We arrived in Kathmandu at night, not the ideal situation to arrive in a large city in darkness, but our plane out of China had ben delayed so you take what the travel gods give you. Once we found a cab, a tiny little “jellybean” car as I have always called them, our driver headed into the city. For the second time in our trip, a delayed flight ended up showing us something spectacular. All the buildings were covered in Christmas lights and the streets were lined with vendors selling flowers, sweets, and tikka powder. Our taxi driver informed us that we had arrived on the first day of a five day Hindu festival called Tihar, that celebrates brothers and sisters and the flowers, sweets, and tikka powders were to be purchased as gifts and given on the final day of the festival. All I could think of was Nathan and how fitting it was to arrive during this festival, I mean really, what were the chances?!
We arrived at our hostel in the tourist district of Kathmandu, Thamel, and went out for dinner. I had gotten quite sick on our last day in China and was still feeling a bit crummy but we found a fantastic little Nepali restaurant. Ronen ordered a fabulous mutton curry and I ate some soup. Even 9 months later I still remember how incredible it was to eat something so flavorful after struggling through most of China. After dinner we poured ourselves into bed and when we woke up in the morning, Nepal had yet another surprise waiting for us.
The festival for brothers and sisters also celebrates different sacred animals each day and what did we find decorated with marigold leis and red/yellow tikka powder? DOGS! The dogs are celebrated throughout Nepal because they protect the home so even the stray dogs are well fed and full of love. Throughout all our travels we encountered hundreds of stray dogs, many of them suffering tremendously, but in Nepal, these strays were for the most part, quite well fed and happy.
We spent the rest of the day exploring Thamel and devoured some delicious and flavorful food throughout the day. Be warned that in Thamel, you cannot take five steps without being offered one of the following: Tiger Balm, some sort of six stringed instrument that they all play the exact same song on, a Bansuri (the Nepali flute), tuk tuk rides, and/or Hashish.
The next day was jam-packed visiting all the sights within Kathmandu. It was also the day that cows were celebrated so the cows that wander the city were adorned in the same fashion as the dogs the day before.
Our first stop was the Monkey Temple, the oldest Stupa in the world. The street at the base of the temple stairs was packed with vendors selling marigold leis and garlands of a purple flower called the Globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa), as well as fruit and sweets for offerings to the gods. As you begin to climb the 365 steps (one for each day of the year), you encounter hundreds of monkeys eating the offerings and sadly, many poor children begging. Before our trip, we knew that we would encounter these children and that money was not the answer so instead we gave them granola bars.
Inside the temple were two monasteries and we were allowed inside one to observe the monks during prayer.
We then lit three candles for Nathan, it seemed only fitting to celebrate him that way.
After the Monkey Temple, we visited the Pashupatinath Temple. This temple is the site of the cremations in the city and the river that runs through it is sacred. It is guarded by the Saddhu’s AKA Temple Guardians who are adorned in tikka powder and beads and their bodies painted white with ashes.
The process of public cremation begins, within 2-3 hours after someone dies; their body is brought to the river. Along the river there are 10-12 rectangular platforms that a wood fire will be built on. The body will be wrapped and placed on a slanted stone along the river that is decorated with pink tikka powder and the feet will be dipped in the sacred water, which is thought to purify and bless the person. The body will then be brought to one of the platforms and placed on top of the wood. A family member, typically the son, will then walk around three times sprinkling pink tikka powder on them, and then another three times with a pieces of wood that will be used to start the fire (the kindling). They will then start the fire and put grass on top that has been soaked in the river water and then wait and observe for 3-4 hours while it burns. When finished, the ashes go into the river. Then every year on the anniversary of the person’s death, you go to circle a platform on the opposite side of the river and perform a ritual assisted by Brahmans to remember the person that passed on.
At first I was taken a back by how public this process was and that anyone could observe. I felt like death and grieving was a private affair meant only for family and close friends, but after I spent time, really searching my soul for meaning, I realized something incredibly important; loss and grieving is a raw and very human emotion and that not allowing the person to be forgotten but instead celebrated makes them a part of your life, not just a piece of your history. I realized that was how it should be. Everyone experiences loss at some point in their life and this public process makes it so your pain and suffering is not to be internalized but for the burden to be shared, so that you can be lifted up and carry the person you loved and lost with you in your heart for eternity.
After this heavy yet enlightening experience, we continued on to a few of the remaining sites in Kathmandu. Our next stop was the Boudhanath, which is the largest Stupa in Asia and was built to look like a mandala when viewed from above. It took 13 years to complete and has 13 levels signifying the 13 steps of enlightenment and Buddha’s eyes to symbolize that Buddha sees all.
We ate lunch on the rooftop overlooking the Stupa and headed to Durbar Square. We visited the Kumari house, which is where the living goddess Kumari lives (learn more about Kumari here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/25/kumari-nepal-living-goddess_n_5107543.html). We then wandered through the markets and visited a few more temples before walking back to Thamel.
That evening each shop and restaurant had symbols made from powder with fruit, flowers, and incense for the goddess of wealth, Laxmi, to bless their business and make them money in the following year. Kids and families were going door to door signing and playing music for the store owners who would give them money. We ate a falafel stand called Chick n’ Falafel which we loved (we ate here at least 10 times while in Nepal only to realize the last time we were ordering that we never once saw them wash their hands or use gloves. We both ended up with a horrible case of Norovirus when we got to the Maldives).
It was a busy day in Kathmandu, but it was exactly how we like to travel, adventure right after adventure until all you can do is collapse into bed with tired feet and a smile.