Saturday, April 08, 2006

Posting From Kathmandu

This is the mysterious city you've dreamed about but could never quite identify. Sparks of old incarnations flash everywhere

4/6/06 8:30 PM
Newark Airport
Waiting for my flight to Delhi. My first trip to India will not be particularly auspicious; I’ll only be there for fifteen hours or so. Still, a memorable passage into the lush and sensuous matrix of world spirituality. The land of the Upanishads, their immense sophistication, of Pantanjali, Hanuman, Krishna, Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva, moon faced Parvati, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Vedanta, oceans of sutra millennium ahead of their times in fathoming the vastness of the ages and the I dash madly for newly announced boarding gate with only minutes to spare and my first lesson in panting to gate, drop my CD player, batteries and CD fall out, beautiful little Indian girl helps gather everything attention for Christ’s sake...! Indian gate personnel are tut tutting and demanding to see passport, visa and boarding pass...try not to get rattled as I grope for all the foolish credentials required of one in this insane world...sigh of relief as I pass by the Archons who guard their world against the vicious, violent, or just plain foolish and inattentive...finally about to take my coveted window seat but aged, respectable bapho claims it's his! He's a bit senile and cranky, he and his Indian father! We tussle a bit. "Sir," I keep repeating, "you're sitting in my seat." He waves his boarding pass about muttering God knows what. Should just have let him have it, this is going to be a long flight, an aisle seat would have been more practical. Anyway things get straightened out via fussy flight attendants and so am properly seated. Funny little wife sits next to me, she's fumbling with her seat belt (no English spoken here) so I help her get it fastened. Hear the mighty engines roar! And off we go, Delhi bound, a sixteen hour flight. Gods of India, have patience with me.

New Delhi Airport
A rough and tumble passage through India. Awaiting flight to Kathmandu after getting on wrong plane and nearly ending up in Kabul. Night approach to Delhi immense network of pulsating lights stretching to infinity in all directions...each point of light was flickering and subdued, giving off no more illumination than a lantern or camp fire...totally unlike American or European cities with their obscene flying over an encampment of some vast tribe, who had set their cook pots to simmering all at once, hinting at the profusion of humanity below.

First smell upon arriving like burning garbage and outside, a disheartening cloud of smog hovers over the entire city. Delhi at night: hot, smelly, chaotic. The airport touts snatch at you like piranhas, barely concealing their contempt for people of my standing and nationality. But what did I expect? Indeed, one of them says something like "this is India, this is the way it is here." It's all too much as I scuffle with the boys, my hands shaking as I try to light a cigarette while they look on in amusement. One enterprising fellow manages to get my baggage into his taxi and then promptly holds it hostage unless I pay him 35 bucks for a ride to a local hotel. I angrily protest, and after some shoving and harsh words, the baggage comes out and I'm back on the curb where I began. Finally end up in so-so airport hotel for fifty bucks a night, driven there by one not so tainted by desperation, "Kumar." Strange, wraith-like creatures swirl through the dusty, traffic clogged streets.

Flight to Kathmandu in rickety old Airbus 620. It rattles and groans as it taxis down the runway. Christ, I hope a wing doesn’t fall off! Upon arrival no one there from Hotel Karma to pick me up. I am accosted by a wiry, talkative fellow named Surya who offers to take me to Hotel Blue Horizon, where he works of course. He is precisely the kind of for-you-no-problem tout that I have come to distrust over the years, but it looks like it'd his way or the highway. So I reluctantly pile into his busted up mini-van. A curfew is in effect and armed police are on every corner. We pass through one check point after another, six in all, manned by smirking national police who demand to see passport and visa. Finally arrive at the Blue Horizon, which turns out to be the perfect place for my purposes anyway, down an alleyway just off the Thamel main drag, cheap and with an international clientele. I settle into a beautiful room on the upper floor surrounded by a garden and jungle-like tangle of trees and vines.
Thousands of crows and talkative native birds whistle, call, croak, gabble and shriek outside.

Kathmandu in lock down. No one may leave or enter the city. This includes tourists like me who must remain within the confines of their hotel. So I spent a pleasant hour or so at the Himalaya Meditation Center just across the alley from the Blue Horizon. Meditated in their lovely shrine room with Mark, who runs the place and Drukya, a Buddhist nun from England. Mark provided the missing corollary to the Buddha's injunction, "of the spiritual path, better not to begin. But once you've begun, better not to stop." Why? To abandon the path, only to start again, perhaps many times, reinforces negativity. It exposes our susceptibility to doubt and lack of perseverance. This is, perhaps, an obvious, but invaluable teaching that bears repeating. So where does that leave me? I have retreated many times into my cloud of intuitions which have served me well but this is, perhaps, neither on nor off the path. Do not trifle!So I have arrived at a troubled time in this troubled country. How I wish that this land of Shiva and the Dalai Lama could achieve peace as an example for the rest of the world. I am confined here for the moment at the behest of my hosts which is not so bad after all. Troubled world alas, here in Nepal, civil war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the whole fucking world at its own throat. And South America tilting, country by country, towards a huge socialist driven, anti-American block! Tough shit! I salute Evo Moralis in Bolivia and extend a guarded admiration for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela for standing up against this downward spiraling, ever more dangerous American hegemony, that it may not take the rest of the world with it. So finally we are permitted to leave the confines of the hotel. I wander round in amazement through Thamel, camera in hand. All the store fronts are shuttered. The narrow alley ways are jammed packed with one little store front or shop after another, side by side with the dwellings of the impoverished, who live and work here. In due course, I meet up with a street full of angry, brick throwing protesters. Piles of garbage burn in the street. To my amazement, the police let me through their check point and I walk closer still towards the chanting, jeering crowd, but am turned back finally by a policeman who fumbles for the proper words:

Uprising! Demonstration! Danger! Go Back!

Okay so I turn around and head back the way I've come, only to meet another band of noisy protesters throwing stones and bricks and setting new fires in the street. Finally, the police, heavily armed and with shields and clubs in place, begin to advance. I hasten my retreat and the protesters melt away into back streets and hidden doorways. I head back to the hotel video taping scenes along the way

Awoke this morning to breathe more rarified air, after a night of bad dreams. The magic of this place seeps into you, displacing bad thoughts, bad dreams, maybe even bad karma. Long walk through Thamel to Durbar Square. Curfew lifted for a few hours and the good people of this place awake from their stupor and spill into the streets, which, formerly abandoned, are now roaring with human activity. I am carried along like flotsam on a wave of humanity that deposits me finally in an enclosure along the street to Durbar Marg where musicians are singing sacred hymns from a play book of sorts, spread out before them. I fumble with my recording gear. The first thing you see when approaching Durbar Square from Thamel is the magnificent Taleju

To Pashupatinath, arrive by cab, make the mistake of taking on a guide, slick and fast talking, he suckers me in. Not so bad though as he gives me the standard tour of this major center of Hindu devotion, and what a place! The old and infirm come here to be cared for and die - am taken to their version of "rest home," very simple and open to the elements in veranda-like settings where the elderly sit serenely about on mats and chairs, many of course in their dotage but beautiful and delightful, with smiles that would light up Tartarus.When they die, the nearby burning ghats await. The family stands about as the body is consumed and then the ashes are swept quite unceremoniously into the Bagmati, a holy river that flows into the Ganges. This is as it should be. The family retains some small portion of the ashes for remembrance and that's it, no obscene wasteful funerals, grave yards or mausoleums. The caste system is in evidence here, the better born are cremated higher up the river amidst more tidy surroundings. I am shown the ghat where the royal family, assassinated two years ago, was cremated. This is a center of temples, stupas, and unending devotion, especially to Shiva, and monkeys slink and prowl about everywhere. Clouds of incense rise up through the hazy sunlight. Am shown the Mother Terresa center and hospice where the old and dying are lovingly cared for. I give a donation to the doctor/director, a good man, Namaste. Finally pay off my guide who has become a bit of a pest, off you go, and return to wandering about. I am in accord here, even though resentful and unwelcoming eyes sometimes greet me.
My wanderings eventually lead me to the "Milk Baba," (AKA Dudh Baba, Paramahansa Sri Ram Krishna Das.) I am invited to sit with him. I remove my boots and step into his tiny hut that overlooks the river. There is an ashram here and devotees and assistants wander by. In the guru's home are all his worldly possessions; a shrine, books and items of devotion, pictures of teachers and saints, household goods and a butane stove. Baba is a lovely, serene man in his seventies who has sustained himself on milk alone for twenty five years. He travels, has a world-wide following, and is scrupulously attended to by his devotees. He has braids of dread locked hair over six feet long which he wraps turban-like about his head. Don't know what he makes of me as he quickly sizes me up but is gracious. His movements are calm and precise. We exchange a few words; the search for the guru, the necessity of performing Sadhana etc. In a moment of awkward silence I am about to leave when he offers to make tea. I watch his precise movements and preparations with butane stove and utensils. Two pinches of tea, one large and one small are tossed with surprising vehemence into a metal canister along with milk and sugar. Water is set to boil as Baba reads from a devotional text, and at the proper moment, is poured into the canister to steep. And oh yes, he is a mantra meditation master. The tea is strained and poured into two cups and Baba hands one to me. Lovely, serene moments ensue amidst the fragrance of incense and devotional music played just outside. Harmonium, tabla and hand cymbals, the aching beauty of heartfelt song. So I sip the delicious tea, Baba reads, the musicians play, and magical moments of floating timelessness pass by. At the moment of leave taking I ask for Baba's blessing. I lean forward, he places a golden cord around my neck and murmurs mantric incantations in Sanskrit over my head. I make as gracious an exit as possible, bumping into things and overturning a canister as I back out , ah me thank you Baba, Namsate. Outside, I sit with the devotees and listen to the beautiful music. Later, I join the inner circle where I am not much welcomed. That's alright, after all, who is this guy wearing western clothes and backpack with camera, I could not be more of an outsider much less a devotee...
The sacred and profane bump against each other and overlap in the most extraordinary ways here. In Boudha (more later) the sacred stupa is ringed about by shop keepers selling everything from Tibetan antiques to yes, Buff Burgers! In the dusty garbage strewn streets are always to be found a shrine to one god or another, be it Shiva, Vishnu, or Kali. Burning sticks of incense are found tucked away into the folds of an ancient trees at the intersections of streets clogged with cars, rickshaws, and motorcycles. Indeed everywhere old trees are transformed into temples that embrace within their roots an effigy of the prevailing deity. The dust and smog are a scourge. I have come back from trips hawking and spitting up a slimy brown mucous. Not good! I feel its ill effects as a burning sensation deep in the chest. Many go about with handkerchiefs about their mouths, perhaps I should too?

Journeyed to Patan today in the delightful company of Malika, a beautiful 28 year old woman from Naples I met at the hotel. She is smart, strong headed, and somewhat disdainful of the workaday Nepalese man or woman. We begin our trip to Patan in a rickshaw but the impracticality of this mode of travel becomes immediately apparent. So, at Malika's insistence, we continue our way in a cab. She is a bit mysterious, this lady, and very private. She will not, for instance, meditate with other people "too personal," she says. She is a Buddhist, does not drink, smoke or eat meat, so she is a bit scandalized when later I order a schooner of beer. We take the usual tour about Patan's splendid Durbar Square. As I feared, the presence of another distracts me from a closer examination of the sights and sounds of Patan. No time to sit and ruminate, which is essential to my understanding of a new and exotic place, so will have to return.
Malika (pronounced Mah-LY-Ka) is a delightful conversationalist even with her limited English, spoken with beautiful Italian inflections. We are shown a hidden court yard where religious ceremonies are performed, courtesy of a little old wrinkled trickster who giggles a lot, and the spot where animals are routinely slaughtered (bulls, chickens, ducks) which does not accord with our Buddhists sensibilities but...? These are the ways of a timeless Hindu spirituality, though it does seem to violate the Hindu principle of ahimsa. Within a court yard that was once a part of the royal palace, we are shown a big circle drawn in the blood of a sacrificial animal, signifying I know not what.

And so it goes as we wile away the afternoon, taking tea in a tiny tea shop and conversing amiably with the proprietor. We have lunch on a terrace with a panoramic view of the square. Later we observe the local women gathering water in big plastic and metal jugs in a sunken courtyard, reached by steps, from gargoyle-like stone spouts. I videotape the scene and give Malika my camera. We wander about recording this scene of water gathering, perhaps their only source of clean water, and again, perhaps understandably, we are not much welcomed.
And so, back through the traffic maddened streets to Thamel, where we part, a bit disillusioned with each others company. I have a feeling that this beautiful woman, private and strong willed, is use to sampling the company of others who strike her fancy, only to depart abruptly when it pleases her.

...the Nepali new year.To Swaybunath, the Monkey Temple. Extraordinary in every way.
Arrived in rickshaw, which was not so smart a choice. I end up jumping out and helping the driver push his machine up steep and winding streets. Arriving at last, I ascend the many steps to the temple in a dream like trance. I synchronize my walking by silently chanting om mani padme hum over and over again deepening the trance and filling me with a quiet euphoria. Scenes along the way: the old, the sick, dying and wasting away souls seeking, perhaps, a final benediction by making pilgrimage to this place; scantily clad children, nursing mothers, holy men in flowing Tibetan robes that appear out of no where who place a holy mark upon my forehead. Sounds heard: buzzing crowd noises, children playing, chanting, bells ringing, chattering my entrance fee and climb the final steep stairway.

First thing I do is turn the three big prayer wheels, and then begin my walk around the stupa, spinning numerous smaller wheels, set back in niches, five or so to a niche. Made of bronze, they are worn and polished from the touch of numberless fingers. The circle of devotees is packed! New year‘s day is thought to be particularly auspicious. I rub up against the impoverished and well heeled alike who place small twisted ropes of burning incense into cups just below. This tight circle moves slowly clockwise and my body and clothing are suffused in clouds of incense. There is chanting, incomprehensible chattering, the ringing of bells. Parents lift up their children so they too can spin the wheels, and I, with half closed eyes repeat the mantra and benedictions, spin each individual wheel and bow at larger niches containing images of the Buddha. There is jostling, laughter, and much good humor as we make our slow way around the stupa with the all seeing Buddha eyes gazing down. There is so much more here then can be taken in on a single day. You walk, chant silently, and let the powerful energy of this place uplift you. Balconies behind the stupa offer up stupendous views of Kathmandu, befouled by leaden colored clouds of smog and dust. The trance state melts away before more worldly interests. I photograph and video tape the circumambulation of the stupa, holy men reciting from texts, devotees praying and lighting more incense. On it goes into the afternoon. Many hawkers of singing bowls, statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, prayer beads and prayer flags, thankas, Gurka knives and hand held prayer wheels. One face stands out amongst the others, the face of one with authentic heart... 

Saran Shahi, who is to become my friend, beckons from the doorway of his shop and I go to greet him like a long lost relative. He manages well with the English he has picked up from tourists and is patient with my occasional incomprehension. Not once have I observed a shadow of anger or calculation cross his face. We fall into relaxed conversation and he plays me the music of Anil, his brother, an excellent classical - fusion guitarist. Nepali folk music set to the rhythms of tabla, djembe, flute and vocals. Excellent! I buy both of his CDs. 

Anil Shahi
Later that evening I am honored to share dinner with Saran and his wife and two children, a son nine years old and daughter, fourteen. We enter through a doorway and squeeze past a huge motorcycle in the stairwell that is apparently leaking. There is a strong smell of gasoline. Their living quarters are a single room with a recessed place in the back that serves as kitchen and hearth. Saran and I converse together as his wife, who speaks no English, prepares dal bhat, a rice and lentil dish. I am provided with a spoon while Saran and his wife partake sumptuously with fingers.


Saran's a hard working dude, heartbreakingly so. Every morning he awakes at six, walks the entire distance from Thamel to Swayambhunath, then climbs up those innumerable steps to his shop. He does not complain. His two prized possessions are a color TV and a CD-DVD stereo system. The small space they occupy is illuminated by a single fluorescent tube. There are two beds, one for Saran and his wife, the other for his two children. As Saran and I talked, I could see flames leap suddenly as Saran's wife lit the butane stove. Shadows danced briefly on the walls and then vanished. These are small quarters indeed for four people. They are well managed but Saran confesses to the strain of no privacy. His kids are like two restless cubs. Saran's wife (alas no name) defers to him but is not subservient. So unlike Morocco where I never once laid eyes on Rachid's wife, cooking a meal for the boys in heavily curtained off kitchen, in anonymity... so it goes.

To Boudhanath. Strong Tibetan community, young monks and nuns in their characteristic maroon and yellow robes come and go with serene indifference. I do the circumambulation same as Swayambhunath with lovely Tibetan women in native dress. Their movements have a grace and precision that comes from a lifetime of devotion. Incense openly burns in sacred bowls beneath each prayer wheel placed there for that purpose. Clouds of incense waft upwards suffusing the pilgrim amidst chanting and ringing of temple bells. As before, I walk around the mighty Boudhnath stupa spinning the well-worn prayer wheels and chanting silently.

In Bhaktapur with friend Saran. So many wonders. Arrived by mad man Kathmandu taxi this day after the king has effectively abdicated. Wandering about in wonder through quaint streets of Newari daily life...drawing water from ancient street wells, washing clothes and dishes, selling produce, scenes of beautiful children and bewizened old ones...again, I am in accord here. Museum showing exquisite artistry of old thanka masterpieces, sumptuous, infinite, the unashamedness of being human, or better yet, spiritual human beings leading good strong human lives amidst poverty and strife...only live your own myth and have faith in basic goodness, banishes bad dreams and self doubt. 

Om! Let my limbs and speech, Prana
And all the senses grow in strength.
All existence is the Brahman of the Upanishads.
May I never deny Brahman, nor Brahman deny me.
Let there be no denial at all:
Let there be no denial at least from me.
May the virtues that are proclaimed in the Upanishads be in me,
Who am devoted to the Atman;
may they reside in me. Om!
Let there be Peace in me!
Let there be Peace in my environment!
Let there be Peace in the forces that act on me!

I am now officially writing "off the journal," that is, I have transcribed everything I wrote in my journal while actually in Nepal. What follows are impressions and mood patterns drawn from memory. They will include events not originally recorded and afterthoughts of certain events after a three month hiatus.

Besieged at the Delhi airport! I remember thinking Christ, even in Morocco, the touts were not this aggressive or downright menacing. I must have looked a sight, tired and bedraggled after a sixteen hour flight. It's hot and I'm itching with discomfort and annoyance. I'm surrounded by a crowd of sneering, unsympathetic hoodlums. That's when one of them says something like, "this is India friend, what did you expect?" Finally, a fellow named Kumar comes to my rescue. He's one of the boys but a bit more diplomatic. I accept his offer of $10 and away we go.

Disjointed memories, the best of which is my return to Bhaktapur at night to retrive my "missing" journal.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Miguel-

Where and how are you my friend? Last I heard you were holed up at Blue Horizon. Are you freed up and exploring Kathmandu?

Touch base!


10:23 AM  

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