After many months in Asia, I will finally be heading home tonight. I made a number of friends (Tak, Mike, Ray) at various places, but nowhere did I get as close to people as here in Nepal. It was especially odd saying goodbye to Mickey and Guy, but it will be really tough saying goodbye to Katrin – it’s incredible how a friendship can form in only a few weeks when you spend a lot of time walking mountains and exploring together.
The last couple days in Kathmandu she has been my “German tour guide” as I relied on her and her German guidebook to figure out where to take us around the city. Kathmandu is a pretty huge place and two days only allows you to barely scratch the surface, but those days have been pretty intense. We’ve been staying in Boudhanath near the biggest stupa in Nepal which is supposed to contain the wordly remains of the original Buddha and is a really cool mix of Nepali, Tibetan, and tourism.
Monday started with a rare venture to a restaurant recommended by the guidebook, and adorable little garden spot with a cool atmosphere and surprisingly good food. I enjoyed slices of sausage (!!) for the first time since leaving the US and prepared for a big day of exploring. Quickly sated and stuffed, we walked off down some residential side streets of Kathmandu and immediately got lost heading in the general direction of our goal, a temple complex whose name I unfortunately don’t remember.
Doggedly we kept on and eventually spotted some locals taking a little side path around what appeared to be a zoo and decided to join them. Walking along the top of a lush jungle river valley we saw an amazing sight – wild monkeys swimming and playing in the river. They were absolutely adorable and mesmerizing, looking almost exactly like human children.
After a bit more walking we arrived at a series of stone benches and walls overlooking the temple complex of our destination. This is where things got a little strange – I don’t know if Kat’s guide book didn’t mention it or if she didn’t read carefully, but as we took in the sight we realized there were some carefully wrapped dead bodies on the steps down by the river. As we watched I remembered seeing something similar about funerals in India on some documentary, and it turned out the place we had come to visit was an area where bodies were cremated next to the river.
After awhile we went down closer and spent awhile respectfully watching this process, both of us thinking of recently deceased grandparents and how this ritual compared to our Western rituals for the dead. It was really intense and hard to describe and of course we took almost no photos of this process, but instead spent many hours sitting and thinking about it.
The time came for us to move on and shake free of the somber mood, so we walked up the river a bit and were promptly set upon by a gang of children in by far the most aggressive bit of begging I’ve encountered in a long time – it’s normal in India and Nepal for children to randomly ask you for goodies (we constantly make fun of this by walking around asking each other “chocolate?”), but in this situation the kids were jumping in front of us and physically pushing on us and trying to stop us from walking away. I was only slightly worried about the stuff in my zipped cargo pockets, but Kat quickly got very uncomfortable – but the kids refused to respond to the clear no’s we were giving them and I even started gently pushing them away.
Thankfully a Nepali guy walked by around this time and Kat asked him if he could tell the children we had nothing and he started yelling at them in Nepali. They quickly became contrite and filed off as we thanked him and went on our way – I’m really quite curious to know what he yelled at them!
We made it “home” around sunset and I was in the mood for something special after seeing some signs in the area around the stupa we were staying at for “wood fired pizza” so I dragged Katrin with me and we ended up enjoying a fantastic dinner of a passably good pizza and calzone – but the real excellence was the rooftop restaurant overlooking the stupa. It was a bit windy and we had to make a game of keeping our candles lit, but it was a really nice relaxed dinner with some of the best food I’ve had in awhile – Nepal definitely does food well!
Yesterday we were going to head to Thamel, but instead decided to go to Durbar Square, a world heritage site on the far site of Kathmandu that contains buildings from the original local empire before it was conquered by Nepal. After enjoying a 5AM wakeup to view the local morning prayer activity, we took local buses instead of a taxi, having to squash in like the locals and switch buses but eventually we arrived at the area leading up to the square, a local municipality called Lalitpur. In order to enter this area they wanted to charge us 200rs so instead we decided to sneak in – which we did, quite literally, by wandering through a maze of tunnels and connecting areas and courtyards between buildings (including one that we had to crouch down to make it through), but managed to find our way out and into the city!
As we were wandering we encountered the Golden Temple, an adorable place with shining polished bronze everywhere and amazing details and statues. This is one thing that’s a common trend in all older temples and buildings it seems, the desire to cover huge swathes of building with intricate carvings and statues – I don’t think we have the patience or appreciation in the West to do this type of thing anymore.
After the Golden Temple we wandered over to Durbar Square and it was absolutely worth it. Completely incredible, a huge palace complex with a bunch of little shrines around it. We did end up having to pay the 200rs entry fee here as they actually had cute little girls running around checking people for tickets, but at this point we weren’t so upset at the idea – they actually had garbage cans here! And it was CLEAN! This was literally the first place we’ve seen in Kathmandu that doesn’t have trash randomly lying around, so it was nice to see the entry fee going to real conservation and maintenance.
We had lunch at a cool restaurant overlooking the square then explored the museum, which had some amazingly succinct but useful information about Buddhism and Hinduism across Nepal, India, and the world – specifics on how to recognize various gods in statues and what they meant. For example, I never realized that the primary reason gods have so many arms is simply for identification purposes, with many arms being required in order to hold enough items to clarify which god is depicted.
Getting late, it was time to catch a ride back to Boudha for an early dinner, since we had woken up at 5AM to watch the monks and early risers pray. For the first time, my beautiful German tour guide failed! We got completely lost trying to walk back to the bus station, though it was a pleasant walk through a nice residential neighbourhood (complete with wild marijuana growing next to a playground) until we finally got pointed in the right direction by the locals. Then we popped on a bus towards the center bus station in order to transfer back to Boudha, except apparently the bus wasn’t heading back to the center bus station…
Finally we realized we had driven well past it and tried to ask where the bus was going when no less than three people within five feet of us on the crowded bus started giving us directions in nearly perfect English! This would have been awesome except they all disagreed… After a discussion between all of them in Nepali a middle aged lady took the fore and told us to get off with her. When we did, she waited to flag down a microbus then explained to the bus tout where we were trying to go (another change was required, apparently we were on the opposite side of town) and asked him to take care of us.
This is where the generosity of the Nepali people shines through – I saw this over and over again in Nepal, but it’s so subtle that you don’t always process it. I think you could accidentally walk into someone’s house and they wouldn’t even be angry, but instead direct you to a shortcut out their back door to where you are trying to go… in any case, the micro drove us all over (with us crammed in with a hundred thousand other Nepali) until we were the last left on it and the tout actually walked with us to another bus stop a block or so away then tried to catch us a bus to Boudha.
At this next step, there was another Nepali waiting to go to Boudha and he said he’d make sure we got on the right bus, so the tout handed us off to him and took off. Shortly the correct bus came and we loaded up and eventually made it home! Katrin was a little annoyed at first because they charged us more than the locals, but as it was explained to me my first day, I take up a lot more room than the locals (even though I don’t consider myself to be huge in the US I’m like a freakin’ monster compared to most Nepalese, I think my shoulders are about twice as wide sometimes…). This point was hammered home as my shoulders were nearly cramping from trying to make myself as small as possible on the packed ride back to Boudha.
After quick showers we went out to an early and fast dinner (which is actually very late for Nepal as most places close before 9PM, as crazy as that sounds), then I watched UFC114 and tried to catch some z’s on my last night in-country…
This morning was a somber affair, sharing breakfast and lunch with Katrin and just relaxing before finally leaving to head off to the airport (where my bags were searched no less than four times before boarding the plane). I was pretty sad to say goodbye, it’s hard to believe that only a couple days more than three days ago we were complete strangers. She is a pretty damn cool lady.
I’m finishing writing this while sitting outside at the Delhi airport in the same spot I wrote my last blog entry about India a month and a half ago. I think India has some of the worst airport organization in the world, certainly the worst I’ve seen – I had the choice of sitting ON THE FLOOR in the arrival terminal for FIVE HOURS until I could get a bus to my departure terminal to NYC or going through immigration and entering India to sit in the departure lounge for the same amount of time… Just plain silly.
I also found out that Expedia sorta screwed me – Air India changed my flight from Delhi to IAD into Delhi to JFK (New York). I was pissed but bought a ticket from JFK to DCA for $100 which was actually kind of nice because it meant I could metro home… except when I had Air India print out my itinerary here it included a flight from JFK to IAD that Expedia failed to mention! On the other hand, $100 is worth it to avoid sitting around in NYC for another seven hours and having to shuttle into the city.
So I’m cranky at Delhi, ready to go home, sad to leave my bestest friend of the last few weeks, and completely stoked about getting back to the US and my place. Talk about mixed frickin’ emotions…