|With Hindu holy men at Pashupati|
We’ve just come back from another interesting weekend away. There are a lot of photos in this blog, because they tell the story of the weekend better than I can.
Anna, Aly, and I joked that it was like being kids at sleep-away camp for the weekend, because we packed our overnight bag and loaded into a van with several of our housemates and two of the staff members to babysit us. In all, our group numbered about 12 - Anish (our Nepalese volunteer director), Santos (our Nepalese volunteer coordinator), several Americans traveling solo, and an Australian couple.
|My "I'm so happy to have |
an oreo frappuccino!" face
Before we left Saturday morning for the trip, I walked by myself for the first time from our house to the very-nearby tourist district of Thamel to get cash from the ATM and meet a couple of the housemates at a coffee shop with the promise of a frappuccino-like drink at the end. I’ve been to Thamel several times, and I feel very safe here. I was surprised, however, at how many people tried to talk to me during my walk (which can’t have taken more than 10 minutes).
When I walk around with the other girls, we get stared at a lot. Not in a threatening or sexual or mean spirited way, just out of curiosity I suppose. But when I walked by myself I was shocked at how many people approached or attempted to engage me. I guess one person is easier to talk to than two. They shouted hello from cars and shops, followed me on rickshaws, and insisted on walking me to the coffee shop instead of simply providing me directions. The attention was overwhelming and alarming, but again, never in an unsafe way. I figure that I’ll be prepared for it the next time around.
Our first stop of the weekend was Bhaktapur, a decent-sized city with a distinct historic city center that is as much as tourist destination as a religious one. Walking through the main Durbar Square and past the many temples felt like I was walking in another time. It was really beautiful and interesting - the type of place that I could have explored for several days...if I wasn’t limited to a few hours.
Here’s what the tourist brochure has to say, “Bhaktapur’s history goes back to the early 8th century. A blend of northern art and southern mythological philosophy, the aged arts, architecture and culture is the heritage of Bhaktapur that it inherits from the earlier generations. The pagoda and shikhar style temples, vihars and bahis (traditional Buddhist monasteries), lonha hiti (stone spouts), ponds… stupas, city gates, terracotta temples, palaces, … are the major monuments of this ancient city. Bhaktapur Durbar Square was listed in World Heritage Sites in 1979.”
|Our international group of travelers|
|Me and a lion/dragon fellow|
|The many temples in Durbar Square|
|Lunch on the rooftop|
After walking around the city for a while, our group went to lunch at a rooftop restaurant five stories high with beautiful views of the town and the mountains in the distance. Nepal is covered in buildings with rooftop terraces, a unique feature I haven’t seen as extensively anywhere else. As the raining season has come to an end (supposedly), kids were outside on rooftops across the city flying kites, which are made from thin sheets of plastic and cost about 5 rupees, or 5 US cents to buy. It reminds me of the book Kite Runner, as the kids try to cut down each other kites using their own.
|Drenched and happy|
Halfway through our lunch, and despite the “end” of the rainy season, it started pouring again. The same type of rain we experienced while riding elephants - rain like a sheet of non-stop water from the sky. We went inside to finish our meals and then headed out to find our van. I actually really like the rain here. It’s probably the cleanest water around and provides a welcome cool from the constant heat. I feel like I’m playing in the rain, and its fun to stop caring what I look like, if my hair is messed up, or of the rain will ruin my next appointment and just let go and embrace getting soaked and walking through the city in dripping wet clothes.
|Woman and girls in bright colors take shelter from the rain|
After we left Bahktapur, our van took us to Nagarkot, a village at the top of a mountain that is known to locals for having beautiful views of the sunrise and sunset. In my opinion, it lived up to its reputation.
|View on the ride from Bhaktapur to Nagarkot|
|With Anish and Santos on the road to Nagarkot|
|The main house|
The lower house is a different story. It is detached from the main building and separated by several flights of stairs on a slightly lower part of the mountain. The bottom two levels of the hotel are complete, so that is where we stayed. The rooms had giant private patios and the interiors were a combination of exposed stone and brick. For $20, you’re not going to find a better deal. BUT, the top two levels of the hotel were under construction. I’m not talking about a little renovation, I’m talking about a completely gutted framework with exposed pipes, concrete pillars, and workers drying their laundry from ropes strung between construction shafts. It was pretty comical walking down the stairs for the first time and seeing this, because we could only see the construction and not the lower levels, and I was pretty sure that meant we were camping for the night (much to my dismay).
As a side note - one of the girls went to open her door after dinner and found a giant spider sitting on the lock. Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to exaggerate the size of bugs, but this really was a huge spider. It was the size of my fist, if not bigger, with a body the size of a quarter and the rest of him all legs. I’ve seen a lot of bugs since we’ve been here, but the spider wins the prize.
Anyway, at sunset we all headed to the deck to watch the sun go down over the west of Nepal. There was a brilliant double rainbow from the earlier storm, and we sat up there for the better part of an hour enjoying the view.
|Silhouettes at sunset|
This morning, we woke up at 5:30 a.m. to watch the sunrise in the east - meaning we watched the sun rise over the himalayas! I imagine this will be one of those once-in-a-lifetime things for me. The clouds were below us and looked like a white ocean, and when the sun came up we had to look carefully to determine where the clouds ended and the snowy mountains began. It was beautiful and totally worth the uncomfortable and precarious drive up and down the mountain.
|The himalayas just before sunrise|
|Sunrise in Nagarkot|
While several people went back to their rooms for a couple more hours of sleep, Anna, Aly, and I stayed up for a cup of tea on the patio to enjoy the cold air and views while we still had the chance.
|Morning tea overlooking the himalayas|
We headed back down the mountain and into Kathmandu Valley this morning for our final stop of the weekend at Pashupati - recognized by Hindus as one of the holiest temple in Nepal. This area sits on the Bagmati river, and it is the place where Hindus and some Buddhists bring their deceased loved ones. It is a holy site for public cremations, which may sound morbid to westerners, but is considered a holy way of returning the body to the elements by the people who worship here.
|Mourners prepare the dead on the left as vendors and visitors watch from the right|
|Hindu holy man|
We sat on the opposite side of the river and watched as families carried their dead, covered in bright orange shrouds, down to the river to be prepared. They then moved the body to a platform above the water, which has been set up with wood, and lay the body down for cremation. I am told that the entire cremation process takes about three hours, and this site operates 24 hours a day and hosts 50 to 60 families every day. It is an honor for Hindus to be released in this place, and I learned that those near death often go to hospice near the river so that they can die there, believing that a death near the holy site will earn them a better reincarnation.
It was a very emotional place, because for the worshipers, this is their way of saying their final goodbyes. It was also a surprising place, because men bathed in the river that is littered with trash and flowing with ashes, tourists and vendors walk freely among mourners, and cows, stray dogs, and monkeys wander around completely uninterested in each other. It was also a difficult place to visit, because the dust, smog, and ashes made the whole sky grey. We wore our sunglasses and masks the whole time to protect our eyes and keep from ingesting anything.
Pashupati was unlike any place I have ever been before, mixing the extremely intimate with the extremely public. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to observe this cultural practice.
|Series of temples with aligned doors to see through to the end|
We're back to the monastery and orphanage tomorrow, so I'll write again soon with stories of the adorable kids and little monks!