When I had returned to Kathmandu, there was light enough in the sky for one more tiny pilgrimage, so I set my sights on Swayambhunath, yet another beautiful and holy hilltop Buddhist monument. Halfway up its mighty stairwell, I found myself wondering why Buddhists were such masochists and imagined they must have rock solid thighs for all the constant climbing they have to accomplish. The place was crawling with sneering monkeys, and their omnipresence in holy places had me deciding that monkeys were by far the most pious of creatures. Even in my fit state the steps were challenging, and I emanated waves of sympathy to the elderly I passed clinging to handrails in their persistent ascents. Nearing the top, Buddha’s penetrating eyes stared right through me, gleaming from the top of the lofty stupa and framed by two distinctly Indian style stone towers. Never to build stupas without epic origin tales, Swayambhunath marks the location where a giant lotus flower erupted from the valley back when it was a great lake (and on this point the lore actually matches the geology (the lake part, not necessarily the magical giant lotus)).
Turning around, I had the setting sun behind me, a perfect stage light for the endless sprawl of dusty bricks and rivers that is Kathmandu. I thought about all the lives filling and moving about these bricks and my heart grew heavy. Nepal faces all the economic problems as India to the south, but with some additional impediments to growth and recovery. Landlocked with only mildly sympathetic neighbors, Nepal has no way to efficiently export the fruits of its cheap labor and goods without the disincentives of high tariffs. Like elsewhere, the valley’s population is exploding faster than its ability to keep up, and worse, the rapidly expanding metropolis in the middle is growing with tragic neglect to the valley’s vulnerability to terrible earthquakes. An estimated 60% of the buildings today could be toppled if the city was hit by the severity of one of the larger earthquakes that have hit it in the past, ruining more lives than I care to think about.
I did a few farewell laps around the stupa alongside rosary clutching monks and headed down the steps spilling back down to the city, stopping to scoop up a cheap mantra engraved necklace, cylindrical like a prayer wheel, and then some whiskey and soda to celebrate being alive along with my couch hosts.
The next day I set out for the neighboring city of Patan, a once rival city-state that eventually became absorbed into greater Kathmandu, well after a conqueror annexed the territories and made Kathmandu the capital of his kingdom. The royal center of Patan, cleverly named Durbar Square, just like Kathmandu’s, is less epic in scope than its neighbor’s and therefore less attractive to the tourists. I liked it quite a bit better. A beautiful palace courtyard was temporarily housing some rather good international modern art. Typical of Newari culture, there were temples paying tribute to both Buddha and Shiva alike, as well as many deities of the animist traditions that predated Hinduism in the region. In an unmarked hole in the wall I enjoyed a traditional Newari lunch. First an unremarkable egg fried onto a slice of bread, then curried chickpeas and very spicy potatoes that I piled onto a bowl of beat rice. Beat rice is rice dehydrated and crushed to flakes, and ends up looking like dehydrated mashed potatoes, but with a noteworthy crunch. I was told the rice was prepared this way to make it easier to smuggle food to Tibetan refugees living in the hills, as beat rice required no cooking and thus no flame that could give away their location at night.
Wandering in a spiral around the square, I saw a temple where every bit of its surface area was etched with identical depictions of cross legged Buddha – there were surely thousands of him. Nearby, in the famously gorgeous Golden Monastery, I watched the head monk, an adorable little boy, fumble about the day’s rituals, lacing a deity’s three heads with marigolds and placing donated money ornamentally about the altar. Sauntering north to a towering five tiered pagoda, I happened upon a tiny festival. To music and copious amounts of incense – whole bundles being tossed upon flames – worshippers were enjoying picnic lunches while surrendering a portion of their meals decoratively on bright green leaves as offerings to the gods (hopefully the gods were hungry). And on the other side of the pagoda, a procession of tiny girls dressed ornately in makeup and bright red dresses, not unlike wedding saris, was parading down a column and then sat in rows to receive sweets and other gifts. Another onlooker, one of the fathers, confirmed my suspicion that the whole ordeal was some kind of coming of age ceremony – though given the size of the girls I couldn’t reason just what age they might be coming to. To my surprise he kept referring to that thing “girls do once a month, every month.” These girls couldn’t have had their periods already! And also what an odd thing to announce and celebrate so publicly. They were too tiny – but Sophie would later explain to me that many Nepalese children are actually quite a bit older than they look, as they don’t reach nearly the mature heights that westerners do (oh, that reminds me when I was talking to two little village girls in Dhulikhel and they were chided in passing by an elderly woman no taller than they were – apparently the world’s smallest adult lives in Nepal somewhere).
My route back home (my hosts had since moved while I was on my mini-trek), had me passing once more by Pashupatinath, which was the location of the burning ghats for Shivaites. After stealing a peek inside the main temple, forbidden to non-Hindus, and catching a view of the magnificent rump of a giant golden bull, Shiva’s vehicle, I noticed the sounds of drums and chanting coming from the ghat area. The temple’s lights were on, despite the city being in blackout mode, so I decided to investigate. I had since lost my pass to the place so I walked past the ticket gate with a briskness that left me unperturbed. Halfway up the ghats on the opposite bank was a series of brightly robed dancers performed in unison with large fans. Next to them, a delightfully crusty old Sadhu paced forward and back waving his hands and clapping occasionally, probably intoxicated. I couldn’t figure out if his presence was integral to the performance or something he decided to add all on his own, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. The music was so well mixed on the speakers I didn’t realize it was being performed live until I saw drummers and a singer bleating into a microphone. When the musicians finished, sections of the audience paced down to the water bank to offer prayers and cast flower pedals down the stream. With the enchanting rituals and stark nighttime lighting in a place I had already fallen in love with, it ended up being a truly beautiful series of moments and a perfect last night for me in Nepal.
A failed attempt to connect to the internet (no power of course), two laps around Boudda (where white hippies were laying hands on locals, talking in tongues and describing how “now your chest pain is gone, your headaches are gone, cancer is gone”), and a jaunt through a forest back to the airport, and I was back in the air. The pilot mentioned that visibility should be such that we could see Everest from the left side of the plane. I was on the right side. Was I going to get to see Everest after all? When someone on the opposite side got up to use the toilet, I pounced upon his seat and pressed my face to the window. I scanned the jagged horizon and fixed my eyes on what appeared to be the highest peak on the range. Snapped a few photos. It was difficult to tell. Did I see it? Mt. Everest? Having to ask the question deflated the sense of fulfillment I was hoping to achieve – the value of seeing anything for that matter. To think I perhaps saw something important, but wouldn’t know without a reference, as if I needed someone to tell me whether I experienced something or not. I sat for a while frustrated before realizing there was someone right next to me waiting patiently for his seat back. I resolved to later check my photos against Google image search to determine whether I did in fact see Everest, and gave the gentleman his seat back.
(I neglected to check until about two weeks later, but it turns out I did see Mt. Everest. Yay.)