Full Moon at Mani Rimdu (1 of 5)

“You know, Babu, this stone had better be real because I’ll be back,” said Jim. Jim Wills, our red-haired, flaring blue-eyed California mountain man, had promised to guide Rick, Susan, Chris and I to Phaplu, Nepal for the annual Buddhist moon festival called Mani Rimdu – with a brief stop in Kathmandu.

The limpid sapphire looked too blue to be true. It sucked us in like a sacred lake. Babu, the Newari craftsman stood behind his dusty counter of his dusty shop tucked in the corner of Kathmandu’s jewelry district, a good ten minute walk from the tourist traps in Thamel.

He grinned. With his toothless Clark Gable smile, he switched our attention to the emerald and ruby necklace he draped across his wiry concave chest.

“This is one of my best pieces,” he boasted. It took some imagining to transform his chest into the plump, perfumed bosom of a wealthy woman.

“He knows the one-legged German. That’s a good sign,” Jim said as he and I walked out the door into a swirl of foot traffic, bicycles, motor bikes, vans, trucks, multi-colored pedicabs and cars.

Women garbed in fuschia and lime green saris rode side-saddle behind their men on motorbikes, or they walked in pairs past Hindu shrines. Sunburned, tattooed Caucasians swaddled in hiking boots and knapsacks sifted their way through the maze of streets. None of them held street maps. In Kathmandu, one groped for landmarks in the tumble of merchandise. Every square inch, from pavement to rooftops was draped, pinned, or weighted with rugs, bags sculpture, paintings, books, boxes, urns, bells, good luck talismans, perfume, jewelry, hats, and deities to suit all requests.

I had come to Nepal to cut past material attachments – like shopping, for example. So far, it wasn’t working.

“The one-legged German?” I asked dazedly, still hypnotized by Babu’s glorious sapphire.
“He taught me everything I know about gemstones. If Babu knows the German, the guy’s probably all right,” Jim replied.

He mulled as he walked until he had convinced himself that the sapphire was genuine. By nature, Jim was not a materialist. If it weren’t for his fascination with gems, I would have been hard-pressed to convince this trekking, mountain worshiping guide to take on a challenge that would make even a K-2 veteran tremble – a shopping detour in Kathmandu.

Our original goal, for the five of us – Jim; his girlfriend, Susan; the intrepid Buddhist photographer, Rick; my husband, Chris; and myself – was the Chiwong monastery, situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, about a three hour hike from Phaplu which teeters on slopes overlooking the Solu Khumbu Valley. To get there, we would fly from Kathmandu in a Twin Otter. But first we would have to extricate ourselves from the siren call of Kathmandu’s silver and gold districts.

For pilgrims, the path to salvation via Kathmandu twists and turns and demanded dodging of trucks and bikes and buses. In seeming chaos, cars scraped past one another, pedestrians crisscrossed every whichway arriving unscathed. No road rage here: car horns tooted. They didn’t blare or even whine.

The city exuded a heady elixir of juniper smoke, car exhaust, cremated bodies and coriander, curry sauce and tobacco, tea leaves and musk oil built on a hauntingly familiar base note – raw sewage (that, I decided, being the essence of all we call ‘exotic’).

It would have been easy to linger in Kathmandu for days or years, wandering from street to street. At night, when power outages snapped off electric lights, kerosene lamps glimmered in shop windows and the silver and gold paint from Buddhist ‘thanka’ scrolls sparkled like distant stars.

“I’ve never called my trips ‘adventure travel’. To me, ‘adventure’ means there’s a chance you might not come back. Most people I know have families, loved ones, and careers to come home to,” Jim said as we sat around the dinner table at the Yin and Yang Café, waiting for the power to come back on so that the cooks could start dinner.

Read Part 2

Chris Card Fuller blogs more about her travels in: Paris and Beyond