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.

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