Friday, January 8, 2010
2. Go to Nepal: (Part II) A Top Ten List
Now that I'm back from Nepal, I was feeling a little daunted trying to figure out how to type up the experience in a single post. And then I realized I should go with the strategy that seems to be working pretty well for me so far: if in doubt, create a list. So here is my attempt to capture my Nepal trip through a Top Ten List of Things I Loved About Going to Nepal.
10.Swyambunath (The Monkey Temple) The first two places on my list are both stupas, which are dome-shaped places of worship for Buddhists. Swyambunath sits on a very big hill on the western side of Kathmandu, and it actually feels more like a complex, surrounded by smaller stupas, statues, and a monastery that houses the monks that maintain the stupa and worship at the site. To get there, you ascend 300 steep steps (or if you're lazy, drive most of the way, park and go up a fraction of the stair path). The stairs are lined with statues, mostly of animals that the gods use as vehicles (and which are an interesting example of the mix of Buddhism and Hinduism here, since this is a Buddhist site hosting Hindu statues). The air is filled with prayer flags and, as you might guess from the name, there are lots and lots of monkeys everywhere.
9. The Boddha Stupa This is the largest stupa in Nepal, and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is a center of the Tibetan community there, which guarantees that it is a gorgeous and colorful place, with monks in their robes and people wearing clothes and selling rugs, paintings and textiles in the most beautiful, rich hues. You can walk around the base of the stupa (but you need to go in a clockwise direction) and spin the rows of prayer wheels, and in the evening they line the base with small lit butter lamps.
8. Durbar Square (x2) There are three famous Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley, and I saw two of them, in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur (Patam, alas must wait for another visit). Each Durbar Square holds a (former) Royal Palace and so, so much more. There are literally dozens of temples and religious statues, and not surprisingly, given the flood of Nepalis, religious pilgrims and Western tourists in the area, there are also masses of shops and outdoor vendors selling everything from masks to intricate metal door handles to rugs to jewelry. One of the things I learned on this trip is that the pagoda style we associate with China actually originated in Nepal, and some of the temples take this shape and others are the shikhara style that is typical for Indian Hindu temples. The whole experience of walking through either Durbar Square is a type of sensory overload, with vivid colors in everything from the crushed marigolds and red powder offerings at the temples to the beautiful clothing of the people, and the sounds of bells being rung outside the temples.
7. Eating One way in which I'm a pretty good traveller in developing countries is that I invariably like whatever is the starchy staple that is the mainstay of the local diet, and Nepal was no exception. In this case that food is dhal bhaat, a stew or soup of lentils together with rice. At home I try to be a vegetarian, but when I travel anything goes. Some of the other things I tried (and liked) were yak cheese, buff momos (dumplings stuffed with water buffalo meat), milk tea and mint lemonade, which doesn't sound exotic, but as you can see from the picture, bears a striking resemblance to pond scum (though it tasted great).
6. Shopping Anyone who knows me well may be astonished to see this on my list, since I have gone head-to-head with my two year old niece Tigist for the title of Lowest Tolerance for Retail Settings and come up the winner on several occasions. But shopping in markets in developing countries is different. Under the watchful eyes of Cliff and my new friend Jane, both outstanding bargainers, I honed my skills going back and forth with vendors for necklaces and pashminas (scarves woven out of a special wool that's like cashmere). Although I am generally a pushover, I am proud to say that on this trip I rose from the ranks of the abysmally bad bargainers to the almost-competent.
5. Meeting Great New People I fondly remember the day I realized that my choice to become an academic carried a very important advantage in that it meant that I would by definition always live in a college town. I like college towns because they have lively student populations, interesting, progressive politics, and lots of cultural and social events and groups. In the same vein, many years ago I realized that if I travelled I would always meet interesting people. There are, of course, the new people you meet at the destination. And there are also the fellow travellers and ex-pats, and within their ranks are always a large cluster of fascinating people who have had amazing experiences and new ideas. Some of the new people I will remember from this trip are: Emily and Jesse, the couple who just finished their Peace Corps service as teacher trainers in Mozambique (and who gave me a Portuguese language lesson for a future post); Birat, the engineering student that Nicole and I spent an hour of quality time with while waiting for the telecom bureaucrats to arrive and open their cubicle so the bill could get paid (and who gave me my Nepalese language lesson for the words below); the three Army officers we met at Nagarkot, especially Manish, who answered a million questions, compared notes about favored travel destinations, and gave me my Chinese language lesson (also below); Tim, Sheila and Ted, three American expats who I met at the New Year's Eve dinner party Nicole hosted, all colleagues with Cliff for USAID and the State Department, who gave me my first orientation to Nepalese politics; Rajendra, our helpful tour guide at Baktapur who nonchalantly told us that he spoke five languages, all learned simply from talking with tourists; and Jane and Kurt, who enthusiastically cheered me up the climbing wall, coached me on buying pashminas, put up with my dour expressions when I feared we were hopelessly lost while hiking, and humored my entreaties to stay in a freezing cold hotel just because I had to stay at a place called The Hotel at the End of the Universe.
4. Seeing Cliff and Nicole Making new friendships is wonderful, but just as good is renewing old ones. Cliff and Nicole are walking testaments to the idea that life is about being open to new places, people and experiences, and that, if you are, you can do anything. Cliff and I have been friends for almost ten years, and he was the one who taught me how to run a student international service trip and coached me through the ups and downs of my first two experiences doing it, to Kenya and Tanzania, respectively. Given that the original basis of our friendship was our mutual interest in East Africa, and in working with students there, we both thought it a bit ironic that I'd be visiting him in 2010 in Nepal, with Cliff walking to work at the the US Embassy every morning. But life is funny that way. I've known Nicole for two or three years less than I've known Cliff, and I was so impressed at her incredible adaptation to life in Nepal, from driving all over the city (which I could not even contemplate doing -- the streets of Tanzania can't begin to compete with Kathmandu) to graciously feeding, orienting and chauffering an endless train of guests like me to making her own yogurt and bread and cereal and anything else that we grab off the shelf at Price Chopper without a second thought. Cliff and Nicole not only made this trip possible for me, they made it wonderfully memorable, and I am deeply in their debt.
3. Playing with Jailyn Even in the most exotic places in the world, some of the best experiences are the most simple and universal. Spending time with Jailyn, Cliff and Nicole's remarkable daughter, falls in that category. Of her four years on this earth, two were spent at the family's first post in Honduras, and the last year and a half has been in Kathmandu. Her passport has more stamps in it than mine, and instead of watching TV, dreaming of Disneyworld, and eating Pop Tarts and Captain Crunch, she's spent the first years of her life hiking, rock climbing, riding horses (and the occasional elephant), developing her imagination, and eating dhal bhaat and momos. I can only imagine what a head start she has on life, because she is so comfortable in so many settings, with all kinds of people. She's also just an amazingly fun kid, and we played dress up, did lots of "Princess dances", made up stories, and built elaborate block homes for her dolls and toy cars. In the picture I posted here, we're doing Dead Bug, our way of getting the room to stop spinning when we were both dizzy from me swinging her around in circles too much.
The last two items on the list are tied for first place because they both made such a deep impression on me.
1. Pashipatinath Maybe it's because it was the first religious site I visited. Maybe it's because Cliff and I walked there in a surreal hour-long hike down the middle of the major roads of the city totally devoid of motorized vehicles because of the political strike going on. Or maybe it was because I first saw it on New Year's Day and was in a mood to think about cycles and transitions in life (and death). Whatever the reason, this place blew me away, and it's the only place I visited twice during my brief stay. The site is dedicated to the god Shiva (the Destroyer)and everything rises up from both sides of the sacred Bagmati River (which flows into the Ganges) where cremated ashes are scattered. On one side of the river are six ghats (the cremation platforms) and behind them are the temple (which I couldn't visit because non-Hindus can't go in), the hospice where people go to die so they can be cremated here, and places where religious pilgrims (many of whom travel from India) can stay. On that side, there is also a home for the elderly destitute. On the other side of the river from the cremations, there are people using the water for more ordinary purposes, like washing themselves and their clothes, and there are terraced concrete steps that lead up to a park and wooded area. There are also sadhus (holy men) who survive on donations from visitors and tourists sitting in various spots around the complex. I think one of the most striking things about the experience for me was witnessing the sacred and the mundane going on simultaneously. On the two occasions I was there, I saw funeral rites and burnings going on continuously, yet only a few feet away, children would be dragging the water with magnets for the coins that were sacrificed with the burning bodies, and people would be doing their laundry. The privacy that we Westerners so deeply prize was non-existent, but people seemed to have their own sense of place and space so that they could conduct these ceremonies unaffected by the activity going on all around them.
1. Seeing the Himalayas from Nagarkot How can you possibly go wrong when your goal is to watch the sun come up over the tallest mountain range in the world, and you get to stay at a place (however cold) with the best name ever? And you get to watch the sunrise from a hill just outside your door in front of a cool little Hindu temple and then have lovely milk tea and think about how else you want to view the amazing mountains around you. And if, on top of that, you meet fascinating soldiers who just happen to have been around the world (or are preparing to go) to preserve the peace in some of the most dangerous places on the planet AND you wind up spending a morning walking through forests and villages and terraced fields and sets straight out of the coolest book of fairy tales you had when you were a kid, might you pinch yourself and feel like an amazingly lucky person? I did, and I do.
Nepal is truly a magical place. I hope to explore it more deeply some day, but in the meantime, I'm so grateful for the chance to begin a new decade in such a wonderful and fascinating country.
52 Ways to Say I Love You...
I've gotten a little behind in my language posting, so I'm catching up here. First is the Nepali version that Birat, the engineering student at the telecom office, gave me and second is Chinese (Mandarin) that Manish walked me through standing underneath the observation tower at the top of a hill in Nagarkot.
...in Nepali (with credits to Birat)
Good by Pheri vetola
I love you Ma tinieli maya garchu
May I have two beers, please? Kripaya malya dui ota beer denuse?
...in Mandarin Chinese (with credits to Manish)
Hello Ni Hao
Good by Zai Zain
I love you Wo ai ni
May I have two beers, please? Qing wen. Wo yao liang ping pijiu. (Literally: Excuse me. I want two beers)
So, it's January 12 and I've done three New Things from the list (start a blog, try rock climbing and go to Nepal). But unless I can find a millionaire who feels like bankrolling me, I need to stay put for a few weeks and do some mundane things like teach a few classes and find someone to fix my clogged sink and broken dishwasher (or else add "learn plumbing" to my list of New Things). But there are still lots of things on the list that are going to happen in the next few weeks. Drop a line if you want to be part of any of them.
Try ice climbing I'm signed up for a day of ice climbing with our college Wilderness Program this Saturday, January 16. Even the packing list, which seems awfully long for a single day outside, and includes crampons (which I wouldn't recognize if I saw) and non-specific "technical tools" has me a bit apprehensive. But, hey, the point is to TRY NEW THINGS, so I'm game. Anyone else?
Ballet class starts for the semester at the Flynn Center on Wednesday, January 20. Crystal signed up too; anyone else interested in joining us?
Take a snowshoe hike up a mountain (daytime) The Wilderness Program is leading a snowshoe hike up Snake Mountain on Saturday, January 23. Assuming I am able to sign up in time, I'll be on it. I have a couple students who I'm hoping will join me -- who else wants to?
Learn to Make Fresh Mozzarella Mark is still going to teach Valerie and me in my kitchen on the evening of Thursday, January 28. Anyone else who wants to come over and learn, just let me know.
Take the Penguin Plunge Erin and I are still going to join the ranks of many other crazy people jumping through the ice into Lake Champlain to benefit Special Olympics on Saturday, February 6 at 11 AM. I'm hosting a weekend reunion at my place for some of my former students who have gone with me to Tanzania, so their job is to bring down my Snuggie and a million towels for after it's over. Anyone else want to jump in (or sponsor me)?