* Disclaimer: this blog will be heavily edited and updated after I get home as I am too tired to write carefully at the moment. What follows are some raw impressions though.
Not sure where to begin when it comes to Nepal. I guess I will begin with the flight into Katmandu. As the plane was landing I have never imagined, even as a Lord of the Rings reading boy, mountains like this. And I have seen the Rockies and the Alps. They formed an eye-popping, ragged, snow-covered breach of the Earth’s atmosphere. So far, they are mostly unmolested by climate change and appear as grim Gods of old staring down on humanity, impassively knowing better.
Katmandu International Airport is about the size of a local airport in northern Quebec and I wondered if we had landed in the right place. It would appear that working for the UN sometimes has its advantages as, when I flashed my UN Laissez-Passer, and lied that I was a diplomat (Ha! Ha!), I was treated like royalty, escorted to the front of the line and issued a Nepal visa gratis.
The next day I roamed around the jumbled streets getting hopelessly lost – just the way I like it. After seeing Swayambhunath (one of the holiest Buddhist sites in all of Nepal and overrun with feral monkeys) and Bhaktapur, I stumbled upon Durbar Square. This was extremely emotional for me as young goats were being ritualistically slaughtered as the kick off to a 2-week long religious festival called Dashain. I am not an animal rights activist by any means (I eat meat, wear leather, etc.,) but what I saw, in the name of religion, can only be described as cruelty.
There was a gang of men in blood-spattered white T-shirts herding one goat after another into the square to be decapitated. The goats were in a lineup and were terrified as they could see exactly what was going to happen to them. They were led by a rudimentary leash made of some kind of rope to the executioners in the square. There, women splattered unwelcome holy water on their faces and decorated their backs with the petals of yellow and red flowers. To be fair, the cruelty was lessened as one of the men injected the animals behind the ear with some kind of anaesthetic that made them more dopy but still frightened of the blood-soaked bale of straw where they were forcefully held down by all fours. The man with the sword bellowed something into the sky before slicing off their heads.
Once the head was cut off in a geyser of blood, ears still flapping and tongue still licking its lips, it was placed in a large palm leaf and placed in rows of other heads. I asked a local what they do with the heads. She looked at me as if I was a complete idiot and said “we eat them”. I was truly shaken by this and the streets of Katmandu flowed rivers of thick red blood (that stuck gorily to the soles of my sandals) as countless animals were being ‘festively’ slaughtered. The back alleys were bustling with men blow-torching (yes, blow-torching) the headless bodies of goats as the children played in the muck. Blood was even smeared across the tires of buses to bless the bus! This actually does not surprise me as taking a bus here is truly a life-risking adventure.
One last thing about witnessing the slaughter of the goats: when the sword came down, a ceremonial rifle was fired into the air and the sky went black with startled pigeons all over the ornately painted roofs of the exotic temples. Seriously, the number of pigeons here makes Trafalgar Square look like a child’s petting zoo. Considering how hungry the people are, I am surprised the pigeons are not poached for food like Hemmingway did when he was a starving writer in Paris in the 1920s. I have no explanation for why they are not. Pigeons are not sacred cows (which cause the insane traffic to part like the Red Sea in order not to run over a good steak).
In any case, as I have been thinking about the treatment of these animals, I am aware that the way animals are dealt with and killed back home is probably far less humane than it is over here. But when you see it for real it is stomach-turning.
As I made my way back to my hotel (slowly, as I was lost), I saw many men carrying around ducks by their feet and shouting at the top of their lungs. Already shaken by the goats, I only realized when I was almost home that the ducks were still very much alive. I saw a man bartering with a woman and once they had finally agreed upon the price, he handed over the bird which starting furiously flapping its wings at the indignity of being carried around like that in the first place and now having had its life sold as someone’s supper.
After 2 unforgettable days in Katmandu (the pics I will post to Facebook when I am home are better than any words I can write), I headed to Nagarkot, a small village about half an hour away from the city. This place contains Pashupatinath Temple, the holiest Hindu temple in Nepal. After poking around I crashed out almost right away after having supper as I was suffering from travel-weariness that I felt deep into the marrow of my bones. It is a good thing too as I got up at dawn to watch the sun rise over the Himalayas (Everest could be seen in the distance!)
This was breath-taking and I am reminded I should mention a word about the distinction between hills and mountains over here. In Nagarkot, I erroneously reported in a Facebook post that I went “trekking through the Himalayas” for the day. In fact, I was trekking through the “foothills” of the Himalayas. However, you have to understand that the “foothills” here are about 10 times the size of Mont Tremblant in Quebec. The mountains in Nepal are the snow-covered monsters that, in order to climb, you need to train for well in advance and commit to at least a few days guided by professional Sherpas. All I can say is that trekking through these so-called “foothills” sure felt like the real deal. My hike was wonderful – just me and my guide (no tourists) wandering around and occasionally happening upon people courageous enough to make their homes up in the middle of nowhere creating rice and potato farms on dizzying cliffs that may have inspired Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’.
On our way to Dhulikhel, my guide and I were, out-of-the blue, invited into the home of a stranger to participate in the Tika ritual. The house was impossibly cramped, and you needed a ladder to climb into it, but I was warmly welcomed by the stranger and his family. I sat in the middle of the “living room” (about the size of a small bathroom back home) on a withered pillow and had my forehead painted by the household patriarch through a cloud of incense. A blood-red ribbon was then tied around my neck and slender bamboo shoots were stuffed behind my ears. I was then served a boiled egg, that I had to choke down and looked like it had been delivered by a pterodactyl. After, there was goat (gaaaa!!!) and “home-made wine” that was literally 90% alcohol. Pleasantly wasted on a religion I know nothing about, I gave the family 200 rupees (about CAD $2) for their incredible generosity – they were too poor to describe and blessed me profusely as I left.
My guide really liked me as a “non-tourist tourist” as he described me. I think he was deeply impressed by me going into the home of the stranger and participating in his family’s festivities. You probably think that the visit to the stranger’s house was a tourist-trap that was a set-up but it was not. We were totally off the beaten track and, initially, my guide earnestly warned me not to go inside. This was definitely not part of the plan unless my guide was a method actor. I think because he realized how open I was to the locals, he took me to a campfire in the forest where his relatives were celebrating. We ate goat (gaaaa!!!) and water buffalo – not a vegetable in sight (except me, of course) – and I listened to them jabbering in their dialect I wished I understood. My guide occasionally translated but I was happy to just eat with them, feel the familial love that they shared with one another, and watch the half-moon through the canopy of trees over the mountains.
After spending the night in Dhulikhel, I made my way to Pokhara. This is a tourist haven but if you ever go to Nepal, you must go! The views of the staggering mountains are truly sublime beyond William Blake’s imagination. I got up at 3 am and climbed an excruciating 3 hours (my knees have always hated me and they love me even less now) to a remote lookout to watch the sun rise over the spectacular panorama of the Annapurna range that makes up the northern skyline of Pokhara. Stamping my feet to ward off the cold and battling dizziness from the altitude, the sun broke the horizon (looking like an apocalyptic super nova) and lit the snow-clad peaks in a fiery orgy of beauty. One peak was called ‘fish tail’ and another ‘elephant’ because that was precisely what they looked like. They were almost as high as Everest… As I slowly picked my way back down to the town, I was overcome with a terrible melancholy that we human beings are so ruthlessly destroying such an enchanted planet.
I then went on a canoe ride on the lake nestled in the valley by the town. This was lovely but it also made me sad because it was romantic and I was alone. Traveling alone is tough enough but it is especially tough in these parts of the world where you truly wish you could share your experiences with a companion. I do not want to sound sorry for myself as I know how incredibly lucky I am to have had the opportunity to do this.
My next stop was Bandipur, a lovely village where I wrecked my knees even more ‘trekking’. My hotel made a youth hostel in New York City look like the Ritz. I needed a ladder to climb into my ‘room’. I will not bore you with more descriptions of the views. There are two memories I cherish from here though. First, all over the countryside, incredibly tall make-shift swings have been constructed from bamboo for the kids to play on during the festival. On a whim, I asked a gang of youngsters if I could take a turn on their swing. They were delighted and hollered with laughter, even louder than me, as they pushed me higher and higher. I felt like I was 8 years-old again. Second, when I was eating a water buffalo breakfast (!) by a decrepit stall, a girl who could not have been a day over 4 years-old approached me with a miserable dirty red balloon, about the size of a softball. She wanted to play! God only knows where her parents were. I played with her with that balloon in the street for almost an hour and the sheer joy in her laughter lifted my heart to a level I have not felt in a long time. The locals looked on in stunned disbelief. They were even more stunned when, after the girl had skipped off, I gave the rest of my water buffalo to a stray dog who had befriended me earlier. That I felt guilty about afterwards as I was feeding a dog when the people around me were poor and hungry.
I then made it back to Katmandu for my last night in Nepal. I roamed the narrow teeming streets, as usual, and then went to a nightclub, appropriately named ‘Insomnia’. That was a good night of partying. Unfortunately, my camera battery died so I do not have any pics. In any event it was, ahem, a comforting evening…
Now back in India (feels like coming home!) – Delhi – and will report again in a week or so.