Please note that this was written about 6 weeks ago, but a lack of internet access, George Orwell, and laziness delayed me from posting it sooner. I have many more half written blogs that will *hopefully* be posted asap, though slow or nonexistent internet is still pervasive. In the meantime, here are some notes regarding week one of our journey.
Have arrived in Kathmandu!
The journey was agonizingly long, but not as awful as I predicted it would be. I flew out of Spokane at 6am on a Thursday, had a 2 hour layover in Portland, and then arrived in Vancouver. From there I had a 12 and a half hour flight to Shanghai, then a flight to Kunming, then finally at 2:30pm on Saturday, I flew to Kathmandu.
The curse of traveling on a backpacker’s budget I suppose.
As we neared the airport, I looked out my window and saw endless mountains and hills and valleys. The land was so green. There weren’t many buildings. Just a smattering of houses here and there.
But then we came over another hill and were greeted by flat land and an absolutely massive city.
My initial thoughts on Kathmandu were not very positive.
Or, as the Irish fellow I was chatting with on my first morning adequately described it, “Kathmandu is fucking mental.”
Many of the roads are dirt and all are wildly uneven. There’s no semblance of traffic laws. Sidewalks don’t seem to exist in Thamel, so walking from shop to shop is a danger in itself. The air is so thick with toxins that it feels as if there’s a film coating my throat and that my lungs are filled with smoke. About a third of the people wear face masks because it’s so bad.
What has happened to Kathmandu is unfair and truly unfortunate, which is why I really wanted to like it despite all of its problems — but I just couldn’t. On a more positive note, Nepalese people are already proving to be some of the kindest and most welcoming that I’ve ever met.
One of the fellow’s who worked at the hostel was extremely friendly. As soon as he learned I was from the States, he kept going on about his dream of visiting Portland, Oregon. “Sometimes I play a joke and tell people I am from there. I never been there, but my head is there. My dream is to drive from Portland to Seattle to Vancouver to California. That is possible, yes?”
I told him that it was a bit of a round about way, but certainly possible.
He beamed. “I never been there, but I know.”
On my first full day, I met up with Mia and we visited Swayambhunath, which is otherwise known as the Monkey Temple because of (you guessed it) all the monkeys roaming around. This famous Buddhist temple is perched on a top of a hill that overlooks the city. The walk to the temple involves a long trek up a very steep staircase. There are many women selling jewelry, prayer bowls, and other knick knacks along the way. They were certainly eager to market their goods, but they weren’t nearly as aggressive as the mercenaries I’ve come across in Europe or Brazil.
“Tibetan bracelet. Very nice. I make you a deal. 200 rupees.”
I smiled, said no thank you, and continued to walk. Usually this would then be their cue to follow me up the stairs, berating me with offers until I either made a purchase or scolded them away. However, the women just continued to sit and smile.
“Okay, okay. Just looking. You come back later. Remember me.”
The Temple itself was quite nice, though my favorite part was definitely the monkeys. I busied myself by taking lots of glamour shots of all the monkeys. They were everywhere, and serious hams for the camera. Here are some of my best primate pics:
Later that day we met up with an American fellow named Will and headed to the Hindu Temple, Pashupatinath. It’s located on the other side of town and is considered the holiest temple of Shiva. It’s also a very popular place for people to be cremated as the mouth of the sacred Bagmati River runs right through it.
I’d heard about this temple before, and knew I wanted to visit it, but was also a bit apprehensive as the cremations are public. The deceased is wrapped up in special cloths, a ceremony is performed, and then that person is carried to the place where the burnings occur and then the pyre is lit. Afterwards, the ashes are scattered into the river.
As we walked toward the site, I noticed that the area surrounding the temple seemed particularly poor and dirty. The Buddhist temple had felt like a spiritual oasis away from the city, whereas this place seemed like just another part of the slum that surrounded it.
A police officer in military garb stood at the entrance way and directed us toward a booth. As tourists, we were required to pay 1000 Nepal Rupees ($10) to enter. We each forked over the cash, and then walked toward the river. I was immediately struck by the strong smell of smoke that blanketed the entire area. It was thick and almost made breathing difficult. We crossed a small bridge and looked down to find the source of all the smoke. Just below us there were two human bodies being burned along the river. Immediately the smoke became 100 times more repulsive. I hated that I felt that way. My disgust felt like a weakness. Like I wasn’t being open-minded enough. But still, I couldn’t stop thinking that I was inhaling the ashen flesh of two strangers, and it completely grossed me out.
The three of us just stood and stared as the bodies, and then at each other for a while. It seemed like none of us really knew what to do. People around us either sat and watched, or chatted amiably with one another. There were some tourists, but most were locals who looked to be homeless. Two teenage boys waded through the murky brown river, just below where the cremations were taking place. It all felt very, very erie.
Eventually we had the sense to walk away from the smoke. As we started to move, a group of young children surrounded us. Each had a huge smile and looked as if they hadn’t showered in weeks. They were jumping up and down, yelling something at us. At first I thought they wanted money, but a moment later I realized they were screaming “chocolate, chocolate, CHOCOLATE!!” over and over again. When we told them we didn’t have any, they screeched with laughter and then ran away.
Further up the river we saw a family preparing a body for the funeral pyre. They were in the process of covering the deceased in colorful cloths and sprinkling some sort of powder and herbs on the body. When they finished, the family picked up the body and carried it down near where the other cremations were taking place.
We wandered away from the river and around some of the outdoor shrines and small temples, but after a short while each of us was ready to leave.
Our experience at the Hindu was haunting. The thick smoke, the children asking for chocolate, the boys wading through the river, the bodies burning. I really try my best to be open-minded when traveling, but it seemed as if this was something I just couldn’t understand.
Then, about a month after visiting Pashupatinath (this is an addendum to the post) I read the book A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It’s a dark novel about the countless forsaken souls living in Mumbai. My feelings on the book as a whole are very mixed, but there was a particular scene of a funeral pyre that really struck me, especially after what I’d witnessed.
A woman who had never attended the traditional Hindu funeral ceremony asks, “Is it hard to watch? Someone told me there is a very strong smell. Can you actually see the flesh burning?”
To which she is given the response: “Yes, but don’t worry, it’s a beautiful site. You will come away feeling good…that’s the way I always feel after watching a burning pyre — a completeness, a calmness, a perfect balance between life and death.”
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to feel that way, but I’m happy to think that others do.