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Published: October 19th 2013
Welcome to Nepal!
When I arrived Santosh's best friend Puskar and nephew Pratish picked me up at the airport. They gave me the traditional welcome of silk scarves, a garland of marigolds and red tika on my forehead before taking me back to Santosh's home in the village of Mandara. It was the warmest welcome I've ever received to a new country.
During my Eid holidays from work in Bangladesh I flew up to Nepal for a week with my friend Catherine's family. She married into a Nepalese family almost ten years ago and has been encouraging me to go visit them ever since. Even though she couldn't get away from work this year, her husband Santosh came from London for the festival of Dashian, also known as Durga Puja.
I was so fortunate to have Santosh’s family take such good care of me all week. I arrived from Bangladesh with the end of a terrible cold and lingering cough. They prepared endless cups of tea for me, sometimes using ginger from their garden to calm the cough. I stayed in a beautiful room with big windows on three sides, looking out onto the hills up the valley.
Normally October is the best time to visit Nepal. The monsoon is over, the cold hasn’t arrived yet and the air is clear. This year, however, there was a cyclone in India that pushed a lot of rain up into Nepal, giving us four days of unseasonal rain. We cancelled some of our plans to walk through the nearby botanical gardens and put
Santosh's village is a collection of homes high in the Godawari valley, south of Kathmandu. The unseasonal rain was not good for the rice crops, some of which were flattened. Rice that had been threshed and lain out to dry was soaked for over a week.
off other hikes and outings.
The first day after I arrived was before the cyclone hit the coast, so it was a gorgeous sunny day and two of Santosh’s nephews, Pratish and Abishek, took me into Kathmandu to see Pasupatinath, Boudhanath and Swayambhunath. The first is a sacred Hindu site on a river with beautiful temples and a place where people are traditionally cremated according to Hindu customs. Unfortunately we were unprepared for the entrance fee of 1,000 rupees for foreigners. Since the boys have both already been there several times and they assured me that we needed a lot of time for the next two stops, we looked around outside the gates for a bit, then kept going.
We traveled by a combination of busses, which are really vans, and little trucks that run on natural gas. It was always crowded, but Pratish knows the city pretty well and knew where to catch them. The second stop was Boudhanath, which is a circle of shops around a giant stupa complex, called a chaitya in Nepal. We walked around, looking up and spinning the prayer wheels that line the wall protecting the chaitya from the street area. The
When Santosh (right) visits his family in Nepal he makes the rounds of his village to see all his friends and relatives. His friend here is Puskar, who came to the airport when I arrived, and Puskar's daughter.
shops facing it were mostly for tourists and sold all kinds of incense, prayer flags, intricately painted thangkas, postcards and clothes. It was a peaceful area, with a much lower pricetag than the first place: 150 rupees for upkeep of the chaitya, which I was happy to give. After circling around below, taking photos looking up through the streams of prayer flags that link the top of the stupa to the surrounding smaller temple tops, we climbed the steps up onto the stupa itself. There was a fresh breeze up top and it was a beautiful day. Eventually the boys convinced me that we really had to keep going and we were off to the next place.
Our final destination for the day was Swayambhunath, which is also a Buddhist site. It is a collection of stupas and temples on the top of a steep hill overlooking the north side of Kathmandu. It was much busier than the other places, perhaps because it was later in the afternoon and more people were out and about. I saw my first tour groups with guides explaining the meanings of different temples and statues in several languages. We went in a few
It was fun to get back to how I used to travel, crammed in with too many people. These vans usually carry 20 to 30 people, but feel too crowded when it gets over 30.
of the temples and in one the boys led me down a back, unmarked hallway to a room where monks were chanting. We could see we were in a back, side corner of a large room full of benches, statues, and giant drums suspended like gongs on frames. The walls were covered with intricate paintings and there were monks chanting, clanging cymbals and hitting the drums with a deep beat that made every cell in my body reverberate. I could have stayed there all evening, but they boys pulled me away again. We had to see the view over the city, the monkeys and get back down through the city and home before dark. It was close, but we managed to walk up to the house just at dusk.
It was the next day that the rain started, so I was thankful the boys had dragged me around the city, even if it was too much for one day. The Dashian festivities were nothing to put off, but since it was raining we had to do everything indoors. Every day I was taken around to meet family in the village, where everybody actually is related in some way. I
On my first excursion into Kathmandu Santosh's nephews Abishek and Pratish took me to Shree Boudhanath, which is a beautiful Buddhist stupa surrounded by a circle of shops in a carefully preserved little neighborhood.
learned to love Dashian and the tradition of giving tika. There’s several pictures of this, if you scroll down through all my photos. Older relatives all gave me tika, saying blessings in Nepali as they stuck red rice to my forehead, wishing me good health and happiness. Then they took a few blades of wheat or rice grass and tucked it behind my ear or in my hair. The final part of tika is money, usually small bills, new from the bank.
The props involved in tika deserve a better explanation. The rice is dry, uncooked white short grains, mixed with red powder, goats milk and a little sugar to make it sticky. The rice and wheat grass is grown inside to keep it clean. The seeds are planted in shallow bowls made of large leaves pinned together with twigs or toothpicks. They’re a pale green or yellow because they don’t get much light in a traditional Nepali house with small windows and thick walls. The money is often given in small envelopes and people have to go to banks weeks in advance to get enough new bills. I got everything from five to fifty rupee notes, often several
Unlike the rest of Kathmandu, Boudhanath is quiet and peaceful. I loved turning the prayer wheels along the wall like this boy, and walking up on the stupa, looking down on the shops below. The breeze up under the flags was a welcome relief from the hot city.
It was fun to be treated as part of the family, but at first I felt awkward taking money from a family that was so generously housing and feeding me for a week. Then I found out that I get to give tika too! This was the really fun part and I was happy to learn that there were no special words I had to say and that blessings didn’t have to be in Nepali. I got to tell the kids I wished them success in school and good health and all sorts of good things. Each time I added another bit to the blessing I got to stick more rice to their foreheads. Then I could put blades of grass behind their ears or in their hair or just perched on top of their heads. My fingers were red from the rice, so everything I touched, hair, grass, ears, and money were tinged with red. It was very messy and very fun.
I still ended up with a lot more money than I could give away as tika, so I was happy when Santosh told me that the last night of the festival involves gambling.
The next stop was another Buddhist temple high on the hills north of the city. It was much busier than Boudhanath, with more to see and more tourists.
I am not great at cards, so it didn’t take me very long to loose the rest of my tika money playing with the teenagers in the family.
One day the rain broke a bit so Santosh took his niece Sital and I on a walk through the hills. We hiked through three other villages to a giant statue of Buddha that looks north towards Kathmandu but also faces a bit east towards Mandara. It was a beautiful view and we spent a lot of time up there, contemplating the view, the statue, burning incense and candles. Eventually we walked down through one of the villages that had a swing set up and I got to play like a little kid again, which was a lot of fun. Several other villages I had seen built swings with bamboo poles lashed together at the top and a swing suspended from the middle. They always had a swarm of kids around them, but this one only had a few and they were happy to let me give it a try, encouraging me to swing higher.
After the swing we walked back down towards Mandara, then took another road farther up
Abishek and Pratish were a lot of fun and we had a great day in the city. We spun the prayer wheels at Swayambhunath and went in the temples, watching monks pray in one with loud drums and cymbals clashing. It was a lot more energetic than your typical om.
the valley to where Santosh’s father worked for fifty years in the national botanical gardens. We passed botanical research stations, labs and offices, then up to a town that houses natural springs, a pond with the tombs of four generals, and a monastery that trains boys to be Buddhist monks in the Tibetan tradition. We were welcomed into the prayer hall and walked around for a while, looking at the statues, offerings, drums and elaborate murals. Every inch of the walls, ceiling and columns were covered with bright paintings.
It was beautiful and I wanted to walk around more, but a monk came in and told Santosh that they were going to start prayers soon. We were welcome to stay but would have to sit on a bench in the back and couldn’t take any more pictures. One by one the boys arrived, kneeled down then touched their heads to the floor, bowing before the altar. They took their seats on long low benches, two rows on each side, facing the center of the room. The older ones had flutes or cymbals. Two small boys in the back kept time on the giant drums, suspended like the ones I
We had a great view of the city from the top of Swayambhunath. The tall hills on the right of the photo are where the Godawari valley sits.
had seen in Swayambhunath. Even after the monks had begun lots more straggled in, joining the others in chanting or sitting in the back, listening, or goofing off.
We left before they were finished, and went to a nearby restaurant for a snack of mo mos, a traditional dumpling that I had heard a lot about. Everybody I know who has gone to Nepal told me to try something called mo mo. I was under the impression that this was a traditional Nepalese treat, but Santosh told me it’s actually from China. I had some spicy veggie mo mos, which were delicious. We walked home through the gardens, which were beautiful, and reached Mandara just as it was getting dark. Next time I hope we have better weather so I can spend a whole day in the gardens.
My last full day in Nepal Santosh’s nephew Bibek took me back into Kathmandu to visit Patan and Durbar Square. They were both amazing and each deserves its own blog. Unfortunately, I have to go back to work tomorrow and don’t have time for that, so I’ll just say that if you’re in Kathmandu, you have to go see both.
Swayambhunath is also called the monkey temple, because so many monkeys live in the trees on the surrounding hill. Here they're playing on the prayer wheels, noisily running across the metal wheel coverings and chattering to each other. Can you spot all 12?
The Patan museum is also a must. Bibek took me on a walk through the neighborhood of Thamel, which is exactly what you would picture if you were trying to imagine a traditional Nepalese city. It’s very picturesque and touristy.
I am so grateful to Catherine, Santosh and their Nepalese family. They were kind and generous hosts and I loved my time with them. I hope to return again one of these days!
(There are a lot more photos below, so scroll down).
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