Friday, 1 June 2012

What Sophie Did Next

Kathmandu is named after the traditional Kaasthamandap
temples found in Durbar Square
After my long and passionate love affair with India, Nepal felt like a mildly disappointing rebound shag. OK perhaps that is a little unfair. I shall begin again, a little more objectively... Slightly heartbroken and more than a little bit knackered after 5 days of journeying, I landed in Nepal's capital. After spending a month in the peace of the Indian mountains arriving back into 'the real world' was a shock to the system: hustlers, hawkers, coffee, bars, alcohol, tourists, noise. It was bewildering. Having presumed that I would be travelling a deux, I hadn't done much planning and therefore didn't know my way around or what to expect. Without a partner in crime and facing the confusing cartography of Kathmandu alone I was psychically - as well as physically - lost. For a little while anyway. 

Temples in Bhaktapur 
Emotionally exhausted, I slept the sleep of angels in white linen sheets. But bad dreams haunted me in those early nights. Thoughts turned in my head like a screw: "I forgive you, I forgive you for not being the person I wanted you to be.. But it is hard, walking these filthy streets of Kathmandu, trying to find my groove - not with you. Booze, charris, neon lights. Crap cover bands. Western food. Bring me butter lamps and mountain air. Heavy incense in Shivas lair. Nightly puja with Govinda - dazzled by Sunshine's glare. A distant memory - India - you're not there. Instead, I grit my teeth - inhale the Kathmandu St. and walk to my own beat. Own beat." 

Carving in Durba Square
Enough of self-indulgent poetry. Those who know me know that I bounce back pretty quickly. I picked myself up. I checked into a decent hotel with wifi and a hot shower. I manifested male company in the form of a beautiful spiritual Chilean man (Sebastien) who slept in the room next to mine. I spent the day wandering the ancient and ramshackle courtyards and temples of Durbar Square, taking in the magnificent architecture - numerous temples, erotic carvings, colourful sculptures, Shiva linga and the home of Kumari, the living goddess. I got excited and made plans for Nepal and beyond. Once more I felt lucky to be alive and to be alone.  

The doors in Nepal are too small for me! 
But despite all of my new-found enthusiasm, external events made it difficult to completely immerse myself in Nepal. In fact, everything surrounding my arrival in this country resounded with the clang of an inauspicious bell. Just a couple of days before a flash flood in the Seti river had killed over 60 people (stupidly, at the time, I had worried for Tom). The minute I set foot across the frontier I found myself at the mercy of a bandh - a political strike, enforced by the people - grinding the entire nation to a halt. Not only this, but villagers out in the sticks were angry - some brandishing guns. It was terrifying. No sooner had I set foot in Kathmandu and wearily set my pack down in a shop to order a coffee than I was unceremoniously turfed out. In the surrounding areas shopkeepers scrambled to pull steel shutters down over their shops as a mob approached! There was rioting in Kathmandu. I had no choice but to run to the safety of my hotel and sit it out. Worrying about what people back home were thinking, I could not get online. "Load shedding" or power cuts happen every day here in possibly the only capital city which goes without electricity for 6 hours per day. 

A goat tethered to a door in Bhaktapur
At first it was frightening, but when I got used to the political situation, it was just inconvenient. I learned that, although strikes were usual in Nepal, I had arrived at a unique time when the new constitution was being drawn up by the government and the country was split - the Maoists wanted a federal republic based an indigenous identity but other groups wanted a geographically divided state, fearing the Maoist stance might divide the country, strengthen rivalries and ultimately result in civil war. Agreement could not (and would not, I was later to learn) be reached. During this time there were several strikes by both opposing groups was no transport, no shops and little services available, even to tourists. Sometimes shops would shut without a moment's notice. I wasn't enjoying the noise of Kathmandu, it's incessant hustle and bustle and the macho tourists. I was seduced by the tranquillity and authenticity of Nepali countryside. I had big plans to hire a bike and head off into Pokhara via the temples and mountain views of Gurkha and Bhandipur but the transport bandh meant that I was stuck and going nowhere fast. Surrendering once more, I just had to make the best of it. 

Time stands still in Bhaktapur
Together with Sebastien, I visited the ancient Newari town of Bhaktapur. It was breathtakingly beautiful wandering the labyrinthine streets, weaving between the brick buildings, smiling at bonny Nepali babies and dodging mad dogs, chickens and goats. Here, grass, rice, garlic and sweetcorn were hung or laid out to dry in the sun. Old women picked their way through drying pottery. Woodsmoke burned in our nostrils. Temples here - shrines there - a conglomerate of ancient architecture the whole thing was a timeless playground. We got lost in the maze of the streets, walking through time.  

The burning ghats at Pashupatinath temple
One evening, we went to the cremation ghats at Pashupatinath. It was a beautiful walk through the old part of town with tiny butchers and fish shops laying out the goods on wooden tables in the luminescence of one naked bulb. At that time of day the wares were closer to decay themselves than the corpses on the pyres. For the first time I witnessed the funeral rite and up close on the burning ghat, not on the other side with the tourists (Sebastien and I have become expertly thrifty backpackers, evading fees wherever we can). Here the cremations of Hindus and Buddhists take place 24/7, with the male relatives of the family taking care of the burning, bringing the body and building the pyre around it.  

Inside the Swayambunath monastery
It was much less visceral than I had envisaged - no bones or skulls visible, just a poignant pair of feet. Apparently sandalwood is used to mask the smell of the flesh. The menfolk, stripped to vests and shorts, expertly choreographed the ceremony, stacking the blaze with elegant sticks of grass dipped in river water. There were Buddhist monks chanting in an eerie fashion (their bass tones resembling a didjeridoo blowing bubbles) as another body was sprinkled in ghee and burned and we walked by others in varying states of burn down. It was very affecting - the sights, the smells, the bureaved getting their hair shorn. The gentle quiet dignity of the rite, families of different religions burning their dead and mourning together in peace. I couldn't help myself and turned my head from Sebastien to weep silently next to the Bagmati River.

Swayambunath temple stupa 
One morning I awoke at dawn and walked the awakening streets all the way to Swayambunth temple - the so-called 'monkey temple' due to the simian critters that fidget and play in the surrounding areas. I took morning puja in a little Hindu temple on the way up then climbed the breakthtaking stone "pilgrim's staircase", lined with beggars, hawkers, monkeys and stone carvings of peacocks and lions. At the top I was blinded by a golden stupa out of which peers the eyes of the Buddha, staring eerily out over the awe-inspiring views of Kathmandu valley. No sooner had I arrived than I was accosted by an Indian man wanting "to talk". Not wanting to be discompassionate I humoured him and we sat in the monastery discussing religion, philosophy and karma. However, i made my excuses when the conversation inevitably turned to marriage. I literally cannot have the whole "but you're 30 and you're still not married" conversation again! 

Prayer flags - everywhere
I spent time wandering amongst the mind boggling multiplicatives of stupas and lingas. The best moment was when I sat beneath a golden Buddha in the energy of an elderly Tibetan monk who was sitting next to me. I could feel his beautiful light emanating beside me as I gave metta (love and compassion) to all human beings. I turned the prayer wheels and watched the prayer flags - ubiquitous here - flutter in the azure sky and the city through the mist. I sang khirtan songs to myself all the way back - swathed in silk scarves and a sarong. Prayer is a good way to start the day.

Relaxing with a beer at the Hyatt Hotel
Just to counter-balance the spiritual, Kathmandu afforded plenty of opportunities for decadence and for me to get used to being 'first world' again. One day Sebastien and I headed out to the Hyatt hotel and literally and metaphorically splashed out - kicking back next to the pool with a beer. After many months of being cloistered up in conservative clothing, it felt strange to reveal my body and I was self conscious in my bikini at first (yes, me)! I also had a couple of nights out in Thamel where I was not short of offers for company from men of all nationalities. Most of them it seemed to me, were Gung Ho-ers dressed in Goretex. Not my bag, sweetie. I was mildly amused by how Western all these people seemed, how different from those I met in India. On several occasions I had to check myself, make sure I wasn't being an 'India bore' by evangelising about the motherland and stop making caustic remarks about people "needing to climb mountains to prove their masculinity to themselves"! 

Eating Indian dosas at Pilgrims cafe
I did, however, meet one lovely man, Lorne from Colorado (there I go with the Yanks again) who also stayed in the same guest house. He had such grace and a gentle way, I warmed to his beautiful aura and dulcet American tones immediately. When I told him the story of my arrival he took me in his expansive and muscular arms (he is, of course, a footballer) and embraced me. The three of us went all out on a traditional 11 course Newari meal, complete with tacky, tourist oriented entertainment - two Nepalis dressed up as a peacock and came round pecking the guests and one 'yeti' who resembled Zippy from Rainbow. I felt like I was on a cruise! Later, Lorne and I propped up the bar discussing the three 'gunas' (natures of the mind), astrology and how crucial it is to 'let go' - to quote a timely quotation that I read in Autobiography of a Yogi "Do not do as you want and then you may do as you like". Later that night as I was preparing for bed there was a knock at my door. I answered and the gorgeous outline of Lorne loomed. He pressed a copy of Shantaram into my hands. This is a book, an epic tome about India that I had been wanting to read forever and here it was, being delivered to me.  

Having both Lorne and Sebastien come into my life proved to me my own powers of manifestation. Finding myself alone in Kathmandu, I had wanted some enjoyable male company, voiced that wish to the universe and I was duly provided with it - with not one, but two gorgeous boys. Still feeling very much in tune with the theme of destiny, I wanted to understand their significance. A reminder maybe of what I had lost? Both of these men had fallen in love on the road and were off to Switzerland (Sebastien) and Italy (Lorne) to claim their European ladies and build a happy-ever-after. And yet love continues to elude me. Perhaps both men were sent to me to show me what it is like when a man finally decides to grow up and settle down. Whatever it was, we had much fun together and I was grateful for their company in those initial days. Kathmandu was saved. I was happy. And then - finally - good news! Tourist buses were allowed to go into the country. I took a risk and booked a ticket - to escape the incessant smog and noise. Onwards into Nepali country for my own little adventure...

...(to be continued)

Thanks to Hotel Red Planet for their wonderful hospitality and especially to Mahesh for his political knowledge! I will miss you guys

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