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. 

2017
06.14

Hum, the babbling Boat Captain

SYNOPSIS:  A visit of the Shanti Peace Stupa, a UNESCO site.  About an underground waterfall in a cave, a boat ride and a hike. 

Beautifully located atop the mountains, overlooking Fewa Lake, and on a clear day sporting a full panorama of the Annapurna glaciers, the Shanti Peace Stupa has an interesting history.  It was conceived in 1947, built in 1973, only to be torn down and destroyed by the Nepalese government shortly thereafter.  So much for a world-peace effort!  A second attempt at building in 1992 proved more successful.  In 1999, the stupa was inaugurated, this time with the full support of the government. 

The stupa is a UNESCO monument, and dutifully I check out the UNESCO sites on my trips as they indicate the most valuable cultural sites of a country.  I had my doubts if that status was deserved, but unless I was going on a trek into the mountains, or on a shopping spree into town, this excursion seemed the most logical one in my case.  And once in Pokhara you have to at least once pay that beautiful Fewa Lake a visit.  The Hidden Paradise is located on the opposite shore of the lake.  When it’s clear, you see the stupa straight across.  Getting there and back makes for a nice 10-12 km walk (I estimate).  It involves some steep ups and downs, some walking along the lake, and actually crossing the lake by boat.  

Nothing much happened today, except that I enjoyed the hike, the scenery, and the people along the way with the notable exception of my whiny, babbling boat-man Hum, who every few minutes found another reason why to change the in-advance agreed-upon price of the trip on me.  So, I will just take you along with me via a photo essay:

2017
06.13

View across the Lake

SYNOPSIS:  About a three-day vacation in the mountains.  Keep scrolling down.  Photos are embedded.

Kathmandu needed a break; better, I needed a break from Kathmandu.  It’s just too dusty and hectic, and Nepal is full of wonderful things, many of which I have to miss.  Against the advice of all and any travel books, I chanced a flight with Buddha Air, a local airline.  Nepali airlines are notorious for flight cancellations and delays, but I figured that most likely, there are also a good number that fly as scheduled.  And who is in a hurry?  I wonder if in the States it is still possible to call up an airline the day before a flight and get the normal rate without any fuss?  Well, here it is. 

The medium-sized propeller machine was full.  I sat in the Crew Only spot, next to the stewardess, facing the passengers.  Landing and starting “backwards” was a new flight experience for me.  Not bad, I have to say.  Across from me sat a Brazilian-American,  who had given himself a 6 months travel sabbatical from his desk job.  This was his first stretch of the trip.  He was excited, and we chatted almost the whole time.  1/2 hour later, right on time, we landed in lovely Pokhara and another 1/2 hour taxi ride later I stood in front of a steep staircase in the middle of nowhere…

What a world we live in.  Without a local SIM card or a local phone number, I texted into cybespace and voila, 5 minutes later, Milan, one of the three brothers who run this Hidden Paradise hopped down from the mountain.   With my 20kg duffel bag on his shoulders, he was faster up than I with my day pack.  These guys never cease to amaze me!  The Hidden Paradise is just that: hidden and paradisal!

If you need any of the action of Pokhara, you would be in the wrong spot here.  No hip restaurants, shops, knickknack shops, no bars, no nightlife.  This is away from it all.  Gorgeous views of the mountains in the back and Lake XXX in front of you are what you come here for.  And the sounds!  Not only did the European Coocoo sing his song, but the Indian Cuckoo joined in.  During the first night, I thought for a moment somebody just felt like whistling.  Then, I considered the possibility of somebody playing a practical joke on us, whistling nonstop.  But finally it dawned on me:  this is a bird!  Day and night these guys whistle, and before long their song becomes the song of paradise.

Laxman, and his two younger brothers run a guesthouse, yoga-retreat, AirBnB — whatever you want to call it.  In several phases, they have converted a nice big plot of land that belonged to their family into a place they can rent.  The old family home is on the property as well.  There was one row of rooms for rent, then the luxury roundhouse was built; another row of rooms and kitchen was expanding their space on the main compound with gorgeous views of the lake, and finally, at the periphery, with views of the mountains, a modern two-story square block rose with four more rooms. 

The people who come to live here are worth getting to know, too!  A few people I only saw for a moment or two, but two, I got to know better:  Vladimir from Serbia who lives in Canada, and Ann from Great Britain who lives in Italy.  Meet ET from Germany, who lives in the U.S.  You get the picture.  🙂

The three brothers not only care for and about you, they also sit with their guests by the fireplace at night, chat with you over dinner, book you a flight, and schedule a yoga class or a professional massage should you fancy either one, and if you should happen to have a birthday up on that mountain (as Ann did), you might be in for a treat.   Most of all in my case – they somehow get your luggage up those steep mountain-goat paths.

Legs up, computer out, a cup of tea on the side — and a bit of dust-free photo- and blog-catch up can begin!

2017
06.12

Two Sadhus

SYNOPSIS:  About the Siva Temple Pashupatinath, a lively puja session of love and devotion, some religious “weirdos”, and the ghats, where Hindus cremate their dead.  A photo essay of the cremation ceremony (from start to finish) and the puja session (start to finish).  Keep scrolling down, images embedded.

The entrance fee to the Siva Temple Pashupatinath for foreigners was steep ($10; locals are free), and I had to think of Patam, who may not make as much as this in a whole day of work, but had to pay rent and feed his family nonetheless.  I was particularly disappointed, when I realized that despite this price, the two main temples on the grounds were off limit to foreigners!

But I reconciled quickly.  This was an amazing place!

The Pashupatinath easily qualifies as one of the most important Hindu Temples in all of Nepal, and the ghats, the riverbank at which the dead are cremated, is second only to Varanasi, in India and the ghats at the Ganges River.  The temple is made up of hundreds of shrines saddling a mountain that is embraced by two strands of the Bagmati River.  According to a local the many small shrines dedicated to Siva were erected over time when priests in residence died.   Once again, there are legends about the origin of the temple, but a small shrine seems to go back as far as the 4th century BC.  Judging by a giant Nandi Bull in the courtyard of the main temple, it promises to be quite spectacular on the inside.  But I would not know. 

At all times, the temple area is filled with people.  Some wooded parts serve young couples as backdrop for a date, some small temples are the hangout of saddhus, and aside from casual visitors and vendors, beggars abound.  Saddhus by definition are holy men supposedly seeking enlightenment, and who are able to heal.  I have a somewhat dark view of these people who sit here, waiting for foreigners who want to take their picture, and demanding a handsome sum for the favor… 

Altogether, I spent over 5 hours at the temple, watching a funeral from the arrival of the body until his ashes were swept into the river.  From the opposite bank of the river, I observed the entire ritual and yes, I photographed quite a bit.  Opinions differ, on how tasteful that is, or if it should be done at all.  I was opposite the funeral party and at quite a distance.  I put my camera in my lap as inconspicuously as I could, and pretty much shot from the hip. I hope that I did not offend anyone.   

Hindus believe in the reincarnation of the soul.  After death, the body is considered superfluous and will be cremated.  But cremation such as this has become quite expensive and can no longer be afforded by all, even though by Western standards, the $50-100 needed for the cremation doesn’t seem that much. 

Just as the bodies were burning on one side of the river, on the other side, above me on the various terraces, people began to gather.  A band set up, loudspeakers were put into place…  a party?  How tasteless would that be, in the face of funerals on the other side? 

It was a party of sorts, but perhaps the best party to which a body could burn:  Aarti, is the daily devotional ceremony performed at the temple.  Each day, some people sponsor the ceremony who are the VIP’s of the day.  Led down to the banks of the river by one of the priests attending, they are blessed and offer small gifts such as flowers or rice, in honor of the god, to the river.

After that, the ceremony starts.  Priests open the show by blowing into three conch shells.  They perform mudras, swing incense burners and candles into the air, creating wonderful smoke patterns; they ring bells, clap, and move elegantly in strictly choreographed patterns — nothing short of any good show.  The band plays hypnotically repetitive and catchy soundbites, and a singer recites mantras and religious texts exalting the deity.  The crowd goes along, first sitting, then standing, then clapping, and finally throwing their arms in the air, roaring! 

A few weird ones roam the area, too.  There was a bag lady who first sat on a stone outpost and later started to dance frantically to the devotional tunes.  The dogs of the temple compound seem to know her well.  As sleepy as they usually are, hardly paying attention to anyone walking by, they all swung into action and violently barked at her as she walked by;  all ten of them…  That was quite a spectacle in its own right. 

This entire experience was as foreign to a Westerner like me as could be.  It was so cool, that I might have to go back to it again; this time knowing what to expect.  I have just one word for it: 

Mesmerizing!

2017
06.11

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!

2017
06.10

SYNOPSIS:  A visit to the Budhanilkantha Temple and a few scenes of daily life, cows, and dust from Kathmandu.

A bit off the beaten path on the northern outskirts of Kathmandu, there is a temple I learned about in graduate school called Budhanilkantha.  It has nothing to do with the Buddha but is rather the temple housing a large (16 feet) image of a reclining Vishnu.

Once again, I hired Bishwa.  He has his flaws but by now I have full confidence in his motorcycling skills.  Even on less frequented side roads, traffic in Nepal has its challenges.  As cows are proverbially sacred, they seem to know it!  Shamelessly, they position themselves in the middle of roads and either lay down or stand there motionless, nonplussed by honking horns and buses rushing by within inches.  What do they think they are doing there?!  There is nothing but traffic and dust. No food, no comfort.  They just seem to dare the patience of the Hindus who would rather die than harm a cow.

Vishnu is part of the Hindu Timurti along with Brahma, the creator and Siva, the destroyer.  He is considered the preserver of this world, resting on a primordial snake.  Many depictions show him with his wife gently tickling his feet to wake up, after Brahma created the universe.  The origins of this image are legendary.  And the question if it is floating in the pond or supported somehow, is not to be answered; scientific investigations are prohibited.  It is nice to think of this giant as floating. 

As a non-Hindu I was allowed inside the temple compound, but not inside the pond sanctuary.  I had to peek through a metal fence, pushing my camera lens through little openings to take pictures.  The giant is serenely lying under a cloth canopy.  Worshippers come and throw flower petals or rice onto the statue.  When I visited, three young temple assistants were in the middle of cleaning the statue.  As much as they obstructed the full view of it, they provided a good sense of scale. 

On the drive through town I shot pictures from the backseat of the motorbike:  oncoming traffic, garbage collectors, vendors, street scenes.  The images are a good reflection of life in the city.  What is most noticeable is the ever-present dust kicked up by all the traffic.  It was so bad today, that I created a makeshift face mask for myself that turned brown within the hour…  And I just had pneumonia!  I hope my lungs are going to stomach this. 

Kathmandu is surrounded by mountains.  From the mountain rims, beautiful views open up into the colorful mosaic of the multi-storied homes of the city.  From that distance it is hard to imagine all the destruction that becomes apparent only upon closer inspection. 

Enjoy the views.

 

2017
06.09

Ringing the Bells

SYNOPSIS:  About a Saturday excursion – A day of blood-sacrifice to Kali. 

Everyone seemed to pray a lot today even if to different deities.  Road conditions were so treacherous that what should have taken us 40 minutes, took us an hour and a half.  Bishwa wiggled his way skillfully through a 5 km traffic backup and assured me that I was OK as we passed three accidents involving motorcycles…  I begged St. Christopher to hang in there! 

Everyone was heading to Dakshinkali, the local temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali.  Saturdays and Tuesdays are her days.  Particularly on Saturdays, the national day off work, the locals get out and combine sacrifice with fun.   The sacrifice that is first offered to the goddess is later joyfully consumed by the extended family in a picnic in the park surrounding the temple.

Kali, the consort of Siva, is a powerful goddess.  Sacrificial rituals such as performed at Dakshinkali are considered part of Tantric Hinduism and are a bit off the beaten path from mainstream Hindu practices.  Roosters and goats seem to be her preferred animals, but a vegetarian offering of coconuts, flowers and rice will also do.  For hours, the family members line up in two cues with their sacrifices in hand.  As they enter the temple, they make their presence known by ringing bells that are strung along the way, a means of “waking up” the god.  But how could she be asleep on a day like this full of commotion? 

Vendors are selling flowers, and for a small fee will put a red mark of Kukuma on your forehead, a way of opening up the devotee to the spiritual realm.  We arrived just as one round of sacrifices was over.  For almost an hour, the sanctuary had to be cleaned of debris left by the offerings:  flower petals, coconut milk, feathers, blood.  Bishwa secured us both a seat above the crowd, next to a big water canister, looking down on the spectacle.   I am not proud of my pictures as my view was obstructed by power lines and smoke and I was quite distant from the spectacle.  But with hundreds of people attending, I could not expect much better.

The next round of sacrifices was rung in with a 15-minute long, mesmerizing session of two bells and a drum keeping the beat. The head priest was swinging an incense container in front of the surprisingly small statue of the goddess (which I could hardly see) and forming mudras.  I am sure he mumbled some mantras along with it which would have been drowned out by the drum and the bells even if I had been closer.  As a non-Hindu I was not allowed inside the sanctuary and I certainly would not have wanted to stand in line for hours to wait my turn if I could have.

Two green carpets were rolled out to prevent the entering devotees from slipping on the wet floor; and the gates opened to let in a never ending stream of worshippers presenting their offerings.  Standby helpers took the non-blood offerings and others swiftly cut the throats of the roosters and the goats that were presented.  My view was blocked and all I could see was live animals going in and dead ones going out. 

In a nearby stall and for a nominal fee (50 cents for a rooster and $5 for a goat), the sacrificial animals were feathered and skinned, and prepared for consumption.  Happy families left with their barbecue food, ready to party. 

And after watching this spectacle for an hour, I left not so happy to face that dreadful road again.  But St. Christopher came through for us.  We made it without incident. 

Way to go, Kali!