2017
06.24

SYNOPSIS:  Final thoughts on Nepal, China, Tibet, living goddesses, and women in particular.  A thanks to my readers! A thanks to my editor and my “linker”!

After nearly three months of travel (not counting the month in Cuba), I am about to go home.  If you are still here reading, you are the most amazing, loyal blog reader I could imagine, one I never could be!  Thank you for being here with me for the whole trip!  An extra special thanks goes to those among you who left comments.  Thanks to you, I never felt alone and I was motivated to keep writing.  You have no idea how much your presence means to me.  At times I admit that it is not easy to keep this blog going.  At this point, I have to mention the two people who have helped me all along:  David Goldberg, the daily editor, fixing commas and “Germanisms” and Emily Freeland, the humanities department assistant who has been linking key words to the web.  I could not have done it without you!  Thank you!!

Just in case some of my readers are still willing to poke their heads out at the very last moment, please leave a comment now, and let me know who you are.   I hope to hear from you.

I am looking forward to my family, my home, my work, and my lake.  As always, I come home with a new appreciation for what I have at home, and a new sense of wonderment about people and cultures elsewhere. 

Wherever I travel, I ask myself:  Could I live here?  It’s just one of several measures I have in determining if I like a country or not.  This, of course, is completely subjective.  Other measures I consider are history, artistic achievements, architecture, food, climate, natural beauty, people in general, and always, the treatment of women in particular.  This sabbatical has taken me from Cuba to China to Tibet (which China considers as Chinese as the rest of it), and finally Nepal.  Aside from the more objective measures, there is a deep gut feeling I have about each country I visit, similar perhaps to the feelings one has when meeting a new person.  Is there some chemistry or not?

Leaving Cuba aside, China always puts me in a state of awe.  Whether it is the vastness of its territory, the industriousness of its people, the past and present achievements, the variety of its landscapes, or the truly amazing depth of history it can boast.  But somehow, I cannot warm up to China.  This time more than ever, I had contact with wonderful Chinese people, but there simply is no chemistry between me and the country at large, which does not mean I would not go back to visit.  I am almost sure that I will.  There is just that much more to see.

Tibet was a one-of-a-kind experience.  The Tibetans I met were wonderful.  The land is vast and varied, but overall, life is harsh.  The nomads who live in the West go through daily challenges, which in remote ways remind me of my upbringing in East Germany.  There was no heat in the house or warm water running out of the faucet for a hot bath where I come from. I had to carry the coal from the cellar up to the 5th floor and fire up the tile stove every morning in the winter, or for every bath.  There was a limited variety of food and it was hard to come by.  Even though I can relate in so many ways to the hardships of the Tibetans, their lives are harder than mine ever was, by a huge margin.  Their surroundings are sparser; their lives more spartan, not to mention the climatic challenges in these high altitudes.  My hat is off to them!   

People in Tibetan cities have more amenities, but they are under much closer surveillance, scrutiny, and harassment by the Chinese.  I don’t think I would ever like to trade places with them, or subject myself to anything like this.  It would take me too far back into my own East-German past.

Nepal on the other hand now ranks high on my list.  It has its hot spots, like Lumbini in June, but overall, the climate is livable year round and the country has it all:  glaciers, mountains, valleys, dry lands, rivers and lakes, and amazing flora and fauna.  There is a rich historic and artistic tradition, both ancient and current.  Most of all, Nepal is a free country.  The contrast to Tibet was startling.  There is an arguably corrupt government in place that leaves much to be desired, but the effects of it are not nearly as severe for the population as in other parts of the world.  There are no foreign overlords, and so far, there is no terrorism.  With almost 50% of the population unemployed, there is wide-spread poverty, but it does not appear to be as devastating as I remember it from neighboring India, which I visited in 1988.  There, people lived in large slums, in subhuman conditions, worse off than animals.  Nepal seems to offer more opportunities, growth and potential.  There are many who are doing well for themselves even though there is room for much improvement. 

Most impressive to me is how people emerge from huts and cracked homes into the dust of the roads, in pristine colorful saris and freshly pressed school uniforms, with a big smile and a genuinely and consistent kind nature.  I have not experienced any public displays of anger, fights, or rudeness; and believe me, in other parts of the world those are daily occurrences that are expected, public, and are deeply rooted in the cultural fabric.

As absent as religion is in the daily life of mainland China, Tibet and Nepal are filled with religious devotion and daily rituals of religious activities that are as much cultural upbringing as they are actual beliefs.  Religious abstinence, other religions, and even sacrilegious behavior by ignorant visitors are tolerated.  I was touched by the willingness to include me, the outsider, into the fold for example, by offering blessings or body ornamentations at the temples, or to invite me into a stranger’s home.

Women, as I learned in Patan, used to be second-class citizens in Nepal.  By law, they are equal now.  What that seems to mean is that they are now allowed to do double duties.  Women always have to raise the children and do household chores.  But especially poor women are now seen all over Nepal doing hard, hard labor — too hard, for my taste.  Road construction or porting of heavy goods such as bricks, was a daily sight.  I could not even imagine carrying one of those loads; not to mention hundreds of them in a day, for slave wages.  Overall, wages are pitiful and hard to put into perspective.  Even with the much cheaper local prices for food and services, a grade-school teacher’s salary of $65/month for 10-hour days, is simply outrageous.  It makes a salary of $110 for a hotel receptionist seem handsome, and the potential for a guide to earn $200 per month almost lucrative!  But living costs after the earthquake have been on a steady rise and salaries like these only allow subsidiary living.  Many young people cannot support a family, and so they depend on parental or extended family financial support way into their middle age.

Nepal is full of what to an outsider like me look like irreconcilable contradictions.  Surprisingly, they don’t seem to lead to conflict, but are somehow absorbed into the overall mix of tradition and the acceptance of modernity.   

Kumaris are a case in point, the Living Goddesses of Nepal who may be chosen as young as less than a year old.  They serve until puberty, or until any unforeseen incidents such as loss of teeth, injury, or blood loss cuts their career short.  There are three royal Kumaris in Nepal, and about a dozen more local ones.  For the royal Kumaris, life is strictly regulated.  She cannot leave the temple other than to attend festivals or ceremonies.  That’s where she appears in her official function and is worshiped by all.  She is carried everywhere as her feet cannot touch the ground (yes, she may only learn to walk when she is no longer a goddess!).   She cannot communicate with anyone outside her immediate family and the list goes on…   

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxCbhJve6Ks

Kumaris are chosen according to ancient rules.  In the case of the royal ones, she may be subjected to tests that can only be called horrific, e.g. being left in dark rooms for extended periods, or being subjected to watching the slaughter of numerous animals.  If she as much as expresses any emotions or god forbid, fear, she fails.  Rural Kumaris may live almost ordinary lives in between their appearances.  They are only considered goddesses when makeup is applied and the wearing of her divine costume transforms her.  After serving in this function for however many years, Kumaris are transitioned back into normal lives which they may never have experienced, without much regard to mental or physical damage.  At times, former Kumaris are shunned and feared by local men and may never marry. 

The Kumari of Bhaktapur “collapsed” as a local man put it, after she traveled to the US unauthorized.  Outside of her public appearance, the one in Kathmandu can only be seen from a courtyard during designated hours, for about 20 seconds, if her guardian priestess with whom she lives, approves.  Of the royal kumaris, the one in Patan seems the most approachable.  Once you have bowed to her and received her blessing, she even allows to be photographed.  She is cared for by her own family.  Mother, father and sister are there to assist her daily.  Their lives changed as much as hers and have been dedicated exclusively to her as a goddess, for several years by now. 

I was fortunate enough to see the Kathmandu Kumari for the customary 20 seconds, to visit and bow to the Patan Kumari, and most fortunate to meet Ganga, a successful, former Kumari from Bungamati.  She works at the World Heritage Museum, where I met her.  As a Kumari has to be chosen from the Newari Shakya Clan, it happened in this small village, that both of Ganga’s sisters have served as Kumaris as well.  She and her twin sister each for a year, her younger sister since the age of 9 months.  She is now 6 and still “in office”. 

How this tradition coexists with the secular laws of women’s equality, or projects of women’s empowerment as I experienced in Patan, I don’t know.  But overall, women are fully integrated into society.   They are respected and have opportunities equal to their male counterparts.  They run business, are educated, and last but not least, they are beautiful! 

To the women, and the people of Nepal!

2017
06.23

Beggar

SYNOPSIS:  Status report and comparison between the three ancient capitals.  Daily life in Bhaktapur’s old town.  There are two sections of images; please scroll down.

Bhaktapur was my final stop.  It is the last of the ancient kingdoms in the valley and I am glad I visited these three UNESCO sites in that order.  I took a real dive in accommodations, but as I went down to the basics inside, the view from Shiva Guesthouse across Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square beat both the views I had in Kathmandu and Patan.  I was smack in the middle of it all.

Shiva Guesthouse has none of the charm of my previous AirBnB places, but it brings together people from all over the world coming here with a variety of interests, NGO-workers, backpackers, “flesh packers” as the more affluent middle-generation is known, trekkers, and more.  A young American girl named Casey and I spent some time together.  If I understood her right, she had come with a team of future medical students and brought equipment to some rural hospitals.  The spectrum of interesting people certainly made up for the lack of comfort.

 

If Kathmandu does not get its act together, it will be history as a magnet for tourists.  Its historic square is too small of an oasis, too damaged, and surrounded by too much dust and dirt.  If it were not for Thamel, the hip, posh and popular shopping and dining district north of Hanuman Dhoka, I would already say:  2 hours, and you should move on and out.

Bhaktapur not only has lovely winding streets full of shops, markets, workshops and interesting architecture; step-down wells, ghats, and temple courtyards, it also has much of its historic temple architecture preserved.  Yes, there is substantial damage from the earthquake, but two things stand out:

Renovations following the devastating 1934 earthquake sponsored in large part by German funds I will proudly say, has stood the test of the 2015 earthquake.   And Bhaktapur does not only have one square worth visiting but three if not four, connected by those lovely alleys.  That makes for a much more complex and coherent ancient city, rather than just an ancient square. 

Tragically, most of the earthquake damage is found in the domestic sector.  Traditional Newari architecture crumbled and if it was not fully damaged by the earthquake itself; it was declared uninhabitable and now funds to rebuild are lacking so… these homes are fully destroyed to make room for new ones.  This will noticeably destroy the coherent fabric of this town.  But there seems to be no easy way out.

For two days I walked through town, observing and photographing life in the streets.  Once again, I will take you on a photo-essay tour. 

And sad as it is, the end of my trip is now in sight.   

2017
06.22

Girl bored with the Ceremony…

SYNOPSIS:  About a Saturday morning at the Kumbeshwar Vishnu temple and an afternoon at the Changunarayan Vishnu temple; my last excursion with Birendra.  Two sets of images.  Keep scrolling.

Even though Patan is mainly a Buddhist community, two Hindu temples caught my attention.  One was the Kumbeshwar Temple in Patan, dedicated to Vishnu.  It was just around the corner from Cosy Nepal and I decided to visit it several times during a Saturday, the only day off work in Nepal.  The other was a mountain temple, a few miles away which Birendra and I visited the following day.

The best time to visit any temple if you like to experience the living Hindu religion as it is practiced, is between 6 and 8 AM.  Then, temples are buzzing with puja activities, particularly on Saturdays.  Hindus are pretty generous letting non-Hindus visit and photograph their activities, even though the main images inside the shrines and the temple are typically off limits.  Old and young, men and women, people dressed in their jeans or in their weekend finery, flock to the temples with small gifts for the deities.  They prepare plates full of rice and flowers which they distribute at the various shrines.  They also come with a variety of yellow and red powders which they sprinkle over the deities, mixed with some liquids, and then apply to their own forehead.

Just like in Buddhism, circumambulation around the shrines and trees is a common form of worship.  People proceed from one shrine to the next and at times, given particularly popular shrines, have to stand in line for their turn.  Contrary to what we are used to in the Western traditions, there are no sermons, and there is no communal activity unless there is a festival  Everyone proceeds at the their own pace.  Some people circle a shrine just once, others multiple times; some don’t leave even the smallest shrines unattended; others may just proceed right to the main shrine to receive their blessing.  Each of the shrines has an attending priest or priestess who administers the blessings and puts the colorful tikli on people’s foreheads. These priests are not necessarily trained professionals like a rabbi or a pastor.  But some of these services are rotated through the community and performed by lay people.  Cell phones are not prohibited, and it struck me as particularly odd when even one of the priests picked up the phone and talked to… who knows who instead of focusing at the tasks at hand. 

Shrine areas are sizable complexes typically with a major shrine, various subsidiary shrines, holy trees, niches with images, and areas for prayer and blessings by various men and women who make themselves available.  Shrines are also used for various ceremonies and festivals.  Today, a private wedding ceremony was in progress in one corner of the temple, however the ceremony was screened off from outsiders’ views.   But  because of the wedding, the temple buzzed with extra activities.  Several groups of people affiliated with the wedding party had hired some of the holy men to conduct special blessing ceremonies using rangoli.  Rangoli are mystical diagrams drawn on the ground in various colors using perishable materials.  Once the diagrams have been created by the priests, the patrons gather, sing and pray together and donate money and goods to the temple and the wedding couple. 

In the afternoon, activities die down a bit, but there is always somebody around to pay homage to the gods, even if it is just a nod, or a rubbing of some of the images at the entrance door on the way home from work.  Temples are considered the abode of the god.  And just as you would say hello to a neighbor when you pass their house, gods here are greeted like good old friends.

The Changunarayan Temple, also dedicated to Vishnu, was high on my list.  When I mentioned it to Birandra, he was up for a visit.  He had never gone to the temple, but his favorite guru, Sri Shivapuri Baba had chosen this area as his home right after he had visited this temple and recognized its importance. 

A scenic road took us past a brick producing area, rice paddies, and up a mountain rim overlooking the lush Kathmandu Valley.  This mountain temple is located at the far end of a small community which was visibly hit by the earthquake.  The main street of Changu Village leading to the temple is a conglomerate of souvenir stalls filled with everything from metal works to tangkha paintings.  What is missing this time of the year are the customers, as you can see on the weary looks of the store owners who sit all day, likely without making a single sale.  A lone visitor like me can’t make up for the hundreds of tourists that will flock here during the tourist season and buy stuff.  I tried to avoid eye contact or even looking at any of the things on display in order not to raise false hopes.

Seeing the devastation of the village, I feared the worst for the temple.  Indeed, it had been hit.  But the main shrine of the main temple as well as much of its two-tiered superstructure had survived, or perhaps by now been rebuilt.  Many of the smaller shrines had taken a hit but some of the most famous images were there.  I lost track of Birendra as I started to walk around in amazement.  Why was I here?  This temple is the oldest in Nepal and among art historians considered the peak of the artistic achievement in the Kathmandu Valley.  I was not sure if I could tell the difference, since I am not familiar with the subtleties of Nepalese art, but the superb quality of the art was plain obvious.  The struts, the cornices, the wood carvings, the stone reliefs, the metal embossings were simply superb. 

As I made the rounds, I eventually stumbled on Birendra again, who sat in meditation.  I knew that meant an hour or more, and so I kept strolling.  When he “woke up” he asked what I had been up to.  I looked, I replied.  Do you know that these are the best carvings you have anywhere?  Birendra seemed somewhat baffled by this concept.  I come here to worship, he said.  I don’t look very much.  I invited him to come and see.  I took him around, showing him some of the images, and explaining some of the iconography.  He was familiar with the stories.  But as busy as he was getting to the shrine to receive his blessings, he had not even noticed the carvings, or the two small gilded royal figures of Bhupalendra Malla, King of Kantipur and his queen Bhuwan Lakshmi, now protected by a metal cage.  They are among the finest metal figures anywhere. 

When Birendra and I parted that evening, I thanked him for all the excursions we had done together, and the many things I had seen, thanks to him.  And he made my day when he said that I had taught him how to look and that from here on out he would approach temples in a different way.  I am leaving a little bit of myself behind.  That made me happy.

My time in Patan has come to an end.  But there was one more town… 

I will see you there.

 

 

 

2017
06.21

ET at Palace Museum

SYNOPSIS:  About the residential communities in Patan, a community organizer, a few local traditions, and an internationally funded women’s project.  Keep scrolling down.  Lots of images are embedded.

Lalitpur, city of art, as contemporary Patan is known in the Newari language, won me over within minutes!  Of course, it is a city of art and artisans; how could I not love it?!  It is quieter here, cleaner, slower.  Or perhaps, it just feels like that to me because of the very noisy and dirty street I came from.  But I think there is more to it. 

Patan is the name of one of the ancient royal capitals of this valley and it is the third-largest city in Nepal.  Today, you hardly notice when you pass from Kathmandu over into Patan as you cross the Bagmati River, since urban sprawl has created a seamless transition.  Yet, if you look carefully, you see architectural changes indicating a distinct historical development and you see evidence of this long-standing artistic community at every corner:  carved doors, windows, and tympani (arches above the doors) abound; courtyard stone carvings are of first-rate quality; side-street metal ornaments on temples will take your breath away!

One of the most noticeable features of Patan’s urban layout are its numerous courtyards, connecting blocks and blocks of houses via tiny and narrow alleys into a unit that often evolves around a monastery.  You may cross through 5 or 6 courtyards and emerge at the other end … who knows where?  And along the way you pass metal-smith’s workshops, wood carvers, schools of tangkha painters, abandoned woodblock printing presses and many little shrines, beautiful doorways, and lovely people who don’t mind one bit that you are strolling around in their backyard.  An interesting feature to notice at the doors is the U-shaped decoration that is put on when a resident turns 77 years, 7 months and 7 days.  Main entrances to a set of courtyards also indicated the number of people who died in this community, by inserting nails into the lintel.

If you look carefully, you see that now Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist courtyard shrines dominate.  Kathmandu is representative for all of Nepal with her predominantly Hindu population.  But Patan’s residents clearly form a Buddhist majority.   Beautiful small stupas adorn almost every one of these residential courtyards.  Some of them feature carvings of Buddhist deities that would be on par with any museum piece anywhere.  Some ill-intending people have figured that out, too…  Now some of the more accessible sculptures have to be protected from theft by metal cages. 

Patan’s Durbar Square is much smaller than Kathmandu’s and more compact.  Yes, there is earthquake damage, but it is more clearly defined and does not ruin the entire area.  People stroll, sit, and enjoy the nearly intact palace that houses Nepal’s most worthwhile Museum.  And as everywhere else where tourists can be found, you will be harassed by street vendors who are trying to sell you just one more necklace, one more flute, or one more knickknack; and wannabe guides pop out of nowhere in desperate need of customers.  It is low season now, hot and very humid.  Almost every day is interrupted by a thunderstorm or a quick shower.  That does the humidity no good, but it brings some relief nonetheless.  But people around here depend on tourists, and there aren’t many of us coming between now and October.  While I was there, a Bollywood crew was filming a TV series taking place in the 8th C.  As one of the brief thunderstorms interrupted their work, I found myself with the three lead actors seeking shelter and lunch in the museum restaurant.  We had a good hour and 1/2 chatting.  I should have gotten their autographs…  Who knows how famous they are!?

Patan’s rebuilding efforts are either more successful than Kathmandu’s or they are just lucky that they are a city that is broken up into more highly-functioning local communities that get their act together.  Meet Pakash!  He is the vice-president of Nagbahal, one of the models of a functioning community that unites about 1200 residents in two large courtyard backing the Golden Temple; arguably the most beautiful in town.  His community has a community house with a UN-funded project teaching women to become tailors; ultimately heading for a store that will sustain the project.  They have a library and a clinic where a variety of doctor’s serve on different days, treating the residents of this unit at community subsidized prizes.  They have a playground and have sponsored new artworks, notably a large Buddha figure.  And most importantly, they  organize a regular and reliable water supply for the entire community by filling two large tanks every day from which residents can fetch their water. 

Pakash is one of the home owners of the Cosy Nepal project.  His father’s home was renovated with CN investor funds, and he now rents four of the floors of his home to local residents.  He added an interesting point to the delay of some of the rebuilding efforts:  family disputes.  Once a house is owned by more than one family member, competition, disputes, and varying ideas over the future of a property lead to delays, decay, and even destruction.  He pointed to a few homes where different curtains on the windows indicate the walls that have been erected inside — signs of trouble. In the image below, a traditional house has literally been chopped into half (note the window and the remains of a fraction of a wooden window frame).  One brother went concrete, the other remained traditional…  

When Brothers become Enemies

Pakash is as active as any community organizers you can imagine, and infectiously enthusiastic about his community.  He is but one example of a model that seems to ensure transparency in the use of funds and progress visible and tangible for all.  I was impressed!

Give me Patan over Kathmandu any day!

2017
06.20

Ganga and ET at the Farewell Ceremony

SYNOPSIS:  About a special farewell and a special welcome.  About Cosy Nepal, a unique housing and restoration project.

Never before have I been sent off with such love and kindness as today, when I left the World Heritage Hotel in Kathmandu.  When I was ready to part, Ganga, the beautiful and ever helpful receptionist of the hotel, told me to sit down.  She was going to perform a farewell ceremony Newari Style.  Newaris are the original inhabitants of this valley and rulers until the 18th Century.  Their culture has influenced if not shaped Nepal’s culture in every respect:  architecture, festivals, rituals, language, food.   Ganga is a Newari woman and the owners of the WHH are Newari, too.

I sat.  Ganga put a tilaka, a yellow and red mark of blessing on my forehead, wrapped a string of flowers around my neck and handed me a small plate with a boiled egg rolled in spices and a cup, into which she poured a strong, alcoholic, local rice wine.  I had to eat the egg and drink the wine as protection for the journey ahead, and for good luck.  How touching was that?!  Thanks, Ganga, and thanks to the owners of the WHH, who themselves care in a very personal way about their guests and the people around them.  It makes such a difference!

What would lay ahead?  I was heading to Patan, the second of the three ancient capitals of this valley.  I had once again chosen a place that was located in the heart of the ancient town, that looked architecturally interesting, and had an outdoor space for me to sit.  This time I had my own balcony.  But I had to scale down a bit.  The WHH had been a cut above my usual budget.  What would it be like? 

Not to worry!  Cosy Nepal – the rental agency of my AirBnB accommodation, represents a unique business model.  A group of investors, who by now have renovated more then a dozen traditional Newari-Style homes in Patan, work in cooperation with the local owners of these homes.  The renovated homes become apartment rentals, managed by the owners in conjunction with Cosy Nepal.  Only one house is rented short-term through AirBnB.  And that’s where I found them.  The head of the company, Camille, is from France.  She and her staff members are loving and caring people who are determined to make a difference in Nepal and from all I can tell, they are!

My room is small.  I have a view of several courtyard of brick homes.  I am in a truly local, residential neighborhood.  Even though this is clearly an urban environment, I also have a lot of nature around me:  there is a crows’ nest with youngsters right in front of me.  On the roof one over to the left, a pair of owls is watching over four youngsters.  They are loud!  I had no idea that owls shriek so loudly and so frequently; day and night.  But what a treat!  And on the roof to my right, a slender black cat is raising four kittens.  I have to watch out, that the little ones don’t sneak into my room.  They love my bed and the rugs, but not for the appropriate reasons.   

Along with all my animal neighbors come the real neighbors.  A few steps down in a small, but fully equipped apartment with their own balcony, lives a couple from Portugal.  Samuel is part of a multi-country university partnership in helping Nepal setting up ecologically sustainable businesses (but I have to admit, I never got into any details of this project).  Maria is a chemist, who came along for the ride.  One floor down, in a really nice apartment suited for long-term stays, a French couple took residence.  Gee is a documentary film maker who is shooting a follow-up on the 2015 earth quake.  He and his wife Karin  have been to Nepal multiple times.  I can see, why.  This is a country one can fall in love with!

Once again, I have been really lucky.  Wonderful owners, wonderful neighbors, and a wonderful, truly cozy little place.  I miss the WHH.  But I don’t miss Kathmandu. 

Patan, here I come!

2017
06.19

Birendra and his Nephew

SYNOPSIS:  Back in Kathmandu.  About a neoclassical garden, a new friend searching for meaning in life, an excursion to a secret place, and a dinner invitation.

The report from Vladimir came in via What’s App.  What a world we live in!  The expected 6-hour bus ride from Lumbini to Kathmandu had taken an awful 11 hours on dusty, pot-hole riddled roads.  Not even the fact that he took the luxury bus, providing a bathroom and lunch along the way, did ease much of the pain.  I decided not to put myself through this agony and booked a 1/2 hour flight home with Buddha Air which, despite its bad reputation did not let me down.  The airport of course was steaming hot, the electricity was down, and bags had to be inspected by hand.  But all of that seemed minor in comparison to a hot and sweaty 11-hour bus ride.  At the World Heritage Hotel, I was welcomed like a part of the family.  My room was waiting for me, and so were all the idle guides and peddlers without customers, roaming Durbar Square…

I caught up with some work, always minding the sky — thunderstorms were predicted by the early afternoon, but failed to deliver.  I finally took off to my last destination in Kathmandu, only to find myself in a downpour, within minutes.  Not the ideal circumstance to visit the Garden of Dreams.  I hired a rickshaw, ran into the garden looking for shelter, and found myself at the rather pricy garden restaurant, filled with foreigners.  No table left.  A young Nepalese guy sitting alone at a table gestured me a welcome.  That was 32 year old Birendra.  For about 45 minutes we weathered the storm and started to talk.   

For ten years he had been a banker making more money than he knew what to do with.  Yes, there are people like that in Nepal, too.  But he found himself to be frustrated, unhappy, full of anger; in one word:  an unlikable person.  He quit his job and ultimately was led to participate in an excruciating 10-day Vipassana meditation course.  10 days of meditation, no talking, no social media, no contact with the outside world. He only recently finished and found himself in a new world of calm and content.  Home is a small town about 12 hours from Kathmandu, where he left his wife and 5 year old daughter to visit two of his three sisters.  They currently live here in Kathmandu.  This afternoon, he had already spent 6 hours at the garden, meditating and enjoying  its beauty.  Eventually, he will figure out, so he hopes, what to do with his life other than just making money.

If I count right, he is the fourth truth- or meaning- seeking young guy I have come across this trip.  How do they find me?!  First, there was Sergej from the Ukraine, then there was Rob from Grosse Point, then there was Alfredo, the American from Brazil (I did not write much about him, but we connected on a flight to Pokhara), and here is Birendra.  Well, the rain subsided and we parted. 

The garden is a total idiosyncrasy in dusty Newari-style Kathmandu.  It is a beautiful and tranquil European style, neo-classical park with ponds, statues, pavilions, and several adjacent villas which once were living quarters, and a library.  It is small, but complex.  And most amazingly, you completely forget the dusty outside world.  For that matter, you could be somewhere in France, Spain, or England.  Viewing the garden, I lost track of Birendra and most likely would have never seen him again. 

But 15 minutes later the rain started again, and we found each other seeking shelter once more.  This time, I gave him my facebook address and he messaged me.  Like all self-respecting young men, he moved around on a motor scooter.  With all that time on his hand, he offered me to go on any excursion I would like.  And so I messaged him back.  I really wanted to attend another one of those Aarti sessions at the Pashupatinath Temple.  I figured that would be right up his alley.

The next day he picked me up and to the temple we went.  But before the Aarti session started, he wanted to show me one of his favorite spots in town.  We started to hike up behind the temple on a small path into the woods.  Believe me, I am not out of my mind.  But you just could not do anything like this in our Western World.  If you would be found robbed or raped, it would be your own fault.  Here, that is different.  He would not tell me what he was up to, but I knew I could trust him. 

We ended up at a remote meditation retreat.  It was the community and the place that had introduced him to Vipassana meditation.  This community had formed around a spiritual leader named Srimat Paramhamsa Govindananda Bharati or Sri Shivapuri Baba, for short. He reportedly lived to the ripe old age of 136 (from 1826 to 1963), for which there is little historical evidence.  But he must have been a tremendously charismatic figure judging just by his picture, which was abundantly displayed at every wall of the meditation shrine.  The current manager of the community proudly declared that Sri Shivapuri attained amadhi at the age of 126 (or so).  Amadhi is the highest stage of concentration achieved in Hindu meditation, which allows the devotee union with the divine.   

Birendra asked if he could meditate “for a while”.  An hour later (!) he woke up and we were on our way to Aarti at the nearby temple.  I can’t even quite sit right for meditation; but I know how to meditate.  And thankfully, I have no problem to contemplate and reflect for an hour especially in an ambiance like this.  I guess, if you have made it through 10 days of straight meditation, 1 hour seems like nothing.  I have no doubt that it does transform both body and mind in spectacular ways and that if we all would practice meditation, the world would be a better place!

From the internal, more esoteric type of spirituality, we moved to the external, and more populous one.  Aarti, as I said in my blog before, is a one-of-a-kind infectious worship. 

I enjoyed it as much the second time as I had the first one!

The next day, Birendra invited me for dinner at his sisters’ Jamona and Namona’s home.  Their hyperactive son Nasal dominated the scene.  Since the older sister is running an internet business here, they only rent their home and I was sad not to get a better sense of yet another living situation.  But I was honored that they would invite  me as their guest.  All three of them are beautiful, kind and special people.  His younger sister even learned some German at the Goethe Institute, which she proudly tried out.

How lucky I was to have rain on the day I visited the Garden of Dreams.

2017
06.18

Prized Possession – A TV

SYNOPSIS:  About village life inside and outside.  About pigeons and cows and different beliefs.  A photo essay.

As we were driving from Lumbini to Kapilavastu yesterday and from one archaeological site to the next, I passed several villages and fields, and took numerous pictures from the back seat of the motorbike.  That any of them turned out at all is a miracle, but please cut me some slack.

People’s homes and shops in the larger villages are typically placed alongside the main road and close to it.  That makes for constant traffic noise and dust, but it seems to be the preferred location, perhaps for access to public transport and perhaps, to attract business.  Almost every home had some sort of a small wooden stall in front of the dwelling selling something or other, or providing shelter for a small business run out of the home. 

What I first mistook for outhouses or small shrines and similar in size to the business huts, turned out to be pigeon homes.  I could not get a satisfactory answer out of either one of my guys as to why everyone needed pigeons.  Do people eat them?  Yes, was the answer.  But some people also release them at various festivals.  But that depends on their belief.  No further explanation was forthcoming on who did what and why, and when. 

Hindus are the predominant group in Nepal.  The area around Lumbini and some other towns (such as Patan), are predominantly Buddhist.  There is also a handful of Christians; no Jews as far as I can tell.  The occasional church attests to the Christian presence and the star of David around here should not be mistaken for a Jewish presence, but it is a sacred Hindu symbol.   In this area, a surprisingly large number of mosques indicated a large (I was told about 40%) number of Muslims.  They all have co-existed without troubles for centuries. 

Most houses in small villages are single-story adobe homes.  In the larger street villages, concrete is taking over, resulting in multi-storied buildings.  Just 50 meters from the palace site, there were some traditional dwellings, and as I roamed the area, several women invited me to come inside their adobe compound to enter their huts and to look around.  If you visit a person’s home not as a guest but to photograph as I did, a small monetary donation is expected. 

I was just so impressed, that I decided to dedicate a whole blog to village life, mainly using images to share what I saw.  Enjoy!

2017
06.17

Gotihava – Closeup

SYNOPSIS:  Where the Buddha grew up, his clan was slaughtered, his parents honored, and his son made demands.   About a motorbike ride and two self-appointed guides.  This is a bit more of an art historical blog than usual. 

Rightly so, the Kapilavastuans (if there is such a thing) feel marginalized by all the attention, recognition, and funding showered on Lumbini.  Really, the Buddha was born there by pure accident; in the middle of absolutely nowhere, on the way to Maya’s parents’ palace.  As was customary, she had tried to go home to deliver her child, but was surprised by the Buddha’s premature birth.  His home, where he grew up, married and lived was here, in Kapilavastu, (present-day Tilaurakot).

Presumably, Vladimir’s migraine had vanished and he had moved on with the 5 AM bus.  After experiencing yesterday’s heat torture, I was tempted to leave as well, but I knew I would never forgive myself for this.  Last night I strolled through the little enclave of shops and restaurants in search for a means of transportation.  I would not have minded one of those rickshaws, cruising along slowly and in style.  But the price for a day’s excursion was high.  And in hindsight, a rickshaw would have been completely ill suited for the roads I was experiencing today.  A rickshaw owner offered his services on a motorbike;  the mode of choice for transportation around here and 1/2 the cost of a rickshaw.  Hired!  To beat the day’s heat, we were on the road by 6 AM.

For a tourist looking for interesting or impressive monuments, this tour may not be high on the list.  What was eye-opening for me was once again the correction of my prior understanding; the gap between some of my assumptions with facts and actual artifacts on the ground.  My impression had always been that we have a lot more historically verifiable data about the Buddha than about Christ or Mohammed.  That still may be the case, but it is by far not as much and not as verifiable as I had assumed.  To a believer that may not ever matter; to a historian, it does make a difference. 

Almost all tangible evidence we have, postdates the Buddha by a couple of hundred years dating from the Sunga and Kushan periods (2nd century BC to 2nd century AD), and is based once again on Ashoka’s pilgrimage and the pillars and inscriptions he left.  Earlier references are scriptural or based on oral traditions and myths.  They provide clues and lead archaeologists as early as the 19th century to these archaeological sites.  But strictly speaking, all of this evidence has to be considered a hypothesis, perhaps even a theory, but not yet fact.  Kapilavastu has applied for UNESCO status, but so far has not been granted full recognition.

There are three main archaeological sites with structural remains and two partially preserved Ashoka pillars.  Two further sites recognize two additional Buddhas (people who achieved enlightenment), that I had never heard of, or may have forgotten. 

From Taulihawa, the contemporary district center, one has to fan out in all four directions as far as 10 km to reach each of these respective sites.  I left Lumbini at 6 AM and was back by 2 PM, including a lunch break.  Without your own transportation this trip is impossible.  There is not (yet) a shuttle or a bus or anything to get you from one place to the next.

My Lumbini driver was not knowledgeable enough to find each of these sites and he spoke very little English.  But I was not worried.  I have learned by now that things tend to manifest themselves.  At the first site we ran into a young man.  Without much explanation, he took off, after realizing my interest in the area, only to return with a book about all the sites, published by a local author.  He was a student of economics, but obviously educated and enthusiastic about the history of his area.  He instructed me about the best way to visit the palace site and then directed us to the next important place.  I offered him some money for his services, but he refused.  If you pay me, he responded, I will show you all the sites!  That worked for me.  A phone call to his wife later, we were on our way.  He told me his name twice, but it was so complicated, that I could not make any sense out of it.  I called him Mr. G. 

I won’t get too technical here, but I will briefly illustrate each site I visited (by far not all there are).  I labeled each photo carefully, so that you can hopefully make a decision on whether to put this area on your itinerary, should you be in the neighborhood.  🙂

The central site is now called Tilaurakot, the presumed palace site of the Sakya clan, including city gates and city walls.  A kid of about 6 attached himself to me, rattling off some basic “facts” relating to the Buddha’s life.  Oh, you speak English?,  I asked.  I was not interested in his “information” but I tried to engage him in a conversation:  How old are you?  Where did you learn English?  Why are you not in school?  He could not answer.  He had overheard who knows how many adults reciting the same sentences and was just repeating them.  I am sure he is well on his way of becoming one of those numerous guides I have encountered at Durbar Square in Kathmandu and Patan.  Once you get them off script, they are lost.  I asked one guide which way was north.  His response:  I am not that educated.    But he did carry a license as a guide.  I wonder what that actually means.  And he charged money for his services.  Mr. G. on the other hand was quite a delight as he took such pride in his Buddhist heritage even though he himself was a Hindu and certainly not licensed.  He was not into this for the money (only), but enjoyed the fact that he had an interested foreign visitor to show around. 

In between two sights he made a quick detour showing off his small but well-built concrete house.  His wife and two children were home along with his mother, and a tailor, who rented a front room in his home.  He was not rich but by far better off than Patam the guide I had met at the Swayam stupa.  Just like in America:  If you live in a big city, rent and housing are expensive.  If you live in a small village, you most likely can afford more space.   

My driver was such a petit man, that at one point on the sandy road, he lost control over his bike and almost broke my leg.  He tipped to one side.  I put my foot down to stabilize the situation, but he did not have enough strength to pull both of us and the bike back into position and we were slowly sliding further down onto my stuck leg.  Thankfully, Mr. G. was nearby and pushed us back up.  I guess I have to be more careful in choosing more-compatible drivers!

We returned at 2 PM — peak of the heat of the day.  This 8-hour excursion was more than enough for one day.  I disappeared into my sort-of air-conditioned room.  The little wall unit at the hotel managed about 30 degrees Celsius, almost 20 degrees less than the outside, yet still in the 80’s Fahrenheit.  But that was a big relief. 

And to think that there are people who have to work in heat like this! 

 

2017
06.16

Master Plan of Lumbini

SYNOPSIS:  A trip to the birthplace of the Buddha with Vladimir from the Hidden Paradise in nearly unbearable heat.

I will spare you the details of the bumpy 8-hour bus ride that should have taken 5 hours, taking us from Pokhara to Lumbini.  That’s Nepal and its roads that are in desperate need of repair. It will likely be that way for a few more years, or even decades?  Vladimir from Serbia, who lives in Canada, whom I met at the Hidden Paradise, had been tossing up a few possible places for his next destination.  When he heard that I was heading to Lumbini, he decided to join me.  We got stuck in the last row of the bus, which makes every pothole that much more enjoyable.  A few times, Vladimir even bumped his head, when thrown up in the air by the rough ride.  We could tell that the temperature was on the rise the further we got on with the trip.  The thermometer still showed a whopping 36 degrees Celsius (upper 90’s) when we arrived in the late afternoon. 

We checked out the situation and decided on an early night.  In the morning, we would meet up by 5 AM, grab a cup of tea, and get going before the heat of the day would strike.  38 degrees Celsius — sun-factor taken into consideration that would be felt as 48 degrees — were forecast by about noon (I think that is close to 120 Fahrenheit?)!

Lumbini is the reported birthplace of the Buddha.  Neither then nor now was and is it a real town.  Then, there was nothing but a few trees.  Today, there is an enclave of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, souvenir shops, and a few small booths selling everything you need.  This cluster of buildings is located across a UNESCO-designated park that marks and protects the archaeological remains that sprung up at the site over time. 

Maya, the Buddha’s mother, was supposedly on her way to her parents’ home, when in the middle of nowhere, she gave birth to her miraculously conceived son.  The three main gods of Hinduism showed up shortly after, presenting gifts to the newborn child whom they recognized as a special spiritual leader…  Sounds familiar?  Well it should.  But keep in mind that it is not Christianity inspiring the Buddhist story, but vice versa. 

The Lumbini Park is unique.  A monastic setting has been excavated at the site, which is believed to have developed shortly after the Buddha’s death.  It is now partially covered and known as the Mahadevi Temple.  A large tree nearby that could not possibly be from the 5th century BC is venerated as the tree under which Maya sought shelter.  More importantly, an Ashoka Pillar marks the site.  Ashoka was a 3rd-century BC Indian emperor and important convert to Buddhism, who is single-handedly responsible for the early spread of Buddhism.  Similarly to Constantine and his mother in Christianity who visited early Christian sites and “rescued” (or created?) some artifacts, he visited places related to Buddhism.  He marked them by a pillar, inscribing the importance of the site for the new religion.  His edicts and pillars, if not his entire life, are historically verifiable.  Much of the Buddha’s story has been pieced together based on his pillars; not surprisingly, both men’s lives have over time been embellished with numerous legends. 

The archaeological site of Lumbini could be rather underwhelming were it not for the beautiful layout of the whole park.  A circumambulatory path around a pond marks the Mahadevi Temple.  From there, a 4-km monastic park stretches east and west of an artificial water channel.  Dozens of stupas and monasteries have been built by dozens of different countries.  The central axis of the site, marked by the pond, once again leads up to a Japanese Peace Stupa; the second such stupa in Nepal.  I visited the other one in Pokhara (see blog entry Pokhara Excursion).  Surprisingly, but very fitting for the site, it also is a bird sanctuary.  The circular pond attracts over 50 different types of birds (as we were told).  And near the Peace Stupa, there is a crane sanctuary. 

At first we thought we would walk this area.  But each monastery is walled in.  4 km soon turn into a dozen km to be walked without a clear idea where to find entrances to the various places…  We caved in and took one of the many rickshaws that roam the area.  Those guys know where to go.  And the little bit of a breeze on the ride in between the hot stupas and monasteries keeps you alive, sort of. 

In addition to the walking, there is the increasing heat and the ever-present humidity.  By 7am I was sweating, by 10 am exhausted, and by noon — after 7 hours we had made it indeed through the entire compound!  I was ready to escape into my air-conditioned room and crash!  Vladimir by then, had a severe migraine and emerged only once more for dinner.  This climate took a toll on both of us.   That’s why not all the images are labeled properly…  At times, it was hard to pay attention or to retain the information provided on the entrance signs.  And at times, the signs were missing…  I returned to the site at night.  It was cooler then, but the mosquitoes ruined it all!

June is not the season to visit Lumbini.  Now we know why!  But what can you do if you are here only in June?  You got to rough it. 

I am not sorry I did.

2017
06.15

Ann and Laxman above Lake Fewa

SYNOPSIS:  Ann’s birthday celebrated in style at the Hidden Paradise in Pokhara. About the joys and the miseries of paragliding; my experience in particular.  What happens when I try to have fun.

It was a glorious day.  And it was Ann’s 50th birthday!  She had envisioned a day she would never forget; different from all others.  And her wish got off to a very good start, especially given the spotty wind and weather conditions of the previous days. 

Laxman and his younger brother are paragliding pilots specializing in tandem flights.  Over 50 companies have latched on to that sport over the last few years and seem to do well.  Business is booming and conditions at Pokhara are ideal. 

After signing waivers of liability and paying up in the town office, a large jeep raced a load full of pilots and passengers up a bumpy serpentine road to the mountain top.  Sherpas carried the heavy glider-packs up the last stretch.  And after a brief introduction on what to do and what not to do, one by one we were running off a cliff, putting our fates into the hands of our skillful pilots. 

I was one of the first to take off.  That was a mistake!

What I should mention, just to put all of this into context:  that morning I had not done so well in the digestive department.  I had diarrhea…  But I am not a party-pooper (pun intended).  Ann’s birthday was today, and the weather was perfect.  So I went with the flow.  What I also should mention as a side note:  I get quite car sick, especially when the car drives up a bumpy serpentine road, like chased by the devil himself, as our jeep did…

I was absolutely miserable by the time we reached the top of the mountain.  But instead of admitting my predicament and asking for some time to recuperate, pride got the better of me:  Mind over matter!  I could handle this!

Well… within minutes of the truly exhilarating flight circling up and up and up, and zipping across straight at 35 km per hour, and the absolutely gorgeous views of the mountains and the lake – I could feel my stomach turning… First, I tried to hold it all in.  But that did not work.  I gave my pilot a quick warning — all was well, but my stomach had its own ideas.  I guess I wasn’t the first one in that situation, even though I turned out to be the only one in today’s flying batch. 

Spit it all out to the left, ma’am, he instructed me.  I wondered if I would inconvenience anyone below me, but the content of my stomach went side-ways in small, gentle waves and seemed to dissipate without being noticed by any of my flight companions. Thankfully, I had not eaten lunch.   Should I take you down, ma’am?  No, no!, I replied.  We just got started!  I was not giving up on this once-in-a-lifetime heavenly experience.  But that he called me ma’am, somehow made me feel even sicker.  I assured him that all was well and that we were going to continue.  As high up as he could get us, and as long as our trip was scheduled, 50-60 minutes! 

Let’s make a very long 50 minutes very short:  I threw up the entire time!  My hands got numb, my feet tingled, and I had to pinch as hard as I could not to lose it at both ends.  What a royal embarrassment that would have been!!!  The pilot kept asking if “ma’am” was ok, and I kept reassuring him, that all was fine (even though it wasn’t). 

In between my episodes, I smiled for the selfie-camera stick as best as I could.  We went up the highest of all of the teams:  2500 meters from the 1800 meter starting cliff.  But when it was time to go down and the pilot suggested that he could perform some tricks now, I politely requested to skip the tricks.  I had seen them from my balcony:  Full loop-di-loops in the air!  In my current state, I could do without those.   Perhaps, some other day…

Landing is easy.  I hardly remember anything of it, only, that I was so weak now, that I could not even get on my feet again.  Once ma’am had been pulled up by her pilot, her stomach started to revolt again, and again, and again…  That, I had not expected.

“Ma’am” got a VIP seat in the front of the jeep.  The driver did his best to drive extra slow and carefully now.  I made it to the junction leading to the Hidden Paradise, skipping the trip to town I had originally planned with Ann.  But now, there was a 1km hike up the road and then that stretch of a steep climb.  “Ma’am” was in no shape to even get up from the bench on which she had sought relief!  Help was sent down from the mountain to fetch me, with an umbrella for the sun.  But what I needed most was a walking stick; the umbrella was perfect.  Slowly, slowly up the hill I went, passed an absolutely obnoxious, half-drunk and foul-mouthed ex-pat American, up the mountain, and into my bed, where I spent the next few hours half conscious, wondering what had just hit me. 

By the time Ann and Laxman arrived at the Hidden Paradise it was dinner time.  I was up and walking again, ready for dinner and birthday cake.  The episode was over, and so was Ann’s birthday.

It will be a memorable day for her, I am sure, and no doubt, for me, too.

P.S.  There is a whole CD of images shot during the flight which I have not yet seen, as my computer does not have a CD drive.  I therefore downloaded an image from Ann’s facebook page.  I hope I look as good as she does.  For sure, the scenery is the same.