherical stupas in Nepal. A short walk and I had my first sight of the white dome, topped with a gold square painted with Buddha eyes on each side, and a gold spire reaching into the clear blue sky. Prayer flags fluttering in long strands streaming from the spire to the four corners. Circling the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels and counting “om mani padme hums” on their malas, were dozens of devout Himalayan Buddhists. Some monks in their deep maroon robes, old women dressed in traditional Nepali fabrics, and people wearing every day clothes made up the worshipers. At the Hindu temple at the front, people were making offerings. An old woman in her maroon robe was stationed outside the shrine door. She called me over and gave me a blessing, for which I gave her my only small rupee bill (50 NPR). I climbed up on the stupa platform, spinning prayer wheels and taking pictures. Seeing the stupa was just what I had hoped it would be.

Bhoudanatha Stupa

Bhoudanatha Stupa

Bhouda is home to several monestaries and the energy of the area reflects their presence. Chanting, drumbs banging, cymbals crashing and horns blowing were omnipresent as each monestary had a different schedule for their prayer sessions. Around the stupa, recordings of “Om Mani Padme Hum” chants played continuously. Collectively it was actually quite soothing.

Kathmandu is a city that is too large for its britches. Approximately 3.5 million inhabitants live in this city with an infrastructure less than adequate to support that size of a population. Most streets are almost paved, at least in the centeral part of Kathmandu. Going out to the edges of the city, such as in Bhouda where I was staying, the roads are a combination of remnants of paving and dirt. Electricity supply is far greater than the demand, requiring rolling balckouts at least once if not twice a day. The rolling blackouts are a part of life, as evidenced by the schedule posted in the lobby of the guest house. Which, if you miss that sign, can lend to a bit of confusion upon returning to your room and finding that there is no power.

Touring Kathmandu

Nepal is just starting to tap into the tourist market. Almost a reflection of the city itself, the idea of providing quality service as part of tourism has not completely been realized. Instead, key tourism destinations generally charge a hefty price to all foreign (non SAARC (South Asian Agreement for Regional Cooperation)) tourists. In one day of sightseeing, the total entrance fees that I paid was 2600 NPR (or $26). The perception that all tourists have money is also clear in the phrase “150 rupee not big money to you” (or 200 or 300 rupee). By the end of my first day of sightseeing this attitude toward me as a foreign tourist had me feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.

My one day of sightseeing was full of the must see locations such as Pashupatinath, Swayanbunath Stupa, Patan Durbar Square and Kathmandu Durbar Square. I do belive that my trip would not have been complete without seeing these sites. The most effective way to see the sites is to hire a driver for the day. Hiring a driver was where fate smiled on me. Shankar, a man with a friendly face and demeanor to match, picked me up promptly at 8 am. Piling into his white taxi car, off I went to see Kathmandu.

On the way to our first destination, Pashupatinath, Shankar and I talked about Himalayan Buddhism and other topics of interest. He gave me history on the city and the area. About the three kingdoms, Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, that were joined together to form Nepal. He also explained how a long time ago the Kathmand valley was a lake that a king was told to drain so that the kingdom could be established there. Finally, he also gave me advice about the guides at the tourist locations. Because Shankar doesn’t have a tourism license, he is not allowed to walk around with me and explain the temples and the practices. He strongly advised to get a price from the guide. Advice I should have heeded more stringently.

Pashupatinath is a large Hindu complex known primarily for the cremation ghats. After Shankar showed me some of the smaller outlying temples, including one where I recieved a couple of blessings. One being a yellow many stranded string tied on to my right wrist while a prayer was being said. Another was a tikka on my forehead. The gentleman at the temple explained about the Shivalinga (primary symbol of Hindu worship) and the four faces on each side of the pillar in the center of the Shivalinga. Depending on your troubles, you would pray to the appropriate face.

After that small temple, we were approached by a guide. Later Shankar told me that the guide was being very beligerant about the fact that Shankar was telling me about the place and that he would report him if he didn’t stop. To my face the guide was friendly. And when I asked about a price he said to pay “whatever made me happy”. Herein lies the mistake that I made. Being a trusting person coming from a fixed price system that hates to barter, I was not insistent about a price. Off I went with the guide for my hour or so tour.

The guide provided a wealth of information about the rituals and the history of the place. The primary ritual he explained to me about was the beliefs around death and cremation in the Hindu faith. When a person dies, the body is cremated and the ashes are cast into the Bagmatti, the source of the Ganges river. The rituals go beyond just a cremation. The body is wrapped first in white cloth  (for purity) and then gold cloth. The sons carry the body to the river for purification on a bamboo platform. The body is blessed and the gold cloth is removed, because our bodies enter the world naked they should also leave the world naked. After the body is prepared, it is carried to the cremation platform and placed on the pyre of wood that is waiting. The eldest son is responsible for placing the fire in the mouth. What this means is that the eldest son circles the body three times with a lit offering and then places it in the mouth of their parent. Only sons are allowed to perform this part, if the person had no sons thenthe attendant for the platform would perform this duty. After the fire is placed in the mouth, the body is covered with straw and the cremation begins. With the body are gold placed in the mouth to wish the spirit wealth in the next life and bags of rice to wish that the spirit never gets hungry in the next life.

The rituals extend beyond the cremation. After the ceremony, the members of the family perform a ritual to be purified. The sons will shave their head and face, save one lock of hair, and will wear only white for the next year. Rituals to honor the parent are performed once every 15 days for the first 2 months, then once a month for the rest of the year. On the far bank of the Bagmati from the cremation platforms, people were performing these rituals. In addition, for the year the sons are only allowed to eat pure foods and are prohibited from eating items such as garlic or anything that has been dried.

Our tour continued to the far side of the river where many stupas and shrines had been built. Many of the shrines are home to holy men with their continual chanting, smoking of cannabis and offering tikkas to tourists. My guide lead me to one of the “official” group of holy men (which in retrospect I suspect is a group that is more for show) where I received another tikka blessing by three men with their faces painted and wild hair (at a cost of 300 NPR ($3)). My guide also showed me the reflecting shrines. A series of 11 shrines built in perfect alignment so as to appear like a reflecting mirror of shrines. The king built these shrines in the hope of finally bearing a child. 11 is a key number because the 11th incarnation of Rama is the one for fertility and child bearing. Also from the far side of the river, we were able to watch the whole cremation process from purification to lighting the pyre.

At the end of the tour came time to pay. Apparently whatever my guide felt would make me happy was 4000 NPR ($40). 4000 NPR is what Shankar was charging me for the whole day of taxi service. I told him that I could only afford to pay 1000 NPR ($10) (in reality I was thinking that it would only be 500 NPR) and even paying 1000 meant that I would not be able to pay entrance fees or buy souvineirs. Yes, my emotions got the best of me and tears flooded to my eyes. Clearly, I was not happy. He had told me before that if they make someone cry, then they will cry the rest of their life. When he offered me to take my money back so that I wouldn’t cry, I should have taken it. As I walked to the Shankar could read my face and knew what had happened.

Leaving Pashupatinath, we headed for Swayanbunath, one of the largest stupas in the world perched atop a hill overlooking Kathmandu. Swayanbunath is also known as Monkey Temple, so named for the many monkeys hanging about searching for food. Visitors need to be wary that they don’t hold their cameras or purses in a way that a monkey can snatch them thinking they are food. Shankar was able to walk around with me here and explain about the temple. We walked around the stupa admiring the white plaster, the gold square atop painted with Buddha eyes on each side and the spire reaching up into the blue sky. Prayer flags streamed from the top of the spire to all four corners, their red, yellow, blue, green and white flags representing the elements and blowing in the breeze to carry the prayers off into the heavens. Walking around Swaynbunath was a terrific respite from my experience at Pashupatinath and helped restore my spirit for more sightseeing.

In Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism peacefully co-exist at many of the temple complexes. Some people believe that Buddha is an incarnation of Rama, facilitating the existence of the two religions hand in hand. At Swayanbunath, several Hindus were making offerings at their shrine while Buddhists circumambulated the stupa spinning the prayers wills and reciting “om mani padme hum.

For lunch we headed to Patan Durbar. Durbar is the term for a square where the royal palace is located. On our way in, we stopped at a fruit stand for Shankar to purchase some fruit, a nice assortment of oranges, apples and bananas. Fruits are sold by weight, as measured by a balance scale with a basket on one side and weights on the other. The restaurant was hidden away in a courtyard just off of the main square. While waiting for my food, Shankar shared his fruit and explained that he can’t take food that isn’t pure while he is respecting his mother’s spirit since she had passed away 40 days prior. Outside of the home the only guarantee for pure food is fruit.

Patan Durbar square is filled with a variety of temples adorned with intricate wood carvings. Again, being a tourist location, Shankar was technically not able to tell me about the temples, so I carried my tour guide book with me and read some of the information at each temple. Wandering away from the square, we visited a variety of smaller temples tucked away down narrow alleys in small courtyard areas. Looking at the amazing brick and wood architecture was as interesting as seeing the temples. The cobblestone alleys were flanked on both sides with mud brick buildings that look as though they have been standing there for centuries. The ornate carvings on the window sills and eaves of the roof mimicking the carvings of the temples.

The last stop for the day was Kathmandu Durbar Square and an ATM as I was quickly going through my rupees. On our way there I made the comment that if I couldn’t find an ATM then I would not have enough money to pay the entrance fee and to eat. He told me that if I couldn’t find money, then I could come eat with him and his family in his home. I happily agreed to that prospect. When we arrived at Durbar Square, he dropped me off since no parking was available and pointed to the entrance and where the ATMs were on the other side of the street. Agreeing to meet at 5 PM, I wearily headed off for my last sight of the day.

I’ve decided that whoever designed the game Frogger had clearly experienced trying to cross the road in Kathmandu. The key is to hold your hand out as cars and motorbikes approach, kindly asking that they stop for you. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Using the protection of some locals to cross the street, I made it across and back successfully.

Almost immediately after paying my entrance fee, I was approached by a person wanting to be my guide. I told him that I had my guidebook and that I would be fine. He blithely replied that the book was written by foreigner and wouldn’t tell me all I needed to know. I simply walked on. A little further on, another want-to-be guide approached me. He told me that the Kumari Bahal (House) was open and did I want a guide. Again I declined and headed for the house. Kumari Devi is a living goddess. A young girl is selected  based on 32 stringent criteria to serve as the goddess until she reaches puberty and becomes impure. At the appointed time, the Kumari Devi approaches the second floor window of her house and looks down at the chowk (courtyard) full of visitors hoping to catch a glance of the living goddess. Pictures are not allowed and she will not make an appearance until is confirmed that all visitors have put away their cameras.

Filing out of the courtyard with the throng of visitors and being accosted by women trying to sell postcards, I headed for the main square. At this point of the day all the temples I had seen blended together in my mind. I stood and looked in my guide book for details and another man struck up a conversation with me as he pointed out the big bell used to call people together for important announcements, the dancing platform and the hippie temple. His initial statement of wanting to just talk for free was after a time followed with an offer for tea and to talk more. Out of a combination of wariness and only having a limited amount of time, I declined and walked away.

Attempting to escape the continual offers for guides and to buy souvenirs, I climbed the stairs to the top of one of the temples. Unfortunately, at the top was a gentleman who I was hoping was also just there to look down on the sights of the square. I was wrong. He too wanted to be a guide and it had been a very unlucky day for him as far as helping tourists. He too struck up a conversation, offering to be my guide. During this conversation I adamantly explained to him how tired I was of being treated like I had money just because I was a tourist and that $1.50 or $2 or $3 adds up to be big money. I told him that for them to look at tourists like they have money is the same for me to look at all Nepali like they are not kind and just want to take advantage of foreigners. He persisted in spoiling my attempt at some respite from the crowds so I climbed down the stairs and headed toward where I was supposed to meet Shankar, hoping that he would be there earlier than our appointed time.

The best and most special part of my day was the very last. Shankar repeated his offer for me to join him in his home for dinner and to meet his family. I gratefully accepted this generous offer. His simple home is on the third story of a typically narrow Nepali building, tucked off the main road. Only his wife was home when we arrived, as his daughter and nephew were off collecting his son from school. His wife handled the surprise gracefully and then insisted on making a second curry because I was there, despite my insistence to not do anything special. When the children arrived, they were definitely surprised. The boys were quiet and shy, hiding behind Shankar or his daughter as much as possible and whispering the questions they wanted to ask. Swastika, his daughter, is learning English in school and is quite proficient in it. While she was shy at first, as the evening wore on she began asking questions about my likes “do you like pets?”, “do you like birds?”, “do you like to camp?” among other questions. While she and I chatted, Shankar, his cousin (who had arrived while we were eating) and wife tried to make sense of my life since as a single, 43-year-old, traveling and living alone, I don’t fit into any Nepalese paradigm. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end a very long day.

Some Really Tall Mountains

The key when flying into Kathmandu is to get a seat on the right-hand side of the airplane. As the plane approaches Kathmandu, passengers on the right side of the plane get the best view of the Himalaya. Coming from a place with mountains, the height of the Himalaya is truly impressive.

No trip to Nepal would be complete without seeing Mt. Everest. Since I didn’t have the time, training or inclination to even trek to the base camp, I opted for the easier approach of taking a Mountain Flight. Most of the small Nepali airlines offer 2 or 3 Mountain Flights each day. Departing early in the morning, when the skies are the clearest and the views are the best, the planes fly down the mountain range toward Mt. Everest and make a turn and come back up to Kathmandu. Six- to 20-seater planes are used so that all the passengers have a window seat.

My flight was on Simrik Airlines. Nothing instills confidence like the manager of the airline giving a small talk before we boarded about how Nepali airlines have been banned from flying into the European Union citing their poor safety record. With that in mind, the 18 of us boarded the vintage 1900C Airliner. I’m sure not everyone appreciated the low cabin height, vintage upholstery, seat belt buckles that required lifting the metal buckle to actually insert the tab into the buckle or the 3 air sickness bags in the seat pocket; however, I thought it was awesome.

Rattling down the runway we lifted into the clear blue skies. Heading down the Himalayan range, the stewardess would walk down the plane and point out key mountains as we went by. As we neared the turn, everyone had a chance to walk up to the cockpit to see Mt. Everest head on and take pictures. Karma, the agent that had booked my flight, ensured that I was on the best side of the plane. While I didn’t have great views on the way out, I was lucky to be on the side closest to the Himalaya on the return trip, offering much better views of all the peaks on the way back to Kathmandu.

Mount Everest from the air.

Mount Everest from the air.

To be honest, as mountains go, Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) really isn’t that interesting. Seeing the tallest mountain in the world is impressive; however, its 29,028 feet (8848 meters) is really hard to perceive from the air or from a distance. Looking at the mountain it is merely a granite pyramid covered in alpine glaciers. Several other much more interesting mountains live in the limelight of their big brother.

The most interesting mountains to me are ones that have different faces and contours that catch the light giving the mountain a character of its own. Ganesh Himal (24,350 feet (7422 meters) is one of the Himalaya peaks actually visible from Kathmandu on a clear day. The broad face with three points like a circus tent and covered in snow catch the sunlight like a cloud with sharp edges floating above the Kathmandu valley. Gauri Shankar (23,405 feet (7134 meters)), the holy mountain, has double peaks and a deep bowl that give the mountain depth. The mountain is considered the dwelling place of Shiva and no one is given permission to climb the mountain (either by the authorities or by Shiva). Melungtse (20,660 feet (6297 meters)) looks like a mountain that was never finished, leaving a snow-covered curve of granite in place of a point.

Escaping It All

After my one day in Kathmandu, I was ready to escape the overwhelmingly big city and find something that would hopefully match the image of high snow covered mountains and friendly people that I had in my mind of Nepal. On the advice of my friend that had served in the Peace Corps in Nepal, I headed to Nagarkot. A small hill station higher (7,201 feet (2195 meters)) in the mountains about 1.5 hours from Kathmandu purported to have great views of the Himalaya and provide the ultimate location to just relax and enjoy life.

Leaving the city behind, the drive to Nagarkot took me past tan mud brick houses with wood trim painted bright purple or blue, and up narrow winding roads. By narrow, I mean so narrow that two cars couldn’t pass each other easily, let alone trying to get around the occasional bus or truck. Potholes added another feature to the journey up the mountain.

My destination was Peaceful Cottage Hotel. The minute I arrived at Peaceful Cottage I knew I had definitely made the right choice. Perched near the top of the hill overlooking valleys on both sides and a view of the Himalaya stretching across the horizon, the snow capped peaks reaching into the blue skies, I instantly felt better. The air was crisp and clear and felt amazing on my lungs that had been growing ever more clogged with smog and pollution. Even the people seemed to be more genuine and friendly than most of the people I had encountered in the city.

My room was a room fit for a princess. Located in the new building (so new that it was still under construction), the room with its tile floor and wall decorated in rock was a breath of fresh air from the mustiness of the Shechen Guest House. Two of the walls occupied by near floor to ceiling windows offered an amazing view of the valley and the mountains. One wall decorated in rocks ranging from small pebbles to stones, creating swirling patterns. The heavy wood headboard reminiscent of the temple carvings I had seen so many of the day before.

The most spectacular moments of the day at Peaceful Cottage are sunset and sunrise. At sunset, the red glowing sun slowly sinks into the mists of Kathamandu valley giving everything a mystical quality and taking the heat of the day with it. Sunrise is a must see event, especially from the rooftop. Around 6:30 the first blush of light touches the top of the highest peaks of the Himalaya making them glow like diamonds. As the sun continues to rise, the peaks are painted a blushing shade of pink, the light emphasizing the various faces of the mountains. The beauty of the mist filled valleys, dark foothills and the gentle pink of the snow capped Himalaya is breathtaking. Sunrise is also when Mt. Everest is the most visible, although it is merely a small triangle on the distant horizon.

Sunrise from Nagarkot

Sunrise from Nagarkot

My time in Nagarkot was dedicated primarily to relaxing, writing and just enjoying the view. During the day, I chased the sunbeams across the patio, moving every so often as the shade of the building overtook where I was sitting. In the evening, I staked out my spot at one of the tables in the dining room. Every so often I would take a break from my writing to enjoy the view of the Himalaya and the falcons circling over the valley or to visit with other guests or the staff.

I quickly became friends with Laxman, one of the staff with a vivacious personality, sparkling eyes and genuine heart. He would come over to chat often and made sure I had a thermos of hot water and the occasional cup of tea. The afternoon of my first day he took me on a motorbike ride to visit his village. As I watched him get his bike, I noticed the ritual that he did prior to moving or starting the bike. Three times he passed his hand over the engine then touched his head and chest with his fingers three times. As I never asked, I can only assume that this was asking the gods for a safe journey, which given the state of the roads around Nagarkot was probably a good thing. Laxman’s village is maybe 2 km from the hotel nestled into the side of the mountain. The village’s population of 200 people lives in clusters of homes for each family group. Laxman’s family members have three houses there belonging to brothers and sisters. I met the water buffalo and goats and most of his family. His brother’s sister made us tea. Sitting and drinking the tea I really wished that I knew more Nepali so that I could understand what his sister was saying. Laxman was not exactly the most helpful translator, his jokester personality often making me question if what he was translating was true or not.

After we left his village, we headed up toward an area that is a typical gathering spot for locals on their day off (Saturday). Several buses and large groups of people were playing music, dancing and cooking. We looked at the view for a little bit, then the group of women from Bhaktapur noticed me. One of the kids hooked up some music to the speaker they had brought and the dancing began. Surrounded by women in their bright fuschia and red and turquoise saris, I tried to follow along and have fun. At every turn, I would find a cell phone being used as a camera pointed toward me. One of the women showed me how to do their local dance, which hopefully I didn’t mess up too badly. After 30 minutes of laughing and dancing, we headed back to the hotel. Getting to experience the true spirit of the people makes my heart the most happy. These type of experiences are the ones I treasure most when traveling.

When in Nepal, Do as the Nepali Do

I’ve always found it the best approach to do as the locals do. This axiom applies to everything from eating to dressing appropriately.

While it almost never snows in Kathmandu, it does get very cold. Most buildings have no heat. The first night in my room at Shechen Guest House, I had trouble sleeping because I was so cold despite being dressed in long pajama pants and a thermal shirt and was buried under a thick blanket. After having dinner with Shankar and his family, I realized the importance of keeping my head covered. That night (and for all nights after that) I slept with a bandana on my head. Amazing how just a thin piece of cloth can make such a difference. The second night I was actually sweating.

Shawls or blankets are a key feature of almost every Nepali’s daily outfit. When I made my decision to head to Nagarkot, I knew I would need this extra layer if I had any chance of actually staying warm. My $5 investment in a green woolen wrap was well worth it in the chilly air of Nagarkot.

Ever since I was a child traveling with my dad, I have made it a point to try and learn at least a few words in the native language. Nepal is no different. On my first taxi ride I asked how to say “no” and “thank you”.  Slowly I added to my vocabulary, especially with the help of Laxman and Shankar. By the end of my time in Nepal I now have an 18 word vocabulary where I can say: hello (namaste, nameskar), thank you (thanyibar), a little (torre), hot (tatu), pani (water), cold (tishue), my name is MJ (meru namu MJ ho), what is your name (Que namu ho), no in 3 different ways depending on context (huay naa, huay dai naa, chay naa) and I love you (maa tameli maya gatzu).