Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Gods in the architecture: Nepal


 
On the dark drive from the Kathmandu airport to our hotel in the Thamel district, we saw a small procession of people carrying a person on what appeared to be a sort of cot made of rails. My first dumb thought was that it was something festive, that maybe the person was being carried around the way a rock star goes crowd surfing, or the way a group will hold aloft a hero (“For he’s a jolly good fellow…”). Our driver said, in his limited English (which he used due to his correct assumption of our nonexistent Nepali): “This one is a dead body.” It was a funeral.

I don’t know why I feel compelled to begin my account of my husband’s and my belated “Himalayan Honeymoon” (my alliterative phrase for it, betraying my years of working in marketing and PR) in Nepal with this image. It was the only dead body we saw in Nepal, unless you count the shoddily stuffed and eternally preserved, still-caged songbird we saw in the sprawling white open-air palace of a man who was born a king (we saw a million of his baby pictures). Or that butcher’s sinewy animal carcass (not sure what animal, but probably something other than a cow in such a predominantly Hindu country) being gnawed on by one of the many dogs that calmly roam the streets in the capital as well as in the countryside.

I reckon I begin with this grim vignette to convey the truth that, postcards of rainbow prayer flags and Himalayas aside, Nepal is a Third World country, many of its people living in clear poverty – families in banged-up shacks with corrugated-tin roofs, children and old blind people and even mystical-looking holy men in orange robes with wispy gray beards begging in the streets (especially in the capital), clotheslines part of the landscape because of course nobody has dryers, rolling black-outs so common that half the time I ordered a “blended” coffee drink I was told no because there was no electricity for the blender (hot meals, however, could still be cooked on gas stoves). And low-key, carry-the-body-down-the-street funerals the likes of which we never drive past back home, our culture preferring to keep our dead hidden away in coffins or urns.

After a few days in the capital, I finally stopped automatically putting toilet paper in the toilet and put it instead in the wastebasket, having read enough signs on the backs of restroom doors pleading for me to do so. I was surprised, but not shocked, to see a hole-in-the-floor toilet even in one of the yuppie-backpacker, Western-style restaurants that had been highlighted with an asterisk in the Lonely Planet guidebook – Or2K, an Israeli-run vegetarian hangout where everyone sits on cushions on the floor and there’s fairy art on the menus. (However, bidets were everywhere, many bathroom floors shiny-wet from people using them; some bathrooms had rubber flip-flops outside the door for you to use when walking in there.)


The dominant impression I carry with me from Kathmandu, where we stayed for the first part of our week in Nepal, is the smell and sound of the streets – the smog from the many motorcycles and occasional vehicle that braved the narrow, mostly sidewalk-less, stony or dusty, pothole-pocked roads in a jubilant (but rarely angry or rude) cacophony of seemingly lawless traffic chaos, everyone honking every thirty seconds or so simply to signal to pedestrians and rickshaw drivers (and the occasional napping dog) that “hey, I’m here; don’t get hit by me.” My husband will tell you otherwise, but I swear I saw only one traffic light the entire time we were in the capital. (However, I also saw an official-looking man, a police officer most likely, standing on a small concrete pedestal conducting traffic at one particularly gnarly intersection.)

The smog – many residents wear surgical-looking face masks when they have to walk along the streets, and it rises over the city like a pale brown eternal cloud. After returning home from Nepal – heck, after getting on the Qatar Airways plane bound for home – I was never so consciously grateful to breathe clean, non-polluted air.


But here I am probably making it sound worse than it is, which is just as bad as presenting the postcard image, the one I’m supposed to show you that’s nothing but spirituality out the yin-yang (pun intended) and majestic snow-capped peaks and gentle villagers placing their hands together in a praying-type gesture and saying “Namaste!” to the good Western tourists.

I did enjoy my week in Nepal, and am glad that we went. I had pitched the place as a travel locale to my husband before we were engaged (he later remembered this and suggested it as our honeymoon destination) because: a) Himalayas = total bucket-list check box; and b) my husband has been pretty much everywhere else (no REALLY – dude’s even been to ANTARCTICA) and he hadn’t seen much of non-Middle-East Asia, the Indian-subcontinent area, or the Himalayas.


I also liked the ring to it -- *Kathmandu*. *Himalayan Honeymoon*. I fell sway to my own marketing. The place sounds impossible, as if you have to go through some portal into a fairy-tale realm to get there, as if it’s in another dimension. Like Xanadu or something.

It was nothing like back home and yet it was. In Kathmandu, just walking down the block was a trial – sharing the narrow roads with the honking cars (bellying up to buildings to get out of drivers' way), vendors calling out to anyone with a white face in fleece hiking togs.


At Or2K, I picked up the hip Nepali “Living” magazine from the restaurant’s library and learned that the city has no mayor or local elected government (e.g., a City Council).
This made sense the more I thought about the clogged streets, pervasive smog, and lack of traffic lights, and it also aligned with this sense I had (thoroughly unresearched; more of a *feeling*) that commerce in Nepal is far less regulated than it is in the litigious U.S. – we saw some pretty blatant commandeering of logos (as in the case of a "Facebook restaurant" painted blue and white and using the company's trademark "f"), and we saw none of the chain stores that Westerners assume they'll find everywhere (with the exception of the Starbucks-supported Himalayan Java Coffee store, the closest thing to Starbucks in the whole Starbucks-less country), only mom-and-pop places.

The overall anarchic atmosphere, the loose-knit every-shopkeeper-for-himself patchwork, had me wondering what my Libertarian friends would think about the way a lack of close government supervision had played out in the place.

Another difference: Religion – or spirituality is really a better word – is everywhere in Nepal and yet it’s not. On every street, it seemed, was a temple – some statue or other of some god or goddess, plus a little smudge pot of red paint with which to make that omnipresent red dot at the top of your forehead (right at the hairline), and probably some marigold blossoms. I lost track of which temples were Hindu and which ones were Buddhist and finally realized that I didn’t care – the locals didn’t seem to make a big deal out of differentiating between the two, so why should I?

It’s everywhere – there are gods and goddesses, sometimes in animal form, sometimes painted bright colors, in the architecture, carved onto nearly every building, even unassuming ones on quiet back streets. I mean, for crying out loud, the national greeting (and the only Nepali word we used the whole time we were there) is “Namaste,” which means: “I bow to the divine in you.”

But it was never in-your-face or guilt-inducing or even really all that passionate (with the exception of a man we saw having a blissful moment at a small Buddhist monastery that hosts a revolving audience of tourists, at Swayambhunath, the “Monkey Temple” on the outskirts of Kathmandu). Unless I missed something, which is entirely possible, religion in Nepal just felt sort of… chill. Mellow, laid-back. And private – we saw locals, presumably on their way to work or running errands, pop up to the nearest temple, put the dot on their heads, mutter some sort of prayer, ring a temple bell, then hurry on their way. It wasn’t like here, where you sit in a church with a bunch of dressed-up folks and a preacher up front shouting about how we're all born sinners.

So obviously we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Yet in some ways we made it just like home. I found a way to order a “mocha frappuccino” or “blended coffee drink (could you please add chocolate syrup?)” every single day in Kathmandu, and only went without once we got to the countryside of Nagarkot (only about a half-hour drive from the capital; I don't mean to make it sound as if we were sitting on top of Everest or anything). We clung to free Wi-Fi like a Linus blanket; when the reception staff at our hotel in Kathmandu gave us a password that didn’t work, my brilliant would-be hacker husband figured out a code that *did* work for us (an educated guess), and I proceeded to begin posting the requisite braggy “ain’t this exotic” posts and photos on Facebook.

At this point in the narrative I feel the need to impose some sort of order – a numbered list, maybe; something like you’d find on BuzzFeed – rather than ramble on about our trip in chronological (or random) order. It might be best to simply share a few highlights, with the caveat that what counts as a “highlight” for me is simply any significant memory that stands out, including ones that could be construed as bad. Here are a few of the moments that come to mind when I think back on our time in Nepal.


We got lost in the Nepali countryside…
alone, without a guide. My husband was by far the “alpha” traveler on this trip (I’ve taken a tiny bit more of a lead on other vacations, such as our train trip to Savannah), so he got a map and some directions from an urbane-seeming, scarf-wearing young guy who seemed to be the unofficial social secretary at the (brilliantly named) Hotel at the End of the Universe, in Nagarkot, a city in the district of Bhaktapur. Our plan was to take the "village trek,” past homes and a school in the hilly, terraced green countryside, which we did except at some point our route deviated from what was laid out for us on the map.


But all the better – we plodded down (and then back up) along a narrow, rutted, muddy path past adorable giggling schoolchildren in uniforms (boys and girls in blue button-down shirts, the girls in pleated navy skirts with white stockings or pants underneath, the same uniform worn by students in the capital) who chirped “Namaste!” at us, and ladies in colorful, flowing traditional clothing (I’m very sorry to not know any specific terms for what they were wearing, and to Google it now would feel disingenuous, as if I were trying to pass myself off as more knowledgeable then than I actually was) heaving bushels of things (what appeared to my untrained eye as wheat sheaves or something in that vein) on their backs up impressively steep climbs.

There were so many scenes – throughout the trip, but especially in Nagarkot – that looked straight out of National Geographic, that could have been in some college “You should major in anthropology!” brochure. But for the most part I didn’t capture these (except for a few times when I did something sneaky such as zoom in from afar on someone’s back), because it seemed like a rude or gawking thing to do. I mean, how would I feel if some tourist from a richer country than mine snapped photos of me on my daily Metro commute, or sitting in my cubicle at work? Say, some sultan of Brunei, out among hoi polloi on a typical workday? “Aw, it’s so cute that she’s wearing a blazer and carrying an ID badge! Wow, she has to sit at a computer all day and memorize a thousand passwords in order to do her work
– how quaint!” OK, I have no frame of reference for knowing what it must be like to have tourists taking pictures of you all the time. But I bet it can get on your nerves, even when you live in a country whose economy gets a much-needed boost from the tourism juggernaut.


…and heard children singing inside a village school.
I started shooting video of this with my digital camera as soon as I heard it start up; my husband and I had already hiked a little ways down the dirt road from the school when we heard them begin what sounded like a school or national song they probably start their day with every morning. However, in the video you can mostly hear the cicadas (or their Himalayan analogue) whirring, and just a bit of cute voices at the very end, as I’m walking desperately toward the school while zooming in, to complement the sound with visuals of a few stray blue-shirted kids milling around on the steep dirt driveway. I would like to have enjoyed the moment more without being so bent on preserving it for later, but it was fleeting, and I am Western, so I mostly just fumbled around with my camera and sulked about the surely sub-par quality of my recording.

We had lunch with a Nepali family (sort of).
A short walk from our hotel in Nagarkot was a place called the Sun-Set Restaurant, one of several similarly named joints on our hotel-clustered road, most of these cafes in buildings that, in the U.S. at least, would be described as shacks. We went there for lunch in part because a robust and outdoorsy Dutch couple whose employers give them approximately a million weeks of vacation every year, and with whom we’d taken the hotel shuttle to a local “sunrise-viewing tower" our first morning in Nagarkot, recommended it (or maybe it was some other place with “sunset” in the name; there were a few) for the soup and the (titular) sunset views.

My husband and I moseyed inside
and the atmosphere subtly shifted. Before we'd entered, there had been a cozy little family scene going on: a dad (and another guy, maybe an uncle), and a mom in traditional clothing who seemed to be doing laundry or some other chores, a couple of guys in their late teens or early twenties sitting at a table and waiting for some soup (cousins, maybe; they seemed familiar with the dad and mom of the place, and played with the kids), a little boy acting up instead of doing his homework, a pink-pajama’d baby girl in a walker who’d been given a chunk of banana for a snack.

Then we walked in, and were immediately given the best seats in the house – two side-by-side chairs at a table pointed at the big sunset-facing windows. The dad (or an uncle) handed us menus that were printed in English only. After a brief consultation about what we wanted, my husband (still the alpha traveler between the two of us) pointed at where it said grilled-cheese sandwiches with tomato, and held up two fingers for “I'd like two of those.” He also ordered us two bottles of orange Fanta.

The man brought us our Fantas, and we sat back to enjoy the view – the view inside, mostly. The mom led the little boy into a side room where piles and piles of laundry were heaped, and he sulkily returned to his table with a couple of workbooks (his demeanor made it clear to us, no translation necessary, that he had to do homework, ugh, gee thanks Mom). At one point he became so disgusted with this cosmic injustice that he threw his schoolbooks on the ground. (Both his mom and his dad swatted him for this kind of thing at various points during our meal.)

I especially liked watching the baby play with, and unsuccessfully attempt to eat, her chunk of banana. She was in baby-scientist mode, exploring the smushy texture of the fruit, inadvertently smearing it onto both ears and finally dropping the bulk of it onto the floor – whereupon she proceeded to dip her tiny bare toes into it, apparently in an effort to somehow pick it up. Her dad scooped her up out of the walker to kiss her cheek and coo adoringly to her.

Three chickens wandered in and out of the open door. On the walls was a wild mix of posters – some you’d expect, with Hindu or Buddhist iconography, and some weird ones, such as Thomas Kinkade-ish prints of Western-style suburban mansions with hot red Ferraris parked in front.

And like some tourist jerk, I took out my camera and took a few pictures inside the restaurant. I tried to sort of fake like I was zooming in to get the view out the windows directly across from us – but as my husband informed me later, I wasn’t fooling anyone. I only snapped three quick shots, but I felt bad about it. No one said anything or even so much as glared my way, but I felt as if I’d violated some sacred compact, as if I’d broken some rule we’d agreed to upon being given the honor of entering what felt as if it might have been this family’s home.

I took the pictures because I wanted to remember the moment.

When you hear people talk about their exotic travels, it often seems that the commentary falls into two camps – the “golly gee, they’re so different there!” one, and the “golly gee, they’re just like us!” one. I guess my reaction to the family at the Sun-Set Restaurant fell into both – I mean, on the one hand, there were chickens walking in and out of the door, and we could see Himalayas out the window; but on the other hand, here was this kid whose passionate hatred of homework is pretty universal. Here was this dad who adored his baby.

A holy monkey stole my granola bar.
While back in Kathmandu, where we spent the first part of our week in Nepal, my husband and I hiked about two miles to Swayambhunath, the “Monkey Temple” high on a hill on the outskirts of the city. As advertised, the temple was home to casually roving gangs of monkeys, rattling the trees and leaping all around the giant white stupa with its iconic, Gatsby-esque Buddha eyes and the ropes of rainbow prayer flags.

At some point my husband reached into his cargo-pocketed “man bag,” retrieved a granola bar (not the health-nerd kind that’s basically a sawdust brick, but a Quaker Oats bar covered with chocolate and studded with chocolate chips; the granola is more of an afterthought, as if for a hint of healthful panache) and offered it to me. He saw the monkey watching us from the roof of some nearby pagoda, and said: “Let’s tempt fate.”

Pretty much as soon as my husband handed the bar to me, the monkey – perhaps sensing that I’m more of a pushover, more of a “beta” or an “omega” than an “alpha” like my husband – leaped at me, and I emitted an embarrassing shriek (like a Victorian lady calling for her smelling salts) before throwing the bar to the ground. Some folks around us stared. As we watched, the monkey proceeded to unwrap the bar (darn his opposable thumbs) and eat it in front of me, with unnerving sangfroid.

On rainy nights in Kathmandu we watched Indian music videos in our hotel room while eating knockoff Oreos with Nutella creme in the middle.
There’s something comforting about being in a strange land yet safe in your quirky-luxe, Western-style hotel room, ensconced in bleached-stiff hotel bathrobes, intermittently snoozing off jetlag and looking up from your long-plane-flight reading material to watch histrionic Bollywood-style music videos featuring sassy chicks and dopey dudes in mildly star-crossed love, while eating packages of foreign cookies purchased at the big caters-to-backpacking-tourists grocery store (by far the biggest store we saw in Kathmandu) down the street, while the rain pounds down, temporarily clearing the city of smog.

Our room at the Hotel at the End of the Universe was
– and this is not a word I throw around un-ironically – enchanting. In case I didn’t make it clear by beginning this travelogue with a dead body, I am not an “if you can’t write something nice, don’t write anything at all,” sugarcoating kind of writer. (If anything, I’m probably more guilty of acid-coating, making things sound more bleak than they actually are.) I don’t do PR unless I’m getting paid for it, and I'm writing this for free. So believe me when I say that our hotel room in Nagarkot felt magical, as if we were staying at the top of a treehouse in heaven.

The room (a suite, actually – a large living-type room with dining nooks where we drank hot chocolate by candlelight one night, a master bedroom, a bathroom with the luxury of a flushing toilet, and a wide balcony) was the best one available, and I felt a little like royalty when we told people there (the hotel-restaurant staff who billed meals to our room, the slightly cross-eyed and always-smiling guy who brought up our luggage) that we were in “Room 1.” (I reckon this reinforced some sense of superiority that we’d gained after having been inexplicably bumped up to Business Class for the five-hour flight from Doha to Kathmandu.) We had views of snow-capped Himalayas (when the clouds retreated) on three sides of the vast, mostly-window main room.

One evening I saw a guy with a fancy camera standing hesitantly at the threshold of our door (the “hotel” is actually a scattering of little cottages and guest houses, so the only people with reason to be up there would be my husband and me, and possibly a maid or someone delivering food to us). I saw him politely trying to be unobtrusive, craning around to get the best shots, so I hustled over and invited him in and onto our balcony, enthusing that the view was great out there (indeed, someone at the hotel had said that our balcony was the best place in the area for watching the sunset). He was grateful, and took a photo of my husband and me as well, I’m hoping to caption with something along the lines of: “Nice couple from the U.S. on their honeymoon who let me take these pictures from their balcony.” Or maybe he’s snarky like I am and his caption was nothing like that. ("A couple of trusting chumps who let me into their room, no questions asked; I could have robbed them blind.")

I had one quasi-spiritual moment, sitting inside the Buddhist monastery at the Monkey Temple outside of Kathmandu. The small monastery at Swayambhunath feels at first a little like Colonial Williamsburg – like it’s all for show, and the showmakers know it's precisely what the tourists expect and want to see. So when I took off my shoes at the door and we entered the dim little jewel box and sat in seats off to the side, to observe two rows of (what else?) saffron-robed monks chanting and praying, I felt like a voyeur, and also a little ho-hum.

After all, we had a Buddhist monastery across the street from my liberal and diverse public high school in Northern Virginia (my friends and I knocked on their door once and were invited inside, where one of them talked to us about Buddhism and gave us tiny gold-painted Buddhas that looked like vitamins; during runs in P.E., we’d see monks out mowing the lawn in their orange robes, and when it snowed, they built a giant Buddha out of snow). Also, I'm allergic to the conventional, and a contrarian, so it never occurred to me to seek out a spiritual experience in Nepal, because everybody else does that.

But the longer we sat there in the dark, serene coolness, a reprieve from the posed smartphone selfies of tourists and the bright sun in the blue sky and the vendors with their Nepalese puppets and "singing bowls" for sale, the more it reminded me of other times I’ve gone into churches and found a profound sense of calm. For example: a whitewashed Roman Catholic church, in downtown San Diego’s Little Italy (where I lived for part of 2008), that I wandered into on my last day in town before driving back home, a trip I was sad to make.

I found the same feeling sitting inside that monastery, which shouldn’t have surprised me.

Elemental things
sounds, smells. I don't know why, but for some reason in Nepal it seemed as if sounds and smells were more there. I guess it's my being from NoVA, a sanitized suburbia of shopping malls and office parks and folks driving separate and oblivious to one another in their air-conditioned cars. But when I think back on our trip, I think of things such as the sound of pigeons scrabbling on the metal roof of our treehouse-like room in Nagarkot, or of roosters sounding off at all times of the day (in my suburban mind, roosters were only supposed to do their thing at dawn and then shut up the rest of the time), or of cicadas that compose the ambient soundtrack of the countryside. As I've mentioned before, I think of the city smells – smog mixed with tendrils of burning incense, the second possibly because of the first. Smelly toilets and trash (mostly in the capital, although litter was everywhere, even next to barrel-shaped containers that said "Save the Environment" on them).

The intimacy of being alone together in a foreign country. In Nepal, my husband and I were often the two lone tourists who didn't speak the language, who didn't yet have a working mental map of Kathmandu, who had to pause and mentally convert prices from Nepalese rupees to U.S. dollars to make sure we weren't getting ripped off. In Nepal, we were often without access to the Internet, which meant we found ourselves doing things like marveling at the fizz bubbles on the straw in his bottle of orange Mirinda soda. In Nepal, I was sometimes grouchy and sometimes did lame things such as order dumb ol' boring pizza while in Nepal and didn't always want to carry the heavy water bottle in my bag even though I knew my husband was smart for suggesting that we bring it with us.

In Nepal, my husband and I looked at each other a couple of times – sitting on an unguarded windowsill in a many-storied white palace belonging to some big-fish-in-a-little-pond king, or looking at the snow-topped Himalayas while lounging in our bed in Nagarkot – and were in agreement: This was one hell of a honeymoon. In terms of sheer sensory experience, this would be hard to top.


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