Kathmandu: Nationalism, nuns and monkeys.

Kathmandu is still recovering from the devastation caused by the earthquakes in April and May 2015.  Many roads and buildings are damaged, monuments lie crumbled, and power cycles throughout the day.  But there remains a timeless, friendly attitude; a desire to know and be known.  During a recent and all too short trip, we spent three days touring the city and taking in as much of its flavor as possible.

Like most cities with more people than resources, Kathmandu has its less visually desirable parts of town.  Notwithstanding the lingering effects of the earthquakes, there is a fair share of garbage outside of Thamel and the main tourist sites.  However, conspicuously missing from the landscape was men urinating on the side of the road, we didn’t even smell it while walking throughout the city.  There were plenty of other odors—sewer, raw fish, butchered chicken, something that I think was yak BO—but despite traversing city streets, dirt roads, tourist areas and local haunts, we detected neither the smell nor sight of a single person standing before the golden stream.

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Drawing by author, March 2016.

Coming from a country where roadside urination should be classified a national sport, we were interested in the disparity between India and Nepal, especially given their relative geographic position and India’s superior economic standing.  Our guide explained that most people in the cities use the public toilets—a novel concept, I thought—however, those facilities may not be available in rural areas.

I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t something more to it than public toilets.  It takes time and effort to change the attitudes and behaviors of a people, especially this particular behavior.  Yet the Nepali’s in large part are choosing to forgo publicly pissing on their country.  Everywhere we went, Nepali hospitality, civility, and especially pride was present.  Perhaps abandoning the public whiz is more representative of national pride than arresting students for sedition or lawyers attacking demonstrators.

We’re not flying around Everest?

At 05:00, we leave for the airport for our flight around Everest.  We navigate the various check points: first security gate, desk for tickets, second security scan, then grab a seat.  There is a mix of people in this domestic terminal; however, many of the local-looking, luggage carrying people—and by this I mean cardboard boxes held together with twine—are not here with us.

This side of the airport is overly represented by tourists.  We’ve heard accents from northern, eastern and western Europe, including a jovial group of six Brits to whom cold early mornings seem to be no stranger.  A group of Asians walks by, most wearing masks.  Are they sick or trying to keep from getting sick?  It’s hard to tell since air quality in Nepal ranked 149th out of 180 countries ranked best to worst in Yale’s 2016 Environmental Performance Index.

The terminal is quite cold and puffy jackets abound.  North Face made good decisions somewhere, because the majority of the people with puffy jackets are wearing North Face puffy jackets. Blue, purple, green, red, and even one yellow emblazoned mini parka; its like looking at a big, marshmallow rainbow.

I am underdressed in a non-North Face hoody and t-shirt, my large billowy North Face parka safely stowed at a friends house in the states, and my small, less puffy jacket—another non-North Face purchase—hanging in a closet at our house in India.  Despite 20 years in the northern midwest, my California blood, made even thinner by the wonderfully warm Indian weather, never quite thickened.

According to the electronic board, the flight around Everest is delayed due to Kathmandu weather.  The sun is up and there is a small amount of fog reducing visibility to a couple miles, nothing that would stop a northern midwest airplane from departing.  But most planes taking off out of Milwaukee or Minneapolis or Fargo aren’t providing site seeing tours around one of the highest mountain ranges in the world.  Better to be safe than a headline.

The terminal gets more and more crowded as the flight delays, now being announced over the speaker system, continue to stack up.  The airlines here are “pleased to announce the delay of flight XYZ.”  Perhaps they are happier when they don’t have to fly around the mountain for the millionth time this month?  The flight delay messages even sound recorded, which makes me wonder if delays aren’t delays at all, but such common expected operational outcomes they necessitate recorded messages.  Either way, we are on vacation and there is nothing to be done about it, so we keep reading from our e-readers.

There is a group of Germans, possibly in there sixties, smoking in the room designated as such.  Although visibility in the room is less than two meters, they seem content with navigating its interior without fear of potentially winding up a statistic.  I wonder if I’ve overestimated their age, smoking doing what it does to people.

There is also a group of eight Indians in the terminal, all sitting together.  I can tell they’re Indians because they are taking selfies and wearing shirts with western slogans like ‘New York Standard’ and ‘Play to Win.’  The men are loud and also jovial.  Perhaps they’re from Northern India where chilly winter mornings are more common.

Time to board.

After several delays the flight was cancelled at 09:30.  We would like to complain and be the angry tourist, but we are on vacation, which by definition means ‘make the best of it.’  Besides, we’re in Nepal surrounded by Hindu and Buddhist temples and monasteries, complaining about nature’s impact on our life just doesn’t seem right.

Kathmandu is a bit different than India.  People run and bike here for exercise.  Seriously, we didn’t see anyone chasing them.  They seemed to be Nepali, although we didn’t stop them mid-stride to ask, and they seem to be moving for their health.  Furthermore—brace yourself for this—despite few sidewalks, many, many people walk.  There are people walking everywhere.  We actually don’t stand out walking 10 kilometers a day around the city.  Well, we do stand out, but that’s because we are white—but we don’t notice people staring, which is another major difference.

Their are also some similarities between India and Nepal, or at least Kathmandu, since that is as far as we went on this trip.  The city has a garbage problem.  It doesn’t seem to be quite as bad as India’s, but then Nepal doesn’t have 1.3 billion proud people, only about 28 million.  Traffic and traffic laws, if they exist, are more of a suggestion than anything else.  We saw plenty of cars driving into the oncoming lane to pass a bus or small truck; however, unlike India, we didn’t witness anyone actually driving on the wrong side of the road, which takes a bit of the excitement out of the experience.

Can I take your photo, Mr. Monkey? 
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Monkey’s at Swayambhunath. (Photo by author, March 2016.)

It’s off to the monkey temple for photos of monkeys.  Actually, the name of the temple is Swayambhunath.  Monkey temple really doesn’t do it justice.  Our guide—we normally arrange a guide on short, two-day trips so we can learn as much as possible about the city, culture, people and most importantly, food—tells us about the history of the site.  Even though it is a regular on tourist stops, it continues to serve as a place to pray and worship, things we witness while here.

Has anyone else noticed that despite how cute they may look, monkeys are actually quite mean?  Sure, they seem harmless enough, until they steal your bag of souvenirs and your water bottle.  Then its like negotiating with drunken leprechauns for their gold.  Such was the case when a group of girls lost their bag of kitchy trinkets and water bottle.

On a side note, Merriam-Webster defines kitchy as, “things that are of low quality and that many people find amusing and enjoyable.”  I always took it to mean cool and unique.  I stand corrected thanks to my one of my two favorite SiLs (Sisters-in-Law), Annie.  She is also to thank for introducing me to the em dash.  When you get sick of seeing the em dash, shoot me an email and I’ll send you hers.

I’m not sure the girls ever got their water bottle back, but I doubt it—the monkeys seemed determined to keep their new toy and definitely had the upper hand in terms of speed, agility and numbers.  Plus, we had better things to do than watch a bunch of monkeys try to get a water bottle back from a bigger bunch of tourists—or something like that.

We walked the 365 steps to the top of Swayambhunath to learn about its history.  Our guide explained that this Buddhist temple, which sits atop a hill, is one of the most important in Buddhism.  Legend has it that it used to be a lake with a big lotus growing from it.  Some guy came along and decided to cut a big gorge and drain the water, which resulted in a dead and decaying lotus, and eventually a hill—the same hill that we climbed.

We spent about about two hours exploring the temple and purchasing mandala drawings from a 19 year old girl with a distinctly British accent—although we never got an explanation about the British accent; was it too many Benny Hill reruns or a British teacher in school?  We’ll never know—then I touched the feet of the oldest known statue of Buddha because one can never have too much good luck.  Then we were off to Patan.

Are you a monk or a nun?
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Patan. (Photo by author, March 2016.)

I’m interested in the idea that Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy.  Our guide explained that Buddha was Hindi—and apparently Buddha was not his name, his real name is something normal like Bob or Brett, except in Hindi.  He was not thrilled with the inequality of Hinduism, so he set out to make the world a better place by creating a system of tenets by which one might live, which, while sounding like a religion to me, I’m assured is not.

The caste system was an integral part of Hindu life in Buddha’s time.  Buddha, back in the day, made the same mistake Dan Quayle made when he said, “Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child,” except in Buddha’s case he said—according to our guide—that the only two caste’s are man and woman.  Remember, at this point, Buddha had not reached enlightenment.  Had he a few years philosophizing under his rather large belt, he might have seen how that statement could come back to bite him in the 20th century.

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Monks in training. (Photo by author, March 2016.)

Our guide also recognized that in the modern age, Buddha’s words might be construed as a slight against women.  Just like we understood what Dan meant—actually, nobody ever understood what Dan meant, ever—but people did understand what Buddha meant 2,400 years ago.  This is why there are female monks, or rather nuns, like the two we met at Patan.

I’ve been wanting to talk to a female monk since we got here.  My wife and I worked as a team.  She spotted and stalked them, like the lioness she is, leading me to the prey.  Once within range, I pounced on them, which is totally unlike the male lion, who normally doesn’t show up until dinner time.  In this case, it ended well.

The nuns were quite charming, wearing what my partially colorblind eyes describe as the traditional red or maroon or orange garb of the monk with matching shaved heads.  This was not the weak, waif-like shaved head of Seanad O’Connor, either.  These women bore the tough, badass shaved head Sigourney Weaver sported in Alien 3.  Some might say Demi Moore was even tougher in G.I. Jane, but lets face it, fighting teeth bearing aliens with acid for blood is so much more badass than making it through B.U.D.S.—spoken by someone who never made it through B.U.D.S.

Both nuns, one from Australia and the other from Germany, were kind enough to answer a few questions.  I was curious about the role of women in Buddhism.  They assured me that as Buddhists, their role within the community was the same as that of the monks, while acknowledging that within any given society, the actual duties might vary according to the culture.  In shorthand, that means that since Asia is still a male dominated society—which, by the way, might explain most of their problems—their actual role may vary from Buddha’s intentions of equality, his comment about caste’s notwithstanding.

I would love to have bought them a beer and talked to them at length about challenges specific to Buddhist nuns.  (Which makes me wonder, do Buddhist monks and nuns drink?  Intuitively I think ‘yes’ because some of the best beer in the world is or was produced by Buddhist monasteries.  But perhaps they only produce to market and forgo the clarity consumption might provide.)  In any case, there was neither a bar in the vicinity, nor time to get answers to these questions.  So I thanked them for their time and they went on their holy way.

It’s several hours later when we stop for dinner at a small Nepali restaurant.  Although utensils are provided, our guide is eating with his hands.  I glance at my wife and read ‘Why not?’ on her face; but it could also have read, ‘Are you nuts?’ or ‘No way, dude!’, I’ve definitely been wrong before.  We decide to join him.

The food was extremely good, as was the Mustang booze; however, if I never eat rice and lentils with my hands again, it will be too soon.  We’re talking about a guy that doesn’t like to wear sunscreen because the lotion gets between his fingers.  I’ve come to tolerate oils during a massage—if you have to ask why, then you’ve never had a hot oil massage from a 90 pound asian woman who, with vice like hands, can manipulate every muscle, causing, simultaneously, extreme agony and utter pleasure—however, even the idea of putting lotion on hands chapped by the brutality of a dry Wisconsin winter sends me screaming from the room in search of a bar of soap.  While I can say I’ve eaten soupy rice with my fingers, I won’t say it proudly.

Eventually we must all go home, but not before a good cleansing.

Originally we were going to hike eight hours into the mountains to see a village and a temple of some kind.  Thankfully, we came to our senses and decided half that time trekking between three Buddhist monasteries would be just as fulfilling; however, best laid plans as it were.

The day started exactly as I am coming to expect the end of every trip should start, with me feeling less than awesome.  I seem to have developed a rather unhealthy habit of becoming unhealthy during these trips.  Food poisoning again—or as a friend described it, cleansing.

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The blushing bride. (Photo by author, March 2016.)

We made it walking through Kopan monastery, where our tour guide helped us to renew our marriage.  We had no idea we would be renewing such an important event or we’d have dressed up.  It was fun and far easier than the first time around.  No potentially dropping rings, tasting cake, or vows to fumble over.  A hat for me, a necklace and wrap for my bride, and a flick of potentially toxic red paint spread at her hairline.  Bam!  We were once again legally allowed to have sex without the possibility of going to hell upon our death.

It was during our 45 minute walk to the next monastery that I realized the food poisoning might be a tad worse than I originally expected.  Feeling like I might vomit along the side of a Nepali dirt road, we explained to our guide, Shankar, that we would need to cut the day short.  Unfortunately, as sometimes happens when a person who speaks no Nepali and who’s English adjectives begin with profanity explains to another whose English, although quite good, is a second language, something got lost in translation and we ended up at the third stop on the great Monastery tour.  We remedied this with a quick explanation that if we didn’t return to the hotel soon, we would find ourselves sharing the love and joy that was this morning’s breakfast with whatever Nepali wildlife might be in the vicinity.

Another 45 minutes of dirt roads, dust, and potholes and we were finally at the hotel.  Although Shankar wanted to continue the cultural immersion, I only wanted to vomit, which might have put a damper on any further cultural explanations.  Off to the room to start the food poisoning regime of which I have unfortunately become so familiar—anti nausea medicine, antacid, antibiotic, anti diarrheal, and fever reducer—then a night alternating between chills and sweating while praying to all 330 million Hindu gods for help, all the while swearing I will never try another foreign liquor, ever again.

Is it really time to leave?

Feeling a bit like Dracula’s latest victim, my stomach still churning like white water on the Colorado, it was time to make our way to the airport for the short ride to Delhi.  It would be another full day before feeling 100 percent, but none of it put a damper on our feelings about Nepal and her people.  They are a wonderful mix of joyous, seemingly happy, helpful people whose energy and philosophy about life have no doubt helped them through tumultuous governments, earthquakes, and interference from more influential countries.  We look forward to a future trip and a chance to trek the Nepal countryside.


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