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Namo Buddha

Ahmad knocks on my door at 6:30 AM eager to go to the monastery. I told him 8, but am delighted to have a trekking partner. After breakfast we take a taxi to the Old Bus Station. I scamper about hundreds of buses from driver's window to driver's window asking "Dhulikel?" until I find the magic bus. Minutes later we are off, on a bus for 35 people packed with 60, for a two hour journey. The city roads turn to mountain curves. The money collector notifies me when we Dhulikel and we exit into the unknown, rural town.

I cross the street and ask in my limited Nepali, "Namaste, Namo Buddha ka ha cha?" (Hello, where is Namo Buddha?) The man points up the road. Intersection. I ask again. I ask at every juncture on the way; when the road leads to single track trail, when single track trail splits (I always choose up), when we enter small villages...if anyone is present that is. It is obvious that few foreign people pass through this area based upon their reactions. The educated children who speak some english approach or follow with curiosity. A pack of five boys meanders down the hill. One fellow walks up stopping abruptly at my left elbow and looking up offers, "plum?" The ringleader of the group takes his flute out of his mouth and pushes it forth just an inch from my mouth, "Play?" I kindly refuse and spend some time with the chidlren. They teach me a hoop and stick game where you keep the hoop rolling with a stick while you run and balance it all on gravel.

We continue and it is not far before constant mountian views are visible....well, kind of. Nepal is fixed with a thick smog haze. At 10 AM the view is poor; by 12 PM the view is very poor. I did not expect so much air pollution when I envisioned this place. The rampant deforestation is noticeable from valley to peak. Terraced land cuts into the hillsides forming large steps from bottom to top. Even in the remote trekking spots one must awaken prior to sunrise for a snow peak view.

We continue to walk. An outgoing man wearing the traditional nepali hat and vest stands in front of his home waiting to greet us. His name is Vishnu. He grew up in Dulikhel. Ahmad inquires if the mountains were clearer and more green as a child. Vishnu confirms it is true. He invites us to meet his family. Three girls, absolute beauties, are working in the garden harvesting garlic. They invite us in for tea. We kindly refuse only an hour into the trek, but Vishnu continues to walk with us up the hill. Another eager young teenage boy approaches to converse. Vishnu says, "I am sick."
"But, you look well, sir," he replies.
"Children talk too much," he says giving me a wink out of the corner of his eye.
The boy frowns and walks on. Vishnu, the joker, is satisfied and drops us at the top of the hill where he joins his neighbors. He reminds me of my Grandpa Ferdie!

The road turns to trail here. I am relieved to be back in nature where my focus may turn to an unstable rock under my foot instead of a motorcycle about to careen into me. Tell green trees have replaced the decaying brick buildings and gentle crickets take the place of agressive car horns. Yes, I am happy.

As we move further beyond Dhulikhel the response from locals becomes mixed. Fewer villagers are willing to return a 'namaste' or smile. Some girls laugh and point at me. The children say 'chocolate' and hold out a hand and if that fails, 'rupee.' "Cigarrette," an older woman with decaying teeth says. When that fails she says, "money," holding out a withered palm. Ahmad, who is still three days new to Nepal hears the interchange, but still takes a picture unaware of what is coming. "100 rupees," she demands. We continue to walk. You begin to get a sense of who wants to take advantage of you after a while. For example, a Nepali man follows us to the top of the hill attempting to converse with us, but he is impossible to understand. I motion to Ahmad to drop back. "He wants to be our guide," I say having never confronted this situation. Sure enough he meets us at the next bend in the road. "No money," I say; words he definately understands if nothing else. I make us stop at an overlook so he will move on. I think we are successful, but in the next town I hear, "Dhulikel!" shouted inside a building and he pops out of a doorway. I am walking Ms. Money Bags.

We continue to walk and I see a gold roof with ornate projections in the distance...Namo Buddha! Within thirty minutes and after a four hour ascent we arrive at the monastery gate. There are many locals on this holy day taking pictures amid the shrine temples. 1000 Buddhas adorn the premises; the largest is at least 20 feet tall and plated in gold.

I am tired and inquire about guest house accomodations. The young monk I am speaking with is not wearing his crimson shawl and I contain my laughter when I see that the black tee shirt he is wearing has an unassuming outline of a marijuana leaf and the print at the bottom says, 'marijuna!' I love the contradictions of religion in Asia. Many monks eat meat on their 'off days' and watch wrestling! Afterall, monks are human too!

We are shown to a room with two simple beds in a concrete block. After we rest we meander around the grounds before dinner at six. On the way, I begin a conversation with a monk named Gumbo who informs me that it is a special day. "Today is the day of our Lord Buddhas birth and it is also the full moon." Now, when is the last time Buddha's birthday and the full moon fell on the same day, I wonder, and what are the chances that I would just happen to choose to come here on this day? My chest is warm with that good appreciation of traveler's serendipity!

For 300 rupees per night, the equivalent of $3.75 the monastery provides a sleeping place, three meals a day and inclusion in their activities. Suprisingly, no other guests are present that evening! At dinner, we remove our shoes and sit in the 'guest' section of the dining hall on low benches with small tables. The monks ranging from 9 to mid-50's trickle in until all 250 monks are present. Five young monks serve dinner; green tea, rice, curried cauliflower and potatoes and lentil soup. A blessing chant is made prior to and following the meal. We are given silverware, but most monks eat with their fingers. Dinner is delicious and reminds me of the food in Ladakh; veggies and staples sure to stop you up!

We exit the dining hall after dinner. The sun is setting and the air is a perfect temperature with a slight breeze. Eight monks sit on the wall up ahead to the right. "How was dinner?" Gumbo asks. I am pleased to see him again. The other monks listen intently as we speak. I ask about the typical day of a monk and Gumbo provides the following schedule:

5 AM: Wake up
6 AM: Prayer
7 AM: Breakfast
8-12: school
12 PM: Lunch
1-4:30: School
4:30-6: Memorization of scripture
6 PM: Dinner
7 PM: Review of daily lessons
8-10: Debate
10 PM: Homework
11 or 12: Bed

"You need more sleep!" I say.
"Actually, the Buddha says that sleep is the best nourishment," Gumbo replies.
"Then you need at least 8!" I retort. The other monks break into laughter. Another monk jokes that Sturday is their day of rest, "But nothing changes!" he says laughing. Gumbo explains that they get two one and a half 'days off' to do what ever they want which usually consists of playing cricket and watching T.V.

I show the monks a picture I took of young monks playing cricket at a monastery in Ladakh. "Show this picture to him. He is from Ladakh!" one monk says pointing to another not involved in the conversation. I show the monk the picture and he looks amused when I hear another monk behind me shout in jest, "Speak Ladakhi to him!" "Jullay!" I chime. The other monks burst into laughter. It is a precious moment.

At 7 PM the young monks are having a butter candle ceremony. Ahmad and I follow the saffron and crimson robes to a rooftop where they stand in a semicircle. Their faces are illuminated by the candle light. They stand, hands pressed at the heart center, and begin to chant. The sound is low and melodic, but purposeful. Gusts of air form deep within the chest and resonate in the throat before escaping the lips in an offering to the night atmosphere. I am listening mesmorized and study the faces of the monks; the bone structure of their cheeks, the shape of their eyes and lips, how thier shoulders sit. An orange ball glowing in the sky to my left catches my attention. I flash into the moment caught with appreciation. It is beautiful! Unrepeatable! The moon, a deep orange, peers out from beind dark whispy clouds making a grand entrance. It continues to rise in the sky as if lifted by the monks' chanting and becomes more golden with each assent into the sky. After one hour the monks end in one desipherable 'Om' and disband. As they leave it is as if a present is being opened to reveal the most beautiful formation of candles in the shape of a swastika; the Buddhist symbol for goodwill. One monk remains who will sit with the butter candles until they have given all of thier light.

We follow the trailing monks to the Pouja ceremony in a private hall that is not open to the public and only used on special occasions. Pouja is performed twice a month here during the full and half moons. I walk up the steps to the hall and am enamoured by the architecture when I enter. Inticately decorated archways and pillars painted in Thanka, the clean, colorful Tibetan artform, showcase the golden Buddha at the far end of the room. Silk tapestries cascade from the tall ceilings to the black marble floor. Two ten foot tall gongs face the entranceway. The monks enter and bring pressed palms to forehead, mouth and heart before kneeling and bowing to the Buddha. They athletically repeat the sequence quickly five times before assuming their position cross legged on the floor. Similar chanting continues for another hour. Mens voices resonate in the hallduring prayerful meditation. I sit in marvel at this experience.

I sleep soundly that night and awaken before 10 AM breakfast. We are served a simple meal of heavy bread and beans. I take a strip of bread and fold it around the beans mashing them into the plate so they will not fall as I ring the food to my mouth. That morning I sit and write at a picnic table overlooking the mountains. I feel comfortable in the space as the monks converse around me. Before I leave I ask one monk directions "to the town starting with a P" which gets all of thier attention. "Ah, Panouti!" one monk clarifies after some explanation. The monks are happy to engage in conversation. They discourage the walk to Panouti saying, "It is easy for us, but you may get burned or lost. Take a bus."
"I am hiking with someone," I reassure them.
"There are many paths. You may get lost. Take a bus."
"I will ask villagers along the way," I say. The monks just don't understand why one would walk if they have the money to take a bus!

One monk sits and talks with me in broken English for an hour. Before I leave he asks me to keep in touch. He writes a hotmail address. "Are you on Hi-5?" he asks (that is the asian equivalent of Facebook.) Telling him no warranted the further writing of a gmail and yahoo addresses as well as a personal cell phone number! "Write me," he says.

When I am leaving a voice shouts from above, "Take the bus!" The same monk is leaning over the balcony above. "I'll call you if I get lost!" chuckling as I head off. Ahmed accompanies me on the trek to Panouti, but I am more like a tour guide making sure we reach our destination, stay supplied and pay the right price. I realize how much I have learned in one month!

The trip to Panouti descends most of the way. The initial trail is lined with prayer flags which leads to a stuppa at the center of town. A map to Panouti is painted on a wall. We hike down a dirt road for miles and pass only one car and a motorcycle. This side of the mountain is much more lush with greenery and sparsely populated. The villages remind me of what I think the old wild west would look like. Two story wood buildings with balconies overlooking the dirt road face the street. The bottom doors and window shutters are closed. Old women peak their heads out the top window watching us pass by. Chikens dart across the road. Outside the villages, women dressed in bright clothes with head scarves, are harvesing in the fields. I greet everyone with a polite 'namaste.'

A family of ten is toiling away. The women begin to laugh. A man sitting next to a two year old boy gestures to me as if to say, 'you want him?' "Okay" I say with a smile and extend my arms. The women laugh even harder. Furthering the joke the man stoops down and picks up his son like a baby before he begins to cry. The joke is over, but we all (excpet for the poor subject) are amused. This friendly exchange between complete strangers makes me feel welcome.

We continue. A woman freshly bathed, wearing a red sari, brushes her belly button long hair on the second floor of a balcony. The wind sweeps it out as if trying to borrow her long locks. School children wearing blue uniforms play all and run while sucking on popsicles.

Three hours later we see the town of Panouti in the distance. A river runs into the town lined with stuppas. People stand on the side of the road as spectators of a ceremony being performed for an elder man. As we enter the town I walk until I find the bus station. A boy approaches me, "Where are you going?" he asks.
"Kathamndu," I respond.
"This to Kathmandu" he says and tries to shove me on a bus. Another boy approaches and begins to pull at him.
"No, this to Kathmandu!" he says with an urgency. The first boy uses his forearm to puch me on an empty bus. Quick instinct tells me to push past him. I walk to the next bus, "Kathmandu?" I ask a passenger sitting at a window. He shakes his head. It is chaotic. I feel as though the second boy is a body guard ushering me to safety but I can not be sure. I step into the tin heap asking, "Kathmandu?" to the driver who nods his head looking bored. I go to the back, Ahmad in tow, and take a seat next to the window where I see two boys brawling outside. A crowd is forming. A shove, then a punch. One boy takes off his shoe and hits the other in the head. A crowd is forming as two people make a weak attempt to stop the fight. The other boy retaliates by grabbing the boys hair and shoving his head towards the ground. It takes me a moment to realise it is the two boys who disagreed over which bus I should get on!

When the fight stops the fit teenager boards our bus and collects the money looking completely unscathed and unbothered. No drama here. His eyes are soft again as he collects the mere 50 rupees to Kathmandu.

Ahmad reacts with slight alarm at the Mario Andretti maneuvers of the Nepali drivers which I am beginning to grow accustomed to. But, then the inevitable happens! In Bhaktapur the bus attempts to lurch to a hault; all passengers unable to resist the inertia hit the seats in front of us - wham! Unbrake - we lurche back- then brake again. We brace ourselves this time until the bus finally stops...after hitting another car that is! Everyone is okay. Traffic navigates around us. The passengers wait patiently until a policemen on foot arrives. All involved vehicles, in working order, drive up the road to the police station where damages are assessed and tickets issued.

Back in Kathmandu we take a taxi to Thamel. I spontaneously ask the driver to let us out in an area of town I am unfamiliar with when I spot a restaurant called, "Fire and Ice." Ahmad and I dine on pizza and beer while I go the extra mile completing the hot/cold experience with a plate of brownie and ice cream.

It is 4:30 outside when we leave, but it appears to be 8 PM as a storm rolls in. By the time I arrive back at my guest house gusts of wind make the prayer flags dance wildly as lightling reflects in the windows of the taller buldings. The power is out. I have that surreal dark and exposed alive feeling only a storm can create as I turn the key to my room #5. I made it I think. What an adventure!

Posted by Suni 21:15 Archived in Nepal

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