The brief time I spent in Nepal brought rest and healing. After months of action-packed adventure, and three rewarding but particularly exhausting weeks in Myanmar, I was tired. My body, my mind, my soul needed rest.
Nepal was on my original wish list, but to be honest, it was more of a fun idea than a primary destination. While looking at flights from Myanmar to India, I kept noticing that a number of options led to Kathmandu, the mountainous capital of Nepal. Poking around on Airbnb, I found a cozy, comfortable accommodations. The flights, scheduling and accommodations all just fell into place, and I’m happy they did.
The Kathmandu valley, situated at the base of the mighty Himalayan mountains, is home to some four million Nepalese. The area is a geographic and cultural crossroads, connecting Tibet to the north with India to the south. The religion is a unique mix of Buddhism and Hinduism, with stupas next to many-limbed statues around every turn.
Instead of staying in downtown, hectic Kathmandu, I chose an Airbnb in Patan, a similarly ancient, but smaller city center a few miles to the south. The choice was a good one. Patan has an entire history and character that you can feel in its bones. I spent my first days in Patan drinking in the architecture, character and personality of the place.
I spent most of my days in Nepal resting, reading, and walking. The valley is seeped with history and a distinct spirit of its own. Every wooden doorway, narrow alley, or ornate courtyard yields a new charm or unexpected scene. The entire place seems confused and refreshingly reluctant to find itself in the 21st century.
Ambling though the streets, at any given moment one might observe people going about their business, dressed in traditional Nepalese fashion, woodworkers chipping away at their latest project, silversmiths hammering silver, goldsmiths melting gold, painters depicting the life of Siddartha, children playing in a courtyard, dogs sleeping, or mororcycles weaving through the narrow webs of traffic.
In April of 2015, a massive earthquake shook the Kathmandu valley to the core, and evidence of this natural catastrophe is still alarmingly evident. Piles of brick still lay haphazardly in every open part of the city, entire buildings still lean, broken and vacant, and rubble obstructs many of the smaller alleyways courtyards.
Many historical temples, buildings and museums, some five or six centuries old, fell victim to the violent quake or its aftershocks. To make maters worse, the Nepalese government, along with countless individuals, do not yet have the means to rebuild.
Despite the tragedy, many of the people I spoke with were positive, with a take-one-step-at-a-time mentality. “A thousand year of history cannot be rebuilt in a day.”
On one of my last days in Patan, I wake early, slip out of my Airbnb, and pad my way to the nearby Durbar Square. To my surprise, though the bells have yet to chime six, the ancient cobblestones are buzzing with activity.
People stride this way and that, vendors sell fruit and vegetables, old men sit, brightly dressed people chant at the nearby temple, and two old women sell bird food. While I watch, at least two dozen people—tourists, locals, children, and businessmen alike—stop to pay a few pennies, take a plate full of bird food, and shyly step up to toss handfuls to the masses of grateful pigeons.
Psychologically, I’m not sure what causes the effect—the fun of tossing the seeds, the collective reaction of the hundreds of birds, the tiny beads of merit accumulated—but I notice that almost every person smiles after throwing each handful.
Back out of the main square, I wander through some of the smaller side streets. I watch an old woman string bright orange flowers, and sell them to passing people on their way to the temples. I buy a strand.
Meandering through the narrow alleyways, I stumble my way into a temple. I’m not quite sure if it is a Buddhist-Hindu temple, or a Hindu-Buddhist temple, or something else altogether. “In Nepal, there are more festivals than days of the year, and more gods than people!” one enthusiastic Nepalese man tells me.
In any case, inside the temple I see dozens of people milling around, making donations, praying, and paying their respects to the gods. Camera in hand, I’m wary of taking photos, as one never quite knows what is appropriate in religious spaces.
I spot an old woman begging for money, and I’m consumed by an urge to take a photo of her. But, I’m also extremely self-conscious about doing so, especially in such a private, obviously non-touristic place.
I always prefer to ask people’s permission before taking their photo. Though I’ve gotten bolder about this process, for some reason I’m having trouble working up the nerve.
Finally, after, 15 minutes or so, I walk over to her and kneel down. She looks up at me, I gulp, pull out a few small Nepalese notes, and hand them over. Then I choke. She accepts the notes with a grateful nod, and I stand up and walk away.
For the next 20 minutes I debate leaving the temple, but I still really want to take this woman’s picture. I don’t know why, but in my mind I’m convinced she will disapprove, angrily wave her hands at me, say no, or otherwise reject my polite but somewhat offensive request to take her photograph.
Why do I care so much what this old woman will think? Why can’t I just ask, and get it over with, one way or another?
Finally, I man up, walk over to her a second time, kneel down, and pull my camera out with a hesitant “can I take your picture?” gesture. A look of surprise lights up her face, followed by the ghost of a smile, finished with an austere nod.
Here is the photo. I’m including it twice, because it cost me a great deal to obtain.
Nepal may be a small country, but it is filled with rich culture, unique character and many, many ancient spirits.