Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Jewel Inside the Lotus Flower

It was a hot afternoon, on the 26th of April, that we crossed the border from India into Nepal at Sunauli, a crowded and dusty border town. I tried to take a photo of the Indian immigration office, a random dirty house on the side of the road, located in-between two shops. An Indian man, without uniform or any sign of affiliation to Indian authorities, signaled at me that photos are forbidden. Inside, we sat wherever we could to fill out our departure cards. A few backpacker girls came from the opposite direction, needing to fill out their entry cards. As no official was around and as I was sitting "behind the counter," I smiled at them and said: "Welcome to India! How may I help you?" They looked back at me confused and for a second they really thought that I was working there.

After a few minutes of typical Indian bureaucratic processing, we loaded up our backpacks and walked about 100 meters to the Nepali border control. The guys there were nice and friendly, spoke perfect English and even offered us chai. We paid the $25 required for a 15 day visa, got it in no time and off we were into the mythical and mystical land of Nepal. We took a deep breath of air - which already felt cleaner than in India - and were excited to start off the next leg of our adventure.

Self-portrait on the local bus from Lumbini to Pokhara.
The first town we reached after crossing the border into Nepal was Lumbini, the birth place of Siddhartha Gautama (aka Buddha), whose teachings are the foundations of the Buddhist religion. The town is now considered a Unesco heritage site and tons of modern Buddhist temples have been built here in recent years by worshipers around the world, along with tons of nice new hotels. Due to a little confusion in online booking, we ended on the far end of Lumbini, and due to an alleged strike (that never happened) we had to catch an early bus to Pokhara the next day. So we actually never got to visit the actual place where Buddha was born, nor any of those shiny new temples. We heard we didn't really miss much. 

As soon as we left Lumbini, the landscape quickly shifted from plains to hills and then steep mountains, like the ones you see in the photo above. We were well on our way towards a 6-hour journey on semi-paved, narrow and windy Nepalese mountain roads, on a "local bus" more ancient and decrepit than anything I've seen in my life. The glass windows were infernally rattling against the metal frames, and constantly open, to keep the bus ventilated, since that bus was manufactured before central air or AC was invented. Outside, the gravel would stir thick clouds of dust, all of which came straight in through the windows. Not minding the woman breast-feeding on the seat next to me, her purse, luggage and half a baby resting on my lap, the ride was actually pretty enjoyable. To distract myself from the maddening window rattle, I plugged in my earphones and turned up the volume. It was sunny outside, sweaty in the packed bus, and yet I strangely felt very happy and content.

All the buses coming from the opposite direction were packed with people on the roof. Our bus was not much different. Among the many sacks of various grains loaded on top, we had 4 goats and 3 sadhus riding with us. Sadhus are "holy men" of the Hindu religion, who've given up worldly lives to dedicate themselves to meditation, chanting, prayer and asceticism. Sadhus are usually semi-naked men, with huge dreadlocks, face paint, who are begging for money or food and seem high on charas (hashish) most of the time. A charlatan sadhu in Kathmandu was chasing tourists to take photos of himself for 100 rupees/photo. The 3 sadhus riding on top of our bus didn't seem that holy to me either... more like stoned hippies with dreadlocks. I think they might be the reason why the dreadlocked hippie image came into being.

The bus made frequent stops to pick up or drop off people and cargo at the many villages scattered along the road. While the bus stopped, local women would sell snacks through the bus windows. The most popular snack in Nepal by far is giant cucumber sliced in half and served with a spicy sauce smeared on top.

Just when you think the bus will explode or overturn with so many people crammed inside, there will be another stop to pick up 10 more passengers. While I hated how unsafe and over-capacity the bus was, I admired the deeply humane and brotherly spirit of Nepali people. This is how they get around on those mountain roads, and uncomfortable as it may be, they somehow make it work, with a lot of willingness and no complaining.

That dude is the money collector, since there are no tickets, just cash offerings, depending on how long each passenger has been on the bus. His job is also to notify the driver when he has to stop or start again, by tapping his hand really hard against the side of the bus. Another duty of this individual is to negotiate narrow passages when there's incoming traffic in the form of a huge truck or another bus. Sometimes, the road is too narrow for two vehicles to pass at the same time, so one of them has to back off until it reaches a section where the road is wide or safe enough for the other vehicle to pass. These drivers are probably some of the best drivers in the world.

And here we are in Pokhara, located on the banks of the Phewa Tal (tal = lake) with the Annapurna range looming in the distance. Until the end of the 1960s the town was only accessible by foot and it was considered even more a mystical place than Kathmandu. Today, Pokhara is a big tourist hub, as many trekkers come here to hike the Annapurna Circuit or the ABC (Annapurna Base Camp) trek. We loved Pokhara so much that we stayed there for about a week, relaxing at our cute Little Tibetan Guesthouse, hiking, eating good food, shopping, taking day trips on our rented motorbikes and hanging out with people we met.

One afternoon we rented motorbikes and rode to the Tibetan settlement Tashi Palkhiel, located some miles north of town. We got in a bit too late, as the puja (daily afternoon prayer) was ending. One of the monks (in the photo above) stayed inside the monastery after the service was over and showed us around, explaining to us about the significance of the objects and photos in the room. He then also gave us a tour of the entire village and took us on a small hike to a lookout point. Here, he is telling Jenny how reincarnation of previous lamas works. He genuinely believed every word he said. The skeptical Westerner in me couldn't help but doubt every word I heard.

Some of the younger monks were practicing how to blow these horns. You have to blow real hard, so to enhance the practice, they would stuff pieces of cloth at the wider end to create more resistance.

Yak butter offerings on display inside the Tibetan monastery. These used to be made by hand by the monks themselves, but these days they are bought ready-made from Singapore, from a more resistant type of butter.

Tibetan women hanging out at the Tashi Palkhiel Tibetan settlement north of Pokhara. From 1959 to 1962 approximately 300,000 refugees entered Nepal after China occupied Nepal. Most of them end up in India around the Dharamsala area, where the Dalai Lama lives. About 60,000 Tibetan refugees reside in Nepal, and approximately 20,000 of the exiled Tibetans live in 12 camps, 8 in Kathmandu and 4 in and around Pokhara. When we arrived there, we expected the camp to be very basic, with people living in tents, but they had real houses, a monastery and even their own shops. A few of the women in the image are holding hand prayer wheels. (More on prayer wheels after the image below.)

Prayer wheels at the Tibetan monastery. Prayer wheels can be found all over Nepal and Tibet, and in the mountains they are often spun by wind or water. Prayer wheels are cylindrical metal wheels on a spindle. The mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written on pieces of paper that are stuffed inside the cylinder. The same mantra is also written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. The wheels should be spun only in clockwise direction and have the same effect as reciting the mantra. In the mountains, the wheels spun by wind and water supposedly send the prayer into all directions.

Om Mani Padme Hum (YouTube version here) is the most popular Buddhist mantra, dating back from the 11th century. It is present all over Nepal, carved on prayer stones on the side of mountain paths, on colorful Tibetan prayer flags, plastered on souvenirs, such as necklace pendants, earrings and key chains. Om Mani Padme Hum means "The Jewel in the Lotus Flower," and OM is considered the most sacred sound in Buddhism and used to start any prayer or mantra. I am guilty of having chuckled many times when forced to chant OOOOUUUMMM at the beginning or end of a pretentious yoga class, and context makes all the difference on whether you regard something as ridiculous or sacred. In the context of Nepal, and after having had goosebumps form on my skin on hearing chants reverberating in the mountains, I am glad to say I've also felt the sacred in this chant.

It turns out Tibetan monks LOOOVE soccer. As soon as the prayer ended, they all ran out of the monastery to the soccer field next door, where they donned their maroon robes to the side, revealing full sports gear underneath. The transformation was incredible. After seeing these young boys chant in the monastery just minutes earlier, now we got to see them yell and laugh like any other boys of their age anywhere else in the world.

Our monk guide was the only one who did not play soccer that afternoon, as he offered to show us around his village. He was the sweetest, happiest person ever. You could feel kindness and happiness radiate from his cute smiley face. He showed us the school where the monks study and I noticed complicated algebra exercises on the board. He said he's now studying philosophy, but when I asked him what type of philosophy, he mentioned only Buddhist texts, nothing from Western philosophers, of whom he's never even heard of. At the end, he gave me the business card of the monastery Lama, who has offices in Switzerland, Canada, Denmark, in addition to Nepal. And finally, the cable you can see in the photo below is a new zip line that was installed recently. At the time we visited it was not ready yet, but it looked like it would be a pretty amazing experience.

This is the valley over which the zip line was going, all the way from the top of the mountain in the background, to the end of the valley.

Prayer flags at the Tibetan settlement.

We rode our motorbikes through the old part of Pokhara, where you can still see old Newari architecture, just like it was when the first foreigners came here in the 50s. Fine brickwork and woodcarving are the hallmarks of Newar architecture. The most beautiful examples of Newar architecture are in Kathmandu's Durbar Square.

Above: one of the few old houses left in Pokhara that was built in Newari architecture style. Apparently, back in the early 50s, when Western explorers reached Pokhara for the first time (by trekking, since there were no roads to Pokhara at that time), they found a town full of houses like this one. Today, modern houses have replaced the old ones, and kitsch and bad taste are prevailing.

We took a long scooter trip to a nearby lake, called Begnas Tal.  From here you're supposed to have a breathtaking view of the snow-capped Annapurna peaks, but unfortunately we came at the wrong time. This time of the year, due to prolonged lack of rain, the skies are always covered by a thick layer of "smog" (?) The magic views remained hidden from us most of the days we were in that area.

Anne's jump shot over Begnas lake. I have so many jump shots of her all over the world that I might dedicate an entire post to them.

Jenny always smiles while riding the scooter!

We also did a two-day hike to the mountain village of Ghandruk, which you can see on the trekking map above. This was the best hike we could do without paying the expensive Annapurna hiking permit of 4000 rupees (about 50 USD). The permit makes sense if you do a long hike, but for the 2-day hike we didn't think it was worth it. It's more expensive than going into any national park in the US, but for a country as poor as Nepal, the money coming from tourist visas and hiking permits will hopefully contribute to improving the lives of local people.

We hired a Sherpa from our guesthouse and he turned out to be a great guy. Unlike any other guides we've had in other parts of the world, he was never intrusive, never forcing us to go to stay at guesthouses where he'd get a commission, or talking too much. He was just right. At the time, I had just started reading the amazing book "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthiessen, where the author is talking a lot about Sherpas, their fame for being reliable and trustworthy, and his admiration for Tukten, one of the Sherpas on his expedition. I recognized a lot of the traits described in the book in our own sherpa.

Most of the houses we passed by during our trek were perched high up on mountain slopes and were made of stone slates, perfectly aligned.

I remember telling Anne at the moment when I took this photo: "this looks like it could be the entrance path to a luxury spa." Sometimes, the reward for sweating and going off the beaten path is a million dollar view and priceless serenity.

Taking a moment to rest. For some of the next few photos I will type down a few of my favorite quotes from The Snow Leopard: "GS refuses to believe that the Western mind can truly absorb nonlinear Eastern perceptions; he shares the view of many in the West that Eastern thought evades "reality" and therefore lacks the courage of existence."

"In the clean air and absence of all sound, of even the simplest machinery - for the track is often tortuous and steep, and fords too many streams, to permit bicycles - in the warmth and harmony and seeming plenty, come whispers of a paradisal age." (P. Matthiessen - The Snow Leopard)

"Perhaps the dread of transience explains our greed for the few gobbets of raw experience in modern life, why violence is libidinous, why lust devours us, why soldiers choose not to forget their days of horror: we cling to such extreme moments in which we seem to die, yet are reborn. In sexual abandon as in danger, we are impelled, however briefly, into that vital present in which we do not stand apart from life, we are life, our being fills us; in ecstasy with another being, loneliness falls away into eternity." (P. Matthiessen - The Snow Leopard)

"When one pays attention to the present, there is great pleasure in awareness of small things." (P. Matthiessen - The Snow Leopard)

"Upon the path, in the glint of mica and odd shining stones, lies the yellow and gray-blue feather of an unknown bird. And there comes a piercing intuition, by no means understood, that in this feather on the silver path, this rhythm of wood and leather sounds, breath, sun and wind, and rush of river, in a landscape without past or future time - in this instant, in all instants, transience and eternity, death and life are one." (P. Matthiessen - The Snow Leopard)

"The emptiness and silence of snow mountains quickly bring about those states of consciousness that occur in the mind-emptying of meditation, and no doubt high altitude has an effect, for my eye perceives the world as fixed or fluid as it wishes. The earth twitches, and the mountains shimmer, as if all molecules had been set free: the blue sky rings." (P. Matthiessen - The Snow Leopard)

"This is closer to my own idea of freedom, the possibility and prospect of free life, traveling light, without clinging or despising, in calm acceptance of everything that comes; free because without defenses, free not in an adolescent way, with no restraints, but in the sense of the Tibetan Buddhist's "crazy wisdom," of Camus's "leap into the absurd" that occurs within a life of limitations. The absurdity of a life that may well end before one understands it does not relieve one of the duty [...] to live it through as bravely and as generously as possible." (P. Matthiessen - The Snow Leopard)

"Time seems circular, and past and future have lost meaning. I understand much better now Einstein's remark that the only real time is that of the observer, who carries with him his own time and space. In these mountains, we have fallen behind history. [...] The great events that must be taking place in the world we left behind are as illusory as events from a future century." (P. Matthiessen - The Snow Leopard)

We woke up to this view, at around 5:30am. It was freezing cold outside and the sun hadn't yet made its way above the peaks on the right. I went outside of our room to take this photo, when I heard the chanting coming from a Tibetan monastery down in the valley. The chanting was sung in deep, throaty male voices and lasted for about an hour. It wasn't Om Mani Padme Hum, but a different one, which I haven't identified yet, but luckily have recorded on video. It was one of those moments: my eyes filled up with tears and my arms with goosebumps.

"You never enjoy the world alright, till the Sea itself flows in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world." (P. Matthiessen - The Snow Leopard)

Sunrise in Gundruck. "The effort to find ordinary words for what I have seen in this extraordinary time seems to have dissipated a kind of power, and the loss of intensity is accompanied by loss of confidence and inner balance." (P. Matthiessen - The Snow Leopard)

Back from high altitudes and daydreaming, our bus back into Pokhara had a flat tire. The driver and a few other men on the bus changed the tire in a matter of minutes, while the bus was still packed with people.

Chiling out on the side of the road while the bus tire is getting changed.

Leaving the mountains, we head back south to the Terai region of the country, where the fields are covered with the bright green of young rice plants. We're on our way to Chitwan National Park, to see rhinos, elephants and tigers.

A house in a village near Chitwan.

On a little jungle walk. Jungle is more scary to me than mountains. Being flat, it's hard to see very far ahead of you, easy to get lost, impossible to figure out which way you came from. A branch broke and fell from a tree and our guide completely freaked out. He ordered us to be quiet and started observing the forest around us carefully. Later he admitted he was scared too. I wonder if that guy really knew what he was doing.

A boat with tourists crossing one of the rivers in Chitwan. We took a similar boat ride a day later. It was magical, one of my most favorite things on this trip.

Sunset in Chitwan.

Setting off on our jeep safari. We were excited to see rhinos, but unfortunately we didn't see any. You can't just expect to see wildlife so easily, from the comfort of a noisy car. You have to go on foot in their territory, sometimes for hours if not days. I'm not too regretful for not seeing them, as I know such a sight should be the reward of more effort, which we did not have the time for.

These boats are carved out of the wood of a single (cotton) tree and some of them can fit up to 20 people or so. We took a ride on this boat on a river packed with alligators and crocodiles. We only saw a couple of them, but we were quite scared of what could happen if the boat flipped over.

Boatman on the crocodile river.

All the lakes and rivers in Chitwan were full of water lilies and Anne plucked one she saw next to our boat. She actually didn't pluck it (just for the record), but only lifted it out of the water for a few seconds.

Crocodiles, where are you hiding?

An entire lake covered with water lilies.

Strangely shaped trees.

Anne next to a termite mound.

Playing with baby elephants, the only time of their lives when they can run free and play around. For the rest of their lives they will live with their front legs chained up together and to a pole, banging their heads up and down and pacing on the spot. They are occasionally taken out for a walk in the forest, but spend most of their time chained up.

A bridge made of bamboo sticks and sand sacks.

Mahouts taking their elephants for a bath in the river. Elephants love water and they seemed really happy about this daily activity.

One of the elephants kneeled down and I took the opportunity to measure my foot against his.

Road inside Chitwan park.

The jeep we were taken in for our jeep safari.

Sunset in Chitwan.

On the way from Chitwan to Kathmandu.

Houses on the side of the road.

Exhaust smoke coming from our bus. Almost every vehicle in Nepal generates a lot of smoke, making the urban areas some of the most polluted I've ever been to. One word of advice to other travelers planning on going anywhere in Southeast Asia: buy a face mask. They're everywhere for sale in Thailand or Vietnam, and even in some markets in Nepal.

We arrived in Thamel, Kathmandu's version of Khao San Road in Bangkok. It's an area north of Durbar Square that's packed with guesthouses, restaurants, bars and lots of shopping. I really wanted to stay at a monastery in Bodnath, an area full of Buddhist stupas and monasteries a few kilometers east of Kathmandu, so we hopped into a cab to get there. Many of the stupas there have guesthouses where tourists, monks and students of Buddhism can stay, granted you book a room well in advance, as they are full all the time.

Our extremely patient cab driver.

It turned out that the exact day we arrived in Kathmandu, May 6th, happened to be the big celebration of Buddha Purnima (Buddha's birthday). We had no idea about it and could not understand why first the bus, then the cab were so stuck in traffic. The streets were packed with worshipers, school-children, women, every walk of life, all together parading and celebrating one of the biggest holidays of Buddhism. The photos above and below were taken on the streets of Kathmandu during this celebration.

Anne found her dream car on the streets of Kathmandu.

This is a typical Tibetan stupa, not the famous one at Bodnath, but a smaller, identical-looking one. The stupa is part of the traditional Newar architecture style. In Sanskrit stupa means heap and it used to be just that: a mound of clay covering the relics of Buddha. In Tibet, the name used for a stupa is that of chorten.

Yak butter candles.

Prayer wheel.

Many portraits of Buddha. I really wish he was depicted as a better-looking fellow. I'm sure he was a great guy. I read somewhere that if he and Jesus met, they would've been best friends, since they both preached very similar philosophies. But whereas Jesus is depicted as a handsome man, with lanky body, smooth long hair and beautiful face, Buddha's image reminds me of a cartoon character: a bit chubby, with weird hair and long-hanging pierced ears. I know it sounds weird, but if I were to believe in a idol who supposedly reached Enlightenment and is wiser than all of us, he better not look like a Disney movie character. I wonder how the actual Siddhartha Gautama Buddha looked like in real life...

Strolling around the streets of Kathmandu.

Kathmandu's old town is an explosion of color, old temples, women selling their produce, merchants selling the copper ware and textiles.

Kathmandu is full of temples that are centuries old. School kids play soccer around little statues or small temples that are hundreds of years old. Old people feed the pigeons, women come by to ring a bell, spin a prayer wheel, pray and light a yak butter candle. Manifestations of spirituality are a normal part of every day life.

The Hindu side of Kathmandu's religious melting pot. This huge stone image of Bhairav represents Shiva, the god of wrath and destruction in Hindu iconography. Apparently, it was used by the government as a place for people to swear the truth.

Hanging out in Durbar Square, in front of a temple probably from the 14th century.

Anne is giving the rickshaw driver a ride in his own rickshaw.

Pagodas in Durbar Square. It appears that pagoda-style buildings originated here and later spread to India, China, Indochina and Japan.There is wide acceptance of the fact that Newar architects may have been responsible for developing Asia's hallmark multi-tiered pagoda architecture. And I always thought pagodas are Japanese...

Back in the 60s, Freak Street was all the rage, the place where all the hippies who came to Kathmandu would chill out, have a smoke and do other things hippies like to do. We strolled down this street but didn't get any vibes of its glorious past. Maybe we didn't know where to look and how to see, maybe it's just a faint shadow of what it used to be. In the 21st century, it's all about shopping, and all that is now based in the Thamel district.

Our last night in Kathmandu, celebrating the end of our trip over a pitcher of margarita. I used this same photo as a closing shot of my other blog post about Nepal, as it really is the last photo we took in Nepal and Asia, thus marking the end of our 6 month journey, at least the exotic part of it. Nepal has been one of my favorite countries to visit, and one that I strongly feel I will come back to one day.

Monica - April 17, 2012