(Namaste is widely used here as a greeting, and it means “I bow to the god in you.”)
I’ve been here in Kathmandu for two and a half days now. I’ll be here until Thursday, when I’m leaving the capital city to head out to the village of Chapagaun.
Anyway, I’m currently staying a nice little hotel on the outskirts of Thamel. I’m so glad we’re a bit further away from the main hustle and bustle because it’s noisy enough as it is out here!
Thamel is the main tourist area in Kathmandu. It’s very crowded, with narrow streets and buildings right along the road that stand four or so stories high. Everywhere you look, there are signs for restaurants, internet cafés, and trekking agencies. Prayer flags are strung between buildings, taxis and rickshaws are everywhere trying to find business, and there are tons of shop owners trying to get you into their tiny store. Small children in tattered clothes run up to tourists on the streets, begging for money in exchange for very beat up postcards. They definitely know how to tug on the heartstrings of the tourists by putting on a pathetic face
and whining “Me hungry.”
Wandering through Thamel is truly an international experience. There is just about every type of cuisine available (Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, French, German, etc), the book stores sell books in at least six languages, and there are so many languages spoken on the street that I can’t manage to identify. There are a lot of things that are faux-American, though, like a Barnes and Noble Book House, which looks nothing like any B&N I’ve ever seen… You can also buy pirated DVDS (mostly American) for a bit more than $2, and many of them are just out of the theatres. They also must have just gotten Amy Winehouse’s new CD because I heard it blasting out of at least three different stores yesterday.
The souvenirs and clothing available in Thamel are so colorful and interesting that I just want to buy everything. They have multi-colored felt bags, hippy clothing, “traditional” Nepali clothes, trekking gear, and all sorts of jewelry, keychains, scarves, and paper products. I’m making myself wait to buy gifts for people back home until I know more about how much things should cost and what kind of stuff I can buy
in the village.
The quality and variety of the food here is a nice change from my time in Senegal, where a pizza or a hamburger was about as much culinary variety as you could hope for. We got breakfast at a little bakery yesterday, and they had some interesting pastries, like a pineapple bag (a pastry full of nuts and honey, glazed and topped with pineapple…absolutely delicious!), but they also had a few varieties of chocolate glazed donuts that looked straight out of a Dunkin Donuts display window. We headed up to the rooftop seating area and ate our breakfast with fresh pineapple juice and milk tea while watching Thamel come to life. Last night for dinner, Matrika took us to a small restaurant where we had momos, which are sort of like a cross between dumplings and ravioli. John (another volunteer) and I had vegetarian ones, whereas Matrika ate some made with water buffalo meat. I saw a restaurant called the Momo Cave this morning, so I’ll have to check that out (and maybe even venture to try some buff meat ones…). I went back to the same pastry shop this morning, eager to have another pineapple
bag, but I had to settle for an apple strudel because the pineapple ones weren’t finished baking. And they have Fanta orange here! I could not be happier about that because it tastes the same as the kind in Africa and is very cheap.
Yesterday, John and I went to Swayambhunath, a temple situated on top of a hill outside of the city. It’s also known as the Monkey Temple, but I must say that I was a bit disappointed by the number of monkeys there. I was imagining monkeys swinging from trees, harassing tourists, and just being everywhere. Instead, we saw only a handful of monkeys, and most of them were along the huge staircase leading down the hill. The Swayambhunath Stupa, though, was well worth the trip despite the rain and lack of monkeys. No one knows when the stupa was built, and people have hacked their way inside of it, looking for fabled riches or something else wonderful hidden inside. The top of it has four sets of the watchful eyes of Buddha, each pair looking in a different direction. There are also prayer flags on the stupa and strung between trees all over the hilltop.
To escape the rain for a bit, John and I went into the monastery and marveled at the gold Buddha statues and saw some monks reading and praying in a back room.
I got my first taste of the rainy season yesterday. It started raining fat, cold raindrops when we were at the temple, but then it continued to rain on and off through the evening. I woke up a few times last night to hear it raining very hard several times. The roads here are only sort of paved, so that leaves the potential for a lot of mud. I spent awhile trying to wash off the mud splattered on the back of my dress last night. Should be a fun summer as far as my laundry is concerned.
Today we visited two more temples, another Buddhist one with a stupa, called Bouddhanath, and a Hindu temple called Pashupatinath. Both are incredibly important to the respective religions. There are many Tibetan exiles living around Bouddhanath, and there were many little stores selling Tibetan souvenirs. Aside from one “Peace in Tibet” piece of graffiti, there was really no sign of the current problems in that region. We
drove past a hunger strike marathon yesterday, but it was very quiet and peaceful. John and I entered a room full of huge statues of Buddha and were simply exploring on our own when two monks pretty much forced me to get a blessing. I knew they wanted a donation that I didn’t really feel like handing over, but it’s pretty hard to say no to monk pressure. After some holy water, touching metal things to my forehead, tying a scarf around my neck, and listening to them chant, I tried to escape. A third monk caught me, though, and asked for a donation of 2,000 rupees (a bit more than $30). I tossed a 50 rupee bill onto the tray saying it was all I had. If they just weren’t so pushy, I might have found it in my heart to give them one hundred.
Pashupatinath, a temple dedicated to Shiva, is an extremely important place for Hindu pilgrims. We weren’t able to enter the main temple because we’re not Hindu, but we were able to explore the rest of the huge temple grounds. We witnessed several cremations on the banks of a holy river. One side of
the bridge had the pyres for normal people, and the other side of the bridge had two special pyres - one for rich and/or famous people and a second reserved for the royal family. We walked up a bunch of steps to see the deer park, saw quiet a few monkeys, and then got our photos taken with some holy men. They cover themselves in ashes and colored powders, have hair that looks like dreadlocks, and they just hang around meditating, doing yoga, and having people pay to get pictures taken with them. Sounds like an interesting career choice…
(Miss Katie Lang told me that I had better document this trip in photos...and I'm trying! I'm just having a hard time getting them uploaded with this Nepali "broadband" internet. I have about sixty more photos that I'll try to get up tomorrow.)
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