Connectivity is scarce. Here’s a week’s worth of brain dump:
They drive on the left in Nepal, too. Well, and the right and the middle, too. Traffic here flows through the narrow streets a little like blood cells through arteries – dodging, weaving, honking, and by some miracle not bumping into things too much. Also, like arteries, the streets are occasionally blocked by a cow.
Photos show that the Himalayas are tall and snowy. What they don’t convey is how very vertical they are. I know there are people who look at mountains and say “I could climb that,” but the Himalayas look to me more like a vast miles-high wall to the north. Oh, and it’s hi-MA-la-ya, not him-a-LAY-a. The mountains were visible as we flew in, but haze and smog in the valley hide them from sight.
Staying with Shubhas and his wife Kamala, and their children Shirish and Asma. So good to finally meet these people we’ve prayed for for so long! I quite like them. Their apartment is above a restaurant that makes spicy vegetable dumplings called mo-mos.
Kathmandu is loud! Constant sound of cars, motorcycles and trucks streaming by; and the way you announce you’re about to pass, overtake, or turn a corner is to honk the horn. Also this is just after the end of the Dashain festival, so there are still people blowing up firecrackers throughout most of the evening.
There was an earthquake last night. 5 on the Richter scale, according to this morning’s newspaper. Father Seraphim, being from California and used to earthquakes, had called it at 4.8 at the time; pretty close. I’d never been in an earthquake before and meditated briefly on my mortality, i.e. froze like a bunny in the headlights and wondered if we were going to die. Is sitting in the living room during an earthquake an extreme sport? if so, then adrenaline is highly overrated. For those who don’t know, a 5 is about like the shake an airplane gives right before the pilot turns the seatbelt light back on. I seem to recall that in an earthquake you’re supposed to get outside in case the ceiling falls on you. But here that would expose you to Nepal traffic… And besides, in a serious earthquake, the overhanging buildings would probably squash a person on the narrow streets as easily as indoors. So no worries.
Tonight we’ll serve Vespers. I’ll go over the litany responses with them this afternoon; we’ll all learn how to sing “Lord have mercy”, “Grant this, O Lord,” and “To Thee, O Lord” in Nepali, and then we’ll try a service. They’ve been reading the Hours, but this will be the first Orthodox Vespers in Nepal.
Lord, have mercy: Prabhu daya garnoohos
Grant this, O Lord: Prabhu yo dinoohos
To Thee, O Lord: Prabhu tapaiko laagi
Took a taxi through Kathmandu today. I can’t say how far exactly, as it was a long, hair-raising ride through mazelike streets.
The city is dirty. Not just dust and dirt, but everywhere garbage, ashes, and rivers clogged with dumped trash, and the occasional dog carcass. Wherever there’s standing water on the ground, it turns into a thick nasty black evil-smelling slime. When you’re out and about you keep your mouth shut and breathe through your nose, and for goodness sake you don’t touch your eyes or lips until you’ve washed well.
Our destination was Swayambhunath, known to tourists as the monkey temple.
Near the top of the long stairway from street level, there’s a booth where foreigners pay an entrance fee. Locals get in free. It occurred to me that we Christians are missing a potential revenue stream.
In the complex are idols and temples to various gods and buddhas. Only westerners make an artificial distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism; Nepalis roll their eyes when Westerners try to define these religions for them :-) You’ll see idols of Shiva, Vishnu and Buddha sharing the same pedestal). Some visitors come to the temple to earn merit by spinning the many prayer wheels, lighting candles, or making offerings. Most of them, though, just mill about the complex, watch the monkeys and people, buy food and drink and souvenirs from vendors.
The idols are often smeared with red paste and blackened with soot, and many of them have horrific faces out of nightmares. The smell is worse than usual because of monkey droppings on the steps and pavements, decaying trash, and Buddhist incense. Christian incense smells like spices, herbs or flowers; Buddhist incense smells like a head shop. Everywhere are ashes from where people burned piles of garbage, and the hundreds of niches occupied by small idols are mostly blackened with smoke from lamps burning butter or other things. Piles of trash are dumped in unused areas or over fences in plain sight. The architecture and some of the ornamentation are beautiful, or once were, but the accumulation of refuse and the overall filth makes it a distasteful place. The temple complex leaves one with an impression of rottenness, futility, sadness. Maybe that’s appropriate for a religion that teaches all experience is Samsara: suffering and illusion.
Patan – One of the very ancient parts of Kathmandu. We walked through a museum that was formerly the palace of (I think) the Malla kings. It’s made of brick and brick-red stucco, the floors made of flagstones rounded with age, and the ceiling and window shutters made of dark wood, wrought in pleasant patterns. It’s a cool, quiet, and restful place. The doors are all about five feet high. There’s a well at the palace – a square pit forty feet across, terraced in levels down to a pool where clean water still flows from an underground spring. These wells are also found elsewhere in Kathmandu, but at these the water is not safe.
Many dark Buddhist and Hindu temples here, in rows one after another, smudged with smoke and stained with centuries of dirt.
Boudhanath – another temple complex, much more touristy. It’s a circular white dome, about 200 feet in diameter, with lots of small idols and shrines, topped with a spire with eyes that look like a cartoon cat’s face. So far every major Buddhist site I’ve seen has also featured a prominent idol of Shiva; there’s one here too. The stupa is surrounded by hundreds of shops, stalls, and restaurants, and over a dozen large Buddhist monasteries. A few blocks away is the Hyatt, which I’m told is one of the largest hotels in Asia. Tourists and trekkers stay at high-end western hotels like the Hyatt, visit Boudhanath and buy souvenirs, then fly out to the lake region of Pokhara to begin their trek. So they miss the squalor and filth that characterizes most of Kathmandu.
We watched a ceremony where a lama and a few dozen others in vestments blessed the central dome. They chanted in an ancient language while long horns like unrolled tubas droned and smaller instruments wailed. Among the attendants were a few westerners in Buddhist ceremonial garb. Their faces looked really incongruous.
Later we walked over to the Shenchen monastery and met Shubhas’ friend Wangchuk, a Tibetan monk who has lived in Nepal for several years. Wangchuk is very interested in Christ. Once the fellowship secures a meeting place, he plans to begin attending.
There are stupas and pagoda-shaped temples scattered all over Kathmandu. Man’s natural urge toward religious expression has been at work here for several thousand years. I want to respect the variety of spiritual expression and be charitable, but honestly these temples are hideous – dark, stained, cramped, ill-smelling, and housing repulsive, surreal images. You rarely see people coming to pray at the temples; but there are always at least a few people sitting, wandering, staring vacantly.
This morning we served the first Orthodox Liturgy ever in Nepal. Just a few of us in a living room. Such a small start.
Traffic in Nepal continues to amaze me. In the absence of stripes on the road, signs, signals, or licenses, traffic flows with no more problem than at home. Each driver, cyclist, cart driver or pedestrian, seeking his own destination and safety, dodges and avoids collisions, to the benefit of all. Selfishness manifests in altruistic ways. Drivers and pedestrians thread their way through complex intersections and make room for oncoming traffic as needed – not because some central authority has planned and regulated traffic, but instead a metastable order emerges from seeming chaos.
It’s like an object lesson in libertarianism.
You don’t walk on the sidewalk because most places there isn’t any. You walk on the right or left edge of the road and keep an ear out for beeping horns behind, while dodging people and cars coming at you. Traffic mostly moves under twenty miles an hour so no problem.
A little chaotic swirl follows me around when I walk in traffic, since I’ve got a lifetime of habit telling me to walk on this side of the street, and dodge that way when passing someone. And when I make my way across a busy street with buses, cars, cycles, and bodies going both ways, I still look to the left first. :-/
Christians in Nepal greet each other with “Jai Masih”, which means “Praise Christ”. Nepalis usually say “Namaste” which originally meant something like “I salute you as a god” but nowadays just means “I salute you,” so Christians say it too. But Christians don’t make the praying-hands gesture when they say it.
A passing monkey decided to jump into a parked taxi outside our window this morning. People gathered to try to get him out; in a little while he swung out and into the next taxi, then back into the first, and onto the fence nearby. Schoolchildren and passers-by poked at the monkey, shrieking with delight or mock horror when he tried to jump at one of them. Monkey must have been enjoying it, too, as he stuck around to play for a while.
We picked up a block of yak cheese last night and had some with breakfast today. Texture is really firm, like Swiss without holes, but the flavor is more like a Pie d’Angloys or Tete de Moine; maybe not to everyone’s liking but it’s a nice robust taste.
In preparation for the Deepavali festival they’re starting to decorate temples and homes with strings of lights. Tonight at sunset we went up to the rooftop and watched people on other rooftops fly kites. The kites bear the same purple/pink/orange/yellow as a Taco Bell logo. A couple of people were flying helium balloons on long strings; a few aggressive kite-flyers managed to navigate their kites in circles and snag them; one balloon they forced down, and the other got its string cut and floated away. That’ll teach ’em.
We walked through the Pashupatinath temple complex today. The fecal smell was awful. Watched some people burning bodies on the steps above the Bagmati river; once the fire burns down, the ashes are dumped into the river. There are even more monkeys here than at the famous monkey temple of Swayambhunath. The adults are the size of dogs and have serious teeth, so you don’t play with them. There are also holy cows standing about here and there. Watch where you walk because of droppings of cows, monkeys, and pilgrims. Between incense, burning bodies, cigarette smoke, and the all-present smell of human and animal waste, this place can’t be healthy for the lungs.
The Saturday evening power outage was no surprise to anyone but me. We sat around and talked. It occurred to me that a blackout every Saturday evening for a few hours would be beneficial to family life in the States. Not sure to whom I should propose it.
The election which was planned for this week have been cancelled. instead Parliament is meeting to consider the Maoists’ demand for a secular republic. (So far this remains very much “The Hindu Kingdom of Nepal.”) The Maoists say if a republic is not declared immediately then they’ll fight. They joined the government as a political party in order to gain some breathing space, but they aren’t really interested in sharing power. Their goal is the destruction of all order other than their own. The UN continues to issue stern warnings, as if the Maoists were rational and had even their own best interests at heart. In reality the Maoists are parasites – no, worse, a debilitating disease, which if unchecked will joyfully wreck all order and infrastructure. Their leader, Prachanda, is an urbane, educated man who must surely know he is leading people into chaos and destruction; he can’t be insane enough to believe his own rhetoric.
Just got word this morning: Parliament has declared a secular republic. What does this mean for the king and the people? I dunno.