SOUTH ASIA CONTINUED…
I meet my driver, he comments on the hour, and says it will take 30 mins to the hotel, "No traffic." Little did I know that Yangon traffic is insane and the city I arrived in would not be the city I woke up to. Woke up to, over and over, 10 times. My jet lag was pretty intense or maybe it was the rat I heard rattling and scratching in the air ducts at 4am. In any case, I took the morning easy, missing breakfast, and only getting up to the gurgle of my stomach. I'm always a bit hesitant when I get to a new place. I like to get my bearings, figure out where I am, and hold off eating until I can get a grasp on what won't make me sick. And I always get sick - probably because in my youth, I wasn't so discerning. With age comes caution.
When I did finally decide to brave the city, I headed down to the front desk to see where I could change money. "Here" they said, it's the same rate as the money changer in the building, two doors away. I pull out my money. She looks at it with the eyes of a jeweler buried behind a magnifying glass and scours the bills with a fine toothed comb, "This is not new money, so the rate will be discounted". Ok, no, it's not newly minted, but it's not crumpled and torn either. She then proceeds to show me the most minute wrinkles that I could barely see on the bills and tells me the discounted rates. I politely ask her where I can find an ATM and look up the rate discount and realize it's only a few cents. So I head over to the other changer in the building and luckily he took the bills all full rate minus one bill he deemed "bad money". Listen to everything you read when they tell you to bring brand new bills - that means PRISTINE. As he started to count out my Kyat, I realized he was giving me a stack of bills at least 4 inches high. Where was I going to put all my riches?? I asked him to change half, and give me larger bills. I still walked away with the equivalent of one hundred, one dollar bills. I feel like a rockstar and my wallet it busting.
Out to wander I went. Yangon reminds me of Hanoi in Vietnam, but the people are warmer. So many smiles and you feel inherently safe. Like, no one would mess with you because they don't really care to much about you. I headed to the Bogyoke Market, picking up some tangerines on the way from a street stall. Locals and cars everywhere, the smells, delicious and then disgusting - wafting from one to the other. Red, rotting teeth from betel nut chewing, tobacco and food stands lining the streets, spitting, school children laughing and school bells ringing, and playing Frogger while crossing the street in camaraderie with strangers. I make it to Sule Pagoda, remove my shoes, and enter the circular gold leafed temple. People praying, down on their knees, pouring water on Buddha statues, birds flying overhead. There was a calm, a peace, like a haven in the middle of chaos. I must have walked around in circles 5 times. Observing. One of the most rewarding parts of travel for me is being an observer. An invisible stranger. Really giving myself the time to see the world, standing on the outside, and only interacting and interjecting when creating a human moment, something that crosses all language barriers, that connects us.
It was getting dark, so I decided to head back to the hotel for a break and to find a place to finally eat. I ended up deciding on something rather close to the hotel, a few blocks at night, people bustling everywhere in the darkness. The proceeds from the restaurant go to helping street children learn a vocation, as I walked in the boys rushed the door to great me with eager, young enthusiasm. One little boy came over to take my order, they fumbled through what they were supposed to do next - bring the water, bring the menu. But they did it with such enthusiasm and professionalism, I couldn't help but smile and laugh. It was a real joy for my first meal in Myanmar - stir fried ginger chicken and rice. I think I'm going to be just fine with the food. It reminds me of home (Hawaii), so does the humid weather, and everyone wearing slippers (flip flops). All I need is a sarong.
Heading back, throngs of night market stalls selling vegetables, meats, and fish. The proprietors, so friendly, and willing to pose for a photo as they waited for the next customer. I'm really trying to push myself to interact with people and ask their permission. To make it a real human exchange rather than a fly by stealing of a moment. This is challenging for me, and something that has taken me years to develop the confidence to do, but if accomplished it will be a great reward. Cultural photography of people is really what I'm most passionate about, to see how people live, eat, and conduct daily activities. It's amazing how far a smile can go among strangers.
Over the next days, I wandered around the city more. I decided to take a rest at Mahabandoola Park under a shady tree. It was a Saturday, a holiday or weekend, and the children were playing, lovers were cuddling, and the locals were sleeping or taking selfies in the shade away from the heat of the blaring sun. Soon after I sat, Zo, an English teacher sat with me. We made cordial introductions, he told me of his government, and scolded me for not knowing more about his country - which I take full responsibility for, but am happy to learn on the ground. He laughed at me when I mispronounced, "thank you" and taught me the correct way, Jay-Zu-Ba. Then he brought up American politics, and how he disliked Trump, and how he was scared for his people and the world. The repercussions of what is happening in the States are widely felt throughout the world. We are not just suffering at home. I took his portrait, he told me I was very beautiful and seemed to try to be making other plans with me, but I told him I had a meeting at my hotel and needed to head back. As much as I want to be trusting of the world and the locals - especially in Myanmar, which is very safe for travelers, including women traveling solo, you can never be too cautious. I wish this wasn't the case, and I may miss some opportunities.
For sunset, I headed to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest and most sacred in Myanmar. The stupa currently stands at 326 feet tall, the inception of the site dates back to 588 BC, with 27 metric tons of gold leaf, thousands of gems, and topped by a 76 carat diamond. To say this was a sight, would not give it justice. People make the pilgrimage from all over the world to pray here with twelve posts designated by the day and time you were born, as well as innumerable prayer rooms and Buddha statues. Although it is an amusement park of sorts, the peace felt while walking among thousands of people is surreal.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by Yangon. I typically do not like bigger cities, but found the food delicious (even the mutton/goat brain) and people culture absolutely fascinating.
We arrived in Bagan, cloudy windows and a musty old smell permeated the propeller plane. From the air, you could see a taste of what was to come, temples randomly dotted the horizon, some big, small, some in ruins from the earthquake only 2 months before. There were over 10,000 pagodas built between the 11th and 13th centuries within 40 square miles in Bagan, now only 2217 remain. Most of the local people at the beginning of the 11 century were Animists or Hindu, but as the story is told, a monk from China came to explore the countryside. The locals found him strange, with his shaved head, robes, and collection bowl and reported back to their king, King Anawrahta, who ruled from 1044-1077. The king invited the monk to the kingdom, and asked where he would like to sit. The monk sat at the highest point of the kingdom on the throne, without fear. From then on the king was on a mission to learn more of the Buddhist teachings, even waging a war to steal ancient Buddhist lectures and bring monks back to Bagan. Herein started the Buddhist beliefs in this region.
At sunset as I climb the high stairs to reach the top of the temple, I was met with a 360 view of flat bush and green farmlands. Pagodas glowing orange from the low sun hitting the brick structures. You can't help but feel the spirituality that emanates from this place, the history that lines its temple walls and guides you down its dirt roads. Myanmar has seen a rapid increase in tourism since the militaristic government opened it's doors to tourists in 1996. From then until 2010, when Myanmar gained its independent democracy against the military regime that ruled for 60 consecutive years, about 300,000 tourists per year would migrate to the four major destinations, one of which being Bagan. Since 2010, 2.4 million tourists grace these temples every year. You can feel that at sunset, when there is standing room only on the temples, tourists lining every inch. You can also feel it when at least 16 hot air balloons launch every morning at sunrise, carrying 16 people in each basket. When people ask when the best time to go to Myanmar is, the answer is 10 years ago. But surprisingly, there is still purity in the countryside and in the people, and the infrastructure is just catching up to the volume it needs to support. Fortunately, when you can't feel it is when you hear the locals yelling up to you "Mingalarbar!!", as they are harvesting in the fields. You can't feel it when you land in the peanut fields in a hot air balloon, and the entire village, children, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, rush to help ground us. With genuine smiles, laughter, and awe over these huge red beasts floating through the air. They stare at you as intensely as you stare at them, like aliens from different worlds, and then a smile, and the human connection is made, we are all one. The parents primping their children for photos, fixing their colorful pajamas, almost offering their children to be photographed as if it is a high honor. As I photographed an older woman, she stood stoically, looking into my lens with strong intent. When I turned the camera around so she could see herself, she burst into laughter, as if she had never seen her face. That joy, that connection, is why I can't shake this wanderlust.
In the morning we came across a local ceremony. The children, boys and girls were dressed in yellow bedazzled clothing with full faces of western make up. Eyeliner, lipstick, blush, even fake eyelashes on some. The ceremony is to celebrate their pre novice hood, the stage before they go into the monk hood as a novice, usually between the ages of 10 and 20. Some children are younger because their family wants them to be a part of the party and may not have money in the future to do so. The children are presented like royalty one by one in parade fashion as the last truck slowly drives after them chanting through the loud speaker with a man dancing on the make shift roof. Every child or adult is required to go into monk hood for a short period of time, if they like it they can stay, and if they don't they can leave - it is purely of free will once they have experienced it once. They can also enter and exit as they please throughout their life. The parade started, putting the boys on horses decorated with jeweled face plates, and the girls in carts pulled by two white cows with the roped reigns inserted into their noses. Some of the boys carried and sucked on unlit cigarettes, these were gifts for the men who were helping to wrangle their horses, three to four of them each. I saw one boy, no more than 3 with a cigarette in his mouth. Traditions that make you feel uneasy, but you try to observe without judgement.
After the parade we headed to the grand temple atop Mount Popa, the most popular worship site for the 37 nat or spirits. At the bottom of the temple, we were greeted by monkeys crawling, grooming, fighting, and sleeping. We removed our shoes, including our socks, which is customary at all temples, and proceeded to climb barefoot up 777 stairs covered in monkey piss and shit. It really takes a lot to gross me out, and I was sufficiently disgusted. Once we reached the top, the wind was howling and the views were vast, looking out over hundreds of miles of flat farm lands. As we walked from worship room to room, we started to get a taste of the rockstar life some of the monks lead. With cell phones and sunglasses, taking selfies and laughing, asking us to take photos with them as well. Not the pious monks you would imagine. It has become challenging to find a monk without a cell phone at the temples.
More exciting to me, on the way home, we visited the Set Set Yo village. The children greeted us with their unique hairstyles. A round, short, bowl cut with a long pony tail wrapped in a knot on the top of the head. I volunteered to get my hair done, as the little boy tried to get through my tangly dry hair with his comb, the mom had to step in, I was wincing in pain. We gave an offering of a bunch of bananas to the head monk observing our meeting as well as booklets of paper and pencils for the children. Many of the children had suffered cleft palettes, which had been operated on with funds from a charity for this cause. One boy in particular was mute, and had never spoken, but could communicate with his friends via broken sign language and was able to read and write. He drew us a photo of his dream house, something he had seen once in the city of Mandalay, a large structure, of course with an outhouse for the toilet. We wandered through the village watching the women harvest peanuts, a rampant crop for the area. We entered into their properties, and they warmly offered us green tea, cookies, and peanuts. One of the most memorable was a little old lady, aged 88, with no teeth, who maybe stood 3 feet tall, crouched over with a humped back, assumingly from years of hard work in the fields. As soon as we arrived, she immediately scurried into her house and came out with a package of pink Snow White branded cookies for us. She told us to sit and get out of the sun. Her hospitality was not forced or laborious, she was delighted to have us and extended what little she had. These are the Burmese people.
I lay on top of her, facing forward as she straddles my body with her legs. The smell of tiger balm is intoxicating. Fully dressed, I will not be wearing these clothes again before washing. Her small hands in a repetitive motion over my sore shoulders. She sits me up, motions for me to put my arms behind my back and grab ahold of her wrists. Then, swiftly, her foot is in the small of my back and she is kicking with all her might. I feel like I'm going to be split in half. I resist, afraid she's going to crack something and I'm going to be paralyzed for life. I burst out with a loud moan and then start laughing hysterically. Again. She wraps her arms around my waists and we double over in laughter. This is a Thai/Burmese local massage.
Three of us are in one room, laying on hard matts covered in a wine red sheets. My lady is at most barely 5 feet tall with a tiny frame. She starts the massage with me face up, she presses on my legs, starting at the feet, and moving her way up. By the time she is at my hips, I bust out laughing, disturbing everyone. She quickly lifts her hands and moves away from me, looking confused. Then her and the other ladies start laughing once they realize I'm just having a laughing fit and I'm not hurt. This was the theme of the massage. Her pulling, me laughing. Her aggressively jabbing her knees into my ass, me laughing. Her twisting me into a pretzel, my spine - crack, crack, crack! Me, laughing.
The three girls, chattered away, asking us questions, where are we from, how old are we; talking about us amongst themselves. I'm pretty sure at one point she motioned to my boobs, as if they were curiosities she'd never seen before. Then, all of a sudden in unison, the three women said "I Lub you!", enthusiastically. Then quickly, she bends down and plants a kiss on my cheek. I was the only one to get the kiss mind you. Again, completely surprised, I burst out laughing. We got many "I Lub You!"'s throughout. At the end my girl laughed and we hugged each other, like we'd just finished this epic pain fest and were relieved it was over (at least I know I was).
We are in Mandalay. A larger city that houses the old capitol and many old temples. I would tell you all the names, but that might get tedious, let's just say my favorites were the white one and the wooden one. Also, as I mentioned before, I am fascinated by monks. I had two major encounters in one day. First, we were atop Mandalay Hill, a temple high in the city with a 360 view. There was one monk chanting by microphone loudly throughout the temple, a rhythmic, repetitive, soothing chant. Three teenage monks sitting together chatting and laughing. They looked up at me I motioned to my camera and they obliged. The rule is, you can take photos of them, you just can't touch them, tell them to move, or where to stand. I took their photo and did another lap around the temple. When I returned they were still there and had enough courage to approach me. They asked my name, where I was from, explained that they came here on their weekends to learn English with the tourists. They must have been no older than 15-16. Shine, the most talkative one, Shin, and Shen, who were the shyer two. They asked to take a selfie with me, so I then obliged, and asked the same of them. Without telling them where to stand, of course. And I made one of my favorite portraits to date. I have always been timid around monks, never daring to ask them for a photo, more just stealing of a moment. But this time, Shine, look forward and stared into my lens, and I melted.
After Mandalay Hill, we had the good fortune to go to Shwe Kyin Monastery and witness the monks during their sunset prayer and chanting. The monks all processed up to their temple in the monastery, taking off their slippers and lining them up one by one in neat rows. Then as they chanted in unison they walked up and knelt with their knees forward, feet back, hands in prayer over their faces. Such a special time. Although I'm not religious, Buddhism is very intriguing to me and I find myself becoming more and more curious about the philosophy, cultural traditions, and rituals.
Hello in Burmese is Mingalarbar, pronounced Ming-ga-la-ba. That and Jay-zu-ba, or thank you, get you a long way. Anytime you shout Mingalarbar!, it is met with an enthusiastic return. I've left Myanmar, and I'm traveling in Nepal. I miss it. I miss the people, the warm, friendly people. I think you always miss the place you just leave. Finally when you feel like you've warmed up and have a grasp of the culture, you leave, and then look back on it fondly. Africa is one of those places for me, sometimes hard and challenging to travel, but when you leave it stays with you. I think Myanmar's people will forever stay with me, especially the children.
There were two more places I visited in Myanmar. The first, Kalaw, an old British hill station in the mountains, a cold reprieve from the humid heat of the low lands. The main temple is a stupa covered in gold mirrors, a beautiful site with the mountains lining the background. A thick haze covers the valley in the morning and breaks by mid day. We started to trek the day after we arrived, 20 km/12 miles through the mountains in and out of Kalaw villages. In Pa-O village, they primarily make green tea. Tea leaves lay drying in the sun on tarps, crispy and black. We hiked up to see how the locals sort and pack the tea. While we were there a man and his wife invited us into their house to have a taste. There home was out of a novel, an old National Geographic, something I'd seen as a child of far off places, places I never thought I would have the chance to see. Their home had a smooth stone floor, clean and polished, a fire was in the middle of the open room, a mat on the ground, and a guitar on the wall. As two of us sat and drank tea, the smoke from the fire heating the kettle rose and the sun shone through the window, creating the most perfect scene. Something I would never believe to be real. The man sat, cloth draped on his head, staring out of the doorway. He graciously let me take his photo, my favorite from Myanmar. Our guide Sol, was a small, kind faced man. So knowledgeable about the land and the people. He explained the landscape, and the plants, the villages and their traditions. He had studied law in the city and told us he wanted to earn clean money, without corruption and spend his time in nature, the jungle being his favorite. I could have spent days listening to him and his stories about his family and the treks in the jungle.
After Kalaw, we headed to Inle Lake. Inle Lake is probably the most developed tourist area of all. In the morning, we headed through the fog by tuk-tuk to the lake. It was the day of the full moon, beautiful offerings were arranged in adorned silver cups, oranges, breads, fried vegetables and rice. Today was a holiday, work subsided and prayer was the first priority. We boarded wooden canoes as the men and women rowed with a paddle and their leg, a very distinct method by the Burmese. We were touted around from the markets, a village home visit, a blacksmith, silversmith, and a monastery. All of which were lovely, but seemed a bit contrived and put on. After all the shuttling, we headed back through the lake at sunset. Historically, traditional fisherman used woven basket-like nets to catch fish, today, the fisherman use nets to troll the waters. One of my favorite photos from Myanmar came out of a moment that was faked by men who were probably fisherman, but not accustom to these nets, and were paid by the guide to pretend for a photo. This is the reality, sometimes you get authenticity, and sometimes you get this. I always try to be as respectful and invisible as possible, but inevitably you can't hide the fact that you are a tourist, a traveler at best. Not to sour the taste for Myanmar and it's beautiful people. I absolutely loved it there. Goodbye Myanmar, love you.
When you're traveling, all you have is time. Something I'm unfamiliar with at home; work faster, rush here, do this, be there. It takes a while to switch modes and allow yourself to just sit there and stare at the wall. When booking my ticket from Myanmar to Nepal, I saved $1200 and lost 8 hours, or gained 8 hours of wall staring time, whichever sounds better. I flew from Yangon to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia on two separate flights, having to pass immigration and stamp into Malaysia to collect my bags, transfer airports on the train, and recheck for my fight to Kathmandu. When I got to the gate for my second flight, we lined up to pass through security. There were at least 50 men on this flight, no foreigners from what I could see and no women. The hair on the back of my neck stood upright. I was going to be boarding plane to a new country that was arriving in the dark with a plane full of men who were staring at me like I was a novelty. I had never wished I had a penis more than at that moment. I feel like I would have traveled the world 100 times over alone if only I had a penis. Part of me is wild, carefree, and spontaneous. And then I snap out of it and realize I don't have the luxury as a woman to make some of those decisions. I am not invincible and the strength inside of me does not translate into the physical world. Four or five more women line up, and a few foreigners and I take a deep sigh of relief. What it would be like to never have those feelings - I will never know.
After this narrowly harrowing experience, I would learn the Nepal that I have now come to know and love. N.E.P.A.L., Never Ending Peace And Love. My guide Bipin and the group I spent the first ten days with were lovely. I felt like I was in a family, really absorbing Nepal, it's customs, it's gods, and it's love. I found myself wanting to spend time at the fire, playing games, singing songs, and learning about each other - more than I wanted to sit and write. So I let that take hold of me, I let Nepal seep into my skin and into my heart - sometimes with conflict, and sometimes with ease.
Arriving to Kathmandu at night, my transfer collected me. We weaved through the Saturday night chaos of Thamel, the tourist district, to get to the hotel. A beautiful Rana dynasty mansion converted in 1967 and the first hotel in Kathmandu, yellow and white, with a large courtyard, a fire, COFFEE bar, and chaise lounges. I stayed in, wandered around the hotel grounds that night after a warning from my transfer driver about the drinking at night and to be cautious. I was. We headed out for a look around the city in the morning. The hustle and bustle, the damage from the earthquake, the pigeons (good luck) and the crows (bad luck), the rickshaws over cobblestone streets. We saw the old Palace, that is no longer five stories, but three. The earthquake devastated the city. Bipin was in the palace on a city tour when the earthquake hit. I can't imagine the terror. 17th century brick buildings crumbling before your eyes, around you, on top of you. Bodhi trees, sacred trees, tipped and hanging on by the roots. There is a lot of work to be done to restore these sites, bricks and pottery fragments are being cleaned and catalogued for rebuilding. As Bipin continued to say, it will take time, but they are moving forward.
One of the most interesting sights in Durbar Square in Kathmandu was the house of the Living Goddess or Kumari. It leans to the side, and still houses the current pre-pubescent child herself. A girl, aged 3-5 is chosen for her physical qualities and beauty as well as ability to stay calm in what would be a frightened situation for any child. She is meant to walk through a courtyard full of beheaded goats and buffalo in candlelight while men with masks dance around her. If she show any signs of fear, she is not suited for this position. The child that stays calm and passes all requirements becomes the Living Goddess. From 3-15 she lives in this house, with tutors and cooks. Family visits rarely and friends from her caste can come to play, but must obey everything she says. She presents herself at different festivals throughout the year, always being carried as her feet are not allowed to touch the ground after initiation. After her first menstruation, she is thought to have lost the sacred spirit and she is put back into the general population and lives out the rest of her life. I found this tradition so tragic, but I'm here to learn, not to pass judgement.
After exploring the immediate city, we headed a bit farther out to Boudhanath to see the largest Buddhist stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. The temple had just been reconstructed after the earthquake weeks before. A large white dome, laced with orange marigolds and Nepali prayer flags, every edge lined with prayer wheels, and painted at the top, the all-knowing eyes of Buddha. We circumnavigated the temple at least three times in a clockwise fashion to show respect and awe for the structure. 108 is a sacred number for many Eastern cultures and religions, and some people make the journey to this stuppah to spend 9+ hours circling 108 times. Monks surrounded a vat of incense so strong my lungs rejected any air I was trying to breathe in. The whole experience was strong and you could feel the spirituality exuding from the temple and the people here worshipping.
From here we went to what was the most interesting and solemn point of the day, Pashupatinath, the holiest and most important Hindu temple dedicated to the god Shiva, the most important of Hindu Gods. Behind the temple, lies the open air cremation place, the holiest in all of Nepal along the banks of the Bagmati River which flows down to the holy river Ganges in India. The river separates the public viewing area with stadium seating from the cremation pyres. I knew we were heading to this place, but for some reason I was caught off guard by the spectatorship and didn't realize the bodies would be burned outside for all to see. When we arrived there were three different stages of cremation occurring. Once I got my bearings, I was able to recognize the different stages. One body was being prepared for burning and had just been washed in the river, the first step in the process and was waiting, drying on the steps. There were many men surrounding the second body wearing robes of white - the color of mourning. The body was wrapped with a white sheet, so tightly I could count the mans knuckles underneath. On top of the white sheet were orange and gold cloths, draped beautifully over his body with garlands of orange marigolds. The third body was in the process of being burned, the flame was high, the body smoking, family and friends gathered, a woman, most likely the mans wife, wailing in the embrace of another woman. In the recent past, when a man died, his wife was also burned as his property, as she could not remarry and had no longer had value. Hindu people believe in reincarnation, so when the body leaves the natural world, it is recycled to a new life, dependent on karma or the cause and effect of one's actions during life. By being cremated at the holiest of cremation places, Pashupathinath, it is believed that rebirth will be as a human, regardless of any karmic factors. As a Westerner, this whole process generally would have seemed so foreign and disconcerting, but the one thing that made me uncomfortable was the public viewings. I didn't know these people, or the deceased, and I was able to witness this spiritual and heavy ritual. Besides that fact, I found the whole process really poetic and beautiful. The decoration, the ritual, the family, the definitive knowing that the body cremated and the ashes brushed in the river were of your loved one, returning back to nature. I know I would like to be cremated, but now, the way the West cremates their loved ones seems cold, clinical, unceremonious, and unnecessarily private.
Sadhu's or holy men, line the river banks in their orange cloths, carrying nothing but a trident and begging bowl, covered in white ash, with faces painted, unkempt beards, dreadlocks, and skin exposed. Many of these men are truly holy, giving up their possessions, families, and careers to embark on a spiritual search. Some are just sophisticated beggars. Both live entirely off donations and tourist photos are a good income for them. Sadly, you can rarely tell the difference between a genuine spiritual sadhu and a glorified beggar. One of the men invited me to sit between him and another sadhu, both covered in flies, he touched my head, mumbled a blessing, asked for me to take a photo, and then whispered in my ear, "now you give money". A huge contrast from what I was witnessing yards away on the cremation pyres. The weight of the cremation place is nearly tangible. Imagine, the many pyres full, and the bodies in waiting after the earthquake that killed 8500 people. Unthinkable. This wouldn't be the last time I had conflicting feelings in Nepal and this was day one.
The next morning we headed off to the Medieval town of Bhaktapur in a small van on the bumpiest dirt roads in my travels to date. The pollution is visible in Kathmandu Valley, you could cut it with a knife and it sears your lungs, exhaust, burning trash, dust from the construction. It's not rare to see many locals wearing masks. I wish I had one in hindsight, my lungs have been taking a beating. Bhaktapur was one of the towns with the greatest quake damage in Nepal, the destruction is still rampant, and there is building happening everywhere, men and women, buckling down to rebuild houses and temples. Some people are still living in relief tents, marked with the country who donated them. This town is home to the tallest temple in Nepal, Nyatapola, at 5 stories, which miraculously survived the quake, while others were not so lucky. It's also known for it's pottery, brick making factories, King of Curds - the most delicious sweet, creamy yogurt served in a clay pot, and Thangka paintings. Common themes in Thangka paintings are usually a mandala or birds eye view of a stuppah (did you know that?? - I didn't!), the wheel of life, or Buddha's life. As my fascination for Buddhism grows, I was attracted more and more to the paintings describing Buddha's life, the detail and skill involved was impressive to say the least. I got one of the masters paintings.
It seems like no one sleeps in Bhaktapur, the City of Devotees. The bells at the temples start ringing at 3:30am, the dogs tussling, the vendors setting up their wares and vegetables for the days selling. The city was bustling before the sunrise. Morning devotion: the bells sounding, ring one here, then one there, then step down to enter the small temple, offer flowers and kumkuma, a red or yellow powder coloring to mark the idols, then exit, ring the bells again. The idols faces on the carvings are so repeatedly touched, any detail is worn off and the faces are just reddish orange domes with vague impressions of what they once were. One of the most intriguing things about Hinduism is that it's not accessible to me. Yes, I can see the gods and goddesses in sculptures on buildings, doorways, in homes at personal alters, even on keychains, and knick knacks. But I'm not allowed within the temple doors because I'm not Hindu. As far as I can understand it, I couldn't be Hindu because I wasn't born into that life. The religion, the culture, and the ethnicity are all so intricately intertwined, it's almost impossible to be one without the other. You are Hindu by religion, you are Hindu by birthplace, you are Hindu by blood. Yes, I think you can follow the practices and convert, but it's not always recognized in these parts of the world. How do you karmically just jump into a life, into a reincarnation cycle without having been born into it altogether? On top of that, there are 33 million gods and goddesses in which Hindu's pray to, most of whom I believe would have been learned through tradition and anecdotes from parents while growing up, ie. a situation happens, we pray to this god because of it. Not to mention each god has many reincarnations that consist of other gods. For instance Buddha is believed to be the ninth reincarnation or avatar of Vishnu, the God of preservation and protection, one of the top three gods in Hinduism along with Brahma, the Creator and Shiva, the Destroyer. It's a fascinating religion on so many levels, but also endlessly complicated and impossible to summarize in a paragraph. I think Buddhism has become so popular and really caught on in the Western world because it's so accessible to everyone. It's a method of thinking, a way of being, a philosophy of life. As Bipin, our guide would say, "Hinduism is our religion, and Buddhism is a philosophy most of us follow, so we are really both". There are also different kinds of Buddhism, and different sects within those kinds, which I learned over a campfire with some of the Nepali locals. Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana are the major branches of Buddhism. I feel like either I'm subconsciously seeking out more information or it's coming to me effortlessly. In any case, I'm so excited to read more when I'm home.
After Bhaktapur, we spent some days walking through the hillsides of Nepal over suspension bridges, through valleys, and over mountains. A vast majority of the population of Nepal lives on the land in small villages. They are self sustaining terrace farmers, with a few cows, buffalo or goats. We were constantly unaware if we were eating cows milk, buffalo milk, or even yak cheese (more likely than not). Cows are holy and only used for their milk and their meat is never eaten, so most of the meat is buff (buffalo) or mutton (goat). The women and men carry large bundles of firewood or leaves in a basket that goes behind their backs and a strap that is placed on their foreheads to bear the weight. The were amazing amounts in these baskets, it was unbelievable. The amount of time and care that goes into feeding yourself and your family this way is humbling. We have such easy access to food (not always the best food), but imagine having to pick your rice, then shuck it, then sift it, then sift again and again. We stopped for chai and oranges along the way in a local home, saw the locals playing games - Bath-Chal or Tigers and Goats, Carrom - a mixture of billiards and shuffleboard, and card gambling. We saw the children playing, the dogs protecting their land with barks and growls, and the goats bleating bloody murder. We came across hilltop Hindu sacrificial temples in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere. This really was the best way to see the culture and the people in Nepal, by walking amongst them through the hills.
After the end of a long days trek, we came to Namobuddha, the home of the Tibetan Thrangu Tashi Yangtze Monastery. As we climbed the mountain, we could see the monastery and in the near distance, a forest covered in Nepali prayer flags. As we approached closer, the amount of flags there became greater and greater, they were everywhere, new flags, old withered flags, fluttering in the wind. I had never seen anything like this before, the devotion was palpable. This site is home to 250 Tibetan monks, they live here, train here, and pray here. When we finally got to the temple, it was immaculate. Colorful, clean, the overall colors were red and gold, but with so many flourishes and details in many colors. No photos were allowed, so unfortunately I cannot show it, but I was really overwhelmed by the beauty of it, I started to well up. We left the monastery to freshen up and check into our lovely German owned slice of paradise in the mountains (the vegetarian food was immaculate - the first salad I had in weeks). We returned to the monastery for the evening chanting. We sat against the wall in the back of the large hall as the monks came in, one by one, taking their seats. They had prayer books with them. I assumed they would be chanting the mantra Om Ma Ni Pad Me Hum, the most widely used mantra in Buddhism, evoking compassion; it cannot be translated into a single meaning, but is said to contain all of Buddha's teachings. Instead, we received the loud gong of the large drums, horns in two sizes, one a deep baritone, the other a treble, and chanting, sometimes in discord, not always in unison from their prayer books. It was an odd sound, I can't say it was entirely soothing, or disconcerting. It just existed in it's purity, strong and without hesitation. I found myself entranced for the hour we sat patiently. I put my jacket under me and got into a meditation position, legs crossed, hands on knees, back straight. I generally find it difficult to sit in this position for long periods of time, and have a hard time with meditation, my thoughts always seem to get the best of me - mind racing. But in this moment, I closed my eyes and I sat for the majority of that hour, listening intently, mind clear, body un-phased and alert. It was almost as if I was floating, lighter than my earthly body, and my mind was in another dimension. I left that moment with so much peace in my heart, a serenity I have rarely felt in my life, open, loved, and ready to give of myself. Full. Something inexplicable is happening.