07 August 2009

A Change Of Heart in Nepal

My behens (little sisters) at my homestay. The Annapurnas are in the background.

I arrived in Nepal this past January with no more than a few wool sweaters, some warm socks and a simple credo: I would spend the next ten days being the most positive, friendliest, say-yes-to-anything version of myself that I could possibly be.

I headed to the Himalayan country “at the roof of the world” via Delhi from my home of Mumbai, a city that knew how to pique my anger unlike any place I had ever been. I had begun to view India as the irritating, glue eating ADD kid who lives to pester you and make your life hellish – I had spats with it on a daily basis and spent quite a lot of time glowering in the corner. Basically, I was sick and tired of being irritated and I was irritated with my own irritation. I wanted to be that nice lady who is slow to anger, who is tolerant and friendly and joins in the game of street soccer rather than cursing when the poop covered ball hits her in the side of the head.

It was this lady that I was determined to be when I touched down in the spiritual land of Nepal.

As close as I get to hippying out, after a welcome in a Nepali village school.

As it was, the plane hadn't even taken off from Delhi when things changed. I found my seat and was distressed to see that I was in an aisle even though I had specifically requested a window so that I could see Mt. Everest as we descended into Kathmandu. I flagged down a stewardess and asked her if I could switch to the empty seat in front of me. “No, you must wait until after take off.” She replied. The Tibetan monk who was in the window of my aisle switched off his ipod and stared at me.

“You can have my seat.” He offered. My cheeks instantly burned bright red. I am used to Theravada Buddhism, the main branch in Southeast Asia. The monks there are forbidden to make eye contact with women and I am terrified to offend them so I generally pretend that they are not there, instead smiling dreamily into space like I have brain damage so that I do not accidentally lock eyes.

And yet here was a handsome man swathed in the deep crimson robes of Tibet engaging me in conversation. I realized that this was my first test. I accepted the seat switch graciously and we began chatting. He was, it turned out, from Toronto, a member of the small Tibetan refugee community and the holder of a Canadian passport. “Don't worry about the seat – I have taken this flight many times.” He told me.

The highest point on the planet.

“It is my first time to Nepal.” I said, craning my neck at the small plastic window, trying to catch a glimpse of the famous mountain. Mahayana monks, the order that Tibetans fall loosely into, consider themselves the 'higher vehicle' of Buddhism as they allow change, modernity (ie: iPods) and more contact with women. By the end of the 2 hour flight I was much more relaxed and it felt like we were old friends. He led me into the terminal and we said goodbye at the luggage carousel after I promised I would look him up in Toronto.

I headed into the city in a taxi, noticing the extreme difference from India immediately. Seventy Percent of Nepalis are of Indian ethnicity and practice Hinduism with the remaining 30% Buddhists of Tibeto-Burmese origin (this gets grey and fuzzy a lot of the time.) You would think that a small Himalayan kingdom with one foot still in its medieval past would have picked up on the traits of its monolithic Southern neighbour with which it shares a language – but it hasn't. And while Nepali people do watch Bollywood films, wear saris and practice Hinduism and Buddhism, the similarities end there.

The people, as clich├ęd as it sounds, are amazing.

There is a stereotype that Nepalis cannot lie – that they are so sweet and polite that they will never be able to look you in the eye if they are lying. While this is definitely a bit paternalistic and simplified in my experience it was actually true.

About 500 years old, in a dead end surrounded by bikes. Houses that are 100 years old in Canada get special status for being 'heritage.' Huh.

Kathmandu, the fabled final stop on the '70s Freak Trail from Istanbul, was a perfect start for my trip. It is an intoxicatingly strange city, a labyrinth of cobblestone pathways, temples and stupas. Things move slowly here, and intricate carved windows and street signs that would have been dismantled 200 years ago in India are still part of daily life. I wound down alleys that led to small squares and dead ends, passed through apartment block gates to come face to face with ancient stupas in the courtyard, passed blessed sacred trees covered in bright fabric and small altars. Children everywhere approached me and said hello, asking for nothing more than for me to take their photo.

Little hams. Except they're Hindu, so..... Little cauliflowers?

I gladly obliged and true to my intentions even played some ball with a sweet little boy who spoke no English but who was fascinated by my camera.

He was my favourite. He got really serious about his game when I started to watch. Men - the same the world over.

On my long walk through the old city to Durbar Square I came across a tiny sexless statue hidden in a corner of a small square. Though the square was only the size of a bachelor apartment it was also the site of 2 other historical shrines, each from the mid 15th century. But this, this little gnome sized Buddha image made shiny with touch, was over one thousand years old, and yet there it still stood sandwiched between a flight of tiled stairs and TV repair shop, oblivious to its pricelessness. Nepalis do not bulldoze history - they build around it and incorporate it into their daily lives.

1000 year old Buddha, just chillin' next to a tv repair shop and some pool tiles.

If the last square was notable for its diminutive size, Durbar Square was remarkable for its sheer hugeness. Really more like 3 monolithic courtyards connected, this is the heart and soul of Kathmandu. The concentration of temples and monuments would be amazing anywhere, but add to them the larger than life drums, masks and statues housed in this outdoor living museum – I was stunned. The roan, rust and ochre colours of Kathmandu darkened and changed as the sun went down and I retired to my room filled with wonder, feeling like I was in a fairy tale.

This handsome devil is Kala Bhairab, a 17th century stone image of Shiva's scariest form.

For the rest of my trip to the base of the Annapurnas and Chitwan National Park I had a guide and a few great gals to share him with. Hiren was a sweet, gentle man always trying to make sure that we were happy (and who later cried a bit when we said goodbye.) We climbed into the hills together for a homestay with a local family, a fairly new enterprise for the tiny village. Old women with huge bundles of sticks lolloped by, stealing a peek at the Western girls drinking tea and seemingly every small child from miles around came to play in the courtyard and practice basic English, water buffaloes and chickens shuffling around us.

The home that we stayed in.....pretty idyllic.

We were served basic meals of dhal bhat (rice, curried vegetables and lentil soup) and after a visit to the primary school nearby we were told to prepare for an evening of entertainment by the local women (they kept calling it “MotherDance.” I could not help but think of “MotherBoy.”) As the evening grew dark candles and torches were lit up in the courtyard and the entire population of the village slowly made their way to the home we were staying at. Some Bollywood music was played, and all of the children began swarming us, asking our names and touching our hair and faces. “How old you?” “What is your mother's name?” “How many brothers and sisters you have?” “You dance with me?” “You dance with me?!” Sister, dance with me!” “Sister, sing with me!”

Dhal bhat - twice a day, every day. I love it, but umm.... can we mix it up? Can I have some sushi?

My first instinct was to shy away and remain glued to my seat – embarrassed that I wouldn't know what to do in front of the eyes of the whole village. In these situations I am often filled with a horror-like dread at the notion of performing song or dance. I was a terrible heavy-footed ballerina as a child, and even now on the dance floor I stick to a sort of wriggly shuffle that I am told is basic – yes, but not embarrassing. This is the key. Karaoke is even worse. I always think my screechy singing will endear me to people, a'la Cameron Diaz in “My Best Friend's Wedding.” It does not -instead I can just see people irritatedly mouthing complaints at my off key caterwauling.

Sita, who took me under her wing and insisted that I dance.

These images passed through my head as I looked at my seat in longing. The three of the other girls I was with stuck to their guns and remained planted, busying themselves with the last grains of rice on their plate and trying to avoid the pleading eyes of the village kids. I sighed. This was a test – a big one.

I heaved my butt off of the woven mat I was sitting on and allowed the giddy girls to lead me in dance and song. They all clamoured to show me the right way to do the moves, to grab my hands with their tiny own and swing me around and to lead me in warbling choruses of Hindi pop music (Kareena Kapoor, eat your heart out..). Soon older women and the local men joined in and we all danced in a large circle, and then with partners, and then back in the circle again. People began popping into the middle for individual turns as everyone clapped and cheered, and again I felt my instinct to be embarrassed climb up into the back of my throat.

I swallowed it, along with my pride, and danced unabashedly until my feet hurt.

C'mon kids, everyone do your best 'Lady in the Radiator!'

Nepal broke something in me, something hard and calloused with time, and from within it spilled glee, childlike giddiness and a dropping of pretension. It was a few things and just everything.... The monk that ignored convention and chatted away with me, giving me his seat. The little boy who passed me his ball in a tiny courtyard near a stupa. The priceless ancient statue treated so blase. And especially that evening in a tiny village at the base of the Annapurnas when I looked at the girls who had chosen to stay seated and I felt... sorry for them. I know that I won't ever stay seated again.

So if you see me near the karaoke machine, cover your ears....and thank (or curse) Nepal.

In Vietnam a few months later. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what two bottles of Vietnamese wine and a trip to Nepal can do to you. I believe this is Sweet Caroline....


Anonymous said...

This makes me really want to go to Nepal.

Pat said...

You certainly can weave a story. I love the journey that you are on. You will have memories that will last a lifetime. And good for you for getting up to dance!!

Dandy said...

Cannot wait for you to come out with a book. And a travel guide. And a CD.

The Bug said...

I would love to have been there & watched you dance! I have NO rhythm, but I like to sing... I think of Sweet Caroline as one of my anthems because I'm from North Carolina...

*jean* said...

aah...good times never seemed so good....

i love your blog...your travels have me mesmerized...and your photos are "heavenly"

Leanne said...

Hehe..I LOVE your description of your love/hate relationship with India. Poo covered ball, ROFL :) Nepal sounds amazing. (Must remember to brush up on Bollywood songs before I go though).

amanda said...

Luckily, I didn't feel sorry for myself, or else I wouldn't have had any fun!

Paulina said...

I really like what Pat said about "weaving a story" So true! This blog is great, and the stories are beautiful! Thanks for the good read.

PS: I am the worst karaoke singer EVER. But for some weird reason, I always still sing. Masochistic? Nah, just plain fun.


aynzan said...

Interesting recounting on your wonderful journey.I bet you had to drink water in between each morsel of that dhal bhat!


Rachel said...

They have karaoke in nepal!?!? Awesome.

Lauren said...

Reading your posts are like getting lost in a great book. you always leaving me wanting more. Can't wait to see where you take us next!


indrablog said...

You are right you have to have an open mind to appreciate a culture, place and people that is very different from yours. You explored Nepal well.

El Paso Momma said...

This really has to be one of the best written blogs I've read in a cool minute. Thank you. I'm off now to see how your travel in India went.

Dennis Hilario said...

i've been dreaming to travel in Nepal and Tibet myself and its great that you've posted your travel, its like i was there....nice post! cheers!

Brodles said...

Really enjoyed this post, reminded me of my trip to India where I felt exactly the same way about Delhi, but when I got to Dharamsala it all drifted away. I wish I could get airlifted directly into this little village to find that peace again.
Thanks for posting.

susan said so said...

Good for you, and congratulations on your newly fund (or perhaps reclaimed) courage! I feel certain it will serve you well, and that you'll make the most of it.



Anonymous said...

I've always wanted to go to Nepal. You're the second person I hear talk about it. I'm definitely going to Nepal in the near future!!

Katie said...

How nice that the Nepalis have such respect for history and the past. Some cultures don't recognize the value in conserving historic structures and the like.

You're a traveler not just a tourist. Thank you for sharing your moment of enlightenment with us. Nepal sounds like it was wonderful.

Teri K said...

Good for you for letting go of some inhibitions and just joining the dance. It helps to remember that they aren't judging you by their standards, but instead offering to let you join in their joy. I
m glad yo took the plunge. Maybe the others will next time.

Little Miss Piggy said...

Loved this post! It brought back all the wonderful memories of travelling in Nepal and how hospitable, friendly and genuinally lovely the Nepalese are. Nepal certainly brings out the best in people!

ihaq1111 said...

nepali presentation of food must be improving...your plate looks much better than what i got when i tried nepali food..."fire and ice" is a much better bet where u get music and potato-maize pizza's