I remember fondly the first time I visited Nepal. I arrived by air.
This was my introduction to the commission problem — for example, Hotels pay touts a percentage for delivering a customer. At the airport, touts hold up signs advertising their favourite Hotel.
The next bit is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to friends on that first visit to Nepal:
I love the anticipation you feel when arriving at a new place. It’s a little like Christmas eve when you were a kid. Over here there are the delicious uncertainties of entry visas, currency exchange, and where to stay on arrival. Mass confusion. And I haven’t even got to India yet.
Today I reached Kathmandu. I really, really wanted to. Another mad scramble.
We psyched up and then plunged into the manswarm of touts, louts, and taxi hacks. Like the stock market floor but with a greater sense of urgency.
I pointed to a little guy in the back and called out TIBET GUEST HOUSE. Surprisingly, I actually made it to a taxi with him despite the tugging and shouting of his competitors who insisted he was insane, a murderer, and that his hotel had burned down. The tout would pay the cab.
As we escaped the airport the authorities decided to shut down the highway for (speculating wildly) road repair. We U-turned to take a crumbling backroad shortcut. When we were far enough away the taxi pulled over and insisted on doubling the agreed fare. A charged argument ensued in Nepalese.
I Buddha smiled, content as a sacred cow in the middle of rush hour traffic.
Canadian author Tim Ward tells of the time he came upon a destroyed Buddhist temple converted to village latrine. The central statue had a big decaying turd in the middle of it’s lap. Ward admired the Lord Buddha’s composure in the midst of decomposure.
I aspire to the inner calm of the Buddhist.
But, entering Nepal this time, it was not to be.
I spent my last night in Tibet, not surprisingly, sleeping slumped over the steering wheel of a parked truck in which I had hitched to the border. (The drivers were afraid that they might be caught by the police if I walked into the border town of Zhangmu at night.)
At first light I strolled down, elated to be leaving Tibet. Someone called my name from above. It was Matt, a mellow, musical American whom we had rescued (in our horse cart) descending from Everest. Matt had ruined his legs trying to hike out — he could no longer walk. Matt and I were soon scarfing a fabulous Nepali breakfast at a funky cliffside restaurant looking way down into Nepal. The air was full of music, curry, and portent.
En route to Kathmandu (standing in an open truck!) we lost 4500 metres and gained 2 hours and 15 minutes. (You won’t be surprised to hear that all of China runs on Beijing time.) We Tibetan refugees were a giggle of schoolgirls, our senses open, excitedly pointing out banana palms, pigeons, and butterflies. Sensory overload after the deprivations of China and Tibet.
Kathmandu is polluted, loud, and crowded. We didn’t care.
They got hot rain falling from the ceiling. They got MACHINES wash your clothes!
We marveled at flush toilets, tall buildings, women decidedly not in Tibetan robes. We overdid it in the best bookstores in Asia.
Nepal is a feast! We gorged on calzone, apple strudel, lasagna, and bagels. I could live on bread alone — dark European brot which gets sweeter as you chew. Restaurants offer patio gardens, rooftop lookouts, hammocks, and Blues music. The birds are table tame.
For my birthday I treated myself to a barber shave and head massage; one of the best travel bargains on all 7 continents.
Nepal is an amalgam of 3 religions; Hinduism, Buddhism, and Tourism. There are about 120 National holidays. Some sort of festival happens every day.
I just missed Kalatri (Killing Night) when Hindus make sacrifice in Durga (The Destroyer) temples. All manner of beasts are cut, the blood dappled on cars, buses, rickshaws. Even Royal Nepal Airlines sacrifices goats in the name of aviation safety. The blood ensures that Durga will not use these vehicles as instruments of destruction over the coming year. (Durga seems to be the most severe of the many powerful, easily-miffed Gods.)
This is a country of temples and half-built hotels. (Tax break for making improvements to your business. Therefore, leave rebar sticking up from the roof.) I stayed at The Earth Hotel in Kathmandu. In Pokhara the Holy Lodge and Nirvana were full, but I found Heaven’s Gate strangely vacant.
My second night in Kathmandu I was invited to attend the wrap-up session of the biggest convention in town; The International Conference on Spiritual and Moral Values for a 21st Century. I had some doubts. The conference was sponsored by a group of Nepali upper-caste Brahmin. I’m not sure how they justified their cause with the intrinsic injustice of their too elevated social status.
I was seated with the uncastes in a foreigners section by well-meaning, white-robed volunteers. Only a tinge of cult. Like every conference, this one was mostly protocol and very little content. When the ethnic dancing started, I looked for the door — but then stayed when I saw a pretty woman (with whom I had chatted in a shop) dressed in white leading a dignitary on stage.
The highlight was an Ozzy delegate who told a lengthy tale of a young man, like himself, who dreamed of changing the world. By middle age he had resolved to just improve his neighbours, his family, and friends. Who, in old age, found that it was challenge enough to simply improve himself a little bit.
I could relate to that.
They spoke a great deal about healing. I could use some of that too.
Where better than Nepal? It’s like a spiritual new age Kingdom. Yoga, Astrology, Tibetan and holistic medicine, Reiki, Acupressure, Shamonry. Westerners take courses in Consciousness Transference, Insight to Compassion, and even Meditation while Trekking. My Dharma Bum friends from Tibet signed-up for a course in Dharma, hanging out at the Great Buddhist Stupa of Boudanath.
I had been there before. I rarely revisit — there are too many new destinations. But Boudanath is just too wonderful a place.
The chaos of the Monkey Temple at night was great fun again; dogs chasing monkeys chasing tourists.
And I went back to Bhaktapur, a village preserved as a living museum. The timeless rituals of pottery, dyeing wool, threshing grain by hand on wicker trays, women gathering around the communal water tap, and hundreds of children playing among ancient temples.
Many Westerners go all philosophical here. We voice our deepest thoughts on the evils of creeping cultural homogeneity … in our favourite Western restaurants (Helena’s) and our favourite German Bakeries (Brezel’s).
Many seek solace and spiritual transformation. The most rapt devotees at Boudanath, faces lit by butter candle lamp, aren’t the monks but Western women.
Never Ending Peace And Love is, I suppose, all well and good. But I’m not in the right frame of mind for meditative posturing. I will seek sanctuary in the Nepali Himalayas.