Saturday, September 25, 2010


We recently completed our most impulsive trip yet, partly because we learned we’d be having a 5-day government holiday only a week in advance, and partly because the airfare to Kathmandu was the cheapest we could find out of any nearby destinations. But our interest in Nepal also came because several years back Sam’s little sister, Ann, spent a semester there in a study abroad program. Her stories amazed and impressed us, and now having spent a few days visiting where she lived alone for 6 months, we have even greater respect for her courage and fortitude.

Nepal is the first third-world country for Sam and me to visit together and is also our first predominantly Hindu country. Having no experience with the language or culture of Nepal, we decided it was best to plan this little excursion using a travel company, and it just so happened that one of my co-workers had just been to Kathmandu and had a recommendation for us. So we took his advice and booked our 4-night, 5-day itinerary through a local company called Earthbound Expeditions, who we also now highly recommend.

Upon our arrival, a driver from Earthbound picked us up and whisked us to our hotel.  Actually, "whisked" is entirely the wrong verb to use in a situation with bumper to bumper traffic all the while competing against ubiquitous motorcycles and mopeds swarming around us like so many gnats.

Our first significant experience came the next morning when we took a flight aboard a twin-prop for an air tour of the Himalayas, of course including Mount Everest. Incidentally, the airline was named Buddha Air...classic. No words, and not even this picture, can portray the awesome grandeur that we witnessed.

Following that early morning flight, we then proceeded on a tour of a historical and religious destinations around Kathmandu, three of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. The first we visited was Bodhnath, a Buddhist stupa built around 600 AD, which today is surrounded by a large community of exiled Tibetans, many of whom reside in nearby Buddhist monasteries. Although Nepal is predominately Hindu, there are a number of flourishing Buddhist communities, and interestingly enough, Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born in Lumbini, about 150 miles southwest of Kathmandu.  Unlike it's neighbor to the south, India, Nepal has no real tension to speak of between its religious communities.

In Pashupatinath, our next stop, we came upon one of the holiest Hindu sites in Nepal where a religious ritual quite foreign to us Westerners is often practiced, public cremation of the dead.  And yes, you guessed it, a number of ceremonial cremations were taking place as we watched from the other side of the river. This river, known as the Bagmati, runs through a complex of Hindu temples and functions as a reservoir for the cremated remains, eventually carrying them out to the Ganges, the sacred river of Hinduism.

In the image, you can see a crowd gathered around the body of a woman about to be set on fire. Straw and wood-chips are placed around the body, including inside her mouth, and are eventually lit on fire by her sons. As the pyre begins to burn, loved ones take turns paying respects by laying flowers across her chest. The whole mood seems relaxed and almost festive. Several hours later, when the ritual has been completed, the ashes will be placed in the river to be returned to the earth as a drop of water returns to the ocean. As Hindus, her family believes that she will either be reincarnated in human form or will achieve moksha, a sort of enlightenment wherein one is released from the cycle of rebirth (a Hindu version of Heaven, if you will).  

Next stop was the Durbar (or palace) Square of Patan, a city to the south of Kathmandu. In the 15th century AD, a dying Malla king ordered that the three most splendid cities in his kingdom be equitably distributed to his three sons rather than risking a coup d'etat should he give his entire kingdom to just one. These three cities, Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan, then all benefited from an architectural renaissance and explosion resulting from the competitive drives of each brother. Gotta love sibling rivalry!

After a tour of the Patan Museum, which holds an exquisite collection of Buddhist and Hindu ancient artifacts, and stops at several Hindu temples, our afternoon was capped with a visit to a Tibetan refugee camp, which produces a number of textiles, and is known for its Tibetan carpets. Most striking here was a visit to a small, dingy, poorly lit room, where a half dozen very elderly women were sitting on the floor spinning yarns (and I don't mean telling stories!). They didn't speak English but sweetly welcomed us in their native tongue and allowed us to watch the first stage in the process of making some of the most beautiful wool carpets you've ever seen. We left the proud owners of a colorful handmade rug that has brought a new coziness to our living room in Abu Dhabi.

Much of the impetus for visiting Nepal is to experience the Himalayas, so by definition vacationing there requires exposure to, shall we say, the country’s more rustic elements. Now, I’m not a camper and have no ambitions of being a camper, so we opted to stay in a mountain lodge the night before our hike through Kathmandu Valley. We arrived after dark and were led to a modest room on the top floor with twin beds, a small but private bathroom, and wrap-around windows, which under fair weather conditions promised to provide a stunning view of the Himalayas by morning (and it did, briefly). I was pretty exhausted after a long day of sight-seeing around bustling, dusty Kathmandu so heaved a sign of relief that the space was quiet and clean.

Fast-forward 10 minutes later, and I am standing on top of the bed, my hands covering the sides of my face, while Sam is locked in the bathroom doing battle with the world's largest spider! So large, that when Sam spotted it in our bathtub he said in the most serious voice he could muster, “Shannon, do not come in here.” So large, that I could hear actual fear in his voice as he tried to hit the spider with his shoe, missed, and exclaimed “Mother of…!” So large that he wouldn't even tell me how large lest I have nightmares (I have always been an arachnophobe). He finally had the thing cornered but had nothing to kill it with, so I ran down three flights of stairs to grab a staffer, who, bless his heart was probably Hindu and came upstairs with a small broom and I think the intention to carry the thing outside. But Sam knew I would not be able to sleep until this queen of spiders was onto her next life, and emboldened by the presence of another male, went in for the kill. He then proceeded to thoroughly search the rest of our room and declared it a spider-free zone. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but let me say it again, my husband is a SAINT!

I must say though that the majestic view of the Himalayas we witnessed the next morning more than made up for the disquieting evening we had.

After a surprisingly solid night of sleep (I had a little help from my friend Nyquil), we set out early the next morning on our hike. We were accompanied by a trekking guide, a 20-something Nepali, who spoke pretty decent English and struck up an immediate friendship with Sam. They chatted easily the entire 4+ hours, for which I was grateful as I huffed and puffed up and down the hills (in my defense, I was fighting a cold for the entire trip and still a bit groggy from the medicine). But the scenery was a good distraction, and as we made our way through rocky hills, forest, jungle, waterfalls, pastoral countryside, and quaint villages where people were going about their daily lives, I felt revived. About mid-way we were cooled off by a 20-minute deluge (we came at the tail-end of monsoon season), which made the rice paddies even deeper green – seriously, the place conjures images of the Emerald City.

The latter part of the day's journey involved three city buses (two of which we rode on top), which finally deposited us at another hilltop lodge in one of the most serene settings we’ve ever stayed. For the next 18 hours or so we did very little but sit and gape at the ever-changing sky before us.

Following our peaceful romp in the bucolic Kathmandu Valley, we returned to the city of Kathmandu for one more day of sight seeing. We journeyed to Swayambhunath, another Buddhist stupa outside of Kathmandu, which requires that you hike 365 steps to enjoy the rewarding view. As the image below attests, it's also known as the Monkey temple because the grounds are literally crawling with Macau monkeys. Yes, Macau monkeys are adorable, especially the one pictured here, but if any one of them thinks you have food and are planning on keeping it to yourself, then watch out! We witnessed two instances of people being harangued by these self-entitled hooligans. One monkey actually jumped from a tree onto a woman's shoulder (standing right in front of Sam) to grab a candy bar from her hand! My tip to those wishing to visit the impressive Swayambhunath stupa: leave the Snickers at home.

Even taking into account the anxiety of having to keep watch for maverick monkeys as you work your way up the steep staircase, the stupa is well worth it to see the view of Kathmandu. At certain times of the year, even more stunning vistas present themselves, when the rain clouds are replaced by azure skies and snow capped mountains in the distance.

Our next stop was Kathmandu's own Durbar Square. This is the most historic area of Kathmandu, and is filled mainly with 15th- and 16th-century Nawari architecture (the Nawaris were the most skilled craftsmen and were employed by the Malla kings mentioned above in their drive to build an immortal city).

The day we were visiting happened to be the first day of Teej, which is a three-day festival for Hindu women to celebrate their marriages and families, and includes a day of feasting, a day of fasting, and a day of purification. We were there on the day of feasting so the crowds were even more dense and spirited than usual. On this day, all married women wear red saris so everywhere we went we were flooded with a beautiful riot of red!

We finished our evening with a stroll through the winding alleyways of the Thamel neighborhood, which is the tourist hub and packed to the gills with shops selling everything imaginable, followed by a traditional Nepali dinner of chicken curry and rice, fried okra, vegetables, wild boar and a fabulously smooth rice wine similar to sake, followed by a cultural show of music and dance. This had all been arranged by our tour guide, and was a bit staged for the sake of tourists but fun nonetheless.

Next morning we relaxed over brunch, browsed the gift shop at our hotel and then headed back to the airport. This was another experience in and of itself but this entry has grown too long already. Let's just say Kathmandu takes airport security to a whole new level!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pushing the limits

Have you ever had one of those moments where you float outside your body, look down at yourself and think, “How in the world did I get here?” I had one such moment last weekend, as I found myself perched on top of a precariously overcrowded, rickety old city bus, which was careening dangerously down a mountain pass toward the Kathmandu Valley, all the while playing a funny game of chicken with the cars and motorbikes going the opposite way.

Now, normally in threatening traffic situations where I am not in control of the vehicle, I either a) tense up and whine softly to myself, b) demand that the driver change his ways (usually, this reaction is reserved for Sam), or c) close my eyes and pretend to be somewhere else; but in this particular instance, as I held onto the bars originally intended for luggage, I was so distracted by the stunning beauty surrounding me that my grip actually loosened. I was conscious that there were mere feet between the wheels of the bus and the sheer drop of the cliffs, but I felt only awe at the intense green of rice paddies glowing in the afternoon sun against a horizon of purple mountains (majesty!). Maybe it was the fact that my fellow passengers (all locals) seemed not to have a care in the world and chattered cheerfully with each other, but I felt completely at ease and happy to be in the “fully air-conditioned” section of the bus, as one man put it. As I let the endorphins of this experience rush over me, I thought, how in the world did a shy little girl from the comfortable suburbs of San Antonio, Texas, come to be in this unique moment in Nepal?

The thought amused me at first, but caused me to reflect over the next day or two on the incremental decisions that brought me there. It wasn’t that I woke up one day in my childhood bedroom and said “I think I’ll go live in the Middle East and trek around 3rd-world countries now.” Rather, it was the slightest nudges at the boundaries of my life that over many years expanded my comfort zone. I am able to trace the origins of my adventure-seeking back, I think, to a decision to transfer from my small private school, where my 9th grade class had 50 students, to the local public high school where my 10th grade class had something like 800 students. This was difficult for a 14-year-old, but manageable and worth it. Next I got it in my head that I wanted to tryout for the dance team (I had befriended several dancers and saw their lives as exciting and glamorous). And then there was the decision to buck the Texas A&M-trend that my three older siblings had solidified and attend Baylor instead. This was truly key, for it was at Baylor that I met Sam, my traveling buddy and partner in trying new things.

After graduation, we married and moved slightly further from my family (about a 5-hour drive), and in less than 2 years we were living all the way on the East Coast. After a visit to Cambridge I got the crazy idea that I wanted to go to Harvard. And after living in the bustling and diverse Boston-metropolitan area, it was much easier to imagine myself living a new culture altogether. Enter Abu Dhabi and the chance to travel the world. And now, even our traveling destinations have become more rugged and challenging as we go along. Starting with Switzerland, then on to China, then to Egypt, Jordan, and Nepal.

If you had thrown me direct from San Antonio to Kathmandu I might have curled up in the fetal position and waited it out (in fact, this was my basic reaction at age 14 when my family went to Nairobi on a mission trip, but that is a story for another time). The point is that it’s satisfying to realize that things aren’t as scary as they once were. I still like my comfort zone, but that zone is a whole lot bigger than it used to be. And this brings freedom. Freedom from fear, and freedom to throw my head back and feel the wind and sun on my face as I ride on top of a bus.

More pictures and commentary to come...