Since I’ve been in Nepal, whenever I’d speak of my plans to visit Nagarkot the Nepalese would always follow up with the exact same response: “Ooooh, Nagarkot– sunrise, very nice.”
Lonely Planet mentions the sunrise experience as the main reason for visiting Nagarkot and says that few visitors stay for longer than a night. Situated on a tall mountain overlooking the Himalayas and the Kathmandu Valley, Nagarkot is a quiet village with not a whole lot going on. When I read this, it sounded like my dream home. My curiousity about this epic sunrise was just one of my soul-attractions to this place.
As I was packing up to go there, I was introduced to a mousy French girl named Cerise. Dubis, the owner of the guest house in Bhatkapur, made the introduction because Cerise was also interested in going to Nagarkot. She had a pained look on her face and was trying hard to communicate in English but it wasn’t coming easily. She seemed much relieved when I addressed her in French and we quickly arrived at a plan to travel together.
Leaving the cello and my bag of bricks behind in Bhaktapur, I set off to Nagarkot with just a light daypack containing the essentials– a toothbrush/paste, my book, a journal, and some water. I didn’t even bring a change of clothes, since I only planned on being gone for a night.
Conversation with Cerise was lively right out of the gate. Reaching far back into the dormant quadrants of my mind, I was pulling out French expressions and grammar that haven’t been spoken for nearly fifteen years. Her company was refreshing and the opportunity to practice French was exciting.
Cerise was concerned about riding the bus and seemed a bit fearful. Having crossed that river a few times now, I can say that I am now pretty comfortable with the whole process. Though it surprised even myself when we arrived at the bus stop and, seeing how crowded the bus was, I opted to climb up on the roof for my first experience of this sort.
Sixty exhilarating minutes later we arrived at Nagarkot. The views from on top of the bus were amazing. And now we were on top of the world. The crisp air was significantly cooler and I was wishing I’d brought some warmer clothes.
As we walked along looking for a room for the night, we came across a barefoot hippie on the side of the road. He was sitting there banging a drum, appearing totally whacked-out drunk or drugged. Who knows what was going on in his mind and his British rasta accent offered no indication of where he was from. We told him we were looking for a place and he said, “The best place around here, mon, it’s called Nirvana. You gotta go there, mon.”
His deranged state of mind asside, his advice was an affirmation since that is the guest house we were looking for to begin with. At the end of a long dirt road, approaching what seemed like the edge of the world, we arrived at Nirvana. Prayer flags were swaying in the late-afternoon breeze and colorful decorative lights were dancing around the doorway. Inside, there are funky designs painted on the walls, guitars and drums strewn about, and cushions encircling a small table. We loved it. Only problem, they didn’t have any vacancy.
We found another place nearby, and that was fine. Cerise and I were famished, so after dropping off our stuff in our room we walked back to Nirvana to eat.
It wasn’t all that surprising that when we entered we found our hippie drummer passed-out, down-for-the-count, sprawled across the cushions beside the table. The beautiful Nepali hostess, she just offered an unapologetic smile that spoke to me, “It is what it is.” I was ok with that, and Cerise was too. We sat down beside the deadman, his arms practically wrapped around my seat, and we both just smiled at each other.
Shortly after placing our order, the other guests arrived. With dreadlocks, beautiful smiles, and vibrant refreshing energy, I knew I was going to like them. They took seats beside us and instantly the room was abuzz with traveler tales, interesting conversations, and laughter sweet laughter. They said they had arrived a few days earlier, hadn’t planned on staying so long, but sensing the unique magic and warmth of this place (and this guest house in particular), they decided to enjoy Nagarkot for a few more days.
A bell chimed in my head, and I paused to consider that my prayer was being answered. A page was turning, and that sense of isolation I had been feeling was quickly vanishing.
We sat at the candle-lit table for many hours. Andrea is a spunky Dutch girl whose contagious love for India convinced me that I needed to go there. Mark and Elesa, a beautiful couple from Canada, are like the ying and yang of love, and their counterpoint in conversations is completely engaging. Sanjay, the owner of this guest house, is quiet like the Buddha and he just sits there listening intently to every word spoken with a sly understanding smile on his face.
The guitars, drums, chessboard, and backgammon props around the room added to the spice of this funky little bohemian enclave. They were also the impetus for the musical-cushion flow in the room, and as situations rearranged, conversations and connections would mutate in a curious way like a river. A mysterious French girl named Alex arrived later on; she awoke the deadman, and propped him up beside her as they smoked cigarettes in silence. Cerise was having trouble following the flow of this fast-paced conversation in English, and it delighted me to have side-conversations with her in French, filling her in on what was being said.
The subjects of our conversation are so diverse i feel like my brain is play-dough, being stretched in many directions all at once. I am fascinated by the many stories I hear– stories about the extraordinary life of the ancient ruler Barabas and Zorba the Greek, about the Kumari Devi (a modern-day Nepali girl who is regarded as a “Living Goddess” until her first period, after which she lives a long lonely life because it’s bad luck to be with an ex-Goddess). Conversation always returns to travel experiences, and this crowd speaks fondly of the mystical Indian towns of Veranasi and Rishakesh. Books, music, and films are being discussed too. And where one person’s sentence ends, another person’s story begins in a thrilling segue of brain-food. In a notebook that sits beside me I scribble notes of things I wish to research.
Part of me wanted to stay there all night, because it was precisely the situation I love. But it was late, and if Cerise and I were to awake at 4:30 and complete our 4 mile journey to the lookout tower in time for sunrise, we really had to get going. Half-way home we realized we forgot to pay our bill for dinner, which seemed like a really long time ago. We laughed about this and when we returned, Sanjay said, “No problem. You pay later.”
The alarm sounded at what felt like the middle of the night. I looked out the window and saw a pitch-black universe speckled by extremely bright stars. I had heard that early-morning cloud coverage was common in Nagarkot and that would surely kill the whole sunrise experience, but this morning was about as perfect as it gets.
We arrived at the lookout tower just as the sun was peaking out from behind the Himalayas. The view was stunning and I could suddenly understand why the Nepalese are always so succinct when describing the Nagarkot sunrise experience– it simply falls short of words. Standing on top of the world high upon this lookout tower, the sun was warm upon my skin and in a sacred moment of peace, I surveyed 360 degrees of this beautiful mountain country.
Other sunrise seekers included a group of young Israelis who were sitting beside the tower, preparing Arabian coffee on a camping stove. Shortly after meeting them they offered us a cup and said that it was the world’s best coffee . Indeed, the subtle addition of cardamom pods to coffee seemed like an ingenious innovation– I wondered why Starbucks hadn’t thought of it. What followed was another two hour exciting exchange of traveler’s tales and stories that intrigue me to no end. I didn’t get their names, but that didn’t really matter. Their stories left an imprint on my imagination.
I could tell Cerise was enjoying these moments as much as I was, and I could tell that she didn’t want to leave, but she had an obligation in Kathmandu. So after a delicious breakfast back at Nirvana, we parted ways with a hug and a smile and a “bon voyage.” I only fully realized after she left how much I enjoyed her quirky French presence.
Andrea was leaving today too, and once she vacated her room I moved in. The rest of the day was spent on those cushions hanging out with Sanjay and the exciting mix of Nepalese and internationals that would drop in from time to time.
The first day was all about decompression. I just chilled all day, breathing easy, enjoying Sunitas’ delicious Nepali cuisine, and enjoying my book from the patio that overlooked valleys and kingdoms below.
I would’ve been happy to have each day be a repeat of the first, but I was also excited to explore Nagarkot’s fascinating mountain culture. So with the rising sun the next day I set out on a journey through time-worn paths that lead every which direction through these hills. I had been told that marijuana grows wild through the Nepalese mountains, but it still was shocking when I’d come across plants beside the trail. The hiking was epic, the trails were beautiful– perhaps thousands of years of walking these paths and the cumulative improvements along the way has resulted in extremely well-maintained trails.
I wanted to listen to my iPod, but quickly realized that it was futile to try. Every couple of minutes I’d come across a thatched-roof dwelling with befuddled peasants who’d look at me with wide-eyes like I was from a different dimension. Those that could speak any English would ask me where I come from and what is my name. Every once in a while I’d come across someone who could speak decent English, and then I’d have to remove the headphones and dig through my bag for my hearing aids.
One family in particular captured my imagination. A young boy tending to some yaks was standing beside the trail and endeared himself to me when he spoke, “Excuse me, would you like something to drink?” It was hot under the sun, I was out of water, and this sounded like a great idea. He leads me down a dirt path to the other side of his house and I find an elderly woman sitting in the shade beside a massive pile of marijuana. Her fingers are black with resin and she’s removing the leaves from each stem.
The young boy who addressed me is Anil. He is 14 and has a surprising command of the English language. He returns from his hut with a large bowl of some milky yellow drink. I’m not really all that interested in trying it, but what can I do? It’s called “chang”. I still don’t really know what it is– it tastes a little like the roxi that I had the other night, but Anil says it’s not alcoholic. He and his five sisters are very intrigued by everything i have in my bag: my iPod, my camera, my compass, my cowboy hat. I hand him my camera and he and his siblings began snapping away many photos of each other, reviewing each one and laughing hysterically.
He invites me to eat some curry, and though I’m totally hungry and would love to spend more time with these people, I check the time and see that if I don’t get a move on it, I’m not going to make the last bus back up the mountain to Nagarkot. Though locals climb the 3000 feet of elevation everyday, I fear that I am physically incapable of completing the seven mile arduous ascent before dark. Just before leaving, Anil asks with great sincerity for my phone number and my address. He keeps asking me how to contact me. I don’t really know what to tell him because I haven’t called the US yet, and I don’t think he has access to email. At any rate, I give him my business card and as I turn around to depart, the last image I have of this encounter is Anil surrounded by his solemn family, holding onto my business card like a treasured gift.
The peaceful late-day sunshine gives these terraced hills a timeless quality. I see peasants working the fields and I know that the view would be the same even a thousand years ago. As usual in this foreign land, I don’t know where I’m going, so I keep asking locals for directions to the Sangku bus stop. I’m not sure if they understand what I’m asking, but they keep pointing down the road, and eventually I find a bus beside a roadside hut.
Much relieved to have made it on time, i jump on the bus and suddenly feel very tired. A young woman with a baby sits down beside me. The baby is so cute and seems fascinated by my strange appearance. He seems eager to touch me, and when I ask his mother if I can hold him, she smiles and happily puts him in my arms. The whole way back to Nagarkot, the warmth of his precious body puts a happy feeling in my heart. And when we arrive, I pass him back to his mother and we exchange smiles and namastes.
The scene back at Nirvana is as timeless as the hills. Sure enough, I return to find good music playing on the stereo and some folks gathered enjoying some tea and dinner by candlelight. I take a seat, order some food, and kick back too.
Over the course of the night several of Sanjay’s friends stop in. They all play guitar and many of them have amazing voices. The music they make captures my heart and seems so irresistably romantic, but is also joyous and all the gay Nepali guys commence a rowdy group sing-along when they hear an old Nepali pop song. I ask them to teach me the lyrics and now the melody is imprinted in my head. I think it will become the foundation for a new song that I’m working on, which I hope to record possibly with some of these Nagarkot musicians.
I didn’t want to leave Nagarkot, but as special as it’s been– I haven’t showered in many days, my clothes are tired, and I’m really anxious to return to my cello and beautiful Bhaktapur. I’m also excited to return to Kathmandu because I now have a lead for three masterful musicians living there and I wish to find them. Instead of taking a bus on back (the easy way), I opted to descend the mountain on foot– a decision that led to another afternoon of fascinating experiences.
All day long I kept musing on the conviction that Nepal shall be for me a place that beholds infinite opportunities. So far my experiences have taught me that every moment is laced with spontaneous offerings from God– a perpetual whispering voice that says, “Come here!” This voice says to me to go forward boldly, do not fear and do not think you have erred in your calculations. This moment is a gift. Enjoy Nepal and all the random episodes that present themselves. Every minute is an hour, and in every conversation there is wisdom to behold. The lotus comes to mind, and I think of Nepal as a flower unfolding in perfect time.