2017
06.24

Peddler with Morning Tea

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!

9 comments so far

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  1. Hi Elisabeth,

    Saw your article in Washtenaw Voice. Just back from Humla, Nepal, gateway to Mt. Kailash…participating in the medical service trip to Simikot and trekking to villages from there. Maybe next year, to Kailash. You can check out the trip on youtube over the last four years under Heidi Harding. They are in the process of building a stupa and school, along with a shaman’s temple above Simikot (Humla Fund). They already rebuilt the woman’s temple that was in severe disrepair and permanent medical clinic. There were German and Austrian physicians there in Simikot when we were there (mostly women). I very much agree with your comments about Nepal.

  2. Very interesting, not places I would think to go, so I like reading about them. City boy.

  3. Always shadowing your adventures, but sometimes I forget to comment. I’m here, though. Thank you so much for sharing with us, Elisabeth.

  4. Thanks for letting us join you on your journey and welcome home!

  5. An awesome adventure, your tenacity and curiosity always amaze me. Looking forward to seeing you on Ginny’s dock soon.

  6. Somehow, I find it depressing that in supposedly free Nepal, the population as a whole is living such a primitive existence which prevents them from coming even remotely close to realizing their human potential.

    Thank you, Elisabeth, for providing me with this fascinating arm-chair, vicarious travel experience. It has been a pleasure following you all these months.

    • Yes, the overall poverty I encounter in so many places makes me realize that I (and many of us here in the US) are indeed living the life of the few percent at the very top of this world.

  7. Hi Elisabeth
    I have been reading your blog for part of the time. Jackie Stouppe

    • Thanks for finding the time, Jackie! I know you have been off to great adventures yourself.