On the cramped bus halfway from Kathmandu to Dhulikhel, I was sizing up a colossal statue of Shiva overlooking the valley. Based on the relative size of the buildings adjacent, I would have to guess it was about 10 stories tall and could be seen for miles. Dhulikhel, my destination, is an old Newari village with supposedly impressive sunrise views of the Himalayas and an important gateway for trekkers or those looking for the one passage into Tibet. The Newari people are somewhere in between Hindus and Buddhists, with Buddha and Hanuman sharing seats in the same pantheon alongside animist spirits from religions past; they treat religion like it’s a buffet, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
After I arrived in the village and found the cheapest room in town (complete with questionable bed sheets and a washroom that leaves you feeling dirtier than you were before) I had nothing in particular on my agenda until the next day’s sunrise. In my attempts to make the most of my whirlwind tour, I had always kept my days packed, but now I had a whole day with nothing to accomplish. No don’t-miss sight, palace, museum, show, or culinary delight. Just me and a village. So I spent the day ambling about listlessly, trying to enjoy the calm that’s become so scarce in my life recently. I talked to locals, read a book, geared up for my little trek the next day, and drank a lot of tea. The trouble with being a westerner among villagers is your presence divides them into two camps. Either they don’t know any English and you’re limited to brief nonverbal encounters – I helped an old woman get a ridiculous stack of wood onto her back that she balanced in place with a sling attached to her forehead – or they know English because knowing English helps them hustle westerners out of their rupees.
There is a very small third camp that know English and are simply sociable, just wanting to get to know a traveling foreigner, but the pain is they have the same opening lines as the hustler, and you’re always anticipating the inevitable, “come look at my shop,” or, “ look at this bird I carved; it’s only 200 Rupees.” It’s enough to make a cynic out of anyone, can be very wearing on your patience, and diminishes the value of trying to connect with locals when traveling. And they learn to hustle young. Many poor kids are instructed on how to make warm connections with foreigners before begging for money, a sad attempt at wining and dining before the actual begging, which I’m sure is much more successful at begetting sympathy than the point blank, “RUPEES!?!” approach. There’s an unwritten script they follow, and it varies from region to region. It can be comical how word for word identical many of the conversations I’ll have with touts in one place. As if rehearsing a scene on stage, you know what they’re going to say before they say it. But sometimes it takes you by surprise, and I’ve had many lovely seeming moments putter out like a leaky balloon by beggarly punch lines. It’s a struggle, but it’s worth holding out for the occasions that are all the way genuine, as those are the ones you get to carry with you.
There’s little to do in a village with no electricity after dark and I had no difficulty making it to bed early enough to enjoy a complete rest well before sunrise, even if it was a full five hours before I had been waking up in the days preceding. I planned every step I’d have to take in the morning so there wouldn’t be any delay, and after my alarm went off and I swiftly left my room, I was aghast to find there was no way out of the hotel. Every door had been sealed and locked. I was outraged, not only because this impediment was keeping me from the main reason I came to this damn village, but also because of my very American concern for liability. I imagined a fire killing everyone inside because the owners locked it down tight. I almost jumped out the second story window, but reasoned it was both too great a risk and a little too dramatic. I found a woman upstairs sweeping the stairwell who unlocked the front and saw me take off like a racehorse at the gate.
Walking briskly, I commanded the attention of some stray dogs, dogs I was discovering didn’t much care for tall white people wearing hats. They let me know with growls and bared fangs, aggressive to the point I thought they might actually attack. A young Newari man behind me scared them off with rocks and hisses. He was on his morning walk, also to the climb the hills under Kali shrine where I was headed, so we kept each other company, exchanging conversation between our uphill panting. It turned out he has family all over the states and tries every year for the diversity lottery. He also sings classical Newari songs and plays the violin, but not at the same time.
We had missed the beginning of the sunrise, but it turned out not to be so much of a loss. The most captivating part, the lower mandible of frosted jagged peaks that composed the most domineering stretch of Himalayan mountains within view, lay further to the north and their viewing would actually benefit from the sun’s further ascension. East by southeast where the sun was rising, its warm light was trapped in lagoons of mist hovering between the valley’s hills, imbuing them with a mysterious glow. I learned that such a clear view of the Himalayas was a very rare thing outside of December, and counted myself lucky about my timing, despite the additional dose of cold weather the season brings. I did not, however, get to see Everest among the peaks. It lays quite a bit more eastward than I realized when I planned my trip, requiring a flight to get to a vantage point and therefore more costly in time and dollars than I could afford. So I tried not to be too disappointed, despite the withering of my assumption that my eyes would fall upon our planet’s highest peak during my time in Nepal.
Most of the villagers in the hills are farmers, and they leave their mark on the country side with endlessly tiered farm rows, swooping up and down each hillside with right angle gradients, as if a topographical map had sprung upward to life in a way that was manifested as literally as possible – that is to say without the smooth natural curves we normally expect from hill surfaces. Flowing strips of rice, soy, grass, and corn were woven about everywhere you looked, and made for very hypnotizing hiking scenery.
The dramatically fluctuating temperature in the Kathmandu valley demanded constant adjustment of my clothing as I passed in and out of shade, as my pace changed to according to the incline, and as the sun climbed higher in the sky. My shawl popped in and out of my bag, my scarf snaked around from around my face, to a bundle around my neck, then loose around my shoulders, and back again, and my layered sleeves shot up and down my arms like pistons in an engine. Occasionally a bus would pass, overflowing with Nepalese sticking out of windows and stacked on the roof. A few were party busses full of young people on their way to a plateau blasting Rihanna remixes that filled the valley for all the goats, cows, and chickens to enjoy.
Frosted in gold by the backlighting of the sun, my destination came full into view after one last bend of the forested ridge trail. Mounted at the top of a sizable ridge overlooking the Kathmandu valley, lay the Tibetan Monastery, Namobuddha. A steep shaded path marches up the side, lined every step of the way by brightly colored prayer flags woven through the dense boughs of low crooked trees.
The noise and movements of weekend tour groups at first diminished the beautiful piety of the place. Busloads of students from the capital were absurdly thorough about having their photos taken in front of every inch of the monastery, no matter how mundane the subject. The manager’s office seems like a good place to strike a cool gangsta pose. How about this picture of another monastery hanging on the wall of the monastery? Let’s get a picture of me being the duck faced club hopping thug that I am in front of this picture of another monastery while I’m in this monastery? Oh, we forgot to vogue out in front of this fern. Good stuff.
Eventually they filed back into their tour busses and the hilltop ambience of monastic solitude slowly seeped back to fill the halls. At the very top of the hill lay a stupa where you can listen to the hushed thunder of ten thousand prayer flags being tugged by the mountain wind. They are tied so densely together and so close to the ground you need to use amateur acrobatics to circle the stupa completely. The stupa marks the place were supposed a prince happened upon a hungry tigress about to lay upon a young girl, so that she may feed her young waiting in a nearby cave. The prince empathized with the tiger and offered his own flesh to save the child, and was therefore canonized by the Buddhists. The gilded main hall of Namobuddha is dazzlingly red, and then made more vibrant with heaps of intricate gold detail. After the sun set on the valley, I eagerly looked forward to sitting in on my second puja ritual. Again I listened to the practiced low grumblings of monks in prayer and marveled at the precision in which they evoked that distinct sound of calculated chaos, read from scrolls written centuries ago. With the shock lessened by increasing familiarity, I watched the monks’ performance with greater scrutiny and what I saw was someone demystifying. Some of the monks, they seemed bored. I saw chuckling when the altar boy dropped something. I caught one taking a thorough pick at his nose. Puja isn’t performance art, it’s ritual, and a chore, and while the atmosphere it creates crushes me deeply in the best way possible, it’s merely habit for them. Seeing Puja this way made it seem a tad less otherworldly and a lot more human.
When the last flush of color fled the valley after the sun and the horizon no longer visibly cleft the ground from the heavens, the folds of the now black hills became dotted villagers’ gas lamps, blinking softly and echoing the stars in the sky. The monastery has two guesthouses for foreign travelers, one for those in long term monastic retreats and one for those passing through like myself. Either way, the guests are invited to join the monks for dinner in their mess hall, a long cafeteria that would be otherwise unremarkable if it weren’t for the many tiny Buddhas carved into the walls. Over a thousand by my rough calculations. I was expecting a meal of Daal Bhaat – a simple rice and yellow lentils dish that many Nepalese eat for breakfast and dinner every day of their lives – but was treated instead to a savory stew with the most wonderfully thick noodles and served with an optional and very potent red chili sauce that I believe I was the only foreigner to partake of. Breakfast was black-eyed peas served with a large knot of deliciously fluffy dough and Tibetan tea, which is made unpleasantly thick with butter.
I wished I could stay longer, but I had to keep moving. I found the monks were very polite and they were helpful when I needed guidance, but I was hoping to make a better connection and learn more about their lifestyle and beliefs. It seemed they preferred to keep to themselves, so I left without having figured them out to the extent I was hoping for, but I later figured there was still a lot of Asia to cover, so I had nothing to despair about.
Hiking westward now, I paused to snack on some masala flavor Lay’s potato chips in a village called Sangkhu, and I was approached by two young village girls on their way from school. They were probably 12 and six, and the older of the two spoke English quite well and served as a translator when her illiterate and widowed aunt, with a face more lined than the hillside farms around us, squatted down on the road next to us. The aunt wanted to know if I could get her son a job in America, and threw her hands in the air in mock despair when she was told I don’t have a job for myself in America. Then she said I should marry her daughter, as she’s very beautiful and hard working too. I couldn’t be sure if she was joking or not. Nepalese women are indeed hard working. In all hours of the day, I could see them hunched over in farm rows or transporting absurd loads of goods on their backs supported with forehead slings. I very rarely saw men toiling in the fields, and I’ve read women are still regarded somewhat like property in rural Nepal, expected to work all day in the fields and yet still be home fix meals for the family.
My last stop before returning to Kathmandu was a very well preserved Newari village called Paunati. With aching feet I came to where two rivers met and the old village began, but found myself heartbroken when I arrived. The myriad temples and shrines around the ghat lined river were entirely lovely on their own and at the moment alone for me to explore, but like so many other places I’ve been to, the place was just drowned in garbage. Ducks swimming in the river have to navigate tiny islands of bags, styrofoam, and plastic bottles, islands that became impenetrable continents of trash further downstream. This, all in the same water so revered they bring their dying elderly to douse their feet in it and then latter scatter their ashen remains when they’re gone. In my short two months in Asia, I’ve seen this rampant environmental carelessness over and over and should now expect nothing better, but somehow the neglect hit me worse there in Panauti, and I have waking terrors of nations of people up to their necks in their own shedded refuse.