Time to fly

Every arrival ends with a departure and this trip to Nepal is no exception. Time to go. The question for me was how did I feel about my beloved Nepal after this visit. An interesting combination of mixed feelings is the best way to describe it.

For the first time in I don’t know how long I had a sense of hope for this country. That hope has to come from the near impossible situation that has existed for so long principally due to the load shedding policies of the former minister for energy (this was a system where there was an electricity supply for scheduled hours only). Last time I was here there was no main stream power for 20 out of the 24 hours supposedly due to lack of water in the rivers to enable adequate power generation. The load shedding lead to the generator and solar power industry booming. Guess who owned the main companies for these products? Recently a new minister for energy was appointed. The power is now essentially on and interestingly enough the former minister for energy allegedly has had a dip in his income with his companies supposedly going broke. I hope Nepal doesn’t abandon solar power totally and does see it as a way to the future.

Nepal also used to be plagued by fuel shortages with the worst being a 6 month blockade at the Indian border where both sides lay the blame with the other. This seemingly has been resolved too with Nepal no longer being reliant on India for fuel having reportedly got in bed with the no longer sleeping Dragon of China. Time will tell about this.

The Maoists who have wrecked so much havoc on this country are now seemingly something of the past as they never succeeded in power. Perhaps now, with all this fundamental stuff sorted out, if they can sort out corruption, maybe, things will improve. Its certainly the economic plan as Government wants to lift the country from a low income country of USD800 per annum to around USD2500. Certainly a good thing however I suspect it will be the double edged sword of ‘progress’ that all developing countries face.

In terms of raising the economic level there is another interesting change that has occurred over the years since my first visits. When I first used to come here there would be comparititively few travelling Nepalis. Now it seems almost equal. There are those who study or who have immigrated overseas. And then there is the mass immigration of young Nepali men working overseas in usually the Middle East. The money these guys send home is reported as comprising 30% of the national GDP. All of this at what cost though? I read an interesting article in the paper highlighting the issues with the movement of the youth overseas and it impact especially in the rural areas. They discussed a farming area in the Annapurna region. Land is usually owned by the more upper class Garung tribes. Their lands are worked by the lower caste Dalits and they are usually paid very low wages in return for long hours of work. The Garung being more wealthy are sending their children overseas for an education with many choosing to stay and send funds home. The Dalits are no longer willing to be ‘suppressed’ by the upper classes and seeking wealth of their own. They are taking out large loans to send the young men of the family overseas to earn a better wage (better living conditions – up for debate) so there is no-one left to tend the land. The older land owners are no longer able to tend their large plots and with their kids overseas ….. Additionally what has been reported is that a number of Nepali are not being paid when they get to the Middle East, loan repayments are not meet, wife at home struggling to service the loan or make a living whilst having a brood of children. Get the picture. Seems like a house of cards to me. Progress?

I have always found leaving Nepal quite sad. There has always been a part of the me that has longed to stay in the Boudha area. I have even entertained the idea as to how I manage to study for three months over summer at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute at the White Gompa. I have never worked out how to do it due to all my commitments at home. And now? Well when I went to the White Gompa, I had a definite yearning and regret that I was not going to be able to attend the retreat I had intended to do when I first wrote the screenplay for this act in my life. I saw two people I knew and just felt so at home there. But I couldn’t live there now I don’t think. My lungs would totally rebel pretty quickly against the whole idea of living in such a polluted place. I have also come to realise something that I have always known, I love the space of smaller places. The days of the chaos of city living I think are gone. OK for a short time when there is an escape hatch, but longer term? Possibly not.

Once before I have said that that trip to Kathmandu was my last. I have learnt over time that no matter how much I might think “nah no need to go back to Nepal”  at some time when I least expect it, a little thought bubble arises from somewhere in my mind . It doesn’t take much to make it grow and next think I have just hit my credit card to a ticket. I suspect this will happen again at sometime in the future however the purpose of that trip is likely to be for a retreat or teachings with a couple of days to do other things. I have seen all I need to see of Kathmandu. I have seen how it is changing and the old traditional way of life is slowly disappearing. Soon it will be not too dissimilar to everywhere else in the world in terms of the way people will live. I think the religious side of life will change on outward appearances, any maybe inwardly too however I don’t think it will disappear.

No matter what Nepal will always be in my heart. I will probably still get tears in my eyes when I see videos of Boudha and when I come to land. I just don’t want tears in my eyes from toxic pollution when walking the streets.

And before I sign this trip off, you will be pleased to know that Tara the cat has recovered well from her surgery and within a very short time of returning home was curled up on a chair in the garden in the sun. She was always hissing at her 6 month male kitten shortly after returning to her guest house. If you ever see her, give her a hug from me.

One last trip down those awful roads to the airport. Fight through the crowds of families at the entrance of the aiport who are wishing their youth off to great adventures, deal with the lines and the offical fondle by an official through the some times impossible customs hall. Time to fly leaving it all behind me. Until next time.

 

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People watching at Pashupatinath

As much as I hate the traffic here, and could stay around the Stupa, it is worth going out. I had decided that I wanted to visit Pashupatinath again. Pashupatinath is the most holy place for Nepali Hindus. It is the home of Pashupati who is an incarnation of Shiva. Sadhus (the holy men who have renounced life) live here. A number of major festivals occur here every year and they are a something to behold. The most amazing of them all is Shivarati which is a festival dedicated to Shiva. Holy men from all around Nepal and also India come (provided there isn’t a Kumbh Mela on). I was lucky enough to be able to be in Kathmandu one year and went to the temple to witness it. Holy men every where all stoned on gunga (marijuana) as Shiva was a pot head so they naturally follow in his tradition. Most disappointing was that all the naked sadhus were living in the Pashupatinath temple and this area is a definite no go zone for westerners, and also for women’s eyes. I have never witnessed anything like that place at that time.

I have a love hate relationship with Pashupatinath. This is one place where I really feel put out in us not being allowed to access the actual Pashupati temple. By all accounts of those who have been in, it is a fantastic place. The sounds of the joyful chants and music that fill the air are uplifting and really make me want to see what is going on. It’s futile even trying to get anywhere near the temple as there are armed guards around. Accept it. Another aspect that I dislike here is the constant hassle by men to be your guide. If have no doubt I could learn a lot from them about the history and customs of this place but I’m not interested for two reasons – one, they mutually exclude us, and two, i’m quite happy just seeing what I see without explanation. I’m there to try and capture it as an image that means something to me. This is not something the ‘guides’ understand. Another reason is some of the beggars. I do have a level of empathy for the beggars here as the majority really are the most disadvantaged and marginalised in a society that has very little or rather almost no form of social support. However aggressive beggars are not easy to deal with. I had one girl thrust a baby, not more than a day or two old right in front of me on this visit and demand money. I’m sure she swore at me when I left. What hope is there for them.

The last reason for the hate side of my relationship with this place is some of the sadhus themselves. You could be forgiven for thinking that there are two types of sadhus – the holy men and the tourist sadhu. The later tend to paint themselves in various ways, pose in front of the many small shrines and call out for you to come take their photos. It’s a commercial exchange of course. I did this once before on another trip and paid the sadhu a very reasonable 50 rupees. But he got very stroppy demanding 500 rupees which is totally outrageous. The fun part comes in trying to take photos of them on the sly. Very naughty of me but it makes a great game where they play just as hard. One that I won as far as I am concerned (not that I am competitive as one of my readers might claim!)

Having said that, there was one sadhu that I paid for a photo. I saw him out of the corner of my eye when I walked past his hut where there was a fire burning and smoke everywhere. Initially I walked past wishing I had been the reflexes of Valerie Jardin (an absolutely awesome street photographer) to get an unposed image. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that I really did want this image but as I turned around he had come out of his hut having lit al cigarette. Ohh, even more perfect. So I asked if I could take a photo and then indicated I really wanted to get him in the hut with him blowing smoke, so took a leaf out of Eric de Vries from Photo Cambodia, and got him to blow smoke. If I’m going to set up what I want, I will pay for pay for it. I gave him 100 rupees and I heard him telling his friend who was also in there “100!” and then they both laughed their heads off. Not a tourist sadhu in my mind, but maybe I have a started something. I think it was worth it though. Thank Eric for giving me the courage to do something like this.

So why do I ‘love’ Pashupatinath. It’s alive, especially at the beginning and the end of the day. That’s why. Don’t come during the day as it is only full of bus loads of camera welding tourists. But the morning, that’s when you get to see the Brahmans doing pujas for the locals on the ghats (steps) of the Bagmati River. Not this time though. this is the first time I have been here and there was nothing happening. Nothing. Instead the brahmans were just sitting around waiting for business or watch the tourist with a camera or two sitting on the ghats.

At least someone had some custom for the day

One of the main reasons I love this is for a reason that most people will find very macabre. Its the cremation ghats. There is something about watching a body be washed in the holy, albeit filthy waters, be placed on a funeral pyre and watch the oldest son (or oldest male relative) light the fire. Your own mortality comes to the fore. For me, I like to watch. For the locals, to be cremated here and have your ashes thrown into the Bagmati River is the desired way to leave your place on this earthly plane as it guarantees a higher rebirth. Basically a cremation here is the equivalent of the same at the famous burning ghats of Varanasi where it thought that the fires have burned consistently for 5000 years. Well the fires may have been burning continuously for 5000 years there, but there was not one, not a single cremation happening today. It was dead quiet. I was absolutely stunned. Never before have a I seen it like this. There has always been at least one smouldering pile of wood bellowing out an incredibly acrid smoke. Not one. It was dead quiet.

Looking for an explanation as to why there might be no cremations, I wondered if the lack of cremations was due to the opening of the electric crematorium in another area of the Pasthupathinath Reserve last year. The Government built the electric crematorium primarily to reduce pollution. A wood burning uses a massive amount of wood and with the Kathmandu Valley being deforested at an increasing rate, wood preservation is finally taking some level of precedence. Electric is much more energy efficient too – 45 minutes in an electric oven with total burning of the body compared with 4 hours on a pile of wood where bits are often left behind. All the unburned bits, including the body parts, are thrown into thrown into the river. Its also much cheaper to go electric – 3000 rupees (AUD 27) vs 10,000 rupees ($127.00). I tried to find out if the obvious benefits of the electric cremation meant that no-one was having a traditional send off any more but no-body was able to answer my questions. I just got that blank “yes” commonly associated with “I don’t know what you are saying so I will just answer with anything look.” I tried to find the answer online but when I looked, the most common comments about the crematorium were related to it not working for at different periods since it had opened. No joy there. Burning or not, the place still looked stunning in the glow of the morning light.

Good that no-one had died and therefore there was no-one grieving, but I came to take photos. In the words of Mike Langford (NZ Canon Master) “there are images everywhere.” Time to go find them. Didn’t have to go far. Even though this place was so unusually quiet there where still interesting people around and if Kathmandu is nothing else, it is a great place to people watch and this is something I really love doing. Sometimes I just watch, and sometimes I wonder what their stories are as they will all have stories. Those stories, when I do wonder what they are, usually go unverified.

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I did have an interesting encounter when I walked into an area where the some of Sadhus live. I found it as a guy along the river bank told me I could go in there (pointing in the directions of an entrance) to see the Sadhus. This area is a rectangular area with entrances on three sides. Along the edges of the building are a considerable number of what appears to be small dwellings with a semi open front. It was easy to see that were indeed sadhus living in there. Many of them beckoned me to come over to see them and my cynical self assumed this was they knew I would have a camera and therefore they were willing to sell themselves as part of a commercial exchange. I resisted all temptation to pull my gear from my bag to sneak an image for two reasons – primarily because sneaking photos into peoples homes is nothing short of creepy and I wouldn’t do it regardless, and second by a long way, there were two many sadhus in all directions to see me and they would have alerted the others. So just not possible. Instead I chose to befriend the three dogs (kukar) that came running up to me and stick around patting them. This drew an approving smile from the sadhus.

While I was patting the dogs and looking around me, a woman came up to me and started trying to chat with me in the few words of English that she knew. She sat down, with her tea in hand and started to pat the dog so I asked her if I could take her photo. Having done this I offered her money. I only had 2 five rupee notes, a tatty 100 or a two 500 rupee notes. The later options were not an option but she refused to accept the former instead asking for ‘rice’. Yep I always keep rice in my back to give to people. I kept offering the 10 rupees and she kept asking for rice. In the end I saw my offering was unacceptable and shrugged my shoulders, putting my 10 rupees back in my wallet in a way that she could not see the contents, and headed out of there. She didn’t follow me immediately but did join me when I was sitting on the ghats watching life. She started talking, to me again pointing out things and naming them – Pashupati as she pointed at the main temple, Bagmati as she pointed to the river. Shiva as she pointed to the many small stone temples behind me. Nandi I said when I pointed to the bull that always sits outside a temple dedicated to Shiva. She smiled at this. While she stayed with me for a while, she never again asked for rice. I managed to secret out my tattered 100 rupee note (tattered notes are always a risk for us westerners as vendors claim the bank will not take them) and offered to it her. Her reaction was just what makes these kind of encounters delightful. She just lunged towards me, threw her arms around and gave me a full on embrace that lasted a couple of minutes. It was nothing other than shear gratitude. My $1.30 made such a difference to her. Just beautiful. One of those heart warming moments that makes Nepal so wonderful.

Street dogs are an ever present part of life in Kathmandu. They are literally everywhere, some in much better condition than others. Obviously Pashupatinath is no different. There are also sacred cows here although this time I only saw one happy cow with thick snot running out of its nostril looking to forage amongst the plastic bags for rice and other offerings that may be edible. By the way, my lady told me this was a cow. I was surprised this was the only cow I saw here as in the past there have been quite a number including bulls, there in the past. On thinking about it I think I know where they have gone. They have moved out into the surrounding roads including busy Boudha Road. It’s been a long time since I have seen cows on the streets in Kathmandu as the government rounded them up and trucked them all out to the Terai (the lowlands along the Indian border) years ago. It’s always sad to see as cows don’t belong in a people choked city living off tasty plastic bags.

What I did find that I had actually forgotten all about was the monkeys. Not an unhappy tormented little one like the one I found in Bhaktapur, but rather large troupes who have forest to live in with enough food. Who doesn’t love a monkey? Especially those cheeky little ones.

Perhaps the last thing I like about this place is the colour. To me Kathmandu has colour that is hard to find anywhere else in the world. India would be its only equal I think. The people are colourful and anything to do with religion is colourful. Any temple of note has market stalls surrounding them where the devotees purchase the offerings they wish to make for their gods. Delicious vibrant bright colour.

Slowly as the clock moved on, and the sun rose higher, the number of tourists began to increase. I was no longer the only one. The first ones were individuals like me and then they started to arrive in pairs. Time for me to get out of there and meet my taxi driver who was waiting. Yes I could have walked back to Boudha up the hill but who wants to be out in that dust for longer than necessary. One last run through the gauntlet of beggars, a last passing shot of some sadhus and past the sign which points the way to the temple (“that’s for other people” to quote my father) and it was out of there before the tourist circus began for the day.

Today I was in love with Pashupatinath again.

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Did I tell you about the traffic and the pollution. Of course I have already mentioned it but let me tell you again. To travel anywhere in this little town called Kathmandu is to take your life in your hands. Not from risk of injury from a metal on metal impact from black lung disease as a result of all the particulates in the air. I’ve mentioned trucks belching black fumes. I’ve mentioned the dust that is everywhere caking everything under its cloak. Want to know where a lot of the dust comes from. Well, its from the constant ongoing need to widen the roads. Over the years the government has been on a programme of widening the roads in Kathmandu to make way for the ever increasing number of cars and motorbikes. A large number of properties need to be acquired and compensated for, well those that were built legally anyway. A few years ago, the government just ripped own half of the homes that had been built illegally on government land i.e. footpaths and roads. This meant that homes and businesses just had big gapping holes in them with no compensation. Bummer if it was your place. Even international hotels are not immune. This one recently had a gorgeous facade ripped off.

So anyway, back to the present, they have started to rip up the roads but negotiates have stalled. So everything has stopped. Except the dust and pollution.

M and I went out on an adventure to go and meet the old tibetan refugee that I have sponsored for the last few years. Adventure as the taxi driver wasn’t sure exactly where we wanted to go so just dumped us. I made it a bit worse as I had assumed we were on the right road and knew our destination was not near the intersection so got him to go a bit further. Thankfully a nice young guy sorted things out for us. Segway, the level of English has improved out of sight even noticeably since my last visit. Jumping back, the area where we were was some 15km from Boudha. The traffic. Holy cow. It was the pits. And the pollution! I am going to share the view of the taxi window on the way home. Yep, that’s how bad it is. There is nothing edited in this image at all.

As we got closer to Boudha, M and I just jumped out and walked the last 1km to Bouhda otherwise it would have taken 15 min to get there and the poor driver would have had another 15 min back to our where we left the car. He was very appreciative. Taking this approach left us with the dilemma of crossing the road though.

Obviously I lived to tell the tale. M did however almost fall on the road. That would have been a disaster.  Even though I lived through the experience, my eyes were not only stinging for about 2 hours but were running too. I wonder why I haven’t ventured out beyond into the valley more. Just the thought of the traffic totally kills it. The fresh clean salty ocean air of home seems like such a good thing right now.

Boudha – the beating heart

For me, Boudha is the beating heart of Kathmandu. My spiritual home is here. This is a place where many Tibetan refugees settled after fleeing from the Chinese invasion of Tibet. As they were forced to flee, the tried to rebuild their culture here and in reality their culture is Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana Buddhism. The high lamas came and rebuilt their monasteries here. Why did they come to Boudha – because of the Stupa which was built in Nepal centuries before. No-one really knows who is responsible for building this amazing monument or why, There are a number of explanations offered – historical and likely fictional. Who knows the reason. Does it matter. No. Its just here and it is absolutely stupa-endous.

I feel totally in love with this place when I first entered through the Boudha Gate so many years ago. I knew about it from that world renowned traveller’s bible aka The Lonely Planet and I walked here from the Hindu heart of Nepal, Pashupatinath. At that time I was just in total awe of the people who were circumambulating around the great stupa (kora). At that time the majority of people were older, men and women wore traditional Tibetan clothing and so many spun prayer wheels in the their round hand and held a Mala (string of beads) in the left. Their jewellery was jaw dropping with large chunks of turquoise or coral in theirs ears or worn on their silver belts. Some of the men even wore their long hair embroiled with long red silk tassels wound around the circumference of their heads with the tassel hanging down onto the left shoulder. These guys were instantly recognisable as the Khampas (the feared fighting men) from the Kham region of Tibet. I could have sat and watched them for hours but back in those days I was stupid enough to stay in Thamel so had to leave at the end of the day.

Another very fond memory I have of the stupa is from my first stay at Kopan Monastery perched on the top of Kopan Hill. Before it grew to what it is now, I remember sitting up stairs in the very old dining room looking down at the stupa. It was a full moon and the whole stupa was lit by candles places around the first level of the base. Totally magical and totally memorable. Over the years, night lighting of the stupa has changed from candle, to nothing, to full on. This year I was fortunate enough to be here for full moon. Full moon is reguarded as a very auspicious time at the stupa and many things happen here a result. One of the things is the offering of coloured lights.

The thing with the stupa is that in many ways it is actually mesmerizing. Those eyes (which represent to the two wings of Buddhism – wisdom and compassion) follow you no matter where you are on the kora. Sometimes it feels as though they are following you even when you aren’t they as they are so piercing you can easily recall them. The stupa appears to have many moods but really she is like a mirror reflecting what weather surrounds her.

Life happens around the stupa. As I have already alluded to, people walk around the stupa and do this morning and late afternoon. As they do this some will mutter mantras , some will turn the numerous prayer wheels located around the base. Some will even do full length prostrations. Each has their own motivation for completing their kora.

At the front of the stupa there is a small Tamang (an ethnic group of Nepal) temple dedictated to Hariti, the goddess of smallpox. Either side of this temple are the gate allowing access to the inner sanctum of the stupa. On the ground level practitioners do various different Buddhist practices. Some do repeated full length prostrations. As an aside, I was shocked this time to see that the prostration boards are now like those at Bodh Gaya where people leave their things on the board and cover them with plastic when not using them. A bit like a towel on a sun bed a resort. It says “mine” very loudly and “stay away”. What happens to those who want to do prostrations but don’t have a board on which to do them.

Other practices that people may do around the base of the stupa include mantra recitation with a prayer wheel, which has many printed manta inside so each turn multiplies the merit of mantra recitation or offering the mandala which is a universal representation of the Buddhist world. This is considered a very meritorious practice of generosity. Like prostrations (aimed at reducing ego), it is of the 4 x 100,000 which are undertaken before receiving the higher teachings of vajrayana teachings. They are designed to each have an effect on the mind thereby making it ready to really embark on the path of Buddhist training.

Up on the higher levels of the stupa, people recite prayers and make various sorts of offerings

On the outside of the stupa there are a number of large prayers wheels that people walking around turning the wheel as they go. Or they may sit under a prayer wheel and recite prayers. Small monetary offerings to the monks reciting prayers

The lighting of butter lamps occurs every night. There are a number of people who have stands of lamps and every night they set their lamps up hoping that someone will come along and light one or more. There are always a few regular providers but on the morning of the full moon, I was totally stunned to how many tables of lamps there were. I have never in all my time seen so many. Made for interesting walking around the stupa as space was almost at a premium. In fact it was almost funny standing up on the stupa looking down – there were layers of people dependent on activity. On the very outside was the makeshift market that sets up in the morning when the shops are closed, the walkers who were just walking from A to B, tthe butter lamp holders, the rows of beggars waiting to get their small monetary offering, and then those in the throng of kora walkers.

The beggars come down to the stupa every morning and sometimes at night. As I have already stated practicing generosity is considered a very beneficial activity (provided the motivation is correct) so in the case of the beggars it is really a win win for everyone. Its easy enough to give a little bit to everyone as there are money changers situated around the stupa. They sit there with notes all bundled up into 1000 rupee (AUD 12.50) bundles in whatever denomination you want. If you want to give to more people, get 5 rupee notes. If you want to give more to less. I strongly suspect that there are more desirable positions to sit to if you are beggar in order to maximize your cash yield. If you sit to left of either entry (the Boudha Gate or the Tamang Temple), those who have just arrived will be cashed up and the likelihood of missing out is less. Its a really interesting experience to do this. A few things become very apparent. Some are extremely grateful for whatever you get. The people who are blind (and there a lot of them) can easily miss out for obvious reasons. The mothers with young children are rather aggressive and will actually demand more or that the same amount be given to their baby. And then there are the crafty ones. These guys receive their money, leave the line only to rejoin the end hoping to receive more. Some aren’t very happy when you are onto their game and fain displeasure that you haven’t given to them. I wouldn’t mind so but much when you only have so many notes, why should they have an advantage on some who may actually be much more disadvantaged. So look everyone in the eye when you are giving money – it not only humanizes the experience but makes it more even. Its also nice to do this with equanimity so everyone benefits. Until the money runs out that is. I have to confess, I skipped a section so I had some money to give to that those at the end of the kora. The whole thing is a great experience although it also gives you some insight as to how it must feel to be an ATM.

Back to the butter lamps. Because I like them and they make for great photos.

Now if there is fire, there is normally smoke. Yes? Well in this case there is. Smoke offerings are very popular either through burning incense or burning dried fragrant vegetation. Some people carry around an individual incense burner which is swung around whilst you walk or buy stuff to put into the big burner. The individual burner has an effect on those around almost choking you with smoke which is hard to get away from. The big burner placed outside the Tamang temple really packs it out but you walk a wide birth around and escape the worst. And to think the locals stand in front of this smoker, lean forward to be closer and wave the smoke over their heads so to receive a blessing (think I would rather be donged on the head with a text or buddha). The funny thing with all this smoke is that your clothes never seem to smell of it when you are in Boudha. But when you get home and open your bag, there is no doubt that you have been mixing it with incense and smoke. The smell just pours out of your bag just like the smoke in the burner allowing you to make fragrant offerings to the buddha in the comfort of your own home.

And yet there is still more that happens. There are times when one or more to the monastery will hold special prayer ceremonies outside the stupa. They erect a large tent, create an alter that statues and tormas (which are specific offerings usually created from barley flour and other ingredients and then decorated in centuries old ways). There is always a senior monk who sits on the high throne and officiates over proceedings. The Tibetan Buddhists really do do pomp well.

The monks recite their prayers all day long. Although they might always pay as much attention as they ought. I saw another heart warming moment at the and of this prayer festival (Monlam). At the conclusion of special prayers ceremonies the monks are given offering in the form of tsog. Tsog is usually what people donate and most often things like noodles, biscuits and the like. Three of the young monks were walking around the stupa towards the gate when they passed some beggars who had begging bowls. They each put their tsog into one of the bowls without even appearing to think about it.

Some of the monks also offer corn to the infamous pigeons of Boudha. If the flock takes off at once, the air movement is enough to blow anyone’s hair. Offerings are a practice of generosity in order to gather merit and reduce attachment.

With all this life happening around the stupa (and I have even touched on the tour group day trippers, nor am I going to) you would think that everyone just blends in. Not so. Some I recognised people as soon as I arrived. And there are always some stand outs. Typically in the past I have found them to usually be westerners who have adopted some form of tibetan or buddhist clothing, made it their own, and as a result, make themselves instant standouts. This years contenders however were not westerners. The first was a woman who I first spotted sitting under the big bell. Her attire was certainly very different and something like a cross between a sharman and dakini (very powerful beings in the buddhist world). She sat there reciting mantras, closing her eyes and at times looking around. I only once saw her engage with someone (a tibetan woman gave her money) and she was so gentle and gracious. After that I saw her every day. She would come and go, sometimes sit here, sometimes there, sometimes face one way and sometimes another. Regardless of where she was she was always to object of attraction for some curious onlooker. Not surprising as she really as beautiful and intriguing. I would love to know her story. In the words of some lamas, “you never know who anyone is.” If anyone out there does, please let me know.

Now the other character. This guy got lots of attention for obvious reasons. I first saw him standing under the big bell. He was standing somewhat aggressively and surrounded by people looking at him. The expressions on peoples face when they saw him ranged from “what the hell” to “you have got to be kidding”. Some of the older monks faces were just priceless. At time, there was some sort of indiscretion that happened and Mr Coin started to pump up his chest and start to take the other guy on. Who knows what that was about. On another day when he was posing under the bell he unveiled a sign he had been carrying identifying his purpose. The coins on his suit came from 206 countries and as he was a self declared nomad, he was trying to collect money so he could travel to those 206 countries. Umm, yeah right. He didn’t get much for his time at the stupa and neither did he get much time. The stupa guards with their loud whistles and big sticks moved him on pronto each time he appeared and eventually he stopped coming. Dreams are free. But you never know who anybody is. If nothing else he must be quite strong as wearing that suit must be quite a chore, it must weigh a ton.

I could keep going on and on about this place for I even even mentioned what the lanes are like around the stupa. But in the interests of you dear reader, I will not. I said at the very beginning of this monologue that Boudha is a place with a heart. I really do feel that and for me that heart beats strongly. In truth, it is Boudha and the monasteries, one in particular, that is the drawcard for me which regularly has me booking tickets to Kathmandu. I once said there are other places in the world I want to go to but the problem is that my plane just keeps stopping at Kathmandu. Perhaps, just perhaps, you now have a sense as to why that is.

Never a dull moment in Kathmandu

I don’t want to talk about Boudha yet so instead I am going to take you on a little excursion. I guess I am a creature of habit and have placed that I like to revisit. There are two such places in the Kathmandu Old Town – the Seto Machhendrath Buddhist Temple and the Kathesimbu Stupa. M had not been to either of these places so she came along for the ride.

First challenge was to find them. The taxi driver dropped us off somewhere which not where I thought I was. If only I had a GPS like a tour guide that I have had, I would have been able to take us straight there. Never mind. The getting there in this part of town is at least half of the fun. Narrow streets, old buildings and just life happening a

It didn’t take long and I came across a familiar landmark. A most unusual one at that. On a street corner there is a large piece of wood that over the year has had people nail coins to it. There literally hundreds of coins. “Why?” I hear you asking. Well, a coin with a nail in it is the offering you make to the god who relieves you from toothaches, Vaisha Dev. Certainly cheaper than paying a dentist a visit (back at home anyway). However Vaisha Dev can’t be too successful as just down the road a little further are the dentists who have in their windows lots of teeth displayed. I have often wondered if these are pulled from one and replaced into another. Doesn’t bare thinking about really does it? From there it was a quick turn around a corner, walk around behind a little outdoor market, through a little tunnel of a lane way and then into the square of the Seto Macchendrath Temple.

This temple is somewhat special I think. In the square there are a number of small stupas (chortens) that have buddhas carved onto the four sides. There are large stone pillars where buddhist deities sit. The actual temple at the base level is enclosed by a decorative grill and I have to presume this is to stop antique treasure hunters from removing the embossed brass panels and statues that surround adorn the four sides. The struts that support the three tiered roof so typical of newari temples are carved masterpieces.

This building is special even more so when the local people come to make their offerings to the gods. True to form for me, it is the people I come to see. I just have this thing about worship and devotion that I find irresistible. I can’t explain but wonder if true devotion is something I aspire to. Not sure, but until I develop that quality I will just have to stick with capturing through my lens.

I hung around this place for awhile just watching what was going on. Most interesting was the people getting blessings from smoke and the lama who gave blessings to some for a small sum. I had also been watching a women standing by a small shop where people were getting cups of tea. M had returned from a short shopping trip with a couple of shawls (apparently just what she needed – not as she states she has a huge basket of them at home) and we both mentioned we would love a cup of tea. I showed here where the tea shop was. Umm, not a tea shop at all. This lady just gave cups to her friends. M must now be counted as a friend as she was given two cups of very very sweat black tea. People here really are kind.

And so off to the Kathesimbu Stupa. This was only a couple of streets away. I needed my tour guide again with her GPS as once again I got lost in the maze of the old town. It was obvious from the change of traditional old style shops to those bearing commercial opportunities for travelers easily parted from their rupees, that we were heading into Thamel, the tourist ghetto or mecca depending on your point of view. Not where I wanted to be. Wonders will never cease as there before me spontaneously arose a large sign with a map (what, since when did Kathmandu have these?) pointing the way. Out of the corner of my eye, through a dark lane way I spotted the Buddhist flag which indicated the way.

Kathesimbu Stupa is quite small compared to the other two more commonly ones – Boudha and Swyambu, of which is this is a replica. It sits in a square surrounded by chortens just like Swaymbu.

As I walked clockwise around the stupa, it was on the backside of this that I came across an unexpected delight. Something was clearly going to be happening. There were chairs laid out. A brocade parasol was set up and marigolds were being strung. Sitting down were women make all sorts of offerings from a type of dough. Dishes were laid out filled with all sorts of grains. There was a man dressed in maroon, another with a shaved head in grey clothing. He donned a Nepali vajra crown and the brocade garments of a Vajra master.

The women were dressed in the most stunning red and gold safaris.

There was small traditional band playing. I thought it might have been a wedding but not being able to stand not knowing any longer I asked a guy who was wearing beautiful silk clothing what was going to happen. Well turns out not to be a wedding but rather the ‘enthronement’ of the new head elder statesman of the ‘village’ which comprised 28 families. The old head had died and now this mantle was bestowed on the new oldest man of the families. After his enthronement he would be in charge of the all the important decisions that had to be made. apparently he was now considered to be a god according to the person I was talking to who just happened to be the number two son of the gentleman concerned. It also turns out that this man is the founder of a well renowned guesthouse in Kathmandu and number 2 son is the CEO of the company. I’m not going to mention any names but I have stayed at the unnamed guesthouse on previous visits and loved it.

I was told that the man of the moment was due to arrive and there would be a procession to lead him in. Let’s just say I was somewhat surprised when I saw the man of the moment. What a contrast to the women in the family. It was interesting that his wife lead him by a small silver chain. I asked number 2 son about the clothing of his father and he assured that as the enthronement progressed he would indeed change into much finer clothing. What a relief as how can the new head man wear a grey tracksuit and down jacket? Goodness me.

After the family arrived at the ceremonial area, M and I went to have a cup of delicious masala tea. We then came back to see what was happening now. The ceremony had moved on a little. The man of the moment was now clean shaven and M didn’t quite believe me when I said it was the same guy. The couple were now seated down in front to the priest (who I am told is the foremost expert on Newari Buddhism in the world and he teaches at Harvard Uni) lead these two through the ceremony. Offer this, offer that, light this and pray here

It was at this point I had an encounter with the only other westerner here. This guy I am presuming was somehow connected with the whole event as he had no qualms about getting right next to the people involved in this ceremony. He even had a seat at one stage right next to the officiating priest. A most awkward guy who just didn’t seem comfortable – when the sun started to blaze, he put a scarf over his head; when it got even hotter he raised his umbrella as a sun shade but this was of no comfort either as he couldn’t hold the umbrella and take photos at the same time. At one point I got down very near to the ceremony to get the vantage point I wanted. This brought me next to the uncomfortable man. He was far from happy with me. “Shoes, shoes, shoes” he barked in his German accent whilst wildly gesticulating indicating with his hand that I had to get them out of there immediately. Unclean, unclean. Whoops I had accidentally crossed the boundary of the ceremony marking sacred ground with my shoes on – some imaginary line from two points I didn’t realise were there – but only by a mere 5 or so cm. I’m all for removing shoes when required to do but this guy! There is nothing like the self-righteousness of an an officious westerner putting others in their place. Bha! M saw the whole thing happen from a bit of a distance and commented on how rude he was. The other onlooker was far more tolerant and less intrusive. No points for guessing which one I would rather hang out with.

I could have stayed but the ceremony was going to go on for a number of hours yet. Time to leave for breakfast in Thamel as we were both hungry by now. I promised M breakfast at the Kathmandu Guest House so off we trotted. I knew the way for sure this time. Ahh, Thamel. Love it or loath it. I used to loath it but something very special has happened. As of the last two weeks the Government has closed off a large section of it from traffic. This place used to be a hell hole due to the traffic. One lane roads with no footpath and tourists wandering all over the place competing with an increasing number of cars and motorbikes. Not only do these occupy precious space but they bring noxious fumes that can start to make your eyes burn and they raise the dust not the roads. I’m sure you get the picture of how awful it is. But now, you can almost say it is tranquil. It’s quiet. People just wander or stand in the road talking. It feels like you can relax on the street rather than constantly be on guard and battle for your patch of Thamel. This vehicle free zone is supposedly a trial. A resounding success as far as I’m concerned but not all are happy. People who live there can no longer park their cars during from 9am – 10pm. It’s harder for shop keepers to get their goods to the shops. Poor tourists can’t have the taxi drop them off at their hotels and they have to struggle with their many heavy bags. Oh well. Those out of the car free zone are unhappy fearing that it will push tourist traffic away from them. Damned right it will.

Breakfast, actually it was now lunch, was just wonderful. The Kathmandu Guest House has changed considerably since I last stayed. One of the buildings was badly damaged in the earthquake so the decision was made to pull it down and expand the garden area. This place is now like a full on resort rather than a humble guest house. Very nice but not enough to entice me to come back to Thamel to stay. I would much rather be at Boudha. Thamel has a vibe to it but Boudha has a heart.

Tara’s big day out

I promised you a cat story in the last blog post and here it is. Meet Tara. Or Cookies and Cream as two young American kids staying here christened her today. She had a very big day today.

Before I get to Tara I should enlighten you as to how I arrived at this point as I when I left you I was last heading off from Bhaktapur to my favorite place. Boudhanath or just plan Boudha. However there is nothing plan about this place. Just say the name of this place to anyone who has been here before and you will see their little eyes light up. It is just that special to so many. But to get to Boudha requires a trip in the car. For the most part it is fine chugging along on the back roads behind the airport and then you come onto Boudha Road. I thought the roads were bad enough but this road is now a treat. I have been along here previously when there have been road blocks from strikes (bands as they are known here) where the strikers have burned tires on the road. I have been caught in a hopeless traffic jam from a bus crash on this road the day before when people died and they left the bus on the road which effectively blocked it totally leaving me to jump out of a taxi and onto a motorbike in order to get to the airport in time so I didn’t miss my flight. This time it was like a very large dirt track which had turned to mud in parts from the overnight rain. The only way the traffic could traverse along was to weave around each other and the pots holes. Krishna who has been a taxi driver for me on previous trips had a special way of describing this type of journey – dancing. Fifteen minutes dancing along Boudha Road in a little 800cc Maruti taxi with motor bikes, cars, taxis, buses and trucks belching black diesel fumes as partners in some strange form of tango. Welcome to Nepal. And just in case you are wondering, these photos were taken at a different time when it wasn’t busy!

The dance is over when you arrive at the Boudha Gate. Once you enter through the gate, it is like the world just drops away. There directly in front of you is the Boudha Stupa, the Great Wishfulling Jewel. It is said than any aspirations, wishes or prayers that you make here will be fulfilled. The worldly one of “get me out of this godforsaken traffic” is immediately fulfilled. So what they say about the stupa is true.

As this is a place of Buddhist worship you are required to walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction. My guesthouse was directly on the opposite side of the stupa so I had to walk around. No vehicles allowed here thank you very much. Unlike in the past, this is more strictly adhered to now so no more men on motorbikes taking shortcuts. Hooray. I walked past familiar shops. Some of the beggars I have seen on previous trips still sitting in the same location. I even recognized other people who walk around the stupa regularly. This place is so so familiar as I have spent more time here than any other place in all my times traveling (NZ doesn’t count).

Fast forward to the guesthouse, another tranquil oasis behind a metal door and gate that has a lovely garden with its own restaurant. Enter Tara. I sat down to have a drink as my room wasn’t ready until 2pm and she sauntered by making herself at home on the seat next to me. The little menus on the table state ‘DO NOT FEED THE CAT’. I laughed to myself as obviously they knew I was coming. Friendly little puss she is who likes nothing better when the weather is cool to curl up on a nice warm lap and stay there for as long as she possibly can. She is looked after here by the lovely compassionate staff and in good condition. However this was not recently the case. Two weeks prior to my arrival she gave birth to her third litter for year – three kittens all of whom died within a day as she was not strong enough to feed them. The whole situation was devastating for everyone who witnessed it.

I got talking to one of the women, M, staying at the guesthouse as Tara had made M’s the lap of choice for the morning. M filled me in on the story and was going to organize to get Tara desexed and asked if I would like to contribute. Done deal, we just had to find a vet who would do it and how much. I found a vet within the hour by contacting an organization called Cat-man-du who tries to re-home injured cats or kittens. I was told vets with cat experience are not that common here (cats are considered bad luck so not many keep them as pets) and there was a vet within walking distance of Boudha who had done a lot of cat work overseas. Dr Sushil was happy to do the operation for a very reasonable price. We just had to get Tara to the vet. To do this we needed a box. Sheba, the guard here, said he would find us a box to put her in. Tara went in the box willingly enough but immediately decided this was not a good idea after all and just kept escaping. It didn’t help that the long flap of the box had a tear in it effectively meaning the box had five flaps we had to secure. There was only one winner of round one and that was Tara.

Time for round two. But before entering the ring we needed to get a proper cat carrier to put Tara in so we could win round two. The only way we were going to get a cat cage was to venture out on that insane Boudha Road and walk along to the pet shops. I don’t know which is worse – walking along side the road or driving along it. At one point I got sprayed with mud from a passing truck and that was when I was on the, well lets pretend it was a footpath. Merely labeled footpath. After about 15 minutes walk we arrived at the vets. Dr Sushil was a really nice guy and lent us a cat cage for Tara which was just great. So back along the ‘footpath’ we walked. Just when we were at a really awful muddy bit this nice young fellow said to us “Welcome to Nepal”. His timing truly could not have been better.

M and I were the definite winners of round two of Tara vs the container of confinement. The poor little thing was quite distressed in being confined and then when we took her out of the quiet sanctuary of her home out onto the increasingly busy streets it must have been absolutely horrifying for her. I carried the container at chest height as I am sure some of the street dogs would have been less than welcoming of her presence. She was literally going off in the cage jumping around trying to get out. And when we got out onto the chaos of Boudha Rd, the fire engine that went past with sirens blaring was not what was required. A 5 minute journey in a dancing taxi (at least the road is partly sealed in that part) and she was about to meet her future. Even as we sat the crate down she was still jumping around looking for an escape. A trapped cat is not a good thing.

As I write this, Tara should have been operated on and now will no longer have to endure having kittens. Less kittens in the world too. Both M and I felt just awful for her in putting her through what must have been terrifying but we know we have done the right thing as do the people who work at the guesthouse. I won’t get to see her again, as because she is technically a street cat, they will keep her until they are happy with the wound which will be in three or four days. M will bring her back and then she can continue with her somewhat comfortable life here. Win win.

The village that time is catching up with – Bhaktapur

As I’ve already mentioned, Bhaktapur is one of the three old kingdoms in the Kathmandu Valley. It lies some 30km from Kathmandu so it took much longer for it to be consumed by the urban sprawl than Patan did. Back in the late UNESCO recognised the cultural significance of Bhaktapur and declared it a world hertitage zone. The Germans were very generous in funding the ‘restoration’ of the village in the ‘70s as a number of people had left. It is always been on my list of places to visit when I come to Kathmandu as I adored its bucolic nature even though it costs roughly AUD20 just to get inside the gate.

Once upon a time when I first visited motorised vehicles were banned from the cobble (brick) lined streets. As you walked around the maze of lanes it was not uncommon to send chickens scurrying startled by your presence. Goats would also be found. At the time of year I would invariably visit, any spare courtyard would have rice laid out to dry under the clear skies in the hot sun. People didn’t seem to mind your presence. They might have looked at you blankly but they didn’t seem to mind. Most people wore the traditional clothing associative with the region of Bhaktapur – black saris with red trim for the women and the usual black or coloured topi, long grey tunic and grey trousers with very very baggy bums. There are these little places where the men would sit and pass away the afternoon doing nothing. If you sat in either of the major two squares (Durbar Square or Taumadhi Square), some young guy might come and start up a conversation which sometimes lead to the offer to visit a thangka painting school. It did seem as though time had somehow forgotten this place.

You can guess where this is heading can’t you. Time is wrapping her clock of change around this place. Everything I just mentioned has changed. The the most obvious of course is the destruction from the earthquake. When you enter Bhaktapur, the ‘tourist entrance’ i.e. the ticket booth is on the edge of the Durbar Square. True to form, it has a palace and facing the palace are multiple temples. I was quite shocked to see the destruction here, more so than Patan as I spent quite a bit of time here in the early mornings with my camera on my last visit. So many temples and buildings down. The areas around the temples have been somewhat cleaned up and attempts are being made to restore the temples to their former glory as with those in Patan. There piles of rubble are everywhere. Some of it still left over from the earthquake and some it from all the materials dumped everywhere to start rebuilding. It’s not hard to find areas of destruction that three years later are still being cleaned up.

Many have reportedly left the village due to their homes being destroyed. Others have been given makeshift accommodation in nothing more than corrugated tin sheds donated by overseas Buddhist communities. They must be hell to live in. Hot, cold, wet and drafty along with anything that lies in between.

Other changes are less in your face. Motorbikes, nearly always ridden by men travel through the lanes honking their horns (how unusual – not). Young men come to you all the time striking up a conversation which always starts with “Where are you from, Dutch?” and invariably ends with “Would you like to come to my thangka painting school.” Children come up to you and literally demand money “Give me money!” I ask if they are giving to me and that usually drives them away. Men no longer sat around in the little shelters but this may have been due to them being filled with building materials. The traditional clothing is disappearing with the younger generation only wearing it for festivals and holy days. The people seemed to be just that bit more wary of me, but maybe that is more me becoming just a little more sensitive. One old fellow actually threatened me when he was working in his field (I was more shocked to see an old man working than with his threats). I’m sure what he was saying was not very polite at all.

So given the changes, I went looking for what remains of the old ways. Where better to find it than at the many temples dotted around Bhaktapur. Bhaktapur does translate to City of Devotees after all. Not even the destruction of a temple stops people going to worship the gods.

The Newari of Bhaktapur are either Hindu or Vajrayana Buddhists. Either way, every morning the older residents make their way around the temples making offerings and receiving blessings at each temple. Interesting I have only witnessed women walking around with their plates of offering – usually food in the form of rice, flowers and water.

Light is an essential offering

Some even have little brass statues symbolizing the local people with an offering dish in front of them.

They walk around the small statues of different gods where they push rice into the mouth of the god as gods can’t go hungry after all. They then go to the main temple where the main god of that complex is housed. Each temple has a couple of ‘keepers’ who accept the offerings. It can get somewhat hectic around these temples. We as westerners are not allowed to go into the main temple, just onlookers from the entrance. This does have its merits for the local people though.

You could argue that the main beneficiaries of the offerings are the pigeons

Devotion is not the sole domain of the women though. Men seem to be responsible for the songs of devotion. Nepali style involves singing with the musical accompaniments of cymbals, tabalah or other drums. At times there may also be a harmonian. They sit around singing for half an hour or so, and then when they have finished, surprisingly they get up and leave rather than sit around and gossip. It can happens morning and night. It’s actually really quite nice to sit quietly and just listen and watch..

Another traditional way of life here is pottery. There is a special clay in the local area that only the potters of Bhaktapur are allowed to access and this is only once a year. They are such craftsmen that they used to supply the valley with all the pots. Like most traditional skills/crafts it is dying a slow death. Some still hang in there though and Potters Square is the place to go to see the potters at work. I found a potter and watched him work for a while. The old traditional pottery wheels are wooden and the potter would use a long stick to spin the wheel around and around until it built up enough speed to start working. When it slowed they would start again. My guy was ‘cheating‘ and using an electric wheel. It was funny as he didn’t seem to mind me watching and taking photos, although he did ask for money. No problems I though. I gave him 100 rupees and then the cheeky beggar showed me how many he wanted. His pots were certainly better than any uncentered lump of clay I could make but it sure wasn’t a moment from Ghost when I was watching him.

After the pots are made, they are placed out in the sun to dry.

It’s really interesting how you can experience different situations that affect you in totally different ways. One of the things I was a bit uncertain about in returning to Nepal after three years was seeing all the street dogs again. Some of the situations these dogs find themselves in are truly heart braking. Thankfully, in Bhaktapur, I think almost all of the dogs were actually quite well looked after. One exception was a pup that lived at Dattatraya Square which is where I was staying. The poor thing was really cute but awfully awfully undernourished. I went to the butcher and bought it some fresh chicken so it had something decent to eat. It was with this pup that I witnessed something truly stirring. There is a lady who ‘lives’ in the square (see below) and has done for some time as I remember her from three years ago. I was told that she actually has a home but chooses not to live there. She is a beggar and seemingly has very little. I saw her offering this poor little pup half of what she had. So touching. She loved that I fed the pup too. Most people like it when you are kind to animals.

I was also witness to the disturbing side of human conduct when it comes to animals. I was totally astounded to walk around a corner in a lane to see a baby rhesus monkey climbing the reinforcements on a building site. It had a collar on it so one has to presume that someone had made a pet of it but no-one around seemed to ‘own’ it. The poor thing actually looked quite disturbed which really was not surprising. So what did the locals around do? Torment it of course. When it chased to girls everyone got really angry at it. Um, durr! There was one guy who actually didn’t mind it and seemed to like it enough to encourage it to climb up onto his shoulders. It just cuddled into him. And then, for whatever reason he threw it down and kicked it away. Shop keepers through stones and water at it. No wonder the poor thing was unpredictable in its behavior. It was one of the moments where it was heart wrenching to see this as there was no way this monkey should be out if its habitat. I also felt helpless as a mere passer by what could I do? Nothing, only hope that this little thing had some chance of a good life or at least a life free from torment.

And while I’m talking about animals, what would a blog from me be with if I didn’t mentioned cats, goats or chickens. Well for a story about a cat you will have to wait. But I do have chickens,. Not quite as many as I have seen in the past but they are still there. Some had something to crow about while others thought the building material was a perfect place to rest.

And goats. Dattatraya temple is the home of goats. People ‘donate’ the goats to the temple in order to stop them being slaughtered (goats are a favourite sacrifical animal of Nepalis). Anyway there are about 4 female goats, all of whom I have met before. One of them has some form of hemiparesis to its front driver’s leg (that’s we have to use in our household since I am sill yet to be able to accurately identify left from right) and has trouble getting around but it does. But since my last visit, Billy the Bad Arse Boy has moved into town. He thinks he owns the town too as one morning I saw him down at the outfoor market some 750m away form home base. He stinks worse than a polecat and you can smell him miles away. His horns are worse than some of the toe nails I see at work – diabolical and I would hate to have a close encounter with them. All of the locals warn you about not getting too close since he obviously has attitude. Billy doesn’t do much other than spend his days chasing the girls around and does seem well endowed. He fancies himself as a ladies man and in the morning showers his devotion (which might I add, involves licking a girls private parts) on one girl only to move on to another in the afternoon. None of the girls seemed to interested in Big Bad Arse Billy though. So next day, Groundhog Day.

So this is a little insight into how I viewed the change of Bhaktapur. It is happening and seemingly at a rapid pace. I have to wonder how much longer the old way of life will continue here. As with every where else, young people are moving on and wanting everything that modern life brings. Who can blame them. Change came for me too, as my two day stay here came to an end meaning it was time to move onto my favorite place in Kathmandu. This will be like a home coming for me.

Revisiting Kathmandu

I’ve now been in Kathmandu for a number of days and I have to admit it, but I have struggled to start writing. I think why this has been far more difficult than when I have travelled to other parts of the world, is that on those journeys, I have seen everything afresh, new eyes, few pre-conceptions. Kathmandu is the exact opposite for me. It’s either my 13th or 14th time here in about 17 years. It’s hard to see anew when things are so familiar. Too easy to see through the lenses of comparison so that is probably what this chapter of travel will be about – changes. However, I reserve the right to change that.

Flying to Nepal is one of those flights that has a little bonus. If you are arriving from Asia, select a seat window seat on the J or K side of the plane (left hand side as you enter the cabin). In doing this you will greeted with a prime view of the Himalayas, including Everest if you know which one it is, during about the last 30-40 minutes of the flight. The mountains are just there looking majestic with their coating of snow although this time there was not as much snow as there has been in the past. The flights from Asia always come this way so there will be no surprises finding that you don’t get a view as the flight is approaching from a different direction. The view of the mountains lasts for about 15 minutes and you loose site of them as you descend into the Kathmandu Valley (which is rather like descending into Cusco). However each time I come it is noticeable how housing continues to encroach on the remaining flat land that was used for food production and increasing up the rather steep ‘low hills’. One day it will all be just concrete and brick buildings. As we taxied into the terminal I could see my loved Boudha Stupa jutting out from the concrete – I was back home.

Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) has always been one of those places you have to endure, both on arrival and departure. Arrival has always been a total shamozal due to the way it was organised. It used to be that you ended up in this big hall and had to line up behind the counter that issued the visa of the duration you required. People milled around as they either didn’t know what you had to do or hadn’t actually filed out their visa application papers or didn’t have the required passport photo for the application form. Those ‘in the know’ always came prepared and tried to rush through the crowds as quickly as possible to get as close to the front of the line as possible. Like all developing countries Nepal seems to no different in that the level of bureaucracy is inversely proportional to the national GDP and the airport was your first introduction to this. You had to find the right line, and join the queue. Three or four men, none of whom ever smiled, would each attend to a separate piece of paperwork which always took a number of minutes each to complete – one to collect the money to pay for the visa and write the receipt, one to look at the receipt and then place the appropriate visa sticker in your passport after having inspected every page for any previous visas (and if you had some, read each individual visa to make sure you never overstayed) and then the last man (always a man) would date stamp and sign your visa. Image that process occurring with each plane that discouraged some 300 people, often within minutes of each other. Bearing this in mind, imagine my horror when I realised that I had forgotten to bring a passport photo. But thankfully things have changed.

This time I was fortunate enough to sit up the pointy end of the plane meaning I had a distinct advantage in getting into that hall. My entrance was somewhat slowed though as there was a politician on the flight who was met by arm guards who all saluted him and some of whom made sure that no foreigner was going to get to close to him let alone ahead of him. That foreigner would be me. He did not have to go through the same process as the rest of us, instead being ushered straight though. Anyway, having discovered the lack of photo at 3am in my hotel room in Bangkok I remembered that Nepal has gone digital (sort of) and you could apply online for a visa. All you had to do was pre-complete form, scan your passport in the online kiosk at the airport and collect the barcode before moving on through. Had to be too good to be true. It actually wasn’t. Quite straight forward even more so when I realised that despite the queues from earlier flights, there were two kiosks at the end of the bank that no-one was using. Why – who knows. Perhaps they just joined the line without looking. The bits of administrivia were also completed in separate areas now which meant all in all a much more time efficient way of getting through. There is a faster way though.

Waiting for your bags at TIA is a whole different experience in itself. Even though it used to take forever to get through immigration, your bags would still not be on the conveyer belt. Then you had to fight to get to your bag as the Nepalis would have to inspect every bag to make sure it wasn’t theirs. Even if it was pink with purple polka dots they still would have looked. Carry-on is the only way to avoid this and that is exactly what I did. All in all only about 20 minutes to get out of the airport which was a pleasant change compared with up to 90 minutes in the past.

I still remember very clearly the first time I landed in Nepal way back in 1999. I met an American woman on the plane (we had both asked for window seats and got the middle three seats in the last row at the very back end by the toilets) and we decided to share a taxi and head to Thamel together. This was my first overseas trip alone so I was more than happy with that. OMG. When we got out of the airport I didn’t know what had hit me. We surrounded by men all shouting at us trying to get us to give them their custom. For some reason we chose some older guy, likely because he wasn’t as aggressive as the others, and followed him to his car. Double OMG. Probably the world’s most reliable car ever is the humble Toyota Corolla. These things used to be indestructible. The one we got in was. I still remember having the door forced open and looking down through the rusted floor at potholed road under my feet. All that is history as you just need to go to the prepaid taxi kiosk, pay a fixed fee and the next guy in line gets your fee. No looking at the road under your feet now.

The traffic in Kathmandu is somewhat legendary amongst those of us who have been here. God damned awful is really the only way to describe it. Hell would be another. I wasn’t looking forward to the trip to Patan on some of the busiest road. Ha. Imagine my surprise when the roads were nearly empty. Only moderate amounts of dust and dirty black diesel fumes spewing out from the odd truck. Luck would have it that I had arrived on a holy day, that is holiday for us westerners. Hello Kathmandu, what a welcome after all.

Whenever I come to Kathmandu I usually head straight to Boudha. This time I changed from the norm and went out to Patan. Patan used to be one of the three old major cities of the Kathmandu Valley, with Kathmandu and Bhaktapur being the others. They are far from separate cities now all having been well and truely swallowed up by the never ending urban sprawl. My reason for going there was I wanted to see what the earthquake did to the Durbar Square and surrounding area. Durbar Squares are essentially the main square of any town and they usually have a palace and multiple Newari temples dedicated to a number of gods from the Hindu pantheon. Patan’s Durbar Square is, or rather was, the prettiest of these squares. Many of the temples are no longer exist other than than pedestals. Some do but they heavily fortified with scaffolding or long struts to keep them up.

After the quake, many of the locals reportedly went out to collect pieces from their temples to protect them. Many pieces were stored in the royal palace and actually look really good all lined up rather than being individual pieces. Thankfully the temples are all so well documented it is very likely that they will rebuilt as they were. Its been done before as Kathmandu is no stranger to earthquakes.

Fortunately somethings that are quintessentially Nepali remain unchanged. The royal baths in the Patan royal palace remain unscathed which is so fortunate as they really are stunning. No-one can carve like the Newari. Some might say the Indians did, but my understanding is that much of the carving was done by the Newaris. The Cambodians came close, but I think the Newari remain unbeaten.

And in amongst it all people still carry on with their everyday life, even if it is in amongst the rubble doing their washing as that is the only option they have.

The men will always do what they seem to do best in their dotage. Nothing. Sit around and do nothing. Its the same around the world. What has changed here though over the years is the increasing number who no longer wear the traditional form of clothing except for the hats, the Dhaka topi (the coloured ones) or the Bhadguale topi (black). Even that is giving way to caps and beanies. Everything must change.

Moving On

Oh my goodness. I last left this blog having just arrived in the small town of Pisac proclaiming that I had had enough of seeing ruins. And now I lying in a my hotel room in the old town of Patan in Kathmandu. There are ruins around me but this is the result of the devastating earthquake that struck in the 2015 which lead to the deaths of some 10,000 people. But before we get to that point …..

Pisac. My memories of this place are fond. A small little village that has managed to become some sort of haven for the new agers with a daily dose of day trippers from Cusco thrown into the mix. I have no idea as to why this place has become The place in the Sacred Valley for the new agers but it is hard not to be aware of them as there are posters everywhere promoting everything from astrology workshops, shaman workshops, yoga retreats and meditation. Perhaps in my younger years I may have shown a spark of interest, but not now as my path is clear to me.

For me the charm of Pisac was the locals. I just love being in places where people still wear their traditional style of clothing rather than adopting the much less interesting western style of clothing. As is the case in most places that have transitioned to ‘modern’ western dress, the men are the early adopters while the women still hold on. The Saturday market was the best place to see the women from the surrounding areas bring their produce into the square in front of our hotel. While this is definitely a commercial opportunity, it seems that it is also a social time as many of the women sit around and obviously catch up on the goss.

In the sprawling market area there are a few women who still weave in the traditional manner. Hours in the same position but the do produce beautiful work.

The people and the colour in this town were just stunning

Like all good Spanish towns, this place is really built around the church. There was an old church out on the edge of the village which for some reason was closed and a ‘new’ built in the centre of the village in the plaza mayor which is now the home of the sprawling market. It was a sweet little church and even the local dogs would come in lie under the pews although I am sure there was a sign at the entrance “no dogs”. And there was no ‘no photos’ sign.

I was lucky enough to be at the church just in time to see a wedding. Funnily enough Val arrived from her walk up ‘the hill’ at about the same time. We didn’t stay long as there was one tourist photographer who was so obnoxious with his cameras, neither of us could tolerate it any longer. Sometimes I think those of us who wield cameras think we have license to do whatever we want, like it gives us some sort to right that just isn’t there. Speaking of obnoxious photographers we witnessed it again at the church on the Sunday when there is a service where all the men from the local villages come dressed in traditional clothing, which as I mentioned earlier, is not something you see very often. This is in the Lonely Planet so is of course a bit of spectacle for tourists. How much of what happens is them doing what they would always do versus putting on a bit of a show (they do a couple of traditional dances in the church forecourt) I don’t know but again the ugly side of camera toting tourists was brought to the fore. Yes I take my images but I like to think I do it with some form of decorum but this is only my perception. I don’t know how I am perceived by my subjects. All that aside, the men did look spectacular.

I can’t leave the town of Pisac without mentioning the dogs. Unlike other places we had visited, this was the first place we had come across where they seem to openly disliked. They are all very timid of a hand and human company. They all scrounge a lot for food too. Many must have been well loved pets at times as, like elsewhere, so many street dogs are pedigree. We spoke to someone about the dogs and the explanation we were given is that many of the westerners come here for the life style, get a dog, and when they leave, just leave the dog to fend for themselves. So sad. We did meet one lucky street dog who has his passport stamped for his new life in the States. I tried to feed the dogs as much as possible and one old lady laughed at me, but in a kind way, when I bought a cut up chook to feed to some of the hungriest looking dogs.

Three days in Pisac was enough and it was time to head back to Cusco. During this stay we decided that we could no longer stay in The Fridge as we had come to call our little Airbnb and I found us a lovely light sunny hotel room so we were actually looking forward to going back and moving house. Returning to Cusco this time was interesting as all the festivities I had witnessed day after day had now finished. The town had returned to normal. Some of the appeal went too. Don’t get me wrong, Cusco is still a lovely place but it is magical at festival time and I would recommend anyone go there to witness this. My remaining couple of days I spent wandering around camera in hand of course.

Late one afternoon I was walking up a street behind the market heading towards the train track and away from the mainstay tourist area with my camera literally in hand. A woman who was driving (first I saw in my time in Peru) pulled over, wound down her window telling me to go back as “this area is not safe for tourists. Not every where in Cusco is safe.” Interesting but a little disturbing considering I was heading where I had been a couple of weeks earlier. Having to change direction meant I met this cute little character and we had a great time playing together much to the amusement of its owners who were clearly taken that I liked their baby.

But this one was one of saddest of all. Loved enough to have spent a fortune to buy, loved enough to be given the most stunning jacket ever to grace a dog but not loved enough to have a home.

My last night in Cusco was one of the more memorable nights I have had in all my travels. Val and I were going to have our last dinner in Peru at a really nice restaurant we had discovered a couple of nights earlier. The food was so fresh tasting, and I don’t mean that in a rotten way. I had to wait for her to finish Spanish School and while I was waiting I just got the feeling something wasn’t right. Apparently I looked pale. Reading the menu just didn’t do it for me and when I saw food coming out the adjacent table, I decided it just wasn’t going to happen as planned. I left my dinner date at the table alone to head back to Home base ‘just in case.’ Without going into all the details, lets just say the green pea scene from the Exorcists paled by comparison and a toilet with very suspect plumbing, a rising water level to within 1cm off the top of the bowl all made for a memorable last night in Cusco. Me who never gets sick when traveling. I will never be able to consider a chicken empanada again. Even now writing this a few months later, is …. memorable.

And so it was time to go home. Yes I was very much looking forward to it as I felt I had spent enough time there. Time to go. I loved my time in the Sacred Valley but am still not in a great hurray to return. It was worth going to but I think for all those considering it, just have an open mind to some of the things that you are told about the history. View it for what it is and that includes the absolute cash cow of a tourist industry. Easy enough to distance yourself from it though. The cops back home just aren’t the same though 🙂

Back to now. Peru is long gone with just a collection of images and memory remaining. Now begins the next little adventure of Kathmandu. It’s been three years since my last visit and if you remember back to the beginning of my Cusco adventure, I often made comparisons between the two places. I am already starting to think that perhaps those comparisons were a little unfair. You will have to wait though. People are starting to ring the bells on the temple to let the Gods know they are preset, and the sun is due to come up shortly. Time to prepare of the day.