Goats and Goddesses
|A friendly greeting|
The Himalayas that stretch across the northern half of Nepal are the same height as the cruising altitude of many airplanes, and their snowy crests can be easily confused for clouds from afar since the 8000-plus meter peaks often tower well above them. For a country that contains ten of the world’s fourteen highest mountains, it was only appropriate that I met their mountains first. Even my itinerary was mountain-based: of 18 days, I planned to spend at least a week of that trekking in some pretty big hills. But first I had to see what Nepal’s capital, the legendary Kathmandu, had in store.
Kathmandu’s small Tribhuvan International Airport is the kind of airport where you deplane on the tarmac and walk to the terminal without fear of being run over by other planes or vehicles because there just aren’t any. I know from experience that arriving in a Southeastern Asian country, whether at an airport, train station, bus stop or boat dock, always involves shouting – shouted offers of discounted guesthouses, shouted taxi fares, shouted tour package deals.
To avoid being duped, I’ve learned to have a name and address of a guesthouse ready – and to stick to my guns when a taxi driver tries to convince me that their friend’s or brother’s or uncle’s guesthouse is better. I had the name of a particular Kathmandu guesthouse circled in my guidebook, chosen solely because of location, a rooftop cafÃ©, and a write-up of balconies with excellent views. Unfortunately, the guidebook declined to mention dark dank staircases, dingy rooms and lack of electricity, which I would come to learn was a Kathmandu novelty not restricted to only cheap guesthouses. After two minutes in the guesthouse I had so vehemently insisted on being taken to, I admitted defeat and for once trusted my taxi driver to show me his “friend’s guesthouse”. “It’s very good!” he promised earnestly. Even if it wasn’t, there were plenty of other places to stay in the city; many of them clustered together in the area we were headed.
I had read about Kathmandu’s population boom and pollution problems, but the taxi ride through town provided some sobering sights. Faded buildings were square and concrete, bricks lay in random piles, and cows lazed wherever they felt like it, and small fires burned on street corners and scant other open spaces. People were everywhere, walking briskly, riding motorcycles, honking horns. We crossed a bridge under which there was barely any water and on whose banks dead bodies are cremated according to traditional rites (though, thankfully, not at that moment).
“Where are you from?” asked the Nepali man in the front seat whose apparent job it was to give the taxi driver directions. “I’m from America”. “Ahhhh, America! Nice place” he said, nodding. “Nepal looks like a nice place, too,” I offered, perhaps half-heartedly. “There are not so many tourists now,” he lamented. “I know. Many countries are telling their citizens not to travel here because of the trouble.”
In the months leading up to my trip, the U.S. State Department continued to advise its citizens to postpone any non-essential travel to Nepal due to the instability of the government, and the ongoing threat of violence from the anti-government Maoists. I had heard of an upcoming four-day strike, smack in the middle of my trip, to protest the ruling of King Gyanendra. It was admittedly not the best time to make a first visit to Nepal.
My trepidation lifted and my faith in taxi-driver-advice was restored when we arrived at the Hotel Encounter Nepal, an absolute palace compared to my first attempt. Located just north of the popular Thamel tourist district, the grounds were quiet, well kept and within spitting distance of countless shops, cafes and restaurants. I had my choice of rooms due to the painfully low number of tourists. I chose a $13.00 fourth-floor corner room with a king-size bed, attached bathroom, a front window overlooking a garden and a side balcony with a view of the mountains – if the air was ever clear enough. The sad reality was that the air in Nepal’s capital was simply dirty. It was not a cloudy day, but I couldn’t even see the nearby hills through the smoggy haze. Myth has it that on an exceptionally clear day in Kathmandu, you can actually see the faint silhouette of Mt. Everest – more than 200 kilometers away. There hasn’t been one of those days in a long time.
Thamel is so popular with tourists because it’s so easy: every service you need is there, as is every cuisine from Swiss to Thai to the ever present German Bakery. However, there were some shops obviously frequented by locals only, and one in particular that jolted me. A few storefronts down from the purses and spice shops and internet cafes were a cluster of closet-sized butcher shops, each displaying their raw meats on simple wooden tables on the street. Legs and tongues of animals I could not even identify lay scattered amongst heads of smiling wild boars and grimacing goats. Even more disturbing than those goat heads squinting right at me was the unnerving, unnatural boar meat: a bright orange preservative had been painted over the skin, and tufts of coarse black hair protruded awkwardly from fleshy flanks. It didn’t look like anything I would ever want to ingest. Back at my hotel, my first Nepali dinner was a vegetarian one.
The next day, sunny but still hazy, I rented a bicycle to explore areas beyond the easily accessible tourist district. With my sunblock generously applied and all my possessions in a pack around my waist, I biked up the dusty noisy Ring Road, taking the long way to the famous Monkey Temple, two kilometers from central Kathmandu and inspiring the honking and occasional mooing of dozens of large rickety trucks, disturbingly overcrowded buses and big smelly cows along the way.
The eye-catching Monkey Temple, officially named Swayambhunath, gets its nickname from its inhabitants: the wild monkeys that stroll the grounds playing, fighting, and gobbling up food offerings left at altars by visitors. They’re used to hordes of guests, both tourists and Nepalese, and won’t bother people unless direct eye contact – a challenge – is made. The Buddhist temple is one of Nepal’s most renowned and popular: a Nepalese family of eight told me they traveled two hours by bus from the countryside to visit the hilltop temple that day. It’s a religious site more substantial than the word “temple” implies: multiple
Buddhist structures called stupas clutter the hill, the most massive one attracting well-deserved attention. Stupas are broad, white bell-shaped bases topped with 13-tiered golden umbrellas. In between, the omnipresent eyes of Buddha gaze out from beneath a multitude of rainbow-colored prayer flags. In this case, those slightly menacing eyes had a wonderful view of the Kathmandu valley and of the hundreds of pilgrims pacing clockwise around the stupa’s base spinning copper prayer wheels along the way. I asked a few people about the history of the site: “When was that great stupa built?” The answer was always similar: “Well, it rose from an ancient lake a long time ago, so it wasn’t really built.” It’s the most impressive architecture that apparently no one built that I’ve ever seen.
Back in Kathmandu proper, I encountered another fascinating myth. Within Durbar Square, the ancient part of town where kings once lived and impressive temples remain, I accepted the offer of a 90-minute guided tour from a government certified guide named Dilip. He made sure to show me his guiding license and identification “twice” because, “There are many people who are not certified who will tell you wrong information!” Dilip seemed enthusiastic, well spoken, and fairly desperate for an afternoon’s work.
There’s a lot of history in Durbar Square and without a guide I would have remained clueless, so I was glad he zeroed in on me as a potential customer. He talked as we walked past weathered wooden temples, wandering holy men, and even a goat sacrifice in progress before coming to the Kumari Bahal, a temple as well as the home of the eight-year old Kumari Living Goddess, a title that intrigued me as soon as I heard it uttered. “How does one become a living goddess, exactly?” I was already planning on applying for the position next time it opened.
Dilip happily informed me of the bizarre process: once the current goddess has been dethroned, so to speak, girls as young as four are brought to the city by their families and thoroughly examined for 32 very specific traits “like a complete absence of birth marks or scars, a certain shade of eyes, and the appropriate birth date.” If the child possesses these characteristics, she must spend a night alone in a particularly old and eerie temple while men in horned masks scream and dance around her in the dark. If she cries or expresses fear, she is clearly not the goddess, and the search begins again from scratch.
Now I can’t think of any four-year old who wouldn’t cry if men in horned masks screamed at her, but apparently, there’s always one, and she becomes the Living Goddess. “So…what does a goddess do, like, day to day?” I asked. “She must stay inside and study until she is older and there is blood.” I prayed he was talking about puberty. “Her feet can never touch the ground outside her home, so she cannot leave unless carried,” Dilip continued, and pointed at a second-story window of the very ancient wooden structure.
“And after 4:00 today, she will look out that window if you ask to see her”. “Oh. Well, I’d like to see her”. Of course I wanted to see her. “How many goddesses does one actually get to encounter first-hand?” “Okay. Come back after 4:00. Sit over there and drink a Coca-Cola, and ask the man there to see the Kumari Devi. He will call her, and she will open the window. And if she likes you, she will smile.”
Back at my spacious hotel that night, I pondered my good fortune at having met such nice goats, guides and goddesses so far. As I packed my trekking gear and prepared for a week in the mountains, I wondered who else I’d meet.