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.

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