Here I am. Kathmandu, Nepal. I’m sitting in the hotel Butsugen about 2 minutes from the great Boudanath stupa (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boudhanath.) I arrived here 5 days ago, I think. My body hasn’t quite adjusted to the time change and I’m struggling to keep track of the days. In Denver, where I last called home, it’s currently 4:35 am. Here it’s 4:20 pm. Almost exactly 12 hours different, but not quite, as Kathmandu is 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of Greenwich mean time.
The Rangjung Yeshe Institute, which is where I’ll be studying, is a 5-7 minute walk from here. It’s the monsoon season, so the roads are in rough shape. The taxi from the airport could only get me to within 100 meters of the hotel and that was only with some serious four-wheeling in his tiny Indian sedan. Every year the monsoon comes and washes away much of the roads of Nepal and every year after it ends they do their best to fix them. I talked with the owners of the hotel about the process. Road repair works on a 60/40 scheme. The government pays 40% of the cost of fixing the road and the people who live on the road pay 60%. What happens is when the road is in need of repair, the government engineers come out and create a plan for how to best fix it and how much it will cost. Then the community gets together and decides how to split the bill. If you own a hotel, the people living in a small apartment will say you should pay more. Bargaining from all parties ensues and somehow everyone comes to an agreement on how much everyone should pay. Theoretically, then, the roads get fixed.
Now, roads here are not like roads in the States. The roads wind here and there, rarely in a straight line, sometimes wide enough for 3 cars and sometimes barely wide enough for a motor bike. Most are dirt though a few are paved. There are no traffic signs, no traffic lights, no cross walks. Only a vague system of what side of the road that you should generally drive on. The reality is that anything goes. Everyone moves down the road as they see fit and somehow manage to mostly not hit each other. Needless to say, it takes a lot longer to get around here.
What I love is the vibrant pulsating life of the city. The streets are filled with people. There are shops everywhere, mostly open air, all selling a seemingly random assortment of goods. The senses are overwhelmed with input: sights, sounds, and smells of all kinds everywhere. It’s fabulous and overwhelming.
I’ve been sick with a cold, so my days have been pretty simple. I’ve eaten traditional nepali food, almost exclusively at the hotel restaurant. The staple food is dal bhat – rice and lentils. My meals consist of a big plate of rice, a simple lentil soup which I pour on top of the rice and a side of vegetables. For some reason, I don’t get sick of it and eat it at every meal. A bonus of dal bhat is that for whatever reason, one gets free refills on dal bhat – if I’m still hungry, my plate gets topped off with more rice, lentils and vegetables.
The great stupa is really an experience. The tradition here is to circumambulate (walk around) the stupa in a clockwise direction. Many recite mantra as they walk. Others do prostrations, a full body activity of lying completely on the ground and standing up again, placing your hands on your “three places” – head, throat, and heart. The stupa is lined with shops, restaurants, clinics, everything. It’s a powerful place. This last Saturday evening at dusk, I was out walking and the stupa was packed with hundreds of people, turning slowly around the stupa as day gave out its last bit of light. All of this created a hypnotic flow, as if I was in the midst of a river. Time slowed down and my sense of self began to dissolve. In place of the constant chattering of mind and desire there was a still, reassuring presence that everything this world contains is ok, that one’s current status or position is inconsequential. There is an incredible richness to life that I miss most of the time, but for a few minutes that evening I had a small sense of its fullness.
There is so much that is happening and seemingly all at once. There are saints and crooks, crooks dressed as saints and saints dressed as crooks; shop owners selling things at 30 times their cost and clinics offering health care for almost nothing; people truly destitute begging on the streets and wealthy tourists relaxing at the Hyatt; wild dogs wander the streets, monks and nuns and monasteries everywhere, school children in uniforms and old ladies sewing on the street. It’s a cacophony without doubt. Yet, somehow, it blends together and forms a rich tapestry. In the midst of the craziness there is an aliveness here. Life is happening and for better or worse, I am in it.