I should have known better. I went to the same restaurant. Again I had the same plans for the following day: to visit the Buddhist Boudhanath Stupa and the Hindu Pashupatinath temple. Clearly I was tempting fate.
Well, I have certainly learned a very valuable lesson, and that is DO NOT eat a second time in a restaurant from which the first time you received food poisoning. I thought perhaps to give the New Orleans Cafe another go. It might have been a coincidence to become sick after one meal, but twice? I woke up about 1:30 in the morning and dragged myself to the bathroom. Despite my illness I did notice that my two handsome neighbors were playing, of all things, the Greatest Hits of Whitney Houston! So while ridding myself of my dinner I could enjoy the Greatest Love of All and the theme song to the Bodyguard. What a strange place is Nepal!
The day after my visit to the “Poison Café,” I could barely get myself up. But I managed to eat a few pieces of fruit and have some tea before heading out to Boudhanath and Pashupatinath, the most famous of Nepal’s Hindu and Buddhist temples. Boudhanath is apparently the second largest Buddhist stupa in the world. It is also home to a large Tibetan community in Nepal. All around were monks of all ages in their red robes and women with their traditional garb with colorful aprons, some carrying their wooden beads. I walked up onto the stupa and looked around at this amazing little Buddhist village. It was very charming. I even saw people walking their dogs, when I thought in general dogs were not pets, but just street animals. A sign on the stupa tells visitors in English to not do immoral things while there, such as smoking, gambling, spitting and the like, while all around me I saw people doing these exact things. Several young novice months, maybe 6 to 12 years of age, stood around a gambling area, placing their bets. And I saw many people smoking, some quite young. And spitting, of course! The sound of the throat clearing and the spit is as common as car horns! I walked around the stupa about three times, soaking in the atmosphere and decided to then try my luck walking to the Hindu temple, which I had been told was about 30 minutes on foot.
I headed off in the direction of Pashupatinath along a gravel and dirt path between two store facades. Immediately I was transported into the real life of Nepali people, away from the tourists. The first scene I came upon was a group of boys throwing stones at another boy. Without thinking I intervened, telling the offending stone throwers “No!” They hesitated and slyly threw a few more stones for good measure. I then came upon also three people washing in a stone bath outside, though they were all wearing saris, and a woman bathing in an area outside her house. There were lots of children playing. Along one side of the road a bus stood broken down, though for how long it had been there, who knows, and three men stood talking conspiratorially behind it. On the other side, three young women stood gossiping with each other. Perhaps they, the men and the women, actually wanted to talk with each other. It reminded me a bit of a scene I had seen on the first day as I walked to Kathmandu Durbar Square. One one side of the street a young man sat on the stoop of a store smiling shyly. On the other side of the street, a lovely young woman in an all red sari stood, brazenly flirting with the man. It was enchanting to watch.
Further along the path I saw a boy hitting some cows hard with a stick. I thought here was a boy who had not learned that cows are sacred in Nepal! I took a picture. This did not make the boy shy; he only hit the cows harder. As I walked, I would come to a fork in the road and would just ask someone “Pashupatinath?” and I would be pointed in the right direction. A few children yelled hello to me, but for the most part I seemed to pass by unnoticed. This was such a relief after the constant “Hello friend,” “Tiger Balm, cheap for you madam,” “Where are you going? Rickshaw?” and “Come inside, just looking, very cheap” calls in Thamel. Also the interesting proposal I received of “Tour? Sightseeing? Marriage? Madam” from a rickshaw driver. Tempting, but no.
I began to grow tired and feel sick. My legs began to feel like lead, my stomach to hurt, and my head to pound. Just at that time by my side appeared a Nepali man who spoke English and told me the temple was not farther. Thank goodness! Although a 30 minute walk would usually be a piece of cake for me, this one was beginning to feel it would never end. The man asked me questions along the way, and showed me the path to the temple and the way inside. I knew I was earning myself a “guide” but I did not have the energy to tell him to go away.
Those who are not Hindu cannot enter the temple grounds proper but only the area alongside the river and up to the cemetery. I paid the entrance fee and he led me inside, immediately to the right of the ticket booth we went to the riverside where the cremations are performed. I looked over the side of a wall and there lay a body almost burned and another wrapped in white cloth being prepared for cremation. My guide points out to me a hand on the pyre. “Can you see it?” he asks. “No,” I say, “and I am not sure I want to…ah there it is.” My stomach churned. “Can you see the foot?” my eager guide asks. “I need to sit down,” I say. That the smoke in my face is coming off the burning pyre and the ashes as well are from this just burned body, is too much for me. I sit down and my head spins and my stomach leaps about. I tell my guide I think I need to go. “No, no, I have more to show you.” I tell my guide that I am going to call it a day. I pay him some money and catch a motor-rickshaw back to town. I feel every bump in the road and I slide further and further into the depths of the rickshaw clutching my stomach and moaning. Then the rickshaw breaks down. A policeman watches the driver tinkering with the engine but does not offer to help, while I slump in the back holding my head and wondering at it all. After perhaps 10 minutes the driver gets us going again and we bump our way back to Thamel and my hotel. I dragged myself up to my room for a long nap.
The following day I woke up quite late, about half past eleven. I was still tired. I think the air of the Kathmandu valley quite tires me out. I have to use my asthma inhaler quite frequently and I feel lightheaded at times. I was not too worried about getting up late, I am here after all to relax, and I had been sick the day before. I was just worried about being sick still. I decided I would return to Pashupatinath. It took me a couple hours to get going and I did not arrive at the temple until about 4 pm. Again a guide joined me almost immediately and though I tried to shake him, he hung on tight. But he was very informative and I was glad I had him to tell me about the temple. I saw a cremation on the commoner side of the river. Though actually on the same side of the river as those for the rich, in government positions, or in the royal family, the cremations for the commoners are separated from the others by a bridge. For each caste there is a separate platform. On the commoner side there are four platforms for the four castes. On the other side were three platforms, one for rich and high government positions, one for, I believe, the sons and daughters of royalty, perhaps for the queen as well, and one for the king.
My guide told me what a sad time it was last year when so many members of the royal family, who had been murdered in the palace, were cremated. That royal homicide occurred just weeks after I last left Nepal, and things have become even more difficult for the struggling country. I was not the only spectator; there were many more, most Nepali. How strange I thought to watch a funeral. But I thought this in Bali too. I sat and watched a Newari cremation ceremony until the sky grew very dark and the first fire was lit under the pyre. Beforehand each member of the family and friends had gone down to the holy river (which flows to the Ganges in India) to dip their hands in and to carry a handful of water to the lips of the deceased. At last the eldest son dressed all in white and being supported by another man, walked three times around the pyre and then placed the first flame beneath the head of the deceased. He then fled to the back of the crowd wailing; his loud cries could be heard across the river. It was very sad and very strange for me to be sitting across the river from this rite of passage. When I said this to my guide, he told me not to worry for this is human life, part of the cycle of life.
That evening I enjoyed a nice dinner in a cafe overlooking one of the main thoroughfares of Thamel. Enjoying Mexican food, writing in my journal and reading for my exams (yes I did in fact study) it was hard to reconcile the life on the street below, the shops, loud music, strands of blinking lights and people preparing for or returning from a trek or others selling their wares, with the end of life I had just witnessed, but there it was – the cycle of life.
The next day I had plans to go to Bhaktapur, the UNESCO World Heritage city about 18 kilometers from Kathmandu. Last year my friends and I had decided to skip it because we were too angered by the entrance fee. The fee is 750 rupees (or $10) for foreigners and 50 rupees (.75) for citizens of SAARC countries or China. This time however I was prepared to pay. This time I would not take a taxi. I was determined not to take the easy traveler’s way. I had hoped to take the bus there, and the trolley car back, but was disappointed to learn the decrepit trolley had finally seen its last days. I walked down to the City Bus Park in Kathmandu and asked the first police officer I saw to help me find the bus to Bhaktapur. He kindly helped me find one. I was delighted because it looked to be about a century old!! Well actually it looked as though it was rather newly made, welded together from other century old buses, pieces of wood and carpet, which with grinding gears and horrible exhaust belched its way down the highway.
The 18 kilometer trip to Bhaktapur took about 45 minutes. I arrived though in good spirits right outside one of the city gates. Who needs to take a 300 rupee taxi ride when they can take an 8 rupee bus ride? My first glimpse of Bhaktapur, just inside the entrance, was disappointing. It looked shabby and the houses in disrepair. But on my left a courtyard opened up, with an old woman sitting on a wooden parapet and weaving on an old loom. Beside her a young girl stood, just in the doorway to this courtyard. Inside women were threshing rice and the yellow grain littered the ground beside Hindu temples. Ah, this is Bhaktapur! From the courtyard I hurried up the street to see more of the city’s treasures and came upon a square I mistakenly took to be Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square. It was wide and open with some big temples and a totem like pole in off center. A lovely tea shop set up right into an old building with beautiful windows, porticos and balconies to my right. I thought I would come back there for lunch, but I did not. As it was still too early to eat, I headed off down a side street. I saw two boys rolling thin rubber tires with sticks; they spun their tires quickly up another side street and away.
Off I went down another street and I came upon the true Durbar Square. It was truly beautiful. There were some temples there which seemed like those I had seen in Lopburi, Thailand or Angkor in Cambodia. Along the steps were parades of animals. Once again I acquired a guide, though this one, a student, said he wanted no payment, only a chance to practice his English. He told me his name was Dave. Dave gave me a wonderful tour around Bhaktapur, telling me many wonderful things about the city I would never have known on my own. And he told me about himself. Seventeen, he just taken his high school exit exams and is waiting to go to university. We had cokes in a cafe overlooking the Durbar Square. We had a nice conversation and I watched the school kids just let out of school scatter across the square. I also bought a Thangka painting, painted by my young guide. It was not expensive and it will help him to go to school. Dave brought me out another of the gates to another bus park and I hopped aboard a smaller bus back to Kathmandu. This time I had to stand the whole trip. It was fine.
Tomorrow is my last day in Nepal. Then I fly back to Bangkok for an evening and back to Singapore the following day. Back to the exams.
The trip must have worked. I scored very well on my exams. Quite well in fact. When I graduated I received a gold medal for achieving the highest score in my program that year.