It wouldn’t be a night in Nepal without a power outage, eventually, hopefully, rescued by the blaring, helicopter-chop of a gas generator. Thus, here I sit at the Gaia in Kathmandu, being reminded that when it comes to creature comforts, the subtle massage of ego and self-affirmation, blessed reassurances of soma (and porcelain luxury), and the can’t-fail attitude of ‘you can make it if you try’, Jim Morrison was right: The West is the Best.
Yet, Nepal has something else going for it. Yes, it’s packed with people struggling to work. Yes, these (untaxed) people aren’t entirely sure where their political future is going. Yes, they’re a little pushy, and don’t understand or play by the rules and boundaries of the ever-milling tourists. But due to their history, their attitudes, and cultural affirmations and standards, they are happy, and sometimes, it rubs off on you.
Today is my last day in Nepal, which I spent riding motorbike around Capital City. I’m not sure what lent me to believe that I was prepared to tackle the streets of Kathmandu after only one previous day ever riding one of these things, but there I thrust myself, right into the dust bowl. As I’ve said before, the only rule here is there are no rules, and the streets are no exception. You do what you want, when you want.
What I wanted to do was head back up to Swayambunath (aka Monkey Temple) and see the ‘Natural History Museum’ that the Austrian girl from the other night told me about. She said they possessed fused skeletons of monkeys and other beasts (clearly knowing how to get my attention), and other bizarre taxidermy. The American Museum of Natural History in NYC is one of my favorite places in the world, and I could only imagine what Engrishy science Nepal might have in theirs.
After scooting around Kathmandu without a clue in the world where I was going–no one can give directions out here–I finally found the place, but alas it was not meant to be. The stuffy, rotund museum-keeper (I can’t possibly describe the guy as a ‘curator’, unless referring to how he prepares his bacon), roundly denied me entry, and then didn’t have the English ability to explain why. He just shooed me out.
On to the backup plan: Bahktapur Durbar Square, one of the other of the three Durbar squares in the Kathmandu Valley. This is the largest of the set, and home to the Living Goddess, the pre-pubescent Kumari incarnation of the goddess Taleju, worshipped by Nepali Hindus. This is yet another silly religious custom which probably does more harm than good, but hey, who am I to judge?
I fired up the scooter and headed far down the road, asking for directions at every opportunity (for as many ideas as possible: to negate the bad directions, to confirm the good ones, to take a hard average of the mediocre). Flying down the road, weaving around busses and other motorbikes at 60km/h, I felt like a real Nepali, though the threat of flying off the bike and breaking my teeth was always in my tiny mental rear-view mirrors. Never mind that!
Eventually, finally, and by courage and chance, I made it. The square charged Nr.1100 to get in (a khukuri under $15US) which I had to take out of the ATM. After doing so, a little wannabe guide wouldn’t stop pestering me to hire his service, so I just had to be a dick and walk away. While sitting down with my brochure to read up on the square, another Nepali came and sat next to me, and tried to make the obnoxious introduction small-talk they always do before attempting to sell you something, in this case, again, ‘guidance’. His friend came up to pile it on, and indeed if I wasn’t in a sacred monument, historical and holy, I would have dropped some Gurkha moves and let their blood to Shiva.
Bahktapur was the capitol of the Kathmandu Valley from the twelfth to the fourteenth century, and then an independent kingdom until 1769 when the Shah’s invaded. The town covers four square miles, which are now engulfed by vendors, markets and merchants, restaurants, and monks. At it’s peak, it had ninety-nine courtyards around the vicinity, but after a great earthquake leveled the town in 1934, only about a half a dozen remain. Fortunately, there are still plenty of photo-ops for we white gawkers (that’s why we’re here, right?).
I started over at the bizarre Sidhapokhari Lake, where catfish rally around visitors throwing crispy crackers into the water, opening wide their bizarre, labial gullets to giggling onlookers. Continuing around the pond, I noticed just how huge some of these catfish were, and just how disgusting the water appeared. The water didn’t seem to have been changed since the annexation of Nepal. It could use a good douche.
Inside the Square, the temples revealed themselves as the architectural masterworks they were. Much like Patan Durbar, Bahktapur Durbar Square is filled with gorgeous pagodas, including one in particular that was stunningly tall. The gate to the square itself is also an impressive piece; legend has it, heir to the kingdom Bhupatindra Malla was so struck by the craftsmanship and detail of the two sculptures of the gate that he sliced off both hands of the sculptor, fearing that other kingdoms would exploit the man’s talents and create other remarkable carvings outside Bhaktapur.
I stopped for a lunch of Dhal Bat, caught up on some emails (can never disconnect completely…), and headed back out to see the pottery square. On my way, I heard some incredible Tibetan devotional music in the alleyway, with sonic origins difficult to locate. When I finally discovered it was coming from a third story temple room, a man tried to get me to go up. My spidey-sense instantly went off and knew that somewhere here was a request for money, so I hesitated. He insisted that I go up, and just as my fight-or-flight was about to kick in, the music stopped, and the escape was easy. A little tangent there, but remember, Nepalis are trying to suck you in.
The pottery square was smaller than I was expecting, but it was exactly as expected: a little region of the ancient city where the time-honored art of potting was practiced in public. There is something calming and relaxing watching the potter’s wheel spin; the unending rotation of creation and formation, searching for ideal perfection. Maybe not the oldest profession, or the most fun, but certainly, eventually, the driest. Actually, upon further thought…
The sun was starting to go down, but as there was plenty more to see, I kept putting leaving off until I knew I really had to go before it got too dark. Getting there was an anarchic ordeal, I didn’t want to find out what Kathmandu highways were like after dark.
On my way out, though, I spotted an unbelievable tree-formed work of art. It appeared that sometime in the past, at least a hundred or so years ago, a brick wall was built around a tree which grew and grew, and eventually, if slowly, burst through it’s shackles. The result was subsequently painted, and now was a inspiring mixture of the natural and the man-made. I started talking to a police officer about it, and we both sort of gave it a revering gaze.
Then I just about got into trouble.
He asked me where I was from (no biggie, I got this), and asked me where I was staying. I said Thamel, then, stupidly, wiggled my scooter key. I had been wiggling my scooter key most of the late afternoon, to short-circuit the offerings of Taxi rides, so I was used to pulling it out. But one thing you should never do is pull it out in front of a police officer, and he promptly asked me if I had an International Driver’s License. (I thought there were no rules in Nepal!) I told him I did, but left it at the hotel with my passport–it’s silly to jet about with your passport, you know. He sort of glanced at me with the ‘hmm.’ look, to which I deftly changed the subject back to the tree, admired it one more time, and said thank you and left. Phew–no bamboo caning, no Nepali prison love. Save that for another time.
The ride back was intense. The sun went down, and I was driving the 20km purely through reverse-memory of my already unsure trip there. It was rush hour, and the streets were packed. I had the terrible idea to take a photo while driving down the highway, but remembering how my friend Jon Rowe busted his head open while pulling dumb stunts on a motorbike in Thailand, I used my better judgment and focused on getting home with as little potential damage to my teeth as possible (my typical commute mindset).
I ducked, dove, dodged, dipped, and darted around cars in the dusty night, hoping beyond hope that I was going the right direction. I thought I was–though far away, the roads were quite long and direct. But the rush hour traffic, and the general unfamiliarity of the place kept me a little deceived. Also, was woefully under skilled in the subtle arts of scooting (probably logged about 5 hours at this point, no pro here), like the B student that ballisly requested to test out of a grade.
But the ride was all manners of fun. It’ll go down as a fine memory, defeating the rush hour traffic of Kathmandu. There were moments that the uphill standstill was packed, filled with busses and bikers and sideways road-hogs, no one quite sure when to go, but everyone with the itch to. Honking horns in surround sound, noisily piercing the grey-black dust of night, with people walking every which way. It was nightmarishly amusing, and I felt part of the power of Kathmandu.
The night is all but over–an early flight will keep me from getting any shade of wild this evening. I’m not even hungry; the Dhal Bat for lunch might be the last proper meal I have in Nepal. But that is all right, for Dhal Bat is simply ‘food’, a simple meal for a simple people. The Nepali’s have never beaten around the bush, trying to appear more (or less, when the advantage demands it; you know who you are) than they are.
All they need is love, and that’s all they get. Because that’s all they give.