October 17: Time-Traveling through Ancient Bhaktapur

Last sight out my window before going to bed was a bonfire in the street, around which several kids were playing some kind of gambling game. They were shouting and exchanging money, and my instinct told me that what they were doing was probably shady. 
 
At 5 am I awoke to the stench of burning plastic, and when I looked out my window I saw a huge pile of trash in flames. Already at this hour there was quite a stir of activity in the street. I saw the produce vendors unpacking their goods and I wondered why they even bothered putting it away. It seems like everyone does business here 24/7. I guess that’s the way to maximize sales.
 
I thought it’d be fun to experience this beautiful old village before it awoke and so I set off on foot in the pre-dawn darkness. Instantly I was quite moved by what I saw. In front of many homes and all around these streets there were little tea-candles aglow, many of them surrounded by freshly-painted iconography that suggested it was a Hindu thing. 
 
A few steps further and I came across a young man wearing flip-flops and an Abercrombie Fitch t-shirt. He was up to his knees in excrement and was using his hands to clean the intestines of a giant beast that lay slain on the street, a river of blood flowing downhill. Steam is rising from the animal’s corpse and another man with a huge butcher’s knife is cutting off chunks of meat and placing them on a roadside table for purchase. Nearby, a little boy is peeing in a gutter.
 
The sun was just beginning to rise but the goings-on around these streets seemed to be the same whether it was morning, noon, or night. Where four roads meet, I come across a Hindu shrine and several elders, women, men, and children are removing their shoes, touching a statue in dutiful reverence, lighting candles, scattering flowerpetals, and reciting prayers. I watched this situation for a while and was trying to figure out this ritual, but no patterns emerged. I mean, on one level it seemed like a very devout holy ritual, but then within earshot distance from the shrine, a pack of school-girls are giggling and talking loudly.  I concluded that this is just their way of life, and unlike the Christian church, all aspects of life are holy. You don’t need to be silent to honor God here, you just do the rituals and live your life.
 
A little ways further down the road I come across a courtyard that appears today exactly as it did several hundred years ago. I hesitate to enter because it’s a holy place and I can see from the doorway that many practitioners are performing their rituals. But I hear the sound of drums and I’m totally intrigued. So I enter the courtyard and pause to digest the richness of this cultural experience. A group of elders are gathered inside a shrine– some are banging drums, others are crashing cymbals, and one man who appears to be a thousand years old is singing verses of holy text. A few women are filling buckets of water from a well, others are sweeping the area with handmade brooms.  Surrounding the courtyard there are candles and statues of Gods, around which a procession of people silently move about making holy gestures.
 
Everywhere I walk this morning, chickens are hobbling around and I wonder how their owners keep track of them. Above me there are millions of colorful flags zigzagging across these narrow cobblestone roads . I come around a corner, and for the first time since I’ve been in Nepal, my eyes behold a beautiful view of the mountains. I pause for a moment and enjoy the rising sun warm upon my face. I think I’m going to stay in Bhaktapur for a while. 

October 19: Living Like a Local During Diwali in Bhaktapur

Traveling alone can be lonely sometimes. I find myself craving interactions with fellow travelers. I see them at coffee shops, on the streets, or around my hotel, and I’ll say hi. Given the difficulty of existing in a foreign land, I imagine other travelers would be just as eager to reach out. But the irony, I find, is that many of these travelers are Europeans and either they don’t speak English, or they just aren’t that sociable. So I end up spending a lot of time in my head.
 
I found myself thinking a lot about this yesterday. A year of traveling by myself– that’s a long time. These thoughts became amplified when I came across a couple from France that were enjoying a beer and conversation filled with laughter. They seemed like best of friends– so comfortable with each other and themselves. Backpackers often travel in two, and I got thinking how nice it’d be to be traveling with a loved one, to be able to share in this culture-shock and always have a comfortable place to lay my head at the end of the day. 
 
Traveling alone, however, also opens doors that otherwise would not have been opened. This year is all about experiences and putting myself in those awkward places so that a spontaneous beam of light might burst through the clouds and introduce me to the real Nepal .
 
A door was opened last night. 
 
It was the final night of Diwali, a multi-day festival that celebrates the Hindu goddess, Lakshmi, by lighting the town with candles. No street lights– just the warm glow of candles flickering outside of every doorway, in every window, and all around the town. 
 
I was walking around this ancient cobblestone-village with a big smile on my face, enamored by the gaiety amongst the children. They were all singing songs, jumping up and down, igniting serious bombs (fireworks), and then laughing hysterically. The girls were all dressed in their finest, most beautiful, clothes looking like princesses and ambling down the street slowly with linked arms. Elders were banging drums and chanting holy verse in the many temples. Women were carrying offerings of bananas and fennel to a shrine. Others were inviting the goddess Lakshmi to their homes by painting little footsteps and a pathway to their door.   There was so much to take in and I was enjoying my peaceful state of mind. 
 
At one particular intersection it was pure sensory-overload. I decided to take a seat under one of the town’s many peasant resting stoops.
 
No sooner had I sat down, a kind-looking guy who bared an uncanny resemblance to my Pakistani friend back home approaches me, introduces himself, and says, “You are alone? I am alone, too…come on, let’s go play table tennis.” I smile to think this guy is like an angel who has come to ease my loneliness. Ping-pong sounds like a great idea, so I follow him through a hobit-sized opening of a door nearby and we arrive in a courtyard that abutts a temple.The guy with the ball and paddles is not home, however, and so our ping-pong game doesn’t happen. But my new friend, Subash, suggests we go for a walk and that also sounds like a good idea.
 
As we set off walking it doesn’t surprise me when he puts his arm around me. It’s the Nepali way. All around town I see guys like this– sometimes they are holding hands, sometimes they are huddled together on a stoop looking like lovers. Some of these guys probably are gay, but in this traditional village and all around Nepal, gay is not really a word in their dictionary. This is just how friends enjoy each other– it’s really quite a beautiful manifestation of love and friendship.
 
The village of Bhaktapur isn’t very big, and in no time we reach the western boundary, then the southern boundary, and then back on through the Old Town. I ask where we are going and Subash says, “We are just walking, you are keeping me company. I am not keeping you company– you are keeping me company.” It’s telling that he says this because it’s clear to me that it’s an honor for him to be spending time with me and showing me this town and culture he is so proud of. The truth is, however, that I am really enjoying his c ompany and don’t care where we go or what we do.
 
He suggests we go get a drink, and so we step inside a poorly-lit little roadside hut that is literally a hole in the wall. It doesn’t get many foreign customers– this I know. Ten or so Nepali twenty-something men are sitting around with serious, grim-looking expressions on their face. But as soon as I smile and say “namaste” (which means ‘I honor the God in you”), everyone begins to smile and laugh, and they make place on the bench for Subash and I. 
 
Subash orders some “spirits” for us. I’m a little bit concerned because I remember my friend Mike’s warning about the Nepali moonshine. But when in Nepal, you do like the Nepalese– that’s the philosophy that directs my course.
 
The drink is a rice-based drink called “roxi”, and it’s not that bad. It tastes a bit like weak whiskey. They make it themselves, and serve it out of a repurposed plastic water bottle. Subash introduces me to the cute little 7th grade gal who fills my glass and explains she is the daughter of his friends who are cooking up “snacks” in front of a wok. Subash points to the men around this “bar” and says they are all his friends and neighbors, and this is where he goes. I look around the room and see that everyone is staring at us with wide-eyed curiousity– no one is talking except Subash and I. 
 
Without ordering anything, we are served a small dish of “buff” (fried yak-meat), some papadam (thin wafer cracker), and some other tasteless rice-cracker. They refill our glasses. Subash explains he doesn’t usually drink because he is a teacher and needs to “keep good reputation.” But tonight, he is just enjoying his time with me and so he lifts his glass and says cheers. We finish our drink and he says, “ok, let’s go.” 
 
We walk back to the table-tennis courtyard where this evening began. Surrounded by darkness, a small group of young men are huddled around a small square of red-hot embers. They make room for us and we sit down, extending our hands towards the fire for warmth. Subash says these guys, too, are his close friends. I look around the circle and notice they are sharing beers and smoking hashish cigarettes. They offer me a beer and when I say yes, one guy sprints off around the corner and returns with a delightfully-cold Tuborg. I’m impressed with their generosity, dropping a significant 200 ruppees for me. But it doesn’t end there. A moment later, another guy returns with a bag of cashews and hands it to me. And then they ask me if I want noodles, to which I respond no because I am full. Another guy brings me a juice-box filled with mango juice. All these gestures warm my heart, and I realize this is the Nepali way of honoring a guest.
 
By now I’m feeling fully at ease. I can dig this situation. Hanging out beside a fire, talking and laughing with some fun people– this is my style and I’m enjoying myself. 
 
Subash pulls out his cellphone and starts showing me pictures of his family that he took earlier this evening. After we look at several photos of  his dead-serious family in festive regalia, he says unabashedly with a hearty laugh that he loves porn and has over 150 videos on his phone. All of his friends are now looking over his shoulders and are laughing too. 
 
He asks me if I’ve ever had sex and says he has just once. He explains that it just isn’t possible in this small town because everyone knows everything here. And if you did have sex, “you would be looked at not good”. I find it fascinating how open the Nepalese are. They talk about everything and anything. They don’t have walls — no filters, no pride to protect. It’s all just opportunities for sharing and laughing, which they do constantly. 
 
Looking around the circle of friends here I am struck by the diversity of their physical characteristics. Subash is Newari, a smart-looking brown man that could pass for a westerner. Another guy’s robust cheekbones and intense eyes suggest Mongol heritage, and if I didn’t know better I’d think he was dangerous. Sargum and his handsome brother Santay are practically black– they look like Muslims from Nigeria. The other guys reflect equally diverse shades of Asian and Indian ancestry. They all share the Newari-language and a deep friendship that unites them all despite their differences.
 
It’s quiet in this gathering. As usual, everyone is stone silent, watching Subash and I carry on. I’d like to hear some music and when I ask about it, a guy with a “fancy” cellphone queues up some Nepali folk music and everyone starts singing along, sounding like adolescent girls. I am totally tickled by this and release a hearty belly-laugh. 
 
I pull out my camera to capture this moment and everyone quickly gathers around me to look at the picture I just took. They want to see more photos and I begin cycling through the pictures I have taken over the past few days. It’s kind of surreal because previously all my subjects were just random sights that caught my eye, but now these guys are saying things like…”ahh…that’s my student. Oh, and that’s my uncle.” They ask me why I have taken these pictures and I shrug saying, “I don’t know, i just take pictures of the things that I like to see.” They chide me when I advance to a picture of a pretty girl.
 
By now our group has expanded significantly and there are about 15 of us gathered in the courtyard. The guy with the paddles arrives and we begin playing ping-pong. A group of guys sit down on the ground and with a dim-light overhead and begin playing a gambling card game. Subash tells me playing cards here is illegal, but everyone does it. This being Asia, it doesn’t surprise me that they are incredible at table-tennis. I try my hand and am actually impressed with how well I’m playing tonight, but it’s still no match for these guys and I get my butt kicked. We all laugh– there is no competitiveness here. 
 
It’s real late now by Nepali standards– close to midnight. Subash suggests we go for a nightcap of a cup of Nepali tea and then depart for sleep. He reads my mind as we are leaving– he can tell I’d like to hang out with them again. He says I can always find him in this courtyard any night of the week. “Tomorrow night, the night after that– in ten years time, we’ll be here. In Bhaktapur nothing ever changes. We may look a little different in ten years, but we’ll be doing the same thing. This is how we live.” 
 
As we walk along the darkened street towards the tea-house, he says that he has no car, no motorcycle. He is a teacher and he doesn’t make much money. But that’s ok.  He says, “I am satisifed with my life. I have just a short walk to the school where I work. I don’t need a car, I don’t need much money. I have many friends and I am happy with the simple life. In Kathmandu it’s different, but here in Bhaktapur– we enjoy simple life that always stays the same.”
 
All that alcohol was beginning to go to my head and so the tea is nice. Sitting on a curb beside a temple, we carry on talking about many subjects. Not far from us a group of crazy kids are tossing firecrackers at each other recklessly  and laughing hysterically. Once our tea is finished, Subash once again insists on paying the bill. It costs just a few nickels and a dime, but the gesture is priceless and I feel honored to have spent this evening with my new friends. 
 
I’m headed to Nagarkot tomorrow morning. I tell him this and he says ok, “When you come back to Bhaktapur, you know where to find me. I will always like to see you, so just ask anyone and they will bring me to you.” We shake hands and bid farewell. 
 
Back in my guest-house I process all this while playing cello for a while. Tonight was a gift. This is the Nepal I was hoping to experience.

A Taxi Ride

It’s just before sunset, which is right around the time when everyday all of Kathmandu loses power for an hour or two. It’s also when all across the city there is major congestion– so bad that the whole city becomes completely gridlocked and everyone just sits on their horn.

I really should’ve left more than a half-hour to make it to my destination, but I’m still learning. And besides, I only needed to go a short distance, so I figured that should leave enough time. I found a taxi-driver drinking chai beside his cab, I negotiated a rate of $1.50, and off we went towards Patan.

Perhaps sitting in the backseat would’ve spared me some grey hairs, but I chose the passenger seat. I was in for a journey of a lifetime!

Departing Freak Street, the congestion began immediately. There were thousands of people everywhere! Cars and rickshaws, busses, motorcycles, pedestrians…it was totally mad. And like millions of ants crawling over each other, we were all just trying to get a little further– if only just a few inches further. 

There seems to be just one model of car here. It’s a miniature little vehicle– a Suzuki, and it’s just a bit bigger than a go-cart. 

The cabdrivers are madmen. They speed down insanely crowded roads that are so narrow you would think they are only for pedestrians. These drivers possess an extraordinary sense of their dimensions, however, and they seldom err in knowing what’s physically possible. 

Like water that always finds a way to flow past obstacles, the drivers and pedestrians of Kathmandu are all part of the unstoppable fluid throng that always finds a way to pass on through.  Currently, we are all at a standstill, but the Darwinian principle of survival-of-the-fittest is in effect, and every now and then someone finds a hole and drives off.

Usually it’s the motorcyclists. They seem to maneuver the best in this traffic. The pedestrians, they can also usually find a gap somewhere, even if it means they have to change their course, backtrack, and go around obstacles. The rickshaws (slow-moving bicyclists with a carriage), they are the least agile and usually have to hang out until everything clears up. The cars and the busses, they  just edge forward little by little, knowing they are bigger than everyone else and they always get their way eventually.

Interestingly though, there is no roadrage here. Though everyone is sitting on their horns incessantly, no one seems particularly frustrated by this standard every-day scenario. It’s just the way of life here in over-populated Kathmandu.

Though it seems I’m going to be late for tonight’s show, I feel like I’m in good hands with my driver. This guy is like Rambo and he’s employing every guerilla tactic in the cabdriver’s handbook. He’s hopping up onto curbs, ducking down narrow corridors, he’s pulling uturns in narrow spaces, and he keeps modifying his strategy based on where the heavy congestion lies. I might be late, but if anyone is gonna get me there as quickly as possible, it’s this guy. Once he finds an opening, he picks up the pace and is now freakin’ flying down these bumpy dirt-roads. Neither the many people scattered everywhere, nor the little kids playing in the street cause him to ease up.  

Another interesting thing about driving in the city: there is an extraordinary element of respect, or civility, in all this chaos. These drivers will not hit another. They might go from 60 to 0 and come to an abrupt stop with their bumper touching the clothes of an oblivious pedestrian ahead of them, but they will not hit the person. I don’t know how they do it, because there really is no margin for error here, and yet I have yet to see a single accident, never does a foot get run over, and no one seems to ever make a bad calculation.

When things get really jammed up, there is a shared commitment to do doing whatever it takes to free up even one person. You back up a little, you move over, you try to get out of the way– whatever it takes. Also noteworthy, the Nepalese don’t say “thank you” in general, but they also don’t give the old cordial wave of the hand once someone helps them out in a jam. You just go on your way. Of course, this happens thousands of times every time you go somewhere.

The bottom line: you have to be aggressive. Otherwise, you will get nowhere. If you waited for an opening you would just sit there all day long. My cabdriver knows this better than anyone, and an hour and half later, we arrive at my destination. My nerves are totally jangled, but my driver doesn’t seem at all stirred.  It seems outrageous that he just endured this madness for a paltry $1.50, so I give him a nice tip. As I begin to walk off I see him turn his car around and begin to wait for the next customer. And so it goes…just another day in the life of a Kathmandu cabdriver.

October 12, 2009: Freak Street

At first I was a little bit disheartened when the guy at the front desk of my Thamel guest house told me that last night would be my final night with them. I felt like I was getting kicked out even though he explained they had reservations to honor. It was a good thing, I concluded. I needed a push, because I really didn’t want to be there. 
 
A few days earlier I had wandered south of Durbar Square to the street unofficially known as Freak Street. In the 70’s when hippies were all about turning on, tuning in, and dropping out this is where some of them went. Living practically for free in this outrageously cheap area and enjoying the abundance of marijuana and hash, the hippies found a home in this little bohemian enclave. 
 
(side note: a rat just came scampering across the floor beside me as I’m sitting here typing this…ok…distracted, but I shall proceed)
 
Anyhow, without knowing much of its history when I came across this area the other day I was struck by the chill vibe. I could feel it in the air and I liked it. I saw dreadlocked hippies drinking beer in the afternoon, smoking cigarettes and playing chess, reading books, and hanging out at sidewalk cafes looking all zoned out, people-watching. Very different from Thamel.
 
I needed a place to relocate to and this seemed like a refreshing alternative. I found a humble little room that offered little comfort, but at least it was cheap and the lock on the door seemed adequate. The sweet little Nepali girl who checked me in was so irresistibly cute it made me happy just to spend a few moments with her. And at less than $2 a night, what the hell. How could I go wrong, if only for a night.
 
Immediately after setting my bags down, I walked across the street to a little coffee stoop where a couple of seasoned-travelers were hanging out.
 
When you come across these common backpacker scenarios, you never know who knows who, nor can you really know the dynamic of the situation. At this moment I saw individuals sitting together silently. Sometimes they would talk, or laugh a little, and then curiously someone would get up and walk away without any regard or word of farewell. I’m drinking a delicious french press of coffee (the best cup I’ve had so far). The others, they are smoking cigarettes, sipping herbal teas, and nursing pints of beer while staring out into the void of their thoughts.
 
After spending a little too much time inside my head, I was really happy to come across this crowd. I broke the silence and made a little small talk with the folks around me. Quickly this silent ensemble came to life and I got to know my neighbors. There was a kiwi named Clint, a curious Malaysian dude named Azli, a beautiful German Israeli woman working at the American Embassy, a Nepali hipster, and an American gal wearing Nepali garb reading Eat Pray Love. 
 
Before long we are exchanging ideas and laughing. The community feels so good to me right now. Beside us, there’s a barefoot hippy with dreadlocks twirling balls attached to rope. The sound of sitars and tablas are blasting out from a music store nearby and I’m in love with this moment.
 
Azli, a 44-year old Malaysian smiler (who looks no more than 30), he sees my book “Joy of Living” and says to me ironically, “there’s no happiness in living.” I like him instantly. With two spools of colorful yarn, he’s crocheting a “pouch” for a friend and he says to me that he is the most productive person in the world. He’s been on the road for the past 15 months and says he was born with the gift of a photographer’s eye. After viewing a few of the photos on his camera, I have to agree. He invites me to his room to view his collection of photos and this sounds like a great idea. 
 
Once we get to his room he pulls out his MacBook and begins a slideshow of photos he’s taken of his travels through India. His photos are beautiful, so striking I immediately feel like crying. Beauty and sadness conveyed poignantly in the eyes of his subjects– these primoridal expressions of life he has captured are bleak, often lonesome, and yet in all these photos of poorer-than-dirt India, there is a persistent hint of joy and salvation . The soundtrack he choses for this moment is Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”, which strikes me as the perfect fit! The lyrics of this song push me over the edge and now I’m totally overwhelmed with emotions.  (To see his photos, check him out on Flickr.)
 
As much as I’m enjoying this moment, I am now late. There is a concert tonight in Patan and I’m really excited to be there. It’s the 2nd to final night of Jazzmandu and tonight’s show is a fusion of Nepali classical music with European jazz musicians.  I must go!

October 11, 2009: An Encounter with the Ghandharba Musicians

I awoke this morning thinking I’d reached the end of my rope. This would be my last day in Thamel, I can’t take it any longer. It’s too intense, I hate cities, and this just isn’t the life for me. But then along my morning journey around these streets I come upon the curious Ghandharba musicians.

Up a dark stairwell in the back of an unmarked building, I walked tentatively in search of the “Ghandharba Music Association” that Lonely Planet spoke of. On the 2nd floor, I come upon a small unfurnished room occupied by a young man. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting to find, but there’s a sign on the door and a young man welcomes me in enthusiastically. 

I sit down on a straw stool and the young man begins explaining the Ghandharba Association. He mentions that they are a caste of musicians– the lowest caste in Hindu society, part of the “untouchables” caste. They aspire to make a living playing music, but remain largely poor and uneducated, earning pocket change selling an occasional handmade instrument to tourists.

Their instruments are sarangis, drums, and flutes. The sarangi  is similar to a fiddle in that has four strings, a bow, and you play melodies all day long while making use of a drone (in the key of G). The music they make is a jovial pleasant kind of music, it just makes you happy. You hear this music blasting out from dozens of music stores all around touristy Thamel, it is the quintessential Nepali music.

I’m probably filled with misinformation, but I’m learning lots as I sit in this room listening to my new musician friend, Suresh, explain all these things. As we are seated talking many other young men begin to file in through the doors and gather around. They are all part of this music association and have been playing a variety of instruments since a very young age when they learned from their parents, who also play music all day long everyday. I’m intrigued. These sound like my kind of people! And when Suresh mentions that these musicians were part of the Mountain Music Project, an amazing fusion of bluegrass and Nepali folk music, I feel that this is a fateful encounter and that I’m supposed to stick around Thamel, at least for another night.

I return to my room, grab my cello, and come back to “the office” ready to rock. There are many new faces and as I pull out my cello they all stare with curiosity. They want to hear and I want to play, but as I begin sawing away on this unamplified electric cello, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s just not loud enough. In fact, you really couldn’t hear it all. It’s ok by itself, in a quiet environment. But accompanied by drums, a sarangi, and a jews harp, it just kind of looks cool, and that’s about it. Everyone is curious though and I pass it around the circle for everyone to try. 

It’s clear that I need an amplifier if I wish to play with others. But jeez, I really can’t stand the thought of adding an amplifier to my already-excessive baggage.  This possible purchase spurs bigger thoughts and I find myself wondering what I want with music. Suresh keeps talking about his “Sarangi for Peace” project, which he says would benefit from my cello and invites me to practice with his band. I’m intrigued, but it also makes me question my priorities and my commitment to learning the Nepali music. These kinds of things take time, and am I ready to dive in head first? Can I really stay in Kathmandu for an extended period? Is it realistic to think of recording music with these people? Do I have the time? I mean, if I do a 3-week long trek, some rafting, a few weeks in meditation retreats…where does that leave me? I wanna be free, but I also really wanna make music. The classic conundrum of my life.

It’s nighttime, I’m reflecting on all these things. I’m a bit stressed out tonight and a bit sad. Maybe it’s just that Kathmandu has me kind of strung out. I feel I can’t take it any longer. As much as I’m in awe of this explosion of culture happening everywhere all the time, I also find it totally overwhelming. My heart is tied in knots and I feel like I need to get out of here to a more peaceful place.

October 10, 2009: The Road to Durbar Square

The charm of Nepal has begun to reveal itself. After a great night of rest, I awoke with a smile in my heart. I meditate for a while and then emerge into the ever-bustling mayhem of Thamel looking for a breakfast joint. A handsome Nepali greaser quickly approaches me, “Namaste, how are you, I am fine, where do you come from?” I hesitate to respond, but he’s so damn cute and seems sincere, and beside — what could he possibly want? I think to myself, how do all these people make money and why do they waste so much time with me? Most of the time I am fearing for my life and dodging obstacles, hardly listening to a word they are saying. But they remain persistent and follow me around like a puppy dog thinking perhaps they’ll change my mind and I’ll say, “Ok , actually I am ready to book a trek to Everest, take me to your office and let’s do some business.”

These questionable characters, however, are usually very kind and helpful. He asks me what I am looking for, and when I say breakfast, he leads me down the road to a great little cafe named Pumpernickel Bakery. This place is nice. Catering to foreigners, it’s civilized, clean, they offer bakery products, eggs, and coffee– very nice. 

Seated beside the garden, I am enjoying my delicious cappucino, watching the rotating clientele of internationals that come and go. So many pretty women…Israelis, Dutch, Swedish, Poles, Canadians…I admire their beauty and for a moment feel a bit lonely. Especially when I see a pretty woman lean over and giver her boyfriend the most beautiful ‘I love you’ kiss.

I’m busy planning my strategy for the day. The sunlight is painting the walls of this peaceful bakery and along comes a kind-looking older woman. Her name is Susan. I invite her to join me and she pulls up a chair. I explain that I’m a bit overwhelmed and wondering how to spend my time. With a big smile and heart full of compassion she responds to each statement in a thick Australian accent “yeaasss”. I like her instantly. She pulls out a business card, hands it to me, and tells me to contact her. She’s lived and worked here for 13 years and knows a great pianist who can connect me to musicians. When I express my concerns about my safety she offers a nugget of wisdom and says, “You shouldn’t think like that, because then it will happen to you.” I’d love to talk longer with her, but she is meeting two “volunteers”, and they have just arrived.

I set out on a walking tour south of Thamel to Durbar Square, the Old Town. Every step along the way is a photo opportunity. Sights and sounds I could never imagine. I’m snapping away. Everywhere I look there are Buddhist temples and Hindu shrines that are hundreds of years old, architecture so ancient I feel like I’m in a time warp. Along the way I see a man shaving the scales off a a pile of fish with blood and guts scattered around him. Another man is hauling a massive block of stuff upon his back aided by a strap around his forehead . A yellow-robed sadhu (wondering holy man) sitting on the side of the road  appears to be about a thousand years old. Meanwhile, there is the persistent introduction of smiling gentlemen who want to be my guide and ask me the same questions. Several sad-looking women carrying their forlorn babies approach me with an empty bottle asking for milk money.

Where I go really doesn’t matter. Any which road I travel is lined with historic architecture and incredibly crowded streets packed with vendors, all selling the exact same products. Astonishingly though, they all have clientele sifting over their goods and exchanging money. 

Eventually guided by a compass and the Lonely Planet guide I arrive at Durbar Square. It is totally amazing! 15th century stupas, temples, shrines, and holy structures surround me. It’s a living museum here at Durbar Square and it’s also a lively social scene. Thousands of people are gathered all around and up on the platforms elevated high above the square. You see guys huddled together like lovers enjoying each other’s company, like best of friends. (Mind you, they are not gay, this is just a common Nepali expression of love and friendship). Many are paying respects to Hindu gods. A pack of giggly young school girls in uniform are walking down the road with linked arms. All these people seem so genuinely happy and their smiles reveal a disregard for the chaotic reality of over-population.  It strikes me that this scene has probably been occurring at this square for the past several centuries. The only difference is the automobiles which are honking incessantly and edging persistently through the mad throngs of pedestrians all around the square.

Tonight, I am sitting in a bar called “New Orleans”, writing in my journal by candlelight. I’ve been loitering for a while, taking advantage of the free wifi. But now my computer battery has died, my beer is empty, and I will go. Goodnight.

October 9, 2009: First Thoughts Upon Arrival in Kathmandu

Holy shit! What have I gotten myself into? These are the first thoughts that come to mind upon exiting the Tribuvan Airport in Kathmandu. My heart is racing and I’m immediately deathly-scared, probably looking like a deer in headlights, fearing I’ve blundered in epic proportions.

My backpack and cello are heavy upon my back and I’m already struggling a bit. (Why didn’t I play harmonica, and why did I feel compelled to bring a cello…those are the 2nd and 3rd thoughts). Meanwhile, the crescendo of street tumult is getting louder with each step I take. A wild throng of Nepalis are watching each of us exit the terminal. Their eyes are soft and warm, but there are a million voices shouting out trying to sell their services. I’m overwhelmed and realize instantly that I’m in for a challenging adventure.

A handsome fellow establishes eye-contact with me from among the crowd and asks me if I need a taxi. He doesn’t look like a cab river, but I do need a ride and he seems friendly enough. I say ok, but I’m very skeptical. After negotiating the fare, he reaches to help me with my bag. Part of me is all too eager to have his assistance, but I also have this feeling like I’m about to get jumped and robbed, left for dead at any moment. Please note: this is just part of the acclimation process in a third-world country…infact, it didn’t take long to realize the Nepalis are a very trust-worthy folk. But in this moment of shell-shock, anything seemed possible and as this spritely dude walks quickly towards his taxi I am doing my best to keep a hand on the bag…just in case. We get to the taxi cab and i find a rather scary dude behind the wheel. He doesn’t speak english, and so my Nepali “guide” does all the talking. I can only imagine what they are saying. Two of them, one of me…I’m definitely gonnna be robbed and left for dead.

The taxi is really small. Infact, my cello just barely even fits in the car. The driver could have gone in reverse to exit the parking spot, but instead he proceeds to hobble over a tall curb. Heartbeat increases.

Immediately, I am fearing for my life. The streets are total chaos and this driver is going really fast. Everywhere I look there is a mad procession of pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, dogs, rickshaws, and bicyclists. Everyone is carrying on in this dangerous parade within millimeters of each other, and yet it’s clear to me that this is quite normal here. My cab driver is moving so furiously fast and I brace myself as best as I can, but there are no seat belts and my knees are pressed tightly against the dashboard. All the while my Nepali guide is hammering me with questions and lighthearted conversation. I’m having a really hard time focusing on his words and just kind of drool empty responses that probably don’t even make any sense.

Meanwhile, both sides of the street are lined with an equally chaotic bazaar of vendors hawking random goods. There are dirty-faced bearfoot children approaching the taxi when it comes to a stop asking for money. A ragged older man is laying among the debris on the side of the road. Another is sifting through the piles of roadside trash and sludge. All around me, these are the kind of things happening everywhere!

The destination is the “Lotus Guest House” in Thamel, which was highly recommended by a friend. However, there was some confusion among the driver and my guide because there are a few guest houses with similar names. They seemed surprised when I mentioned this place, and once we arrived I could see why. Carefully angling my bags and cello through narrow doorways, I enter the dark “hotel” lobby and find a group of grim-looking dudes staring at me with this look on their face that was saying to me, “hmm…we’ve never seen a foreigner come through these doors before…this oughtta be some good loot.” One of them offers me the chance to see the room before I commit and that sounds like a good idea to me. Once I see the room, however, I am appalled by the dirty hovel and am immediately convinced that I will not be staying there. Surely this wasn’t the “Lotus Guest House” my friend had recommended.

My guide agrees that this place is not safe, not a good fit for me, and offers to take me to another place down the road. The next place is equally as sketchy. But the third place we come to, while dark and kinda grimy, at least it has a room that gets sunlight and a good lock on the door. So I say ok. Anything will do, I just really wanted to rid myself of this beast of a cello.
After setting my bags down I go back downstairs into the lobby to take a breather and hang out with the kind gentlemen who checked me in. He says he plays guitar and goes down to his room to get it. He begins to strum a Bob Marley song and I immediately like the guy. I start to feel a little more secure and better about my decision. I see a few backpackers come in and that’s comforting.
I contemplate going for a walk and surveying my surroundings, but instead I return to my room, sprawl out on the bed naked, and quickly slip into a deep slumber. Upon returning to the surface of consciousness, I experience a hazy euphoria, like a meditative bliss, that is a cross between dreaming and awakeness. After two days in transit with minimal shut-eye, this rest feels delightful and as I lay there thinking I realize a smile is on my face. I wonder how long I’ve been sleeping, but I really don’t care if I’ve slept the whole day away. There was still sunlight but I was cold. I knew night was approaching. I wanted to lay there forever, wishing this peace would never end. But then I remembered I was in Kathmandu– the relentless sound of car horns, barking dogs, and the city rumble tugging at my peace.

I go to brush my teeth and, out of habit, I rinse my brush in tap water. Shit! I realize my folly immediately and rationalize that maybe if I rinse my toothbrush really well I should undo the problem. (Then again, as I was brushing my teeth in the Newark Airport the other day, I dropped my brush into the public sink . Beside me several men were rounding up huge juicy honkers and spitting them into the sinks. I reclaimed my toothbrush in a flash, considered the 2 second rule, and then proceeded to brush my teeth.) The point being, either way I’m probably screwed, so a little tap water on my brush isn’t gonna be the deal breaker. Regardless, I rinse the brush with bottled water as thoroughly as I can and hope for the best.
Emerging from my dingy hotel, I follow the light out into the crazy Thamel street. Fumes, horns, bikers, rickshaws– madness everywhere. Yes, my peace has ended, and now I’m back to being frightened.

It’s not like you can just walk on the sidewalk and feel safe. No! Here it’s a a constant dance, dodging motorcyclists and cars speeding down both sides of the road. Crossing the road I feel like I’m playing the old video game Frogger, darting this way and that way just trying not to get squashed. Meanwhile, it seems like there’s always some shady dude offering me hash or tiger balm, and he’s intent in pursuing a sale, even though I’m nervously fending for my life and not even paying any attention to the guy.
I don’t really know what I’m doing here. I don’t wish to buy anything. I’m too nervous to eat anything. I don’t know anyone. And as far as I can tell, the only reason to be in Thamel is to buy cheap gifts, trinkets and imitation North Face clothes. None of which do I want.

It’s about 6pm. Maybe it’s rush hour. All I know is every one of these narrow roads are just jam-packed to maximum density with cars, motorcycles, bikes, and pedestrians. Nobody can budge. A big buss sits smack dab in the middle of it all and in this tricky Rubik’s cube of traffic, no one can maneuver themselves out of this situation. How in the world will it ever thin out? The air is atrocious. It’s all just carbon monoxide, dirt, and pestilence. I recall the peace of my hotel room and decide to head back and play cello.

It might be heavy and a major pain in the ass to be carrying, but it sure does feel good to play some music. Music is still the biggest thrill of all.

Before going to bed this night I meditate. I need it. Calm mind in the face of relentless distractions and fears– that’s what I desire. This trip is part music, part search for light. So it is fitting that I should resume my meditation practice among the madness of my Kathmandu reality. The value of meditation becomes amplified when surrounded by chaos.

Last thoughts before drifting off to sleep: the flower shall unfold in due time, for now I will try to postpone judgment and enjoy the miniature joys that have presented themselves so far.

October 16: A Day of Little Miracles and Unexpected Events

My sleep cycles are all screwed up these days. I get tired early in the day, I go to bed early, but then from midnight till daybreak I just toss and turn. Usually I kid myself thinking I might actually sleep till 7, but today I cut my losses and decided to just get up and begin my day at 5. Given the early start, I thought it’d be nice to make it up to Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche’s morning meditation session in Bodhnath.
 
Bodhnath, also known as Boudha, is home to several Buddhist monasteries and a significant population of Tibetan exiles. The town is just a few miles outside of Kathmandu. I could’ve taken a taxi– and that most certainly would’ve been a hell of a lot easier– but I was feeling brave and ready to experience my first journey on a public bus. 
 
On maps of the city you will see “City Bus Station”, but I found that a little misleading. I knew I’d arrived where I needed to be because I followed the map to the general location and found a mess of busses scattered about. But there was no ticket window, no schedules, no signs, no announcements– nothing like that. How does one know which bus will take them to their destination, I wondered.  
 
I asked a few people which bus was headed to Bodhnath and it seemed like everyone was just taking wild guesses, because they all pointed in different directions. I kept asking, though, and eventually I was led to the correct bus. At the door was a young boy who looked like a bandit with a stack of bills in hand, hollering the names of the places this bus serviced. He said all the names so fast though, it was more like a guttural bird-call, and even after listening to his schpeel several times I still couldn’t make out Bodhnath, Boudha, or anything even close. But I got on anyway.
 
It was comforting when a European girl with a large backpack got on after me. I said hello, and soon we were discussing her impending trek through the Himalayas. 
 
The bus filled up pretty quickly, and as anticipated we exceeded maximum occupancy by about double, maybe triple. It occurred to me after a while that I didn’t know what I was looking for, nor would I know when to get off. I asked the bandit for a heads-up and hoped  that he understood what I said. 
 
So far the whole bus ride process was taking much longer than expected. In fact, I was already too late to make it to the meditation. But when the bandit shouted out to me this was my stop, I jumped off and began walking towards the monastery. 
 
The Lonely Planet maps are decent, but just vague enough that I never seem to be able to follow them to my destination. Even though I use a compass, and measure my distances carefully (every 2 minutes  of walking is a tenth of mile), I still have serious troubles. This morning I thought I was on the right path, but after walking for way too long it occurred to me I was off-course. I asked several people for directions, but no one could speak english nor did they know the monastery I was asking about.
 
I had assumed Rinpoche was a celebrity in this Buddhist community, and that his famed “White Gompa” (monastery) was a landmark. But I was wrong. An air of desperation came over me. What do you do when you don’t know where you are, no one understands what the hell you are saying,  and no one can tell you where to go? When in doubt, eat!
 
Fortunately, along my way I passed by the Saturday Cafe, a bakery that I remembered from my friend Jim’s blog as being a great little place with a nice roof-deck and delicious food. So I decided to postpone the hunt for the monastery and instead go enjoy some breakfast. It was just as good as Jim said and the view from the roof-deck was surreal. Thousands of Tibetan prayer flags were strewn across the sky, connecting to the the golden dome of the large stupa (enormous white block structure) that was just a stone throws distance away.
 
After a nice breakfast I was recharged and committed to finding the monastery. Missing the meditation was inconsequential, but my only real goal for the day was that I wanted to find out details about a retreat taking place in December. Armed with compass, map, and directions from the waiter, I would not fail this time.
 
Heading north from the stupa, I came across several red-robed Buddhist monks,  giggly school-children in uniforms, and the standard array of produce and curio vendors. Sitting on the side of this dirt road, a young monk was reading Buddhist verses out loud. He appeared impenetrable, like those English guards who look like statues, and I don’t think he even noticed me watching him.
 
Turning up an unmarked back road, I come across a peaceful place that has a gate around a beautiful white building. Surely this must be the “White Gompa”. I had arrived! A young Nepali man was arriving at the same time and we exchange smiles and namastes. He asks me what I am looking for and in typical-Nepali style, he kindly assumes the role of being my guide and interpreter, asking the gatekeeper directions to the main-office. 
 
At the office I get all the details I needed for the retreat. December 5th, just show up. Everything else is tbd. 
 
As we are leaving the office my new friend, Birjin, explains he comes here twice a week to see his “grandmother”, a monk. She’s not really related to him, but he comes to see her because she’s lonely and has no family.  She’s 73 and has been at this monastery for the past 35 years. He asks me if I’d like to go meet her, and, of course, I’m game.
 
We walk down a corridor and find her sitting outside her bedroom. My first observation is that she’s in pain. Birjin points to his grandma’s room– a bleak concrete space that is very dirty from top to bottom and has nothing in it but a bed, a meditation cushion, and a few metal cups in the corner. Birjin tells me that his grandma has problems with her legs and that she can’t walk. Consequently, she has spent pretty much all of the past twenty years just sitting in this room. He welcomes me in and we sit down beside her bed. 
 
It’s clear that she’s delighted to see him. But once they begin conversing, I find myself totally perplexed. I’m trying to imagine what they are saying, projecting an American conversation over their foreign dialect. But it doesn’t work. His grandma would speak passionately for twenty straight minutes without pause, while Birjin bobbed his head listening. And then all of a sudden, he’d start flailing his warms and respond in strong-speach, conveying what seemed like anger or frustration. Occasionally one of them would laugh, and then the fiery-exchange would resume. This carried on for well over an hour. All the while I was expecting at any minute for either of two things to happen. Either she’d whisk him out of here and say angrily “Get lost!”. Or he will suddenly rise and say “I’m out of here!”. Neither of which actually happens. I’ve been following this exchange patiently for a while, and now my bones are aching from sitting so long and I’m a little bored. But I’m fascinated by their conversation and am committed to hanging out till they are through.
 
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a miniature monk who asks if we’d like to eat lunch. Though I just had breakfast a short while ago, how can I refuse? She brings three large plates of food and Birjin reads my mind. He asks, “Can you finish all that? Because it’s not good to leave food on your plate.” I tell him that a smaller plate would be good and he gives his grandma the enormous plate and passes me a smaller one.
 
Watching that woman devour her food was nothing short of extraordinary. Birjin says she has a hearty appetite and it makes my belly ache just watching her. The food was tasty though- rice, dal, spinach, and red-pickle sauce. I surprised myself in finishing all of my food because i really wasn’t hungry at all.
 
Once we’re through with lunch, Birjin says goodbye to his grandma and invites me to come with him to Baktapur, his hometown. I’m intrigued because I’ve been wanting to visit this mystical mountain town and I like the thought of accompanying a local. I ask how we’ll get there and if he has a car, but he just says, “Don’t worry,” and we begin walking.
 
At the center of town we hop on a bus– a very hot and crowded bus. Off we go. As we head towards the mountains, I keep waiting for the city sprawl of Kathmandu to recede and arrive in a place that is actually green and healthy. I thought I’d experience this on our way to Baktipur, but I was wrong. In fact, the noxious fumes of carbon dioxide and the clouds of dust blowing in through the window inspire me to put on my respiratory filter mask, which I pretty much always wear when out and about. 
 
An hour east of Kathmandu, the majestic foothills of the Himalayas come into focus and we arrive at Baktapur. Birjin surprises me when he says, “My brother just called me and needs me to do some work for him. I gotta go, so enjoy your time in Baktapur, and if you stay the night give me a call.”
 
Stay overnight? That wasn’t in the cards. I thought this was just a day trip journey. As is often the case with these Nepalese, they are so kind and sincere that I yield to them, but then I’m left with this strange feeling of “What the hell just happened?” As it stands, I paid for both legs of our bus fares, he walks off, and now I’m standing on a dusty road far away from my hotel room and all my stuff. 
 
But as I begin walking towards the ancient Old Town I realize immediately that this place has serious magical charm. And besides, I really have no desire to head back into crazy Kathmandu.
 
So I buy a toothbrush and toothpaste, and begin walking through this ancient village looking for a place to stay. Up a cobblestone path, and through narrow-winding roads lined with incredible Newari temples, shrines, and architecture, I’m taking it all in and loving every step. The roads are too narrow for most cars, so it’s peaceful, and the town feels like it might as well be 1200 AD. 
 
I find a nice room and spend the rest of the day and night wandering these streets travelling through time.