We arrived in Nepal almost a week ago. Having talked about this trip for so long, Dean had set my expectations and highlighted some of the differences in culture. We hopped out on the dark tarmac at 10pm, being one of the last people to deboard the plane and were greeted in the airport by a long line to use one of the 5 automated machines for our visas, followed by an even longer line to pay our $40 (note the American currency instead of the Nepalese rupee) per person entry fee. If you know me, you know that I am an extremely efficient person who follows the rules and hates to waste time. But I settled in for some good people watching and we made it through with very little hassle.
Driving through the city, we were rewarded with a city adorned with decorations for the Nepali Hindu festival of Tihar. The most common of the decorations being assorted colored lights strung down the facade of most every building. Our ride to the hotel was quiet and quick as everyone was at home and the roads clear of traffic due to the Tihar celebrations. On arriving to our hotel we quickly collapsed into a deep sleep.
Waking up early the next morning, we had the city to ourselves with a few other early risers as we meandered through Thamel, the tourist quarter of Kathmandu. It appeared that every other shop was a trekking outfitter, cashmere supplier or art (read: tchotchke) dealer. Obviously, this area is prepared to take advantage of every tourist dollar available and ensure that you don’t leave wanting for any souvenir that Nepal can provide.
Later in the day, we had the opportunity to leave the tourist quarter and see an older part of the city around Durbar Square. Dean’s friend Sushil had arranged for us to attend a Bhai Tika ceremony, the last ceremony of the 5 day festival of Tihar at his friend Narbottom’s house. Here’s the thing about travel, you try to make connections with people and learn about their culture but often you only touch the surface. We had the good fortune to delve a little deeper while waiting for 4 hours with Narbottom’s daughter, Namrata, and nieces, Samata and Sachita. We had the opportunity to ask an unlimited amount of questions about their lives and the Nawari culture. I hope they didn’t feel that I was grilling them, but I couldn’t help but be curious. We learned a lot about each other that afternoon, and more importantly, we found that we have a lot in common.
Toward 5:00 in the evening, both Dean and I were fading from jet lag, amplified by sitting in a warm room for several hours. Fortunately, we were soon shown the family’s rooftop terrace with a view across the city to Swyambunath Stuppa, more typically called the Monkey Temple. Invigorated by a cool breeze and the imminent promise of the Bhai Tika ceremony, we both were able to perk up.
The ceremony is something that I will never forget as long as I live. Dean was asked to sit next to the three brothers of the family and was effectively worshipped as one of the family’s own siblings. We were given special foods that are typically cooked by the family’s ethnic group (Newar); lung, liver, prawns, mutton curry, and homemade yogurt were only a few of the delicacies on our plate. The love demonstrated within their family and the hospitality they showed us was unforgettable. This ceremony and the gracious hospitality served as a reminder for why we continue to travel – a chance to connect, learn, and share experiences with one another.
I was flying high after our experience, especially after pictures with the entire family and after a nighttime stroll back to our hotel, through the old city with the family’s three daughters as our local guides. This feeling spilled over to the next day as we woke up early to go to Swayambunath Stuppa, the Monkey Temple. As we navigated through the busy streets of Kathmandu, we could tell that Tihar was over; the roads were crowded with cars & motorbikes adding to an ever growing reddish haze of dust and exhaust. When we arrived at the bottom of the hill to climb to the temple, I was shocked at the amount of litter discarded in the open spaces and the smell of rotten garbage. It was overwhelming and, I’m ashamed to say it, deflating. Here I was, feeling so high after the previous night’s once in a lifetime experience, and the scene of squalor sent me into a state of disgust. How can people live like this? How can they desecrate what is supposed to be a holy place with what appeared to be pure ambivalence?
My feelings increased as we made our trip to the top of the the stuppa, the disarray worsened with trash thrown unconcernedly on the ground, street dogs with open wounds, and monkeys eating rice and other sacrifices from in front of the temples. It took two rounds of the stuppa and roughly 15 minutes of standing by myself, watching those around me, before I could finally start to find some calm. A little boy was walking in front of a group of adults, making their way around the stuppa, spinning the prayer wheels as part of their devotions. He smiled at me. His smile was so genuine, it was disarming. In that moment, I could tune out the noise, pollution, and wounded animals to just be a person, smiling back.
A seed of empathy was planted and on the way down the stairs, Dean and I talked about the challenges of the Nepalese people who culturally are still in a transition from historically biodegradable garbage to the modern world of packaging. I’m sure there’s more complexity to the issue but I can’t help but wonder if the pollution and garbage is normalized and perceived by the citizens as simply a part of life. Does that make the stuppa any less awe inspiring? Or people’s devotions any less holy? Or that little boy’s smile any less authentic?
During the 45 minute walk back to the hotel through the outskirts of the city, instead of looking at the trash, pollution, and squalor, I looked at the people. Men, sitting in a group laughing. Women taking care of their children. Tourists actively taking in sights that are so different than those they see at home. And I remembered that which yesterday, was so apparent to me; we’re all people living our lives and our similarities often are much greater than our differences.