Saturday, April 2, 2011

Namaste Nepal

From the bustle of the Kathmandu airport straight to yoga – so my trip to Nepal began and so it continued - switching between chaos and calm from one moment to the next.

From yoga we went to a restaurant called Lhakpa’s Chulo, where I ordered a Thai beef salad and garlic bread. The salad arrived – a heap of crisp green lettuce, diced cucumbers, strips of bell pepper, ringlets of green onion, thinly carved pieces of seared beef, sprigs of mint and cilantro with a spicy ponzu dressing. It was delicious! So good in fact that I made it a point to go back and have another before I left.

By the time we wrapped up dinner I actually had goosebumps – I hadn’t had those in a naturally climatized environment since I left home! I was looking forward to snuggling under a blanket while I slept – another thing I haven’t done since I left home – it’s been too hot in Dhaka.

After a cozy night’s sleep, I started by day in Patan’s Durbar Square, which means royal square. Though the cluster of temples in this area is higher than average, I’d be remiss not to mention that temples and shrines in Nepal are about as frequent as fire hydrants back home – they are literally on every corner. Without realizing quite how it happened, I suddenly found I’d hired a guide. He proceeded to take me through Patan square, providing history and pointing out details of the buildings that surrounded us, as well as, taking me to a variety of shops and touristy stores that I’m pretty sure he had some commission deal set up with. That aside, having a guide definitely helped me to orient myself and to avoid spending too much time searching for the landmarks listed in the Lonely Planet. What the guide prevented me from doing was to take my time and really absorb everything I was seeing. In the future, I decided, I’d be guiding myself, which I found out later was easier said than done.

That afternoon, Sven took me to the Thamel district of Kathmandu, which is bustling with countless, over-priced tourist shops. After a nice lunch at an Italian restaurant, I set off on my own with a mission to find Swayambhunath, aka Monkey Temple, so called because of the large troop of monkeys that calls this hill its home.

I’d been instructed on how to get there, but somehow I ended up taking a rural detour. Off in the distance I could see the temple perched on the hill, and I used it as my compass. Winding through people’s home gardens and occasionally using sign language to reassure myself that I was heading in the right direction, I eventually found my way.

I tremendously long staircase loomed in front of me – there was a point at which the incline was so steep it felt almost as if I was climbing up a vertical wall, but the view from the top was worth it. Geologists believe that the Kathmandu Valley was once a lake and that Monkey Temple hill at that time was an island in the middle of this lake. Looking down at the sea of buildings, houses, streets and temples that shimmered below it was difficult to imagine that the valley floor was once covered in water.

The most dominant structure on top of the hill is definitely the stupa. Consisting of a large white dome upon which rests a square shaped structure that Buddha’s eyes peer out in all directions. The cone on top makes it look like Buddha is wearing a gnome hat. Surrounding the stupa are countless other shrines and temples, which pay homage to a variety of gods and goddesses.   

The stupa, which is lined with prayer wheels, is always circled in a clockwise direction. Worshipers and tourists who were orbiting the dome with me, were giving these wheels a gentle spin as they went by. The sound of clicking prayer wheels and scent of incense filled the air. Further along a man was meticulously cleaning the wax from a flower-shaped base in front of a temple, and people were queuing up to receive a tika, large red dot that is placed on the forehead, from a living goddess. Having completed a rotation around the stupa, I settled down to gaze out at the view.

Given the location and importance of this temple, I had expected to feel a certain serene energy as soon as I set foot on the mountain. That hadn’t happened yet, but sitting on the steps of a temple I gave it another try. Making an effort to ignore the crinkling of chip bags, the shrieks of tourists encountering monkeys, the clicks of cameras and the general commotion, I started to notice the faint silhouette of the hills in the distance, the peaceful way in which the birds were circling the hill, the snoozing dogs, the steady, warm breeze, the calm monk sitting opposite me, and the continuous chanting of the Tibetan Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum.” By calmly observing I was able to see and feel the place in a much different way. And so, feeling satisfied, I made my way down the dangerously steep steps - the voices of the people below blended to sound like a rippling stream, in the distance thunder rolled, and I smelled rain.

Continuing with this mindful approach to life, I opted to take both a yoga and meditation class the next day. The Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Center was located just around the corner from Andrea and Sven’s house. Guarding the front door, much like the statues in front of temples, was a little, black, lion-looking dog. Off to the left of the porch was a great big prayer wheel. The door was hidden behind a tapestry with the endless knot embroidered on it. I made my way inside and found myself in a dark entry hall. Though the Buddha sat peacefully to my right with a colorfully decorated white clothe draped over his shoulders, I was surprised to see him and mistook his shape to be a real person. I jumped. The experience was calmer from there on out. The yoga was rejuvenating – the teacher was calm and his Nepali accent made the whole experience that much more authentic as he calmly told us all to “stay here for a while” each time we struck a pose. When I left, I noticed that the fog had lifted and where previously there hadn’t been mountains there now were, the brick walls seemed brighter than before, and the rain I smelled the day before was now falling.

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