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Tue 23 Sep 2014

I have no photos to accompany this post. So, for your viewing pleasure, I have posted this photo of a Yak Pillow waiting to be adopted into a loving home, outside a Pokhara shop.

I have no photos to accompany this post. So, for your viewing pleasure, I have posted this photo of a Yak Pillow waiting to be adopted into a loving home, outside a Pokhara shop.

Paola left for Kathmandu this afternoon, to join up with her trekking group. She had booked into the famous Everest Base Camp trek, and was scheduled to have an orientation today and then embark on the trek tomorrow.

At breakfast we met a Belgian medical student named Bram, who had just returned from a similar trek in the Everest region. Bram spoke about possible altitude sickness during the trek. They discussed the benefits of taking Diamox (acetazolamide) to help with acclimatization to the altitude. However, Paola noted she was allergic to sulfa drugs and so could not take acetazolamide. I had taken this medication during both of my trips to the South American Andes mountains, including when I ascended a peak called Illiniza Norte in the Andes, at just over 5000 meters. I have no idea if it helped or not!

After breakfast I again attended the dharma talk, this time by the Swedish nun. Then I rested and did some reading in my room, and returned to have lunch with the group. The rest of the day passed uneventfully. It rained for a while, during which time I stayed in my room and did some reading. Later I had tea in the dining hall with the others, followed by dinner, after which I returned to my room and went to sleep after reading a bit more. Yawn.

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Mon 22 Sep 2014

The Stupa at Boudhanath

The Stupa at Boudhanath

Today I had breakfast with my new friends, then attended the morning Dharma talk by the Israeli monk. After lunch, Paola and I decided to take a stroll to the nearby “animal temple” pointed out by some of the monks.

We could see the temple on the level ground downhill from the monastery. However, after walking for several minutes, we clearly were not heading in the correct direction to reach the temple, and were unable to get meaningful guidance from some locals nor from some monks we encountered during our walk. Previously I had told Paola I had wanted to go to Boudhanath, billed as the largest Buddhist stupa in Asia by Lonely Planet, so we decided to go there instead.

We had to ask directions of the locals on several occasions, and thankfully everyone knew Boudhanath and pointed us in the right direction. We arrived at “Boudha” (as most people seemed to call it) after about 45 minutes.

It was indeed the biggest stupa I had ever seen. We went up a small stone staircase to the base of the stupa, about one storey above ground level. We then strolled around the entire circumference of the stupa, which took several minutes. I enjoyed looking at the varied architecture of the buildings on the street encircling the stupa. Some of the buildings were very plain, but others had elaborately carved wood decorations around the windows and doors. Still others were actually Buddhist temples and monasteries, set up intentionally near this very auspicious and sacred stupa.

After returning to street level we then entered one of the buildings on the street and ascended to the third floor where there was a rooftop cafe overlooking the stupa and the street below. We had some tea and chatted for a while before embarking on the return journey, which, despite being partially uphill, was much shorter than our trip there. It seemed we had previously taken a very circuitous route.

Icon at Boudhanath

Icon at Boudhanath

Prayer Wheel, Boudhanath

Prayer Wheel, Boudhanath

Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu

Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu

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Sun 21 Sep 2014

Building at Kopan Monastery

Building at Kopan Monastery

Today I relaxed at the monastery. I read in a book that I brought along on my tablet computer, called How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I also went to the monastery library and read in another book by the Dalai Lama (I can’t recall the name of the book). Then I took a walk outside the monastery, and this was good exercise. Since the monastery is on a hill, the only direction you can go is downhill, which means you have to come back up the hill on the return journey.

I enjoyed taking my meals in community with the other visitors. It seemed most of the others were not interested in conversation, but I continued to chat with my new Mexican friend, Paola. It turned out that we had a few things in common, in addition to being from North America and speaking Spanish.

Not surprisingly, we both liked to travel and were interested in exploring Buddhist spirituality. Paola was a pediatrician working in a community health center, with more or less the same type of population I worked with in the South Bronx. We shared stories about the patients we served, and the stories were very similar except for the geographic location of the patients and families. Somewhat unusually, we both had come into contact with the Baha’i communities in our respective home towns. She was very close to her family, primarily her parents, sister, and seven year old daughter.

Other than Paola, I also chatted with a woman in her 50’s named Sarah. She had been living in Perth, Australia for many years, but was originally from Iran and had spent some years in California. She struck me as a very compassionate person who was truly interested in developing her Buddhist practice, and who had also been through a lot of trauma and tragedy.

Sarah recounted her story of growing up in a Muslim family and being forced to marry at a young age. Then, her husband divorced her, and she lamented that she neither had a say in whether or whom to marry, nor when and how she was divorced. I gathered that she came from an upper middle class family who lost all of their resources in the revolution and the war between her country and Iraq. She spoke many times of how much she missed her country and her culture, but also made it clear that she was willing to give it all up, and did leave her country voluntarily, in order to have freedom as a human being and more specifically as a woman in society. She became a practicing Christian at some point before turning to Buddhism over ten years ago. She spoke of her love for her cat, whom she was eager to see when she returned home to Perth, and her 29 year old daughter who was currently caring for the cat.

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Sat 20 Sep 2014

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The Garden at Kopan Monastery

Today I had breakfast at a Tibetan restaurant (OK I had an apple pancake; which is not really Tibetan but still), then gathered my things and took a cab to Kopan Monastery on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

Kopan is a monastery in the Tibetan tradition and they seem to have a good following of European lay practitioners. The daily morning dharma talks were given in English, by a resident monk originally from Israel and a Swedish nun from the nearby nunnery. It is a comfortable place for lay practitioners, with three meals a day plus afternoon tea, a shop that sells cookies, chocolates, toothpaste and the like, and even an onsite cafe! There is also a bookstore and above it a small, pleasant wood-paneled library, with windows that channel the gentle mountain air currents into a refreshing cross-breeze.

I had emailed the monastery a week ago to book a private stay, but when I arrived in the early afternoon the reception office was closed. I called them several times in the morning but nobody answered, and as their website said that the reception office was open every afternoon from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m., I arrived just after one o’clock. I later learned that the reception office was closed on Saturday afternoons and furthermore that today was some sort of holiday.

A young monk who could not have been more than 10 years old tried to help me by suggesting I call the office from my cell phone (no answer) and send an email (no response). Eventually I found an elderly monk who called another monk responsible for the reception office. The older monk advised me to wait and said that the other monk would come to meet me where I was waiting outside the dining hall. After an hour of waiting I asked for help from another monk and he finally was able to get yet another monk to register me and show me to my room (there are many monks here — shocking!).

As I unlocked the door a cat slipped by me and proceeded to curl up on a small bench in my room. I let it hang out there for a while as I settled in, but when it was time to leave for 5:00 tea in the dining hall I gently nudged the sleeping feline with little response. I eventually picked it up and deposited it outside of my room but it clearly was not happy being removed from its comfortable spot of repose.

The rest of the day passed fairly uneventfully. I had tea and later dinner in the dining hall with the other lay practitioners staying at the monastery, but despite greeting several people I was unable to strike up a conversation with anyone until after dinner.

At dinner I noticed a young woman dining alone at a nearby table. I would describe her as having Mediterranean features, which would suggest she could have been from any of a number of different countries, but for some reason I guessed Mexico. I was correct.

After dinner I introduced myself and learned that she was from Guadalajara. She spoke English but said she was a bit rusty so we ended up speaking in Spanish for the next few days. 

The View From My Room at Kopan Monastery

The View From My Room at Kopan Monastery

Stupas at Kopan Monastery

Stupas at Kopan Monastery

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Fri 19 Sep 2014

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Garden of Dreams, Kathmandu

Today I had a mediocre breakfast at the hotel cafe, then went to The Garden of Dreams, conveniently next door to my hotel. The garden was established by a wealthy Nepali in the early 20th century but had fallen into disrepair until an Austrian organization provided the funds to restore it. There was a very overpriced restaurant on site, which I avoided, but I enjoyed strolling through the well manicured garden while taking a few photos. It was a reasonably clear day so I got some good shots. I viewed a small indoor exhibit that explained the origins and history of the garden along with “before and after” photos documenting the restoration.IMG_2359IMG_2358

After sitting outside on a bench for a while I got a little bored so I decided to walk to Swayambunath. It took me about a half hour to get there, and despite the aforementioned traffic challenges I was happy to get out of the touristy areas and witness the more mundane aspects of Nepali life. On my way there was a terrible bottleneck where a street was blocked off, apparently due to a recent fire.

Swayambunath is on a hill overlooking Kathmandu. It has a large stupa, some architecturally interesting small buildings, and the usual souvenir shops and restaurants. After strolling around the stupa and taking a few photos I had a glass of papaya juice at a rooftop restaurant. There was little else to do there so I made my way back to Thamel.

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View of Kathmandu from Swayambunath

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Stupa Near Entrance to Swayambunath

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Climbing the Steps to Swayambunath

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Once back in Thamel I picked up a Nepali SIM card. The young lady at the NCell counter spoke very fluent English, but somehow managed to confuse me at times. She pointed out the basic plan of 500 minutes of local network voice, 500 minutes international long-distance, and 500 MB of data. Then she said, “Do you want only voice or data too?” I asked if there were a plan for just voice (since I could probably just use WiFi for data most of the time), and she said, “No, you have to purchase the whole package.” After completing some documentation and taking a copy of my passport, she again asked, “Do you need data or just voice?”; I said, “You told me I had to buy the whole package, right?”; And she said, “That is correct.” (The only explanation I could surmise for her inquiries about voice only or voice + data, was that once the SIM card was installed, she had to go into the Android settings to add an IP address so that the data plan would be operational).

Before dinner I continued to read in an e-book that I had checked out from the Brooklyn Public Library, The Springs of Namje: A Ten-Year Journey From the Villages of Nepal to the Halls of Congress, by a young returned U.S. Peace Corps volunteer named Rajeev Goyal. While the book did recount the recent political history of Nepal, I mostly found it to be an introspective reflection on the social and cultural implications of small-scale development projects and other economic factors. He explores the latter in his evaluation of the work of large, well-intentioned international development organizations with little knowledge of grass-roots issues affecting the rural, agrarian Nepalis, as well as the interference caused by land speculators focused on short-term personal economic gain at the expense of long-term sustainability.

At the Revolution Cafe yesterday, the young waiter told me about their live “fusion” music performances every Friday evening. I decided to stop by to check it out, and I was not disappointed. The group consisted of a dexterous guitar player, a very rhythmically talented tabla player, and a flutist (playing a wooden Nepali-style flute). They were young but extremely talented and technically skilled, and they were cohesive yet fluid in their interactions as a group. The music was melodious, meandering at times into improvisational tangents, and there was one tabla-driven interlude that I thought was particularly impressive.

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Thu 18 Sep 2014

My first full day in Nepal! I got up early and headed out to breakfast at the Fire and Ice Cafe across the main street from the alley where my hotel was situated. I then spent the better part of the day following my Lonely Planet guidebook’s walking tours of the Durbar Square and Old Town areas. I lost my way a few times but managed to get back to familiar environs easily.

I saw very few other tourists along the way and I got a chance to see ordinary Nepalis going about their daily routines. The traffic was challenging — the roads really no more than alleys, semi-paved with flat stones and sometimes with asphalt or concrete. Sidewalks were nonexistent. Through these narrow arteries coursed all kinds of vehicles: mostly motorbikes but also many cars, some bicycles, the occasional cycle rickshaw, and, unbelievably, large trucks. Congestion was rampant. We multitudes on foot threaded our way around, between, alongside, and (daringly) straight through the paths of those on wheels.

As I walked I took note of the ancient stupas, temples, and various Hindu and Buddhist sculptures around which the city’s buildings had grown like large tree roots grow around boulders. Many of the buildings were decorated with intricately detailed wood trimmings. There was a small 500-year-old statue of Vishnu nestled between the entrances of two shops. The statue was so small I would have overlooked it had my guidebook not made mention of it. The locals were not oblivious to this sacred icon in their midst — it was adorned with fresh flowers and vermilion-colored powder.

My favorite spot in my meanderings turned out to be a narrow, cobbled alley that snaked between tall houses, creating a cool quiet path away from the nearby noise and bustle of Indra Chowk. Small shops selling brass-ware, incense, embroidered clothing and trinkets lined this alley. I stopped for a soda at a tiny storefront shop, where I sat on a small stool perched on the slightly elevated floor of the shop, looking out into the alley, while the shop’s middle-aged proprietress curiously gazed at me.

After resuming my walk and finally returning to the center of Thamel, I ducked into a cafe and had some tea and steamed Tibetan dumplings called momos. Similar to my hotel the Revolution Cafe was down another alley off the main street, and it had a small garden in the back. As it turned out, I would return a few more times to this Kathmandu hipster joint, prior to leaving the city.

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15th Century Stupa at Thahiti Tole, Kathmandu

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Cool Alley off Indra Chowk

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Wed 17 Sep 2014 

It was a dark and stormy night.

OK, I made that up. It was broad daylight, the temperature was around 30 degrees Celsius, with the sky a hazy mix of mid-morning sun and clouds.

As my flight touched down at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport, I took note of how small the airport was. There was a white UN plane parked on the tarmac near the gates. Otherwise we seemed to be the only flight arriving at that time. We were herded onto a few waiting buses that drove us to the terminal (which seemed like walking distance from our aircraft in any case).

The terminal was a small two-story affair, relatively quiet and calm in comparison to even the Columbus, Ohio, airport, where I began my journey. The airport staff was minimal and spoke little English, yet I found them to be sincere and helpful. It took maybe 20 minutes for me to complete the required visa forms, wait in line, pay the fee and obtain my 30-day visa. I had struck up a conversation with a young Dutch woman on the flight, and we helped each other negotiate the visa forms and payment process.

I walked out the gate to a small crowd of the usual taxi touts. The Blue Horizon Hotel was to have sent a taxi for me. I was told to look for someone holding a sign with my name, but after 15 minutes or so of waiting and surveying the landscape I saw nobody holding such a sign nor any sign with the name of the hotel. I took a few minutes to get some cash from the ATM then got a taxi to take me to my hotel.

My hotel was located in Thamel, the bustling tourist enclave in Kathmandu. My room was on the second floor, and a few steps from my room there was a landing/balcony where I could get WiFi, which did not seem accessible from my room. There was a pleasant garden and the hotel was set off a few hundred meters from the main street down a long alley, so it was relatively more tranquil.

My arrival and check-in went smoothly except for a guy who initially seemed he was from the hotel but turned out to be selling the services of his tour company nearby. He was very polite but I found it annoying to be sat down and fed a bit of a sales pitch under the guise of an orientation to the area, given that I had just arrived after 24 hours of air travel. The one consolation was that they brought me a complimentary cup of masala tea, which I sipped while nodding drowsily as I feigned interest.

I had a hot shower, took a nap for a few hours, then ventured out for a stroll around Thamel, to get oriented a bit. Hopefully I would be over the jetlag tomorrow so I could begin to get to know Nepal a bit.

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Found Inside a Fortune Cookie in New York City, 2014

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