Friday, I went to Namo Buddha for the weekend. Namo Buddha is an extremely sacred town with a very famous and beautiful Tibetan Buddhist Monastery on a mountain overlooking many valleys, mountains, terraced farms, and small villages and settlements. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen:
Want to know why Namo Buddha is so sacred? Yea, you probably don’t, but that’s ok. I’ll tell you anyway. Many Eons ago before the Buddha was the Buddha, he was a Bodhisattva. In one particular lifetime as a Bodhisattva, the Buddha gave his body to a starving tiger. Have you ever done anything that badass? Yea, me neither. It’s like the ultimate combination of kindness and badassitude. Namo Buddha is at the site where the Buddha did that, making it an important place of pilgrimage for tons of Tibetan Buddhists.
Anyways, a history lesson is not the point of this post. The point of this post is to tell a story. You see, I went to Namo Buddha this weekend because I’ve been trying to stay there and walk around the mountain for awhile now. I intended to go to stay at the monastery at Namo Buddha for a few days about a year ago. It did not work out quite as I had planned…
So, I decided to take public transportation to Namo Buddha. That means getting stared at a lot (there aren’t a whole lot of white people on public transportation) and sometimes not having a clue where you are or how to get where you want to go.
I was told many times by many people that the journey to Namo Buddha by bus would only take 3 hours. I left Kathmandu at noon on a microbus, which is sort of like a minivan. Lots and lots of people cram in. There is ALWAYS room for one more. You know your personal bubble? Yea, forget about it. It will not fit in the microbus. So, I took a microbus to Bakhtapur, outside of Kathmandu, then tried to find one headed for Banepa, a town near Namo Buddha.
I found one. But you know how I said that there is always room for one more? Well, actually I lied. Sometimes there is not, and you have to sit on the roof, which seems to be subject to the same rule but in a more dangerous way. Somehow, I managed to not fall off the roof, and arrived at Banepa in one piece. In Westernized countries, bus stations are organized, and there is no confusion as to which bus goes where. In Nepal, I’m really lucky that people are so friendly and eager to help young white foreign women traveling alone, because I would NEVER find the right bus on my own. Some guy led me a few minutes walk to the correct bus, which was parked on a hill.
Where I come from, you get on the bus and choose a seat. In Banepa, you get on the bus and then everyone and their Mom gets on the bus and then everyone else IN THE ENTIRE WORLD also gets on the bus. That is how full it feels. The aisle is a place to stand. And your personal space is a place to stand. And any space that is not occupied with a solid object is a place to stand. Luckily, I had the rare opportunity to become well-acquainted with the robust backside of a large Tibetan woman. Unluckily, if I had wanted to leave my seat and walk down the aisle, said backside boxing me into my seat and providing my face with an up-close encounter would not have allowed it. It wasn’t her fault, though, it was just crowded…and what’s more, it was completely socially appropriate!
Sometimes I forget that the social rules are different here and I get very annoyed at innocent people who are invading my personal bubble. I loudly or crossly say “EXCUSE ME” when someone walks into me on the street or is all up in my space in a line (lines don’t really exist, it’s more of an ‘every man for himself’ type scenario, but I’ll write about that sometime else) or if I’m not feeling confrontational enough I’ll just glare, or spread myself out as much as possible to claim as much space as I can. It’s really not very culturally sensitive. I should learn to be more patient.
Anyways, the bus took between 45 minutes and an hour after that to actually leave, and then we went on some sketchy, narrow mountain roads but luckily there wasn’t enough space to really look out the window very often and see just how sketchy it was. Namo Buddha was the last stop, and by the time we fiinnnallly got there it was dusk. I started walking down the only road there was and stopped at a little shop to ask directions. “Just go straight and you will get there”, a little boy told me. He was very small and I have no idea how he managed to learn English so well in such a rural town, but whatever.
I kept walking straight, and caught up to two Nepali girls who were walking in front of me. I’m 22, and they looked to be around my age, maybe a little bit younger. They started talking to me. People love foreigners here—not as much as in India, which is good, they’re less overbearing—but they’re very friendly. I told the girls that I was going to Namo Buddha, and they said that they were also going there. See, at the time, I didn’t realize that Namo Buddha was the name of a town. I thought that it was only the name of a monastery. No one had explained that to me. But to my credit, I definitely said the word ‘monastery’ a few times throughout our conversation.
The girls asked me if I would like to stay with them that night, and I said “maybe. I’m going to stay in the cheaper guesthouse (I think I added ‘at the monastery’ here but can’t be totally sure) and if you are also going to stay there, then let’s stay together!” They didn’t say anything when I said that. Then, we took a right turn. I started to feel as though something was wrong, because the boy at the shop had said to go straight.
After a few minutes, we stopped and waited for a little while, and many other people caught up and joined us. I managed to infer that they were all family traveling together. That part made sense, but the chickens didn’t. They were carrying live chickens up the mountain. Yep. Silly Nepalis. Eventually I discovered that they were on the way to the wedding of one of their family members, and they were bringing all sorts of supplies and just staying in Namo Buddha overnight—including the live chickens, which were slaughtered a few hours later. I began to wonder exactly what kind of a monastery this was that would allow visitors to arrive so late, and with chickens!
After I said I was from America, one of the girls looked at me very confused and asked “why aren’t you wearing sexy clothing?”
Soon, conversation turned towards hunger. None of us had eaten in many hours. “Maybe if we get there fast enough there will still be dinner at the monastery” I said a couple of different times. I began to notice that whenever I mentioned the monastery, no one said anything.
We kept walking. And walking. And walking. For a very long time. Like, longer than I’d had the impression we would have to. Finally, we reached this nice, quaint ram-earth house where everyone began unpacking. I wondered if it was the guesthouse, but I saw no office or other buildings in sight, so I deduced that we were just stopping for a rest, because we had done that a couple of times previously. The girls invited me to sit down and eat some “stoned rice” or something with them. If you can imagine the most bland food you have ever tasted, it was more bland than that…but I was so hungry that it didn’t matter. Next they began giving me these incredible, juicy oranges they’d brought from their village. I could tell they were really proud. It’s nice when people in Asia offer you something from their own lives that they’re proud of, instead of just trying to copy a version of western culture that doesn’t actually exist.
I was starting to really like them, but then they did the unforgivable, cliché thing every Nepali or Indian that I hang out with does…they took out a cell phone, cranked up the volume, and started playing bad American pop music and looking at me expectantly, as though I was supposed to like it! Seriously. This happens all. The. Time. They have such a horrible, skewed image of what American/western culture is like, and it’s all because of the media putting out this ridiculous, unrealistic image. I mean, I’m expected to wear sexy clothes while hiking up a mountain in a conservative country? Really? And tasteless, crude hip-hop is all they know of our music?
People had started unpacking and really settling in, and I started to grow really concerned about whether we were actually going to get to the monastery or not. I was really antsy to get there, because I had been trying to get there for days, but every day something came up. Visa issues, had to go to the visa office, developed a large crush on my travel partner in Kathmandu and procrastinated leaving, etc. So, I really wanted to get there. I had also made a reservation at the guesthouse for that night. And for the previous night, which I had rescheduled last-minute much to the dismay of the manager. I asked the girls if someone could show me how to get to the monastery and they looked uncomfortable. Someone explained that it was too dark and too far, and they would show me in the morning.
Panic turned to frustration as it slowly dawned on me that I would be staying the night in this weird little house with this huge Nepali family. I kept reminding myself that this was really a great cultural experience and would make a great story in the future, but in the moment I was just so angry! On the one hand, they were a very nice family and were clearly very interested in me, but on the other hand, I felt that I had been intentionally misled. I definitely mentioned the monastery in contexts that showed that that was where I was intending to go, and no one told me that actually we weren’t going there! They also kept telling me that I should accompany them to the wedding the following day. About a year later, I found out that it is a status symbol to bring a westerner to your wedding, and now I’m pretty sure I was intentionally misled.
It’s actually really hilarious looking back on it and I’m glad to have had the experience. At the time, though, it was so frustrating because in this part of the world, many things just will not go your way. If you make plans, they probably will not happen the way you planned them, and trying to remain flexible and open-minded all the time is really exhausting. Seriously. These things sound like a funny adventure when you hear about them and even look pretty great in retrospect, but when you’re trying to navigate a foreign country and things are so out of control all the time, it’s less fun than it sounds.
Eventually the girls took me upstairs and started criticizing my hair in sort of a nice, sisterly way. They both had really beautiful, shiny long dark asian hair. I was jelous. My hair was really dry and not used to all the dust in this country. So, they got some oil to put in my hair to make it beautiful like theirs. They worked the oil all the way through it and it was great, like a head massage, and soon my head was as oily as the gulf. Then, they put it in one perfect, well-made French braid straight down the back of my head. I started to feel more ok about the situation.
What happened next made me feel even more ok about the situation. They produced a large bag of fresh, homemade curd from one of their purses and began distributing it among the three of us. This was really a huge gigantic treat, partially because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and partially because I had been hanging out with my friend Michael, who is vegan and feels very strongly about it, so I was trying not to eat dairy and I was really, really craving anything that comes from a cow’s udder. I got the biggest serving because I was the guest, and guess what? Homemade curd yogurt whatever it was is REALLy rich and decadent. So much that you do not want to eat more than a small bowl, but what I had was a big bowl.
The first few bites were heaven, but after that it was a struggle. It was filled with big, fatty chunks and every time I took a sip I began to imagine that I was drinking cold, chunky semen. I knew that I had to finish, because the girls had to stealthily sneak the curd out of a bag when the grandmothers left. It was clear they weren’t supposed to have it, so it was really a special thing. It’s also really impolite in Nepali culture to not finish the food someone gives you. So, I managed to choke it all down and when I was finally finished, I leaned back on the bed, victorious, full, a bit queasy, and glad to be finished…until one of the girls announced “It’s time for dinner!”
So, we went downstairs and I asked to have only a little bit of food but of course that is not what happened. I got a heaping plate of homemade Thali—rice, veggies, and sauces. All spicy. I normally love spicy food, but my stomach was starting to feel pretty bad, like that curdyogurt stuff didn’t agree with it. I really didn’t want to eat ANYTHING, let alone spicy food…but they were trying so hard to be hospitable. I had a few bites and then realized that it was physically impossible for me to have any more. I told one of the girls that I was really full and couldn’t eat anymore, and things went downhill from there.
She didn’t really say anything about that…she disposed of the food for me, but I could tell it was sort of not alright. The girls didn’t talk to me much after that, and asked if I wanted to go to bed. I said yes, assuming it was bedtime for them too and we were all going to go to sleep. Nope. They put me to bed then left to go hang out. I guess I committed a foul by not finishing the meal, or maybe they just got tired of me, or had to go prepare for the wedding. Either way it had gotten really awkward for some reason.
A couple of hours later, they came to bed too. The same bed. It was a double bed—big enough for two people, but not really big enough for three. However, it was December and we were in the mountains, so I was sort of glad to have more body heat even if it meant I couldn’t move and had no personal space. It was time to come to terms with the loss of my personal bubble, anyway.
The problem was that I started to have diarrhea. A lot. Like every hour. Or half hour. And I definitely woke the girls up every time I left to go to the bathroom, which was outside. A lot of the women in the family were staying up all night to cook for the wedding, so every time I left the house, I had to walk past them. I don’t know a word of Nepali and they didn’t know a word of English, so they just followed me with their eyes and I could feel them silently judging me.
Since I had intended to go to the monastery, I only brought one liter of water with me, which I drank most of on the way up the mountain. I also shared it with the others, assuming that I could get more pretty soon. So, I finished the last few sips of my water and realized that I was probably getting dehydrated since I was shitting out so much liquid and hadn’t had any water. I also hadn’t seen any water around, and it was the middle of the night, so I was SOL.
In the morning, I told one of the girls I was sick and she gave me some medicine for diarrhea. I asked to be shown how to get to the monastery, so she said we would go in just a minute and to wait outside. Outside, everyone was eating breakfast, and a nice young man approached me and asked if I wanted some breakfast. I made a face and held my tummy, indicating that I was sick and couldn’t eat anything. He smiled, nodded enthusiastically, and brought me a banana leaf with some meat (I am a vegetarian) some bread and some spicy potatoes. I took a couple bites, then snuck to the side of the mountain and threw it into the valley when (I hope) no one was looking.
I realized I reallllly needed to get some water, so I started asking around. One woman had a big teapot that she was pouring into everyone’s bowls, and I said “Is it water?” she nodded and I handed her my bowl. She poured in what appeared to be very cloudy water…so cloudy that I couldn’t see the bottom of the bowl anymore. At that point, though, I knew that I just needed to drink water, no matter what problems it caused later on. I took a sip and realized I had been given alcohol! They were all drinking alcohol at 7:00 in the morning, on top of a mountain, before hiking down! Someone noticed my surprise and said “Nepali water!” Wow. The source of the alcohol, I found, was a great bit blue barrel filled with it, and they were indeed drinking it like water! It was pretty strong, too…probably about the same as white wine. If I had drank the amount she’d given me, I’d have been absolutely shitfaced!
I asked one of the girls if there was any water around, and she shook her head and made a face, saying “no water”. However, a few minutes later she came back with an unopened liter of water which I could tell was in short supply, but I needed it more than them. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten that water.
After what seemed like forever we began walking. After about a half an hour, someone pointed to a small path on a big hill, indicating that I should follow that path to reach the monastery. It was very narrow and very steep, I was carrying all my luggage, and I had begun to feel extremely weak from dehydration and sickness. The family continued on down the mountain and I began the climb.
It turned out to be not actually a very long climb—I did it again this weekend and it took me about 10 minutes. However, that day in December it took me about two and a half hours. This was because I had to stop and rest every few seconds because I felt I might faint otherwise. However, it was actually a really incredible experience, even at the time. There were prayer flags everywhere, hanging from pine trees and flapping in the breeze, and the sun gleamed happily through the trees with not one cloud in the infinite sky. Every time I stopped to rest, I sat there for a few minutes, looking down at the mountains and valleys spread out below me, completely incredulous. There was something really, really special about that place, and the photos don’t capture it and the description doesn’t capture it either, you just have to go there. Maybe it was just the dehydration, but I felt completely elated and overtaken by the tranquil beauty of the place.
The last part of the climb was the steepest, and when I finally got to the highest point on the path, I rounded a corner and abruptly saw the monastery complex spread out built into the hillside in front of me. It just came into view all the sudden, right there in front of me, along with an even more majestic and exposed view of the dramatic landscape. I felt so weak and I was beginning to feel I would never reach the monastery; I swear it was like discovering Shangri-La.