It's been a year since I've been there. Right before the giant earthquake hit, I was in this magical place. for a month I explored it's cities, hiked the countryside, met incredible people, watched a cremation, meditated, learned to make Nepalese meals, practiced yoga, laughed, ate, practiced photography at the beyond workshop, learned, drank tea, danced with 100 year old women, visited temples, got violently sick- twice, watched sunrises over the himalayas, petted dogs i was instructed not to touch, ate lunch with survivors of sex trafficking, prayed with Christians, prayed with Hindus, prayed with Buddhists, walked through tea fields, hung prayer flags, crashed a wedding, watched a baby goat be born, and countless other unimaginable moments.
then i came back, and i immediately got pregnant and had a baby and this is the first moment i've been able to really share what this place was to me. Here are my favorite stories.
This man right here.
day 2 of our 'easy' trek through the Himalayas. 'easy' was the term that our guide, Nirma (of 3 sisters trekking) used to describe what we were doing. but 'easy' is always a relative term, and Nirma was the first women to ever summit Annapurna IV. We had chosen Nirma and 3 sisters trekking because they are a women-owned business of all female guides/porters who train at-risk women to give them valuable skills and jobs. this is incredibly important in nepal- a country who's sex tourism and sex trafficking is alive and (sadly) well.
So we're trekking, and I think i'm in good shape, but I'm dying. each day we wake up and i say 'Nirma, where are we trekking to today?" and she says "ok. see that mountain over there?" and i say "is that where we are going? that far?!" and she says "you see the one behind it?" and i say "what?! we're hiking THERE?" and she says "see two more beyond it?" and i say "nirma. stop it. dont be silly. where are we really trekking to." and she says "past those two further ones that teeny tiny peak in the distance. that is where we are trekking to today. that is the next tea house."
so we're hiking. we have a porter, but in reality she's just carrying a small plastic bag of toiletries. i'm carrying all my camera equipment on my back and hips. shiz is heavy yo.
We say 'Nirma, what is the rest of the trail like? is it more uphill?" she responds "oh it's ok. not hard. easy hike" and we're all "but how much up?" "oh, little bit. little bit"
it's march in the Himalayas but my shirt is literally soaked through with sweat.
Occasionally we come across a little stone farmhouse, and on day 2 i met this old man. his son said he was 90 years old. 90 years old in a third world country is pretty darn old. the old man handed me this stick and explained (in gestures, not in english) that I needed a walking stick for my trek. I happily obliged, and insisted on paying him for it.
best walking stick i ever did have.
This Architecture - it is no longer in existence. just a block from where i stayed, i walked through Patan every morning.
Like a time capsule burst open- the last hands to have touched all edges of this stone, the last eyes to have seen all edges of this stone , lived in the 1500s. What did those bricks think on the afternoon of April 25th? they were placed in what should have been their eternal resting position in the 16th and 17th century- the same time Australia was being discovered by the Dutch, and Galileo was inventing the telescope. Then, one day, the ground begins to shake and their rocky skin feels daylight again, its pores breathe fresh air once more. Pockets of air from the 17th century are released into this world of cell phones and tennis shoes and chewing gum. Like a time capsule bursting open, everywhere, all over the entire nation- a volcano of ancient specimens,-mixing with modernity, and the clash was catastrophic. What did the Gods think? what did the bricks think? what is their purpose now? It must be strange to subsist in this odd space between garbage and holiness and ancient artifacts... being all of these, all at once, at the same time. but then again, once, these same bricks were nothing but mud on the ground, before Galileo, before there ever was an Australia. what a strange and beautiful and sad journey these bricks have been on.
it was the last day of my trek and I came across a woman weaving beautiful tapestries. wanting to buy one I stepped into her shop where her little boy (about 3) peaked around the corner. As she was helping me pick one out i turned around to see the little boy with a bottle of baby oil- he had poured the entire contents over his head and face. She and I both gasped and she jumped into 'mom mode' and lurched out to grab him. his face went from 'te he he... look what i did!' to 'oh crap!' as he darted out the door - he knew she couldnt chase after him because she was with a customer.
motherhood is the same regardless of where you live.
i bought the tapestry, and think about that mom and her little boy every time i look at it
sunrise over the himalayas. Still dark, I climbed the stairs to the top of the tower, trying not to wake anyone. hot Nepalese tea, film camera, and sketchbook I stepped out onto the top rooftop and waited. the sky lightened, sleeping blankets of clouds in the valleys delineated the tallest peaks, and i imagined all the sleeping people under those clouds still snuggled in their huts. Smoke began to rise from a few farm house chimneys, and then spikes of sunlight sliced through the mountaintops. sunrise over the mother fuckign himalayas.
Amma, I danced with you. you invited me in, I drank your tea, your granddaughters played us music and we danced together on your porch.
we danced SO HARD, until I was out of breath, and you were too. You danced like me, and then I danced like you and we laughed so hard because we both knew that we were completely ridiculous.
Why were you dancing? how did we go from being complete strangers from different lands, unable to speak each others languages, to having a mid-day dance party on your front porch?
we are sisters, and I want to be you- gray hair dancing on my front porch with strangers, smiling, laughing, and exhausted from life being lived.
I saw you sitting there, outside against the red door. I asked If I could take your portrait and you declined- but I could tell it was because you thought that you weren't worth photographing. I said i wanted to take your portrait because you were strong and beautiful, and embarrassed and flattered you said 'okay'. and you are perfectly that- strong and beautiful.
I met you while you were waiting for a bus with your twin daughters. you couldnt believe i wanted to take your portrait. 'me?' you said.
while looking through a shack full of himalayan crystals i turned around to see you there looking down at me from your window. i waved, you waved, and i took your portrait. what is it like in that room? what kinds of furniture do you have? what is the view like from your window? what is life like in that little room with the circle window that overlooks the crystal shop?
My favorite hostess, thank you for taking the time to make us tea, and prepare us meals. your little pumpkin home was my favorite that we stayed in. Thank you for teachign me how to grind the lentils with the stone, you are the Lisa Jonas of Nepal.
My last night in Nepal I went to the Pashupatinath Temple, where open-air cremations take place. I didn't know what to expect and just wanted to sort of take it all in and be closer to death. I watched an old man be cleansed in the river by his weeping family, placed on the platform covered in flowers and wood, and be set afire by his son.
The body was surrounded by branches, flowers, and above the body was a white canopy sheet suspended from four tall bamboo poles, like a Jewish wedding Chuppah at the altar.
I watched this just a few meters away, but it still didn't feel real. it was like i was watching it from behind a screen, separated somehow. Once the man was fully engulfed, i turned to walk away and head back home.
a man stopped me, and in perfectly good English suggested that i stay, because there was a ceremony of lights that was going to take place shortly- at sundown- and that i wouldnt want to miss it. I thanked him, and went back to watching the cremation ceremony.
He explained that as the flames rose higher it would heat up the canopy over the body, and finally burn right through the cloth. It is said that at this point the soul has broken through it's Earthly bindings and rises to heaven in the flames. I couldnt help but think of christianity: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:50-51a)
how strange it is to see religions converging from an outsider's perspective. how similar they seem, how close all our cultures are in our rites of passage.
the man told me I should follow him to a better area to view the ceremony of lights. I began to feel a bit suspicious and wary- i was traveling alone, and while i didnt have any valuables on me and just a handful of dollars, i'm also not naive. but something told me to follow him.
we sat down on the temple steps and the sun began to set. slowly, his story unraveled as i asked question after question.
"Ajit! Ajit! you're home!" a random person would say, and they would hug. it seemed every few minutes someone was welcoming him back.
'home? I thought this was a temple?"
"it is, but it was also once my home"
His name was Laxman and he was an orphan. abandoned by his parents he lived in an orphanage until age 5, when he ran away. he ran in the direction of music, and wound up at Pashupatinath Temple, and changed his name to Ajit after hearing someone shout the name to someone else. He lived on the streets and this temple, begging for money from tourists, and collecting coins he found in the Nepali version of wishing wells.
I did not believe him. he was good looking, a good dresser, and spoke perfect english. I made note of my bag, and my surroundings. this was part of an elaborate hoax and i was the gulible tourist.
"but why do you speak such good English?" i pressed
"when your life depends on being able to communicate with tourists for money, you learn their language quickly. amd besides, i speak much better German than English"
he went on to explain that he now lives in Germany with his wife and runs a successful company giving tours throughout Nepal, India, Tibet and Bhutan. he was here purely on holiday, to visit his old home.
"but why would you want to spend your time with a tourist then?"
"because I could tell you were deeply interested in what was taking place here. and that you cared. and when someone cares about something you care about, you want to share your knowledge with them, because it is appreciated. there is nothing i love more than to share my Nepal with people who appreciate it"
i was speaking to a man who was once an orphan, homeless, starving with no mother or father to care for him at the same age my youngest son is. I imagined my little Pierson without any of us, alone in the world, begging for food or coins and sleeping on the street in the rain.
"were people cruel to you?"
his answer was a mix of both yes and no, but i began to sort of shut down. i was trying to work my brain around this man's story, his unbelievable story of poverty to success, and i couldn't do it. i was trying to work out the details of how this could be possible, while also keeping my guard up and feeling like i was being taken for a ride and i would be mugged at any moment, and also trying to take in the whole experience of witnessing a man being cremated next to me.
what was to become my biggest regret- i stopped asking questions. because i decided that i didn't believe him, that he was making this up. because it couldnt be true. and i didn't want to imagine my 5 year old son on the streets as an orphan. my brain couldn't handle all of the not-first-world-ness of it all.
The ceremony of lights began and the music became louder. it was truly incredible. bodies were still being cremated, but life goes on for the living, and the ceremony of lights (that takes place every evening at dusk) still goes on. people were laughing and singing and clapping, Saddhus were dancing, and Ajit was trying to get me to yell out "JAI HO" at just the right time.
for the first time in my life, i was too shy.
"come on, ready? here it comes! JAI HO!!"
i finally got it.
it was weird, living life so fully right next to the dead and dying. the bagmati river flowing on and on next to us, not caring whether we were celebrating or mourning.
another family was bringing their deceased family member past us to wash their feet in the river before placing them on the altar to be cremated. I needed to get back to my room, as my flight was leaving in just a few hours to travel back to the states.
Ajit walked me to the taxi cab area. he found me a cab, and negotiated a local fare for me.
As i drove away i checked all my pockets. everything was as it should be. there were no moves made on me, nothing dubious.
i researched him online. it was true. everything checked out.
this man, who was once a street child and begged for anything he received just gave his entire evening to me, and i was wholly undeserving of it.
but it was the best experience ive ever had traveling, anywhere in the entire world, and once again i learned the the world is a kinder place than i expect it to be. that people are generally good if you give them the benefit of a doubt, and if you put your trust in others just a little bit, the rewards can be exponential.
in this time in history when politicians are talking about building walls and spreading hate, all i need to do is think back to Pashupatinath and know that for me, i will go on trusting and experiencing.