It’s difficult to know where to start about the afternoon I just spent. It looked simple enough on the map to travel the the 15-20 km from where I am in Kathmandu to Bhaktapur, a village outside the city that is reknown for its history and the complex of royal residences and temples dating back eleven hundred years. It looks simple enough on the map, all major roads, very direct. But the map is not the territory, especially here.
The good part is that I arrived intact after feeling my way through herky-jerky traffic, the cacophony of toots and tweets, knowing when to accelerate to thread my way between converging vehicles, avoiding distraction by the accidents, the babes, the mass of scooters, the sheer novelty of everything along the way. I have decided that Nepalis on motorbikes are the point guards of riding, bobbing and weaving, dancing and juking through traffic. Thais are the power forwards, fast, aggressive, muscling their way through. But either way, driving in Kathmandu is already both crazy fun and crazy scary.
Bhaktapur, one of seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Nepal, is not a single place, exactly. It’s a village, a warren of narrow streets, even narrower alleys, temple squares that I would never have found had I not agreed to be guided by a young man who approached me as I arrived. Finessing the offers to “watch my scooter,” I parked in a secure area and we two hiked up the hill to the main event.
(<—The Nepali flag is not an accident)
Why did I pick him? Well, these things are spur of the moment decisions. He was earnest and I decided he was honest, his english was quite good and his price was reasonable. But I had no idea what I was in for. He was a wealth of historical and religious information about what we were about to see. He was inquisitive, and we traded personal details with ease. He is only 22, has been making his way with tourists for 10 years already, and is a government certified tour and trekking guide. I saw the documents. And, he has dreams.
Meanwhile, the temples. Originally started in the 9th century, there have been expansions, destructions, an earthquake in 1934, various other transformative events, and what we have is a small city of wildly different ages, with some families living there for 400 years or more. It is also a major commercial and tourist venue, but unlike Thamel in the center of Kathmandu, the vendors are generally a more artistic group. Some of what can be seen in Bhaktapur is truly high art, especially in the area of my personal interest, Tibetan tankas. We must have visited at least 6 different tanka painting schools, some of whom are producing magnificent depictions of Tibetan buddhist historical figures, deities and mandalas.
Bhaktapur is a combination of historical hinduism, Newar (indigenous Nepali) buddhism and Tibetan buddhism. The design, the wood carvings and the statuary adorning the temples are all Since this is my first serious foray into a major tourist site here, I can’t say whether they are unique. They are certainly different from anything I have ever seen. Some parts are closed to non-hindus. There is also a museum in Durbar Square, but it closed early this day and I did not get in. I will return another day for that.
(some things never get old)
As for the grand dreams of my guide, his enthusiasm was compelling, as was his invention. He told me he has devoted his life to learning, teaching and travel. I asked where he has traveled. He told me he’s been to India, and all over Nepal, but that he also has two plans. Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is to write a novel about Nepali street kids in Kathmandu, already in progress. Sounded like a winner to me.
Then I asked about Plan B. He said there are 203 countries in the world. He wants a girlfriend in each one. That didn’t sound so much like a winner to me. Then he says he will ask each girlfriend to send him $10 per month for five years. That’s $2300 per month, which he will use to travel. I ask, “What will they get in return?” He says in five years he will provide two weeks free travel in Nepal to each girlfriend, free lodging, trekking, food, the works.
I ask, “How will you find 203 girlfriends willing to do this?” He says, “Come on, this is the 21st century.” I say, “Maybe you will have to translate your offer into Birkina-Fasso, or something like that. And what about countries where $10 per month is a lot of money?” He says, “Well, maybe I’ll find 203 girlfriends in the same country. Like Germany. They seem to have enough money.” I say, “Do you know how long it will take to entertain each girlfriend for two weeks in Nepal? Eight years.” I assure him I am not trying to throw cold water on his plan. In fact, I think it should be Plan A. I’m just pointing out some practical matters to consider. “Some of these girls will be paying you for 5 years and then waiting seven years for their trip to Nepal.”
He says, “Hey, I’m still a young man.”
I tipped him 200 rupees. Maybe I’ll call him when I decide to go to Bouddhanath.
One more thing to do before I leave. And let me tell you. The facilities were in the same shape as the sign.
All that was yesterday. Today was also a great day. I had to do some laundry, so my host told their driver to take me to the “dry cleaner.” It was ridiculously far away. But on the way, I see everyone else’s laundry drying on their balcony and their roof. Of course. In Thailand, the laundries were about two to the block. And the price was 100 bht/kilo (about $3). Even cheaper in Laos. Here, I am paying by the piece, which will run me three times as much.
I also met today with my local CCL contact, a very energetic and intelligent guy who has started two environmental organizations, an educational consultancy which is also engaged in charitable activities and recruited hundreds of people to plant trees. We spent 4 hours meeting with his staff, reviewing the content of the presentations I have created. He and his COO are already planning my time for me, including planning similar presentations at 5 more schools. They’re also listing the places I should not miss, inviting me to stay with them the night before a special sunrise outing, and urging me to go to Lumbini.
My first presentation to the Tsoknyi Gechak School will be later this week, right after the 3-day Maoist strike. Don’t ask. That’s for a whole other post.
Finally, today I got to sample the official food of Kathmandu: Mo-Mo. Similar to Chinese bao or Japanese gyoza, it’s a dumpling filled with chicken, veggies or…….buffalo? Topped with a zingy tomato-chili sauce. Yummmm!!