the Long's Strange Trip

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~  I Think I'm Goin' to Kathmandu! ~
October 29 through November 4, 2000
$1 U.S. = 72 Nepalese Rupees
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Kathmandu, Nepal
October 29 through November 4, 2000

(ccl) Let's all tell the truth now: did any of us have any idea where Kathmandu was when Bob Seger had his early 80's hit?  I know I didn't.  I remember thinking that it sounded incredibly exotic and impossibly far away from Columbia, Tennessee.  It is exotic, but at the same time it's a thriving, modern capital, with every possible convenience to offer the traveler.

We were scheduled to leave Kathmandu on a flight for Bangkok on Monday, November 6, but we were hoping to get on another flight on Saturday.  We've been trying for three months to change this flight, but this being the height of the trekking season, everything is full.  Wiley's sister is flying into Bangkok on the 4th, so we want to get there on the same day.  Given our earlier experience with Royal Nepal Airlines, I'm not holding out a lot of hope.  But we're on a waiting list, and you never know, so we'll go to the airport on Saturday morning and hope for the best.

We've kind of gotten into a groove as to what we do on our last few days in any country.  We're typically lugging extra-heavy backpacks, filled with souvenirs we've picked up along the way, so we have to find someway to get them mailed home.  We also usually have a short list of "just a few more things" we want to pick up before we leave the country, so we have shopping to do for those items.  But mostly we like to take it easy, spending time resting, writing and updating the web site, and reading up on the country that we're going to next.  Typically, we're staying in a hotel that's a little nicer than we usually stay in, because we like to watch a little CNN, and we like to have a direct-dial phone with a standard phone plug, so that dialing into the Internet is easier. 

We hadn't seen TV for a month by the time we got to Kathmandu this time.  With the American presidential election and the latest troubles in the Middle East, we have had a lot to catch up on.  The TV in our hotel room had the BBC news channel, but no CNN.  It didn't matter, though.  We'd heard quite enough after a couple of days.  It also seemed that every Nepali we met wanted to talk about the American presidential election, and most of them were infinitely more knowledgeable about it than we were.  We even got into an involved discussion with the manager of a restaurant who had taped all three debates and had watched them more than once.  His command of the electoral process was stunning, certainly more in-depth than the average American voter.  He even went so far as to ask us if we voted for the "issues or the man". 

Another man we met wanted to talk about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.  This has happened several times on the trip, and I find that, inevitably, most foreigners think that Clinton got impeached because he is a married man and he had an affair, not because he lied under oath during a legal proceeding.  In these male-dominated societies, infidelity in marital relationships on the part of the man is widely practiced and accepted, and these guys don't understand why we can't tolerate a little hanky-panky on the part of the leader of the free world.  After all, all men cheat on their wives, right??  Every time I've tried, calmly, to explain the truth of this matter, I've failed.  Eventually, I think, I'll learn to keep my mouth shut.

In front of the temple officially known as the "Hippie Temple"  We didn't have time to do much sightseeing in Kathmandu when we arrived in Nepal three weeks ago, so we wanted to at least get something of a feel for the city during this visit.  On our first full day there we headed for Durbar Square.  "Durbar" means palace in Nepali, and there are "Durbar Squares" in several cities.  In Kathmandu Durbar Square is not only the location of the old Royal Palace, but also numerous temples, shrines, statues, and other relics of a bygone era.  The square is the main gathering point in the city, and people flock there to make offerings at the temples, or just to sit quietly and watch the world go by.  In the 60's, when Kathmandu was a popular hippie hangout, many young people from the U.S. and Europe made their homes in the many small guest houses in the area (known appropriately as "Freak Street"), and spent their days in a stoned haze amongst the Hindu holy men, monkeys, and worshippers.

Lion guarding the entrance to the Kumari Devi's house  There is much to see in Durbar Square.  Our first stop was the home of the Kumari Devi, Nepal's living goddess.  No one knows exactly why, but sometime in the 18th century the king declared that a young girl be selected and worshipped as the reincarnation of the goddess Durga.  The selection process is rigorous and, some might say, cruel.  When it is time to select a new goddess, little girls between the ages of 4 and puberty who belong to a select caste of gold and silversmiths are brought to the palace to be judged on 32 separate physical characteristics, including eye color and the shape of their teeth.  The "finalists" are required to spend the night in a dark room where men dressed as monsters dance, attempting to scare them, and freshly slaughtered buffalo heads are on display.  The logic behind this gruesome ritual is that an incarnation of the goddess Durga, the goddess of destruction, would not be afraid when confronted by such horrific sights.  Finally, the selected child is asked to choose objects that belonged to her predecessor, as proof that she is the reincarnation of the Kumari Devi.

The newly chosen Kumari Devi moves into the Kumari Bahal in Durbar Square, and lives there with her family until she reaches puberty.  She is paraded around town in a cart once a year during the festival of Indra Jatra.  The rest of the year visitors can view her in her home, where she sits and looks down on the visitor-filled courtyard from an ornately carved window.  No doubt, it must be a bizarre way to spend your childhood, and going back to a "normal" life afterwards must be next to impossible.  In the past the Nepalis believed that any man who married a former Kumari Devi would die instantly, but people no longer hold that particular superstition.

Come back next year, when beer will be spewing from my mouth  Once a year, during the festival of Indra Jatra, the giant face of Seto Bhairab is uncovered.  Bhairab is Shiva's incarnation as the destroyer of human ignorance and evil, and to kick off this important festival, the Kumari Devi is carried from her house to greet the mask, which has been hidden all year behind a wooden screen.  With much loud music and fanfare, homemade beer, known as chang, begins to spew forward from the mouth of the idol.  Drunken men push and shove to position themselves for a drink of the brew, guaranteed to bring good luck, and extra good luck goes to the man who ingests the small fish that has been added to the vat.

In times past, Durbar Square was also where citizens went to see justice meted out.  People suspected of lying were brought in front of the shrine of Kala Bhairab.  The people of Kathmandu believed that if someone told a lie while touching the image, instant death would result.  So completely did the people believe this that citizens accused of crimes were brought here and put on trial.  Tell the truth or you're dead!

Durbar Square, like other places in Nepal, has many Hindu holy men, known as sadhus.  We passed many of these people on the trail while trekking in the Himalayas.  Hiran, our guide, told us that when a Nepalese boy turns 13, a party is given in his honor.  A priest puts the boy into a trance, and the boy begins trembling and staggering.  If he staggers outside of the circle formed by his family and friends, his fate is sealed.  He must give up all his worldly possessions, and his attachment to his family, and go in search of enlightenment.  These men usually have no more than a simple robe and a begging bowl.  They live on donations made by other Hindus, who believe that it's good karma to give to the sadhus.  Our guide through Durbar Square told us that the sadhus there are not Nepalese.  Most of them are Indian, and they may or may not be truly "holy".  Most of them seemed to be making a living from the tips given by tourists who took photos of them.  We couldn't resist getting one with this guy, who appeared to have been growing his dreadlocks since the Nixon administration.  Really, it's not necessary that you drape these over my shoulders

We celebrated Halloween in Kathmandu, and although it's becoming more of an international holiday, there wasn't really much going on.  It's always been a big holiday for us, and we typically give a pumpkin carving party several days before.  We were glad to hear that our friends Mac and Elaine McFadden carried on the tradition this year in our absence.  We spent the next few days relaxing and reading up on Thailand, which promises to be a fascinating and beautiful place. 

Click here to continue in Thailand with "Family Thais"


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