Early this January, after an exhausting festive season I promised myself a quick mountain getaway, preferably with a music festival and the company of good friends. Since good things happen to good people, my friend Gayatri and I learnt that Universal Religion’s, Mountain Madness festival was being hosted over the last weekend of April in Nepal. Being ardent psychedelic music lovers, we bought our tickets and tents, just hours after they started sales. An increasing number of friends showed enthusiasm to join us for a weekend of dancing in the mountains and we could not have been happier.
Planning a vacation fills me with anxiety and excitement. I decided to land in Kathmandu a few days before the festival and stay a few days after. I couldn’t wait to see for myself all that I had read about – the kingdom full of Himalayan hippies; home of legendary trekking routes; the folklore of yaks and yetis, living museums and child goddesses; and medieval cities wrapped in the smell of juniper berry incense sticks. My list of things to do ran long – visiting the temple lined squares in Kathmandu, Pathan and Bhaktapur, paragliding and drinking Khukri rum by the Phewa Tal in Pokhara, listen to world music in the extremely crowded, colorful and internet-friendly Thamel, eat steamed momos and then wash it down with bottles of Gurkha beer, and see the world’s largest mandala.
Landing in Thribuvam Airport makes time slow down. It was my over planned holiday (I had made six packing lists, gone on three shopping sprees, reconnected with two Nepalese friends and attended four pre-Mountain Madness parties) and I was keen on unwinding. My Boeing taxied on a runway tucked between café au lait mountains, creamy white snow covering its barren slopes, and all I felt was expectant. I was finally here, to attend a fabled music festival in the company of good friends. Our favourite musicians from Israel, Berlin, London and Germany were playing; we had sufficient neon gear to power a small hamlet and enough pent up excitement to burn, on what they claimed to be the worlds highest dance floor.
I drove through Kathmandu searching for stellar mountain vistas, prayer flags in primary colours fluttering over rooftops and monks, in maroon, with prayer beads walking down stone paved streets. What I found was dust from aggressive constructions that had prompted commuters to wear alarmingly green surgical facemasks, soot-spewing industrial units and open sewers. The wondrous mountain views were indistinct. Juxtaposed beautifully to this urbanised, industrial reality were its people. Despite Nepal’s civil war between the Maoists and the feudal forces which raged through a bloody decade of unrest, displacement, wartime killings, torture and forced disappearances, the people of Nepal represented hope and a deafening sense of possibility.
As I walked out of Kathmandu Guest House, Laksman the security guard hailed a cycle rickshaw for me and I went barreling through the crowded streets of Thamel, en route to Durbar Square. I experienced a familiar sensory overload. The smell of locals and travellers, mixed with steaming vats of momos, the sound of jazz, rock and Nepalese music from over-stacked bars and pubs, the sight of rainbow-coloured dream-catchers, demonic masks and puppets, and exquisite graffiti. Durbar Square had several revelations in store. Old elephant stables had been converted into open markets for souvenirs, palace courtyards morphed into museums and gardens. The steps of stupas where monks once prayed were now a place for young locals to come hang out, with Surya cigarettes dangling between their chapped lips. Numerous old men bent over wooden board with local newspapers glued to them. Devotees milled around the square, lighting brass candles and smoking incense to Vishnu, Ganesh and the Kumari. There were stone sculptures and elaborately carved wooden panels in varying degrees of decomposition and destruction. The palace walls were whitewashed in limestone, smart Nepalese guards stuck to their posts as the crowded square bore a symphony of chaos, the assortment of bronze bells and crumbling temples merged with the sound of worship. I remarked to no one in general, how, the proliferation of Buddhist and Hindu art had supplemented the cultural hegemony, one that spanned three centuries of the Malla, the Shah, and the Rana dynasties and were greyed by ancient religion mutating into a modern-day Nepal.
Curious to learn more about Nepal, I asked my Bollywood-loving taxi driver to drive me to the Boudhanath stupa and the Pashupatinath Temple. I’d eagerly waited to see the largest mandala in the world and wanted to tick it off my bucket list. The folklores, mythologies and oral histories attached to these visits were awe-inspiring and curiosity-inducing. While someone told me fantastical stories of apsaras, mythical animals and llamas, another local narrated how a godly couple visited the valley and made the site of this temple their home. I learnt about Hindu gods, the Tibetan influences on the architecture, I walked amidst pigeons, burning pyres, giant prayer wheels, artists with magnifying glasses on their eyes, painting scenes from Buddhists texts. All along my phone-camera tried finding the perfect Instagram picture to the background score of Oṃ maṇi Padme hūṃ. I drove back to the guesthouse with weary legs, a large appetite and a calm disposition. Pork chops, mashed potatoes and several Gurkha beers later I retired for the day after I’d read 40 pages of Connor Grennan’s Little Prince, an account of a man who tried to find the lost children of Nepal. Literature always seems to add an important perspective to the places I travel to.
Impatient to immerse myself in the mystical haze of the ancient city of worshippers, I rode a local bus for 15 kilometers through the valley to spend a day in Bhaktapur. Arriving, I felt like I had left modernity (as I know it) to step into an ancient history textbook. I walked through a brick-red city, with exquisite stone, metal and wood designs on facades, walls, windows, pagodas, shrines and temples. Everywhere I looked, I found art. I bounced up the steps of the Nyatapola temple, rumored to have been completed by the then king in a record five months. Statues of stone elephants, lions and griffins flanked the stairs, each creature missing some part of its anatomy. A sulking monk child sat on top of the flight, an obscure banter later, we both shared some juju dhau (a local yogurt) and took a few pictures. Walking around the temple town, I discovered a potter, who made clay figurines. I spent a heavenly hour tinkering around his workshop, buying myself an assortment of keepsakes. The Golden Gate was a memorable site, one that I shall not forget. To see Kali and Garuda attended by nymphs, celestial and monstrous creatures carved in pure gold reminded me of Dante’s Gates Of Hell. Percy Brown, an English art critic and historian said, “The Golden Gate is the most lovely piece of art in the whole Kingdom: it is placed like a jewel, flashing innumerable facets in the handsome setting of its surroundings.”
Travel always teaches me some fundamental qualities needed to navigate through life, I imbibe resilience for adventure. I journeyed to Pokhara, to get closer to the mountains, closer to nature and closer to myself.
The two days spent in Pokhara were nothing short of lazy at the lake-view hotel I had the good fortune of staying at. Drinks that night were in the company of an erstwhile Hollywood actress, a Polish couple, a team of American surgeons, an inordinate number of Koreans and miscellaneous backpackers of various nationalities. My driver arrived promptly at 4 AM the next morning to drive us into Sarankgot where we found a helicopter patch a little higher up than the other tourists to watch the sunrise. This was not on my itinerary at all, and only because several friends and locals had spoken about the exultant experience, I pried myself from the bed and for once it was a useful decision. The sunrise was nothing short of a theatrical production. The fiery ball of golden sun creeping up ever so slowly between the greyish black sky and snow-capped mountains painted the sky in purple, gold, orange, blue, white and the majestic Annapurna lit up as the golden speck turned into a flaming ball of sun. I stood there, my numb fingers clasped around my flask of hot tea, bewitched.
Later, Ian a Turkish paragliding instructor joined me for breakfast telling me about his journey as a travelling paragliding pilot. I was going to fly with him, I had read, obsessed, and watched countless videos of paragliding before this trip, but nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience. Without much preamble, Ian strapped me into a harness, which felt like a lounge chair. After hooking up the metal clasps, laying out the flaming yellow rip-stop iron wings and arranging the multiple ropes we cheered and plunged into the valley. Flying in tandem through a clear sky, over the gigantic lake made my adrenalin rush. As the altitude picked up, so did my excitement. We flew. Silently. So close to nature it felt like prayer. I could not think of a nicer way to end my Pokhara adventures.
Joining the rest of the crew on the eve of a psychedelic music festival in Kakani, in central Nepal sent me into bursts of euphoria! We were heading into a weekend of pirouetting and partying with friends, musicians and hippies from all over the world. We were going to camp with a view of the entire Annapurna range. I repacked my backpack; making space for my turquoise blue, yak wool blanket I had bought earlier. Early on Thursday morning, we woke up to learn that the festival that we had been eagerly waiting for, for three months, was cancelled.
We skipped breakfast and decided to mop around Thamel, only after reading hurtful and angry posts on social media from over 1000 fellow disappointed festival-goers. Mopping around Thamel was a great idea because we soon realized that the organizers had pulled together an alternate party beginning on Friday evening. We danced in a café-bar named Funky Buddha all of Friday night and were promised free bus rides to this mysterious alternate party on Saturday morning!
We repacked our bags, and our expectations and set of to the alternate party at 11 AM on Saturday, April 25, 2015. Shortly after that, at around 11:49 the first earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale wrecked complete havoc on the Kingdom of Nepal, its tremors reaching as far as Calcutta and New Delhi. Gayatri, Aakif and I felt the first one in all its gravity and magnitude as we stumbled out of our taxi. Our brains took several seconds to register that the ground beneath our feet was convulsing, what did not take time to arrive was a sense of deep fear for our lives. The impending paranoia that followed was predictable. Compounded by the first earthquake were several aftershocks in varying intensity. There went our meticulous reams of planning and expecting. We had suddenly been thrown into a state of survival. Convinced that our alternate party was surely cancelled, we decided to leave the city premises and head into the mountains where we had little knowledge if we would get food or shelter. The next three days pushed us into a state of survival. Initially, what was scare was authentic information, we had little connectivity and many rumours. Twenty-four hours after the first earthquake and several aftershocks later we got internet connectivity at a resort in the mountains, we barely had enough internet to send messages home that we were all safe but very shaken. From the next three days, the search for food was painful. We found a woman who ran a tea-stall and she kindly boiled two-dozen eggs for us and cooked us several packets of Wai Wai noodles. We were lucky that our hotel, which had weathered the earthquake with some structural damages, was extraordinarily hospitable to let us stay. Even though we had very little running water and electricity, we were grateful to have warm beds and each other’s company. Our hotel was serving rice and dal to all its guests and struggling to connect us back to the Internet.
Driving through Kathmandu felt like we were in a war zone, turned into refugee camps. Masses of people fled to open spaces, where they continue living in tents, with no sanitation, barely enough food and water, the risk of disease and crime. Hospital beds lined the streets, brick and cement from cracked and fallen structures strewed the streets and countless weeping families made do with tarpaulin sheets and makeshift beds under an inclement sky. The Indian embassy while quick to evacuate its citizens struggled to manage expectations at the airport. There were thousands of people camping, waiting, and defecating right outside the airport. Commercial flight 12 hours late began to take anxious travellers back home on Tuesday. What followed was a harrowing experience to get back home and a sharp lesson in humility, gratitude and pain.
Travelling through Nepal helped me encounter compassion; it forced me to care for issues larger than myself. My heart broke. I began to understand that the world is both a big and small place. I realised a newfound respect for the pain and suffering that over half of the world takes for granted every day. I felt connected to my fellow human beings in a deep and lasting way. I learnt to care. Reading history and watching television would never come close to being there.
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