We’ve been up most of the night, since our flight departed at 11:30 pm and arrived four hours later in a different time zone. We had to wait for another seven hours for the next flight. It’s a nice airport, extremely clean. We’ve gotten used to grime. There are trash cans! I don’t know why Nepal lacks trash cans, or dumpsters, or people who clean bathrooms. Nice to have toilets you can sit on, t.p., and soap again, too.
What else is different. People are diverse. There are a lot more Africans, Europeans, Americans, Middle Easterners. Lots of Arabs, but not as many as you’d expect. Not too many women walking around in abayahs. I’m wearing my favorite kurta suruwal, the one I had made to match the outfits I bought for the girls. We only had one day together in our identical clothes.
Anura painted a sun, surya, on my palm in henna. It is my most precious ornament. Like all things, it will not last. It fades a bit more each time I wash my hands. Who will make sure Anura washes her hands with soap now that I am gone? No one comes to braid their hair before school, to sit with them during their breakfast. A new volunteer will come, I am sure. This does not console me.
Brendan is very happy to be going home, happy to have me with him in the airport. He said that my being with him makes it 100 times easier for him. He would have been fine without me, I think. I have no way of knowing that. No use pushing a child into a situation that they don’t feel ready to face. You can’t build character through intentional suffering or indifferent neglect.
Same day, about 24 hours later:
New York, New York
Sitting in a well-lit Vino/Volo wine bar at JFK with Brendan. When the waitress brought the salad I ordered, I had to stop myself from saying “thank you” in Nepali (danyabad). Then, wonder of wonders, she brought salt and pepper, which never would have happened in Nepal.
I’m drinking pinot grigio, which is somewhat insane since I’m exhausted. I got up yesterday morning at 5:30, Nepali time, and have had only short naps in the past 48 hours. Brendan is dozing in the chair next to me. He has been in a wonderful mood, thrilled to be able to get a milkshake that he could drink safely and very, very happy to be back in the States.
He just opened his eyes and laughed. A woman has come onto the airport intercom twice now to cuss out another woman in standard Black American English. I didn’t catch all her words, but did manage to hear “nigger, bitch, mother-fucking…” Welcome to America!
I have spoken to T now twice. I called him after we got through customs to announce our arrival. We spoke for a few minutes in the usual friendly tones. It was awkward. It has always been hard to talk to him on the phone, and this time the odd silences were no longer or more uncomfortable than usual. Still, it felt strange.
He called again just now to say that he was going to the market for us, and to ask if we had any requests. It’s nice of him to do this, and nice of him to pick us up from the airport, and nice of him to have gotten all his furniture out of the house in time for our arrival. I asked him how he accomplished this. He said that friends from his church gave him a hand, and that one of them had a 22 year-old son who was particularly helpful. I wondered if this was the woman he’s interested in, but didn’t ask.
Tim has bought a house just steps away from mine but won’t close on it until the end of the month. So he’ll go to his sister’s tonight. This will probably be a strange move for him, since my house has been his house for so long now. I’m worried that it will feel very cold and empty without him there.
Brendan said, “Don’t worry! Soon you’ll have me and Danielle and a Great Dane to keep you company.”
It is true. With Baldr and Freya, there will be three dogs, two children, and one cat under the roof. Plenty of company. Thank goodness for Brendan.
I’m sure I can’t possibly assess to what degree or how I have changed in the past few months right now. My brain is not working so well right now, and it’s too soon to say. But it is certain that I have changed. I’m neither devout nor dogmatic, but I’ve become much more seriously interested in Buddhism.
One of the strangest things about being here—in addition to the odd announcements from the airport loudspeaker—is getting used to the fact that from now on most of the people I’ll encounter will be Americans who speak only one language and who have never traveled anywhere outside the country. Given the neighborhood I live in and the places I go, most of the people I see will be white. Some of them will be black. Very few of them will look like the brown faces I’ve come to know as ordinary. There will be no more diversity of Asian faces bearing witness to Indian, Mongolian, Tibetan, or Chinese ancestry!
I have been living at a Buddhist monastery for the past week, getting up to the sound of chanting monks. I have gotten used to women in kurtas, dogs, cows, ducks and chickens in the street, to women swishing their beautiful Tibetan silk skirts and aprons, to men in Newari caps sitting for hours on storefront stoops, to gaudy saris and tikas and tinkling plastic bracelets, to attracting unwanted attention because I am white.
I love the slow pace of life in Nepal and love to gaze upon the stupa.
I miss Anura, Bipin, Gaurima, Krishala, and Nirmala. It seems cruel and unfair that I won’t be able to see them every morning. It is terrible to contemplate the thought of never seeing them again.
What are you willing to go through in order to get a pair of walking sandals? I had brought my old Chackos, my sturdiest, waterproof, hiking sandals to Nepal, where I wore them every day. At night I left them with the myriad other shoes jumbled up at Sughanda’s house door, well behind a locked gate. One morning, towards the middle of my time there, they were gone. Someone had stolen them.
I bought a knockoff pair in Kathmandu, but they fell apart the first time I climbed a mountain in them. Then I tried to get by on flip-flops and hiking boots, but the former were too flimsy and the latter too hot. My dear friend Shreejanna spent an entire day with me searching for something with which to replace them, but I found nothing suitable and ended up with more blisters.
I found myself walking less and less. After a few miserable weeks I broke down and ordered another pair from R.E.I. I had plans to do some serious mountaineering and needed something sturdy and reliable. The new Chakos cost $95 plus $30 to ship, and arrived 10 days later. I had no idea what I was in for when I headed downtown to pick them up.
Three days before I was supposed to leave Nepal, I received a phone call from an officious official who informed me that I had a package waiting and should come to Room 32 at the General Post Office (GPO). My friend Bill, who knows Kathmandu very well, went with me by cab to the heart of the city. The GPO is an enormous, concrete structure in deteriorating piss-yellow paint.
We entered a cavernous, noisy room with grey walls and floor and stood for a few minutes in front of a teller who sat well behind a high, glass wall. When it became clear that she was determined to ignore us, we moved to two other women who looked a little friendlier. They looked at me and acknowledged my greeting, so I said,
“Hello, my name is Doctor Latta and I have a package to pick up.”
Neither of them said a word. I repeated my statement. They mumbled something in return.
“I need to pick up a package!” I said, raising my voice.
They responded again but I could not comprehend. Finally Bill stepped in and said exactly what I had said, but it was as though he had said something different because the women grinned at him and directed us to a different building. We went back out the door and around what looked like a trash heap through a parking lot and towards some piss-yellow buildings. I saw a lot of crushed boxes mailed from different countries and wondered if the carton of books and tee-shirts that Tim had sent me had ended up here, in this graveyard of undelivered packages.
We went into one building and found another enormous, echoing room At a large wrap-around desk in the center a woman in a purple kurta sat and stared at us.
“Yes?” she demanded crisply.
“Room 32?” I asked.
She pointed to a dirty corridor to her left and we followed it outside again, around a corner and across a concrete slab on which a dog lay. It was hard to tell whether it was dead or alive. We entered another, smaller labyrinth but this time there were signs in English. Room 30, 31, 32 this way. We followed the arrow and entered into a dim corridor which led us to a number of different rooms. Finally we found room 32, a long, dark room with a long counter that ran its length. We waited for about five minutes in line behind someone speaking to an official, when a man dressed in black pants and white shirt—the uniform of the officials at this office—called us in an irritated voice to a different spot at the counter. I explained that I had receive a call from the G.P.O. informing me that I had a package to pick up.
“What is your name?” the official asked.
I told him. He disappeared into a room at the end of the room, behind the counter, for another 5 minutes, and then returned, empty-handed.
“We cannot find your package,” he said, and gestured for me to follow him into the room from which he had just emerged. Bill came with me into another dark room filled with boxes in no particular order, haphazardly stacked in piles on the floor.
“You look for your package,” the man ordered.
We obeyed. After 10 or 15 minutes of searching, we found the box and mistakenly assumed that our ordeal was finished. But no. The man took the box from me and put it behind the counter. He shoved a form at me and told me to take it to room 31.
We took the form to room 31, a bit brighter but dirtier room in which four or five men were lounging behind desks, smoking cigarettes. The only person who appeared to be working was a woman in a pink kurta at a desk near the entrance to the room.
We approached her, but she directed us to one of the more relaxed fellows at a neighboring desk. He allowed us to wait for a few minutes before scanning the form that I handed him and consulting a large, green, leather-bound book. He said that I had to pay about 180 rupees and wrote something on the form. Returning it to me he indicated that we should return to the woman at the front desk, who took my money.
She didn’t have exact change in her drawer so she got some bills out of her purse. Then she told us to return to the central office, where we had encountered the woman in the purple kurta. We went to her, showed her the form, and she told us to return to room 32.
We trudged back through the labyrinth, outdoors again and around, past the still seemingly dead dog. In Room 32 we presented the form to a different man behind the counter, who pulled my box from underneath the counter and looked at it blankly.
“You must wait for Mr. Shrestha,” he said, without further explanation.
We stood there for many minutes, staring at the box that I for some unknown reason was not yet permitted to receive. Finally he told us to sit down in some plastic chairs nailed against the wall opposite the counter and put my box back under the counter. This was all starting to get very tiresome, and I was tempted to simply grab and run, but Bill stayed me. We waited. Mr. Shrestha failed to show.
I got up and went over to the counter, where I did my best to glower at the man who had asked us to wait. Perhaps I looked fierce, or perhaps he was also tired to waiting for his superior, and so he pulled the box out from its hiding place and stood with his hands on it.
Suddenly, Mr. Shrestha appeared. He ceremoniously stepped up, greeted us gruffly, and proceeded to tear open my package. Inside he found the sandals and rooted around for other stuff.
“That’s all there is,” I said, expecting any minute to have them in my hands.
But no, he did not hand them over. Instead he scribbled something illegible on another form and told me to take it back to Room 31. Back out we went, past the still unmoving dog, around the piss-yellow walls, and into the enormous central office, and into the dingy room where all the men lounged and the single woman worked. We went back to the surly gentleman who we spoke to before, and he demanded another 50 rupees, which he said was a tax. I was so sick of the process that I didn’t argue and dully handed over the bills, which went again to the woman in the pink kurta, who signed the form.
We took it back to Room 32, where I think I would have screamed and raved had I not finally gotten my hands on the goods that we had expected to get over an hour ago.
As we sailed out the door Bill asked, “Ever get the idea that you’re in a Kafka story?”
I’m watching Of Gods and Men. It’s about a group of French Trappist monks who chose to stay in their community rather than flee to safety during the Algerian civil war. They were kidnapped in 1995 by terrorists, but their death was never explained. Some have argued that Algerian soldiers killed them during a botched rescue attempt. The first part of the movie shows the monks selling their own honey and vegetables in the market, offering medical care and advice to the locals, who are mostly Islamic. When fundamentalists come to their town, the town leaders come to consult with the monks. When the terrorists come closer and begin to kill all foreigners, the monks refuse military protection. The Algerian army, in fact, is just as brutal and violent as the terrorists. This beautiful movie highlights the monks’ incredible forbearance and dedication to peace. It is a portrait of truly peaceful Christian practice, so unlike the practice of our allegedly Christian, elected representatives, who wage war around the world and who never cease to find reasons to kill and main and destroy in the name of freedom. But the film also highlights the peace and love that are central to Islam, as well, showing the daily lives of the people, their friendliness, their vulnerability, and their civility. The terrorists are presented as men at odds with Islam, men who hardly know the Koran and who have a simplistic and militaristic interpretation of scripture. They are not unlike those among us who vote for bombs and landmines and hatred for people who don’t worship the same god.
Since I have returned from Nepal I have reclaimed my sense that we are all united in a great web of being, of aliveness and no longer identify myself as an atheist. Love is our greatest resource, the power most essential to our nature as well as the link between us all. We are not singular and cut off from one another. We only exist with one another, in relation to one another, and the relationship that we have with one another when we are being true to ourselves is loving. We are true to ourselves when we treat each other with love and compassion. Everything else about us—guns, violence, hatred, oppression, war—is against our truest nature.
Since I have embraced this essentially spiritual way of understanding the world, which was always very basic, if buried, in me, my attitude towards other believers, especially Christians, has changed. I’m no longer angry. I still dislike the masculinism underlying the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the ancient and arbitrary division between Self and Other that recognizes men as subjects and women as objects, but I have given up the burden of burning indignation. My fury and resentment hurt me more than objects of my fury. As Donna Farhi relates, “harboring resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
The Dalai Lama was asked how he could feel loving kindness for the Chinese, who invaded his country, destroyed most of the monasteries, murdered thousands of Tibetans, and were continuing to repress and eradicate his people and culture. He was silent for a long time, and finally answered that he distinguished between the act and the agent. He could repudiate the actions of the Chinese but still feel compassion for the Chinese agents who brutalized his people. They are suffering greatly, after all, because they have strayed so far from their true nature.
My true self is not the crazy tangle of thoughts and emotions that continuously run through my mind, nor my ever-changing body, but rather the silent, neutral witness of my experiences in the world. It is this quiet aliveness, this prana, the shimmering vitality that I share with all other sentient beings, the life-force that courses through the forests, the oceans, the mountains, the rocks, the sun, the fiery core of our planet, the rivers, the plains, all plants, all organisms, even the stars themselves, that is my truest ground of being. This is what Rainer Maria Rilke calls “the infinite ground of our deepest vibration.” As he wrote,
Be in front of all parting as though it were already behind you,
It is the oddest experience—to be really angry at someone and yet to forgive instantly, to love someone and yet to know that you need to let them go, to be relieved to have your solitude back and yet to mourn the loss of your former lover, to accept that you’re moving on and yet to keep freaking out about his having left you for someone else.
You say to yourself:
No way is she better than me. I mean, his taste has really declined.
And then you admit:
…but maybe she’s better for him than I was.
Which leads to the happy thought:
And maybe there’s someone out there who is way better for me, too.
I have been looking for him for such a long time. This time I’m not settling about anything. I will feel the earth move. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of his perfums, his name is like perfume poured out.
I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m so glad and relieved this time to be able to go through this without getting stuck in rigid “he did me wrong” discourse. Also, I’m glad holding myself with compassion and gentleness and love as I face my suffering. This does not mean I place the burden of my suffering at his feet and demand retribution. These are my problems. Look: I choose to respond to this difficulty, this blow to my emotional and financial security with love and grace. I chose grace. Why chose anything else?
Suffering, dukha, is unavoidable. I can’t opt out of the pain but I can choose how I respond to it. I think writing about it, meditating about it, and crying about it is all an excellent form of ritualized mourning, a kind of kaddish that I am working through. I’m trying to keep my eyes open.
I was talking to a friend (a friend? more than a friend? there’s always hope!) tonight about how weird it is to be back in the United States. Everything is more or less the same. The gods dogs are the same, the garden is the same as it always is this time of year, the paintings and rugs and tables and chairs and dishes in my house are the same, the streets are the same, my neighbors are doing the same things, the pile of mail is the same pile of catalogs and come-ons, but I am different. My body and mind have changed. I was only there for two months but it transformed me tangibly in a way that I cannot yet describe. I feel heavier, more rooted to the earth, as though the magnets in my soles had a stronger pull. If I’m liable to floating off at a momentous breath, then I’m as likely to come come crashing back to the ground again, upright and on my feet.
I like being in my house by myself. I love it here. The wisteria and the grape vines are still alive, if parched. The Echinacea is blooming into the heat. The rosemary, symbol of the woman’s reign in the household, had held on, a small, scrubby branch.
Today I reclaimed my yoga/meditation room. I set up an altar with the male and female manifestations of compassionate action—Avalokitseshvara and Green Tara.
For me, Green Tara is the most important deity/symbol in the Buddhist pantheon. “ The Sanskrit root târ-means “to traverse” or “cross over” as in using a bridge to ford a stream.” Green Tara is pictured rising from her Lotus couch, one foot in the world, ready to help, actively involved in the alleviation of misery in the world. Her name means what the modern Greek word metaphor means: a vehicle for carrying over, like a dolly that you use to move furniture from one place to another. Similarly, linguistic metaphors don’t name the things they denote, they only transport meaning and by transporting make those things, those concepts, accessible.
Tara moves from one place to another, transports compassion from its abstract realm to the material realm, putting it into action. A metaphor reaches out, spans a gap and, by connecting things together, makes the immaterial concrete, graspable.
I have been crying.
Crying releases stress and consoles the heart, they say. For sure, you can’t pretend you’re not suffering or that you don’t need to be loved when you’re weeping. But you don’t necessarily feel better afterwards. You feel wrung out, over-infused with intensity, exhausted. It is good if you can keep laughing. I often laugh after or while crying. Joy and sorrow aren’t exactly opposed emotions. When you cry you feel vulnerable, and if you’re at all kind to yourself you will give yourself some slack. Embrace your suffering with all the love that you would bestow on anyone else you love.
Having taken this advice seriously, I can now announce:
Hey! I just realized that I am HOME.
I’m in my house. Today is my father’s birthday. I have a gorgeous, large sepia-toned photograph of him in his prime, when he was still handsome. I’m at home in my father. My father has come to rest at home in me.
I ADORED my father, and also had a lot of trouble getting along with him. Many regrets. Still, I’m hereby honoring, toasting, him, thanking him for all that he gave me, for the skiing lessons, the encouragement, for never saying that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to because I was a girl.
Awesome job, Dad. And I’m not talking about the money, even though you thought that was all anyone cared about. I cared about you.
Switching away to JOY!! I have everything I need right here. My son is spending the night at his girlfriend’s house and
I am alone in my own private space for the first time in 2 months.
The bathroom is clean, the toilet flushes without running all over the floor, the shower runs hot and cold, no one is watching me come and go, and I have air conditioning. I can eat all the salad and fruit I want without getting diarrhea and I am taking food out of my own refrigerator in my kitchen with its ancient linoleum floors. I can dance around naked if I please. It is a delightful freedom. I want to call up my friend J not to gloat but to share with her a delicious independence that she will best understand.
If you cannot find a companion who is better than or like yourself
You should make your way steadily, alone.
In the childish there is no companionship.
From the 5th chapter of the Dhammapada
The Dhammapada, or “Verses on the Way,” is a redaction of the Buddha’s teachings. By “childish” the speaker, allegedly the Buddha, means something more expansive that the behavior and mentality that we expect from children. He means people who, for whatever set of reasons, have not yet grown to maturity in their thought or feelings, who have not yet become “skillful.”
Later on the Dhammapada reads,
If one cannot find a mature friend,
a companion who is wise, living productively,
let him go alone,
like a king abandoning conquered land,
like an Elephant in the forest.
A life of solitude is better–
There is no companionship with a childish person.
Let one go alone and do no damage,
Like an elephant in the forest.
It is better to restrain the mind alone than to be restrained by someone else, better to conquer one’s own passions than to live tamed by someone else. Like an elephant, the wise wayfarer governs her or his own passions, endures the insults and arrows inflicted by others. The wise practitioner does not go mad with rage because she or he keeps watch over thoughts and emotions. She or he finds comfort in friends and in “contentment with whatever is.”
If you are reading Buddhist scriptures you are probably trying to wake up, to see more clearly, to understand the world better than you have so far. You are trying to find your way out of the trance of reactivity, of emotional distress that leads to behaviors you later regret. You know that dukkha, pain, is inevitable. You know that don’t need to make it worse by beating yourself up about it. And yet you do fall back into the trance, all the time, and you do occasionally wake up to yourself beating yourself up. So you keep to the path, watch over your mind, and look for people who are more or as skillful at this practice of discipline.
Have you ever been on a trek or a long hike with a really childish person? Not a really young person. Young people can be very old, very mature, very good company. But I mean someone who is continuously grasping for attention, for reassurance, someone who boasts and struts or whines and manipulates or has to fill every bit of quiet with incessant jabber? After a short while you begin to feel enervated, tired, impatient. You grit your teeth, you endure. You are not looking about you. Your attention becomes very small, very focused on the source of irritation. The Buddha says, “be compassionate to and with this person but do not expect much from them. Walk steadily on.”
These are not the Buddha’s words. I’m paraphrasing the lines above, which differ a lot from the classic masculine stiff-upper-lip mantras that Tupac Shakur parodies in his “Hold On.”
Hold On, Be Strong,
When it’s on, it’s on.
The same speaker who claims that he screwed up by smoking pot but now knows what’s “going on out there” and that “god don’t like ugly,” and that “you got to stand strong,” is getting high at the beginning of the song. Thus everything he says has a double meaning. He plays on the meaning of the word “strong” by identifying it with the aggressively self-defensive stance of the “black male” and the “thug for life.” Tupac is not endorsing this thuggish identity, he’s putting it down. He’s also saying that it’s not enough to “hold on” and “be strong,” to stoically endure without admitting to pain. He’s also not campaigning against weed. He’s observing that we are all vulnerable, we are all suffering, and we might want to think twice about the directive to suck it up and bear it. We might want to show a little compassion to our own suffering, which will help us to acknowledge others’ suffering, and jolt us out of the fatal trance of the ego.
So when it comes round, Tupac’s refrain, “Hold on, Be strong” means exactly the opposite of what the stoned speaker says it means. Tupac challenges the whole “black-man-as victim-of-the white-system” and asserts, “be strong” and “hold on” as a message that is far more complicated that its overt explication. He urges his auditors to have faith in themselves as agents of positive change. The Buddha says, “hang in there, endure your suffering, but do not discount it; acknowledge your reality, your dukkha” Tupac says something similar. Be strong, but not in the rigid, hyper-masculine manner.
To compare dukkha, human suffering, to a simplistic victim/oppressor mode of thought is to get stuck in rigid black/white ways of understanding reality. You can’t simply deny it or refuse to talk about it. And there is no point in going around blaming your ex for having hurt you, attacking defensively, lashing out in retribution. It solves nothing and it’s childish.
No one is coming to save you except yourself. It’s not a matter of belief, of abstract faith, but rather of action, of wise movement, of practice, of allowing Tara/Avalokitesvara to step off the virtual lotus of heavenly bliss into the world of suffering. Step off your high horse of militant self-denial into your suffering heart, and find contentment in the movement, in the metaphor. Acknowledge your pain and be with yourself, alone, like an elephant in the forest. Thus you can
I have not been able to write for a while because I have had very limited access to the internet. Also, my last days here in Nepal have been richly complicated and busy, and I have not had the energy or ability to post. Right now I’m sitting in a delightful garden café at the Shechen Gompa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near the great stupa called Boudha.
There are magnolia and mango trees, and swooping bushy hot pink and orange bougainvillea vines, hibiscus bushes, marigolds, impatiens and countless other shade and sun flowers I cannot name. I have spent a lot of time here in the last week.
There is much to report, much to record, and much more to consider. For now I’m going to upload some thoughts that I wrote during my transition from the last post to today. During that period bedbugs drove me out of Sugandha’s house and into what Sugandha called a palace. It was a nice, upper middle-class Nepali house. I lasted less than a week and ended up here. Brendan moved over with me a few days ago. We’re sharing a well-appointed room at the Tharlam gompa and have had many adventures and conversations.
25 July, 2011
I’m having a difficult time adjusting to the new house. First of all, I miss Brendan. I don’t like having breakfast and dinner without him, and I liked getting to say goodnight. Second of all, I have a lot less privacy here. Every move is scrutinized. Not so much by the wife, Nirmala, as by the husband, Kalidas, a traditional Nepali man. When trying to make conversation on the first day, I asked Nirmala what she liked to do. Did she like to garden? Yes. She told me about her garden. Did she like to cook? She hesitated, and then Kalidas interrupted, practically shouting, “Cooking is her duty!” It didn’t matter to him whether or not she liked it. He asked lots of personal questions, as Nepalis tend to do, and quickly discerned that I was divorced, a status that most Nepalis find disgraceful. He makes me uncomfortable.
I don’t have the nice view from the room that I had at Sugandha’s house, and I can’t hear the frogs chirping in the fields at night. I can’t sleep because the bed is super-hard and the machine that recharges the battery intermittently fires off a round of zaps like a machine gun. This noise goes on from about 9 pm to 2 am.
Kalidas does not approve that I get up at 7 in the morning. He likes to inform me that he gets up at 5. He plays badminton with three other Nepali businessmen, who come over afterwards and drink tea on the front porch. They keep the front door wide open so when I come out to take a shower they are all there gaping.
At meal times, Nirmala serves Kalidas, then me, and hovers at the table to see if we want any more vegetable curry or rice. I am so sick of dal bhat. Somehow I have got to persuade her not to pile the rice into a mountain on my plate. If I say “pugyo,” or “I am full,” when she wants to give me more, Kalidas suggests that I do not like the food. Nirmala sits only after Kalidas has had his second or third helping. I want to wait for her to finish her food before leaving the table, but Kalidas gets impatient and wants me to bring my dishes to the sink as soon as possible. He barks at me to get up, so I do. He is used to ordering women around. I find this unsettling. I like Nirmala and am willing to like Kalidas.
Nepali sexual politics are difficult for me. There are four ways to address a person in the language: the very, very formal “You” (hajur) used for kings and magistrates; the ordinarily formal “You” (tapaai); the very familiar “timi” used for children and between friends; and the very low “ta” which is used for dogs, lower beings and between intimates. Kalidas says “ta” to his wife but she says “tapaai” to him. He addresses her by her first name. She always and only says “tapaai” to him. “The husband dominates the wife,” he explains to me as she sits beside him smiling and agreeing. Nirmala never leaves the house. Her sister-in-law comes over with her 18 month-old during the day and they watch t.v.. Nirmala keeps a relatively clean house—but the bathrooms are not nearly as clean as mine back home.
They are Brahmin and not particularly religious, which is somewhat of a relief after Sova’s morning puja, which began loudly at 5 with the same version of “Om Nama Shivaya” on the stereo, and concluded at about six with a long and vigorous ringing of a bell and the blowing of a horn. I will try to adjust to this new dwelling.
If I had known how difficult the journey was going to be, I never would have attempted it. Getting up here to this enormous mountaintop shrine to the Buddha took all my energy. I started out in the heat of mid-morning, with plenty of water and a good breakfast in my stomach, on a walk that the guidebook said would take two to three hours. I followed the water’s edge from the center of the tourist strip past the rental boats and scrubby jewelry vendors, past the fancy lakeside restaurants, across a grassy area and over a brick wall where I pointed out a beautiful blue butterfly to a little boy whose parents were bathing below. I followed a footpath through weeds, across a parking lot for an expensive hotel that you had to take a ferry to, and through a gate to an abandoned park with a brick wall around it. I headed towards some peaked red roofs atop crumbling brick buildings, which turned out to be ancient temple grounds, four or five smaller shrines set around a larger mandir dedicated to Shiva.
There I met a young priest, who invited me into the sacred area where non-Hindus almost never get to go. He also opened up the doors to a smaller temple to Durga, the great mother goddess, whom among the thousands of Hindu deities I have adopted as my personal protectress. The priest told me it was too far to walk to the Buddhist Stupa that I had set out to visit, and that it would be best to take a boat across the lake to the beginning of the path through the forest. I turned around and looked for a boat. When I found out how much it was going to cost to cross, and also that the boatman had elected himself my personal tour guide, whether I wanted him or not, I reversed course and headed through the temple grounds again.
I decided to believe the guidebook, not the priest, since like all Nepali men he assumed that western women are unable to discern what is best for them, and this attitude pissed me off. But before heading out, I asked him for tika, which he happily gave me, apologizing for not having offered it before. This red mark on my forehead brought me good luck and guidance, as you shall hear.
I crossed a trash-filled stream on a metal suspension bridge. Boys stood knee-deep, fishing, in the filthy water. The path took me around the lake behind a plump, short woman who shielded herself from the burning sun with a purple umbrella. I had been walking slowly to conserve energy and to stay cool. Even so, I caught up with the woman pretty quickly, and greeted her as I passed: “Namaste.”
Namaste means, “the divine beauty in me greets the divine beauty in you.” This is the common greeting, which all Nepalis use to say hello and, sometimes, goodbye. Strangers on the street do not routinely exchange it the way Californians say, “Hello, how are you,” as they pass one another without waiting for a reply. But whenever one meets eyes it is polite to say hello and common to hold up one’s hands in prayer as one does so. If someone greets you with hands in prayer and you do not return the gesture, it is considered very bad manners and bad luck. I love this greeting! Namaste: The divine in me salutes the divine in you! It feels like the most natural and honest expression of my heart, as well as the most appropriate way for human beings to greet one another. Every one of us inherently good and capable of remembering and cultivating the goodness in ourselves.
In this spirit, then, I saluted the woman with the purple umbrella, who returned my salute and then quickened her pace to keep up with me. She was inquisitive. “Where are you from?” She asked. “Do you like Nepal?” “How long have you been here?” “How long will you stay?” “Where are your friends?” she demanded, along with a number of other questions that I didn’t understand. I did my best to converse but lapsed, with apologies, again and again into frustrated silence. I showed her the tika on my forehead, which she found so astonishing and wonderful that she insisted that she photograph me immediately. She managed to hail another woman, sitting in the shade in a walled garden behind a gateway that proclaimed, “No unauthorized persons may enter.” The woman with the umbrella, now my fast friend, convinced the other woman to allow us into the shade and to take a photograph of us together. As soon as she handed her phone to the woman, my new friend threw her arms around me. I obligingly put my arm around her, and smiled. I was happy to have pleased her so much, if also somewhat bowled over by her enthusiastic affection.
After the photo, my admirer walked along in the same direction, still gabbing away at me, even though it was clear that I understood very little. I asked her where she was going, and she said that she was heading somewhere off to the left, to her home in the New Road. My path took me to the right, and I expected her to leave me at any moment. She chattered away at me in Nepali using that lovely up lilting “enah!” at the end of her sentences, which is both a question and command. I had no idea what she meant but she sounded friendly and content. I kept expecting her to break away, but she seemed determined to direct me. Finally I stammered out something like, “I am strong and okay. You are going with me? I can go alone.” She just grabbed my arm firmly and pushed me further down the road. The one word I recognized again and again in her lectures to me was “Saathi,” or “friend.” I asked her if she thought it was dangerous to go to the Stupa alone. The guidebook had warned travelers not to go through the rain forest without a group, because robbers were known to prey upon tourists there. I had deliberately left my wallet at home, bringing only enough cash to get a little food and a boat back, and this I had hidden well in my backpack. I also happen to be as tall if not taller than most Nepali men, and relatively brave or foolhardy, and thought I would be fine. She explained that she was taking me on an alternate route, one that would be safer although longer. We passed a sign at the trailhead of a path leading straight up through the forest. It said in large, bold letters: IT IS BEST TO TRAVEL IN GROUPS.
I began to worry about her health. It was indeed very hot and although she was sturdily built, she did not have the most appropriate walking shoes on. Then again, the Nepalis never do and they go great distances in flip-flops that tear my feet to shreds. Still, I felt anxious about the debt that I was building up to her as well as the danger she seemed to determined to protect me from. A couple of 10- or 12-year old boys approached us from behind, and I stepped aside to let them pass, wondering if these were the sorts of robbers I should look out for. To my surprise, they very cheerfully and sympathetically began to fire questions at me in English. This was a relief after the past 45 minutes of language breakdown, and I asked them to please tell the wonderful woman with the purple umbrella that I appreciated her help very much, but did not expect her to take me all the way to the Stupa. They spoke a few words to one another and she agreed to leave me there, with the boys. Once again she threw her arms around me, this time kissing me on both cheeks, in the French fashion. Then she waddled home as the boys announced that they would take me through the forest.
They said that they were 12 years old and cousins, who lived in a nearby village. They pointed to their mothers working in the rice fields as we passed. They also said that they were in school, but did not know for how many more years they would attend since their parents were poor farmers. To make extra money, they said, they guided tourists through the forest on the way to the Stupa. They walked very quickly without any effort and I kept up with them until the path got and stayed very steep. One of them was very sweet and honest, while the other, taller one had already learned to manipulate and take advantage of others. After a while they seemed to be two angels, or demons, into whose hands I had unwittingly delivered myself. The nicer one wanted to know exactly how much money I would give them for guiding them. I refused to answer this question until we had reached the summit, partly because I was afraid that they would abandon me for a wrong answer in what seemed increasingly like a jungle. Footpaths led off in every direction, and there were no signs indicating the way to the stupa. The mosquitoes swarmed and bit mercilessly, and other, tinier, black bugs attached themselves to my legs and arms. To make things worse, the cheap sandals I had bought to replace the Chakos that someone stole from me fell apart. The bottom sole sheared away and one of the straps broke, so I had to walk carefully.
We climbed for an hour or two. My heart began to thud heavily against my chest, partly because I had tried to keep up with the boys, who climbed like mountain goats, instead of pacing myself for the journey. That would have been hard to do, actually, since I had no idea for how long we would be walking, or how steep the path would be. Still, because I had gotten winded early on, I had to stop often. I couldn’t sit down to rest, because leeches lurked under the leaves on jungle-forest floor and I didn’t want to invite any more insects to crawl up my legs.
I began to flag. I had rationed my water sensibly but had not brought any candy or nuts for energy. Just before we reached the summit, I had to force myself to lift each heavy foot, one after another, and also had to keep reminding myself not to rest my hands on my hips. Finally we reached a little shop at a crest of the mountain, from which we could see all of Pokhara as well as the stupa, still a half-hour’s walk up another steep hill. I threw myself into a chair and drank most of the liter of the water I bought before the shopkeeper could return my change to me. I also bought the kids, who had complained that they were hungry, some coke and chips. I also had a coke myself, just to get some sugar into my bloodstream. I would not have made the final trek without it.
I gave the boys 110 rupees each, all I could afford while keeping just enough to get back by boat at the bottom of the hill. I didn’t know where that path was, but the boys said that someone could show me as they said goodbye. All seemed well until the taller, ruder boy called after me and demanded more money. “I gave you all that I could,” I said and shrugged off his parting curse.
I limped up to the Stupa under a sweltering sun. The plaque at its base, where you are asked to remove your shoes, stated that it had been built by a Japanese Buddhist sect whose mission was to spread Buddhism and peace by erecting 100 peace pagodas in as many countries around the world. There were very few visitors, just a few Nepali couples and another pair who looked Dutch. One of the Nepali couples, who had unusually delicate features, asked me to take so many photos of them with their phone that I worked up the courage to ask them if I could photograph them with my camera. I liked the gentleness of their movements and the way that they looked at each other, obviously very much in love.
There were also a few groundskeepers. Typically, the man lounged in the shade while the woman labored under the sun, which sweltered above. All the clouds had gathered around the edge of the lake, obscuring the Himalayas, as they usually do at that time of day in the summer time. I hadn’t come for the view, but rather to see the pagoda and to have a bit of a walk. I hadn’t expected it to be a trek or an adventure. The pain and uncertainty I suffered getting up here was worth it. The four great golden statues and murals, which look off in the four directions, preach peace, enlightenment, love, and universal harmony.
I am now sitting at the doorway of a Japanese Buddhist temple, which is set on the steep hill just below the Peace Pagoda. The doors are locked but I can see through the screens. The interior is very different, quite a bit more subdued, than the Nepali and Tibetan temples I have seen. There are no chairs or benches outside here, just as at the stupa, so I am sitting on the steps. There are ants and mosquitoes but none of the biting bugs that attacked me in the forest. This friendly dog passing by probably has fleas, so I will not pet him.
I would like very much to write a letter to Tim, who has been on my mind for so much of this trip to Pokhara. I can’t resolve the conflicting and violent emotions that beset me, It is always this way with a breakup. One belabors the end on and on without reaching any satisfactory understanding. Usually the party who makes the break is more eager to stop talking about it, while the party caught off guard cannot discuss the problem enough. The only solution, which comes sooner or later, is to drop it.
I would like to be friends with him. Certainly what is most terrible and devastating about this breakup is that I seem to have lost my best friend. I feel very vulnerable and lost without his friendship, his support, his affection. I cannot deny that I was unhappy in our relationship, too, and that I felt we were not as suited to one another as I would have liked. Many of my needs were unmet.
Things changed. They do that. I gravitated to women friends who spoke freely and openly about their fears and anxieties and weaknesses. There were times when I felt slighted by him, and there were times when he felt slighted by me.
Still I believed in our bond, in our importance to one another. I loved the easy way we lived together. He comforted me.
My brain will not compute this reality. What seemed an oasis was a mirage.
Still, I sit here at the peace pagoda and wish to make peace with him in my heart. I do not know how to do it. How do I acknowledge my suffering, my wounds, and yet forgive? Why am I holding a grudge against him? What am I afraid of if I let give up this war? Isn’t the emotion at the bottom of my anger fear? What do I fear most of all?
That I am weak.
How do I now open conversation with him without attacking him? By sharing my own insecurities and vulnerabilities with him. Here is the letter I am sending:
Dearest Timothy, Namaste:
My last email was pretty angry, an outburst of the tumultuous emotions that I’ve been struggling to manage since we broke up. I act like I’m crazy when I am afraid and wanted to tell you about my fears as a way to open conversation between us again.
I am afraid that I will never again meet a man whom I love who also loves me.
I am afraid that no one will see the beauty and goodness that you saw in me, and that I will be alone for the rest of my life.
I am afraid that I will never have a family again, other than the wonderful family that I have with Brendan.
I am afraid that I will never again be included and accepted and desired and protected.
I fear I’ll have to find all strength, all courage, all support from within myself.
I fear I’ll get weak and dizzy and make mistakes and lose my way.
I fear again wandering in the terrible desert of loneliness.
I know that these are fears, not truths, and also that they come and go like waves on the sea. I know that these anxieties cloud my mind and make me say and do things that I regret. I also know that these fears are not my fault. That is, they well up in me because of my experiences and culture and inheritance. I meditate to survive them.
I am sorry for every hurtful word and gesture between us, for every breakdown of communication, every dissipation of the love we have for one another. Above all, I want to hold you in my life as the cherished and trusted friend that you have always been to me. When my feelings of loss, fear, and self-criticism drive me to lash out at you or to despair I forget that what I want most of all is peace and harmony within and between us. I want to face the crossroads we have come to squarely with compassion for both of us. I wish now to be strong, serene, and levelheaded, to know my own Buddha nature and to be a good and kind friend to you.
Most of all, I wish to let go of my attachment to you and hold onto my love for you. You have been a good friend to me, after all. You are taking care of my house, our dogs, my cat, and my yard. You are collecting my mail and scanning and sending important documents to me by email. You let me know how the animals are doing and actually treat the cat better than I ever did. You words since our breakup have always been kind and soft. All of these gestures show your love for me, and I feel incredibly lucky to have you in my life as a friend, still my best friend. Thank you.
I dreamed that I was the passenger in a car. The person driving was a supportive male friend. A turtle wandered into the road and flipped itself over right in the middle of the lanes. I made the driver stop, got out of the car, and stopped oncoming traffic. Then I carefully turned the turtle right side up and gingerly carried it to the side of the road. I had never picked up a turtle before and worried that I was hurting it by holding it only from its shell. When I set it down, it began to crawl toward the center of the highway again, propelled by some archaic instinct. I rescued it once more and again held it nervously while I scanned the area for the place that it seemed to be wanting to go. I saw a path leading down away from and then underneath the road to a glen. I set the turtle at the edge of a pool and watched it as it sat, stunned. Then it eased itself forward into the water and swam away. I climbed back up the hill, feeling very happy.
When I awakened I wondered if I had dreamed about rescuing myself. I had to leave the car driven by a supportive man and carry myself to water, safety, and freedom. I didn’t quite know how to carry myself, and worried about getting hurt. But it was essential to figure out how to save myself. Only then could I return to companionship with the person who has always been waiting for me.
Now that I know how to look, I can see how poor the people are. Here is a woman shoveling wet sand into an enormous wicker basket that she carries with a strap around her forehead. There is a man washing his face at an outdoor tap. A man in a crisp pink shirt and shorts stands reading the newspaper at a shop. Children in clean white uniforms stand in the mud, waiting for the school bus.
We have stopped for ten minutes on the eastern outskirts of Kathmandu. The landscape is hilly and the streets are broad. A young, barefoot woman in a dirty sari carries a toddler on her shoulders. There is a series of sheds built of brick with metal roofs held down by rocks. They might once have been shops, like the row selling chips, water, candy, soft drinks, and ice cream. People appear to be living in the sheds above, where the metal pull-down doors are up halfway to let in the light.
I’m thinking about Tim. I’m forgiving him, understanding and even admiring him for having the guts to follow his heart and his faith. Yet I’m also furious.
It’s like a cannonball through the heart. Will I heal? The pain is sharp, bitter, and unrelenting.
I’ve been pretty sick for the past few days with a cold, an affliction that has beset many people in Pepsi-Cola. The Nepalis blame the rain. I blame the pollution, but who cares? I haven’t had much energy and my spirits have flagged. Lying around in bed, trying in vain to sleep while serenaded by carpenters cutting wood on electric saws, blacksmiths pounding metal rods, construction workers banging hammers, and, today, a brass band that struck up a cacophonous beat every 20 minutes or so, depressed me. I’ve had too much time to think about the breakup with Tim and have dwelled unhealthily on my weaknesses, failures, shortcomings, and losses. I started to get hold of myself when I realized that I was pre-menstrual and exhausted. What I needed was a a good, solid rest.
I took a nap and then meditated for about 30 minutes. What a relief it was to drop into stillness, into the what-is-ness of my life right now, right here and to stop fighting, stop resisting, stop expecting, and, best of all, stop finding fault with myself. It struck me that I was wasting time. There is no running away from the grief that I feel for what I have lost. I am riding that wave. But I can’t let it overwhelm me. I am so incredibly lucky, after all. Not only have I the opportunity to get to know truly unusual and generous human beings such as Kat and her best friend, Maria, I am also here with my son, my only child. I came here to Nepal in order to do something extraordinary with him. I have spent much of the past ten years mourning my distance from him, and here he is now, a young, intelligent, and engaging adult. We are bonding with one another but also with some of the same people during our travels. We will only be here for another four weeks. Every moment with this man, this man whom I love more than any man in the world, is a gift.
I took a harrowing cab-ride with Kat and a driver who seemed to delight in roaring directly toward pedestrians and stopping half an inch from their legs. He veered into oncoming traffic two-thirds of the way into town. Kat and I have both adopted the same strategy for managing our fear during these journeys. We talk briskly to one another and keep our eyes off the road ahead. We were meeting the group at a restaurant in Thamel, but Brendan and the crew had not yet arrived. My heart ached for him and swelled when he came swinging into view. I often worry about how I’ll do when he goes back to the States.
We all go to Pokhara tomorrow morning. The gang—Brendan, Joost, Peter, Angela, Maria, and maybe also Sophia–will meet at 6 am downstairs before heading together into Kathmandu for the “tourist bus,” a lot more expensive and allegedly more comfortable vehicle than the notoriously overcrowded and filthy regular busses. No farmer is likely to hop on board and deposit ten to fifteen half-dead chickens on my feet. Still the road itself is terrifyingly narrow, busy, and likely to be rained out in places. I am not looking forward to it. But I am happy to be going with good friends, my friends who are also Brendan’s friends. It will be heaven to escape Pepsi-Cola and the Kathmandu Valley for a few days. We all need the break.