ET with Patam’s Daughter

SYNOPSIS:  About visiting the Swayambunath and the Bodnath (Boudhanath) and Patam’s Family.

If you know the movie The Little Buddha with Keanu Reeves, then you know exactly where I am:  at the Swayambunath, better known locally as the Monkey Temple.  On two consecutive days, I visited it and its bigger, but younger brother, the Bodnath Stupa.  These big-bellied, white mounds with their “big brother watching you” eyes, represent the quintessential Nepalese stupa types and can be found in miniature versions around the big ones, as well as in many neighborhood courtyards.  Legends rank around the origins of these stupas, but one thing is sure:  The Swayam is quite old; possibly 1500 years or so, and the Bodnath is the biggest stupa around.

I know this very common wisdom and that’s why I travel, but at times its truth rings even truer:  You have to see things in person to really know what’s up.  I had a completely wrong idea about the settings of both of these stupas.  In the case of the Swayam, my surprise was to find it atop a hill, surrounded by monasteries, shops, and indeed, hundreds of free-roaming monkeys.  In the case of the Bodnath, I had pictured it open and free-standing.  Instead, I found it to be encircled by a neighborhood;  literally built in a circle, great discoveries for me.

Both stupas had their fair share of damage inflicted by the 2015 earthquake.  The Bodnath lost its harmika, the 11-tiered gilded top along with those startling eyes.  This was fixed swiftly with international funds.  The Swayam still looks battered with wooden stumps where there once was a monastic assembly hall, with debris and missing buildings, and with two adjacent towers, currently under construction. 

At the Swayam, a young man sat near me as I was escaping from the unbearably hot son.  It was Patam, a local guide.  Unlike some of the guides from the Hanuman Dhoka in Kathmandu, he was soft-spoken, and he kindly offered his services without pushing.  I was hesitant at first, but what a shame if I would have passed up on his knowledge of the terrain, of the legends, and of some wonderful photo spots.  We embarked on a nearly 2-hour tour, after which he invited me for tea to his home. 

How could I pass such a kind offer?  We hiked down the hill past a gaudy site of three giant Buddhas, to one of the local, overcrowded buses that I would be way too scared to board because I would never know where they are going, or where to get off. But Patam managed the pennies it costs to ride, and he got me on and off safely, which is harder than it sounds. 

He lives with his wife and daughter in a residential neighborhood near the Circular Road which, as the name suggests, makes a big circle around the center of town.  From a single room elsewhere, he only recently moved to this more spacious home.  He now rents one room that functions as living: bed-, family-, children’s- and dining room.  But he has a separate kitchen now that is spacious enough to have room for a bed.  That means he can host a guest and someday his daughter can sleep in her own space.  Currently, she still shares the bed with her parents.   For this “flat”, Patam pays $100 per month.   As a free-lance guide, he earns $5 per tour plus tips.  In high season, he can score a few tours per day.  In low season, there are days without a tour.  Just mull this all over for a moment and do the math yourself…

I would have never found my way back home, but Patam accompanied me to a neighborhood not too far from the Durbar Square.  Another 1/2 hour walk, and I was back.  I am so glad, I had a chance to meet someone and to have a glimpse at a local family’s life. 

Travel not only changes my perspective on monuments.  It always puts in perspective what I have and what I come back to!

4 comments so far

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  1. Your pictures are always so fantastic but you capture the love in Patam’s family. Beautiful !

  2. Good that you got to be invited inside someone’s apartment to see how they live.
    The math says that Patam needs a about 20 hours of work each week just to pay the rent. Does he have any other source of income?

    • No other source. But he has to live sparsely with everything else. Food can be quite cheap if you cook at home – his wife is a stay-home mom for the moment. His biggest problem is that he has days without a single customer even though he is “working”; that would amount to waiting around and recruiting. Vendors have the same issue. They open their little stores and sit all day and then… nobody buys.

  3. The Little Buddha was one of my favorite movies EVER. I would love to see the actual place. How cool.