“Without first encountering the depths of hell, the gates of heaven will never be open”- Ian Baker Into the Heart of the World
Although calling my hitherto summer “hell” may be a bit hyperbolic, I certainly was ready for a change of scenery and a shift in perspective. Without getting into too much detail, I was still recovering from a surgery I had in May that completely and somewhat surprisingly, threw my body out of whack, causing me severe anxiety and at times, panic attacks, neither of which I had ever expeienced before. In my desperate attempts to escape what was seemingly becoming my “new normal” I poured myself into reading about Nepal and Tibet in preparation for my upcoming trip. Although I am the farthest thing from an expert in Buddhism (even using the word knowledgable or competent would be grossly exaggerating), I became intrigued by the central tenets of existing in the present and the consistent ruminations on individual suffering.
In particular, Ian Baker’s reclaimed book Into the Heart of the World was my constant companion as I suffered through the first month of summer, eagerly anticipating escaping to the mythical land of Shangri-La, with the hopes, albeit skeptical, that I would miracously feel better upon entering the Himalayan Region. In the book, Baker’s quest to disccover one of the last unexplored regions of the earth runs parallel to his own self discovery in the face of ardous circumstances. In the mist of heart palpitations and constant worry, I began to find sollace in lines such as “Premako’s protector spirits will cause perilous circumstances to test the power of your realization. They will assist those who abide by their spiritual commitments and will mislead those who do not” – Opening the Door to the Hidden Land as quoted by Baker (p. 158-159). I also began to think of my own suffering as perhaps, a test of my will, and as an intentional catalyst that was leading me to open my mind and spirit to the teachings of Tantric Buddhism that exists throughout Nepal and Tibet. Although I was not embarking on a traditional Kora (pilgrimage), my rather uncomfortable first half of summer more than readied me to come here with an open mind and spirit. As Matteo Pistono states in his book, In the Shadow of the Buddha; “We all have potential to be Buddhas, we all have the capacity to transcend the limitations set upon us by our own destructive emotions such as anger and aggression” (p. 22). By the time I landed in Kathmandu, I had become fully aware of the power of my own thoughts and made a solemn pledge to myself to try to live each moment in the present, not worrying about the past or future. And so begins my adventures in Nepal and Tibet…
After a short layover in Quatar (long enough to peek my interest in returning), I arrived in Kathmandu on my first night just before sundown. From the back window of my hotel room at the Avalon House, I caught one of the most spectacular sunsets I have yet to experience. I was already feeling a bit better.
My first full day in Kathmandu I spent blissfully walking around Thamel, the tourist quarter of Kathmandu that beems with restuarants, souvenir shops, tour operators, and hotels. Somewhat similar to India, but not quite as overwhelming, I was quickly becoming intoxicated by all the sights, sounds, and smells that riddled through these little alleyways.
I evenutally made my way down to Durbar Square, a highlight of Nepali tourism that was devastated by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit in April of 2015. Though many of the buildings that made this medieval city so magical now stand as piles of rubble, there is still something endearing about this space and the people who inhabite it. After dismissing a few tour guides, I eventually gave into a persistent offer and was taken around the square to see the “sights” for about an hour. Perhaps the most interesting part of my tour was a visit to Kumari Chowk; the “home” of the Kumari or Living Goddess of Nepal. Considered to be the Hindu Goddess Taleju, the Kumari tradition dates back to Jaya Prakash, a weak King who was instructed to select a virgin girl, whose body would provide a home for the goddess to live. The selection process of the girl consists of 32 require, some of which incude having the eyes of an animal and her horoscope. Once selected, the young girl must live inside the Kumari Chowk and is only allowed outside when she is paraded around during certain festivals; her feet are never to touch the ground. While visiting the Kumari Chowk, my guide called up to what appeared to be a handler to see if the Kumari would come to the window for me to see her, which she with the understanding that I would leave a small offering in the courtyard below. Although I was not allowed to take a picture of her (and would have felt funny doing so), I did come across her picture later that day in the newspaper.
After the girl begins menstruating she is then sent back into the “real world” though some say her life becomes very difficult because of superstitious belief that any man who marrries a former Kumari will fall upon bad luck.
I was pretty done with the tour when the guide called me “honey” and asked if I worked out. Seriously?!? Thankfully, I knew the tour had come to an end when I refused to buy anything after he took me to a traditional Thangka Painting School (more on these later).
After Dunbar Square, I had a traditional Nepali Set of dahl, fried fish, chicken, yogurt, and chapati for lunch at Thakali Bhanchha, before finding a local spa where I treated myself to a pedicure, although I would read later that many of these places, along with local dance halls, are actually fronts for prostitution.
Going back to the hotel, I tried to rest but when the power turned off (apparently the government cuts the electricity for periods of a few hours each day), I made my way back into the chaos of Thamel and hired a taxi driver to take me to Swayambhu, also known to tourists as “the Monkey Temple”. As one of the most revered Buddhist sights in Nepal, by the time I climbed the stairs to the main stupa, I was greeted by sweeping views of the surrounding Kathmandu Valley and local pilgrims circuambulating the white stupa.
I rounded the day off with dinner at Thamel House, a somewhat more upscale restaurant (dinner cost me $15) in the bustling tourist area.
Already feeling much better and really trying to concentrate on being and existing in the present, I spent most of today relaxing. After my realization about spa’s being fronts for prostitution, I did some research and found a place called Himalayan Healers, which is one of the few legitimate places in Kathmandu, where they actually train and employ members of the “untouchable” caste. I treated myself to a 60 minute message followed by a pleasant lunch of momos and beer at Mustang Thakhali Restaurant.
Although I have only been here for a day and a half, the mystique surrounding Kathmandu does seem to be having some sort of hold over me. I am not quite sure what it is, but I am happy to exist in it for the time being. And while I have yet to really see or do too much here, the words of Cat Stevens come to mind;
“Katmandu I’ll soon be seeing you, and your strange bewildering time will hold me down”