Sat 20 Sep 2014


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


Fri 19 Sep 2014


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.


View of Kathmandu from Swayambunath


Stupa Near Entrance to Swayambunath


Climbing the Steps to Swayambunath


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.


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.


15th Century Stupa at Thahiti Tole, Kathmandu


Cool Alley off Indra Chowk



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.


Found Inside a Fortune Cookie in New York City, 2014