My flight to Kathmandu was to pass through New Delhi with an eight hour overnight layover. Ever the cheap-ass, I was determined to crash in the airport, even though I wasn't sure that was possible, and I'm surprised now at my audacity, as I didn't even bother with a contingency plan. I think I was inspired by the fields of human bodies I've seen strewn about the ground as I've passed my weeks in India, mostly in places of transit. If Indians can do it, then by Jove, so can I! Often covered entirely with little more than a shawl, and on hard concrete no less, I am surprised I never tripped on one of the many impromptu Indian nappers I've come across. I’ve gotten very close to doing so.
There was a nasty snag in my plan, in that my bag wasn’t scheduled to be forwarded to Kathmandu, which meant I had to exit the airport security zone to retrieve it. A nice man at an information desk said I should be able to come back in and use the lounge, but the stern Sikh security guard I bumped into later insisted otherwise, and then I was stuck outside (guards and cops are often Sikhs, and they are often quite large and very intimidating). Dismayed, but determined not to go through the expense and hassle of two cab rides and a hotel for a measly couple of hours of sleep, I slipped into the visitors section, unfurled my shawl onto a corner of cold tile, and – once more inspired by India’s intrepid sleepers – went into hibernation mode using ear buds and my hat to block out the world. The tiles were hard, and the nearby motion sensor doors let whole drafts of cold winter air into the room. All the while I was expecting someone to come tell the scruffy homeless white guy curled up in the corner he couldn’t be there, but the hours slipped wearily by, alternatingly on my tender left and right sides, and I got up in time to check into my flight unperturbed.
As I dismounted the vehicular staircase heading from the plane to the airstrip, I was surprised at how very temperate the morning air of Kathmandu’s winter could be. Seeing the bony white spine of the Himalayas from the airplane high above gave me a thrill but also chilled me. My host, a great French woman named Sophie, insisted she meet me at the airport, as too many of her guests have gotten lost trying to navigate the bustling mess of Kathmandu’s transit system. The busses proved to be just as crowded as Indian busses, but with the added fun of being built for considerably smaller human beings. Or hobbits perhaps. I was like Gandalf hunched over in a moving hobbit hole full of little brown Frodos wearing facemasks to filter out the pollution and the dust.
In the bus and on the streets, the Nepalese dislodged some of my expectations. Despite being so historically cut off from the world, the Kathmandu Nepalese were dressed in a much more western way than the people in any of the Indian cities I had visited. Lots of V-neck sweaters and converse shoes. The dress also somewhat masked the extreme poverty of the country. Even the poor need to stay warm, and I think all the layering with sweaters, scarves, and hats lends itself to a blurring of social caste, at least on the level of visual inspection. I thought of an episode of 30 Rock where Liz Lemon laments New York’s winter: “I hate January, it's dark and freezing and everyone's wearing bulky coats. You can do some serious subway flirting before you realize the guy is homeless.”
Familiar Bollywood songs in rickshaws and restaurants proved to be one of the many strong cultural tethers between Nepal and the country I had just left, but I was finding myself frustrated at having to start from scratch, despite the similarities. The food, the religion, and even the temperaments were familiar to me, but I would say all presented itself more mildly than their brightly colored and spicy neighbor down below. I think I was a little disenchanted by the contrast at first, but I think I’m starting to fall for it. It’s a slow burn.
My tradition, as I’m sure is the case with many, is to start my explorations of a city at its heart, but this is a strategy I’m considering revising. In Kathmandu’s case, the span between Durbar Square – the old royal complex – and the tourist village to the north embedded in Thamel prove to be the densest center for commerce and tourism. Despite the majesty of the palace and the energy and flavor of the markets, I found myself out of place and out of patience with the touts, shopkeepers, and would-be tour guides that are so abound where the tourists spend their money.
The next morning I headed straight for Pashupatinath, regarded by many followers of Shiva as one of the holiest places on Earth. You wouldn’t guess that from the state of the grounds leading to it, littered with trash occasionally piled into heaps and set ablaze. Dodging the plastic smoke made me want to invest in one of those cotton face masks that are so fashionable here. Entering the complex, though, it becomes clear that not all of the hazy smoke stacks floating above the temple tops emanate from trash piles. Maybe six steps up from the water on one of the ghats, I spied a man stoking the flames of a pyre with a long rod, and a human foot flopped limply out from between the timbers. Scanning up and downstream, I realized this particular smokestack was just one of several funeral pyres dotting the banks of the river. It is believed that to have your remains scattered here frees your immortal soul form the cycle of reincarnation. It is illegal now, but widows used to join their husbands here in immolation, in a ritual suicide known as sati.
I was a bit uneasy strolling about such an intense and emotionally charged place, especially with a camera dangling from shyly from my side, but the administration made a special effort to be welcoming, emphasizing the importance of tourist dollars in the site’s maintenance. Most of the photos I shot, I shot from the hip, not wanting to be prying. A Japanese tourist was getting very conspicuous shots of a body being prepared for cremation – they seemed to be washing the corpse’s face or perhaps attempting to get it to imbibe – and a mourner assailed the photographer with curses and the restrained violence of a fist in the air. I took that as a cue to explore away from the ghats, as mesmerizing as they were. I suspect the sad serenity of the scene there will haunt me always and despite the bleakness, I was very in love with the place.
Up the hill on the opposite bank, are countless rows of stone shrines, each containing a Shiva linga phallus. The shrines happen to be a popular hangout for sadhus and monkeys alike. Sadhus like to party, and I was told a yearly festival sees that they get as much liquor and marijuana as their wrinkled old faces can handle – all for free. The hill also contains a wildlife enclosure where I saw some squat deer sitting among sunbeams and a gorgeous black buck with spindly helix-shaped horns gallivanting along the ridge.
Half an hour north by foot, I had my first full introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, in the shape of the Boudhanath: an enormous half dome shrine, called a stupa, topped with a golden spire and four pairs of Buddha’s eyes gazing in each direction. Thousands of brightly colored prayer flags on streamers fly in the wind and converge at the base of the spire. At the base of the monument on every side is a vast series of prayer wheels, bronze colored cylinders etched with mantras and spun by hand by the hundreds of pilgrims circling the giant stupa, always clockwise. Outside and inside the flowing ring of Buddhists, more Buddhists stand with flat shields on the palms of their hands, protecting them from abrasion as they prostrate themselves on the ground repeatedly in prayer. Boudhanath is regarded as the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside of Tibet and is frequented often by exhiles.
After some tasty Nepalese noodles, a dish called Thukpa, I found myself wandering the markets further north of the stupa. I became entranced by a wild sound emanating from a nearby monastery and I kicked off my shoes at the entrance to investigate. As soon as I entered, the sound suddenly stopped, increasing my timidity as I looked across several rows of maroon clad Buddhists fanning to my left and right, all deeply focused on long scrolls. My eyes adjusted blinkingly to the lack of light and I was stunned by the colors of the place: drenched in bright red, and accented with a generous amount of gold, a bit of white, and a smattering of just about every other color there is. A smiling monk beckoned me to sit and then administered to me a spoonful of blessed water and a glass of hot chai. From my cushion in the corner of the monastery I sipped my tea and listened in wonder as the wall of sound that summoned me moments before slowly reconstructed itself before me.
First, a throaty grumble from somewhere near the front of the chamber, a practiced chant that became echoed by each of the monks down the rows. This continues hypnotically for a few minutes until two pairs of monks with large unwieldy horns blow into them, loosing a discordant howl, deafening in their unison. A pair of monks by the doors banged on heavy drums with large mallets while the others joined in with cymbals, bells, double-sided hand drums, and fluttering smaller horns. Banging, crashing, wailing, the carefully timed cacophony is terrifying and beautiful all at once. It’s a stampede of elephants, it’s the beginning of time, it’s the awful grace of a controlled demolition seen in slow motion, and it leaves the uninitiated in a state of stupor when it all ends more suddenly than it began.
Like a vampire, the cold descends upon the town at night, rolling down from the chilly Himalayas. In the span of an hour or two I would have to go from having my sleeves rolled up to wearing every shirt I brought with me then tightly bound in my Rajasthani scarf and shawl. The air is bad in Kathmandu and the water’s worse, tinged with brown even after a boil. Muddy glacier runoff and just as cold. I was naked and watching the glacier water trickle from the shower head, chuckling aloud while wondering about my bravery. The neighbors upstairs would have heard a rather loud, “Oh sweet Jesus!” and I then figured I could probably get by the rest of my time in Nepal without showers, save for a daily foot wash.
Oh my poor feet. I’m not halfway through my adventure through Asia and they already barely resemble feet. An unfortunate patchwork of pink, purple, and white. Scabbed from shitty sandals. Lumpen from ceaseless wandering and a tightwad’s aversion to taxi cabs.
The glacial shower – I forgot to mention – was enjoyed by romantic candlelight. Nepal, in order to afford petrol, sells off its electricity to India. The electricity sent south, however, is not surplus, which means the whole country goes off the grid every day for about 10 hours. If businesses can afford it, they keep the lights on with generators, otherwise it’s candle time or shop’s closed. Much of my writing in Nepal so far has been by the soft glow of a candle and the burning tip of sandalwood incense. It takes some getting used to.