Thursday, January 17: Oman Air flight 331 flies in over the green Churia Hills of Nepal as the sun goes down. Below are soft peaks with winding dirt paths etched into their surfaces. I get a little choked up seeing these mountains with shreds of low-lying clouds tucked neatly into their folds. I’ve heard stories of people who have trekked through these mountains and the Himalayas further north. This isn’t even the Himalayan range, but the scene still moves me. As we land, the sun goes down in a spectacular array of corals and lavender.
We are on the ground in Kathmandu.
Kathmandu Guest House offers a free airport pick up. I spot the sign, greeting the Nepali man with “Namaste,” head bowed and hands in a prayer pose. In Sanskrit the word is namah + te = namaste which means “I bow to you” – my greetings, salutations or prostration to you. The word ‘namaha’ can also be literally interpreted as “na ma” (not mine). It has a spiritual significance of negating or reducing one’s ego in the presence of another.
According to Living Words of Wisdom: Definition of Namaste: Seeing others through Namaste’s meaning will help you see the true divine spirit in everyone and meet them at the soul level. You look beyond the surface into the true nature of every being.
There a many other interpretations of the meaning of Namaste. Here are a few:
The God/Goddess within me acknowledges the God/Goddess within you.
The Divine in me recognizes and honors, the Divine in you.
The spirit within me bows to the spirit within you.
I greet that place where you and I are one.
I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light and of peace.
I love this greeting and gesture of honoring another person and find myself wishing we all would great each other in this way.
I hop into a dilapidated van. We are apparently waiting for another passenger named Layla. While waiting, the driver gets a call from Uttam Phuyal, the operations manager of Kathmandu Guest House. He is a good friend of my colleague Mona Lisa at the university; Mona Lisa has connected us to each other. On the phone, Uttam welcomes me to Kathmandu but tells me it is time for him to go home. He promises to talk to me in the morning with some ideas for my stay in Nepal. I have made no plans because I only found out five days ago that we were granted a holiday this week.
When Layla arrives, we drive through the city to the tourist neighborhood of Thamel, where KGH, and practically every other guesthouse in Kathmandu, is located. Many of the roads in the city are unpaved and we bounce along over potholes in the dirt roads. On the way through the smog and haze of the city, we hear a cacophony of honking horns. Colorful figures wrapped in yak’s wool blankets move through the darkening sky under neon lights; some sit tending ramshackle shops or hunched over baskets of cabbages and tomatos. Cars, brightly painted trucks and hordes of motorbikes clog the roads. The city reminds me of many poor cities, but especially Delhi, Hanoi and Addis Ababa.
I ask Layla about her plans. She’s young and from Britain, and she’ll be in Nepal through June teaching at a school in a hill village. In the airport earlier, I had spoken to a young French girl who was heading to Nepal for a month. My first thought when talking to these people was, What would one do in Nepal for a month? And how do these young people afford to do this? Layla tells me she is teaching as a volunteer but all her expenses will be paid and she’ll be provided with a home and food. While staying in Kathmandu, she’s renting a room at Kathmandu Guest House for $8 a night. My room is $50 a night. It turns out I get a lot more amenities than she does for her $8, and I’m glad for those.
Though I’ve booked a garden facing room for $5o a night, it turns out that there is no such room available. They have one non-garden facing room that still needs to be cleaned and one that faces the garden, with 3 beds, for $60 a night. Since they confirmed the room I booked, I say that I shouldn’t have to pay more for what is basically their mistake. Finally, they agree to give me the three-bed garden-facing room for the same price at which they confirmed.
I head directly to the garden restaurant for a glass of wine and some dinner. It’s quite cold, but I sit strategically under a heat lamp to keep somewhat warm. I order fish tikka and some garlic naan, all delicious.
During dinner, I chat with a friendly couple from Holland. They recommend several places to me, especially Bhaktapur and Pokhara. They tell me that tomorrow morning, they’ll be heading up to Swayambhu, otherwise known as the Monkey Temple. Then they will be returning to Holland. Prior to coming to Nepal, they spent 3 weeks in India; they said, as many people before me have said, that India was a hardship and they like Nepal a lot better.
After dinner, I wander out into the streets of Thamel, where there are lots of Chinese and Korean tourists mingling with the Nepalis. And there are the expected Western tourists wearing their colorful woolen hats with ear flaps & tassels. Sometimes their hair is dyed platinum or hot pink or matted in dreadlocks. Sometimes their hair is just clipped up to their heads in a razzmatazz way. Either way, I don’t think I have to worry about what my hair looks like here, as everyone looks a mess!
I wander past shops selling singing bowls, thanka paintings, brass Buddhas and Hindu deities, pashminas, jewelry, Nepali crafts, embroidered handbags, books, maps, guidebooks, meditation and chanting CDs, carpets, scarves, and knock-off trekking gear. I hear the Tibetan Incantations that Mona Lisa sent me the link to before I came; I buy the CD from a shopkeeper for 250 rupees ($2.91). Other shops offer every kind of thing a tourist could ever want: money exchange, internet, SIM cards, photo printing, trekking, bicycling or rafting trips. This is the place of dreams; whatever dream you have, these vendors can supply. I wonder: can they give me the answers to my problems, the dilemmas of my life?