A day of temple hopping. As was common at the beginning of our adventure, we had gotten off to a late start. Chalk it up to jet lag, to the still unfamiliar pace of life on the road, to the need to decompress after two years of cultural assimilation, to being thrust once again into a foreign environment and the thrills and anxieties that come with it. Whatever the case, I felt a little disappointed that we would have less time than I would have liked to explore these cultural fixtures I still deemed mystical and mysterious. We planned to start the day visiting Pashupatinath, a large and famous Hindu temple to Shiva.The fee to enter the complex was steep for our modest budget, and Robin assured us it wasn’t worth the cost of admission. Apparently, we wouldn’t be able to see anything of interest anyway – non-Hindus were not allowed in the actual temple.In the interest of time, we decided to go instead to Bauddhanah, the temple that is considered the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism. Again, I was disappointed at the setback. I smile thinking back at this now, of my idealism slowly transforming into anxiety, of my inability to just relax and be. In this journey, I learned so much about kicking back and letting yourself get swept up in the flow of events, but at this point I was still at the beginning of that personal transformation. I hadn’t yet learned to reside in that quiet center while the world around you is in utter chaos, so as we piled into a tiny minibus to make our way to Bauddhanah, I let the sounds and smells of the Kathmandu streets seep into my pores and feed my anxiety. Though I was smashed between staring and curious locals in the minibus (seriously, it was like a clown car), I felt as if I could burst apart. How did anyone survive the chaos? The only things keeping me together were Robin’s guidance and my long held western notions of what the focal point of Buddhism might look like. Of course, this temple would be beautiful. I had seen pictures of it before and was elated thinking I would be able to stand there, to physically experience it, to drink in its cosmic energy. The picture in my head was of a miraculously tranquil spot in the midst of a city, surrounded by knobby, curved trees and peaceful monks on promenade between hours of prayer and meditation. I imagined I would hear bells and singing bowls and chanting. Basically, I imagined a movie set. What we were faced with when we arrived was quite different. In my optimism, I found myself with tunnel vision, staring up at the gold point of the stupa, noticing the young monks in their blood red robes walking through the complex, drinking in the sound of chanting and drums from a nearby third story window.
I saw what I wanted to see, what I expected to see, and edited out the rest. Mercedes, as more of a realist than myself, had a keener eye for detail. While I allowed myself to marvel in dreams and visions, I heard her quiet voice behind me. “It’s kind of sad,” she said. A jolt back to reality. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, this is supposed to be the pinnacle point of Buddhism, right? But even it has been overrun by consumerism. Look. There’s a pizza place right there.” I turned and looked then, with new eyes, at my surroundings. She was right. Across from this place, the supposed pinnacle point of a religion we all too often view with clouded judgements of mysticism, stood a pizza joint – a glaring reminder of the ever imposing west on eastern lands. To my right, a coffee shop, one of many. And all around us, gift shops. Suddenly, things looked different. The scrim dropped. What moments before had looked like a spiritual oasis was now an amusement park. My rose colored glasses had been smashed on the ground, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t still going to jump right in and be a part of the world around me. I made my way around the outside of the temple, making sure to ring every single bell there before climbing the short steps up to the stupa. Yes, I felt a little strange seeing small groups of foreign tourists observing as other foreign tourists dropped mats and began praying. The whole place was a bit of a contradiction. East and west, material and immaterial, humility and greed all met in this one place. But at the time, I didn’t process all of that. (And now, looking back, I don’t really mind it.) At the time, I was focused only on my inability to look away from the intimidating eyes that stared down at me from the stupa and my aching need to take a picture of myself next to them for posterity. As I walked toward those eyes, I found myself enraptured by the beauty of seemingly hundreds of strings of multi-colored prayer flags flapping in the wind. The pizza joint and other reminders of real life stood behind me, but pausing there for a moment to contemplate the incomprehensible worlds above me as reverent strains filled the air, I found that quiet peace that had alluded me, just for a second. I breathed in the moment to luxuriate in it just a bit longer before I turned and demanded Robin take my picture by the multitude of prayer flags.
Once we felt we’d gotten our fill of pictures, we made to leave the complex and head to the next temple, but not before stopping at that little coffee stand and getting a nice caffeine fix. Yes, it had been a little disappointing to see a coffee kiosk within the temple complex. Yes, at the time, something about it felt so wrong. But if you can’t fight it, you might as well join it, right? Now, a year later, my views on this have evolved to be slightly more complex. No longer does it only seem like a disheartening reminder of globalization. If the temple and coffee are both fixtures in the community, does it really matter that they are in close proximity to one another? Do we not also have holy sites in close proximity to restaurants and other establishments seemingly frivolous in the face of the divine? Maybe this wasn’t so strange. At the same time, shouldn’t we be able to designate a place as truly sacred, with nothing present that could distract from its reverence? Shouldn’t we be able to step outside of our busy city lives into an oasis of quiet meditation? And most importantly, if monks have an affinity for a particular coffee, does that coffee become sacred by association? But I digress. The last temple we’d planned to visit that day was Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, a source of initial confusion on my part. Before reading much about the temple, I assumed it had acquired this nickname because it was dedicated to the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was a Buddhist temple – one of the holiest temples in Tibetan Buddhism, in fact. I was soon to discover the source of the nickname. After a seemingly endless bus ride to the jungle outskirts of Kathmandu, we arrived at the base of the hill on which the temple was built. Due to our late start, we arrived with a little less than an hour left of sunlight, and as we hurried toward the excruciating set of 365 steep stairs that would lead us to the temple, we heard the screams of monkeys from the tops of trees on the jungle hillside. This nickname was becoming clearer. I had not yet learned what terrifying menaces monkeys actually are and was still operating on a Disney fed illusion of the creatures and thought, “Wonderful! We’re venturing into a jungle filled with hundreds of variations of Abu! Surely, they will be companionable creatures with reasonable teeth who would never dream of ripping my face off just because I looked at them the wrong way!” Silly me. Panting and exhausted, we reached the last of what felt like a thousand steps just as the sun was making its way below the horizon. The view over the jungle from the hilltop was achingly beautiful and, once again, I cursed our late arrival. This was clearly the most beautiful temple, and I could have happily spent an entire day there.
I decided to count my blessings as dusk painted the temple a muted and mysterious hue we could not have seen in sunlight. Of course, the lack of light didn’t allow us to take any decent pictures while there, but in some ways this is a blessing. The all knowing internet possesses pictures of this temple should I ever want to take a look, but the memory of golds and pinks of sunset falling on the stupa is more beautiful than any picture I have the ability to capture. As dusk turned to darkness, we wandered to an area where locals were lighting candles and praying. The tiny flames in the darkness of the jungle coupled with warm, inviting light of lanterns from nearby homes created the tranquil temple atmosphere I had hoped for. This time, no pizza joints or coffee shops infringed on our experience and I felt some mixture of awe, wonder and gratitude as I looked over the valley. Moments of quiet were punctuated by bits of laughter and unintelligible gossip of the locals as they sat outside to enjoy the cool evening air. Moments later, that tranquility would be replaced with a newfound fear of monkeys. It turns out that monkeys are not the cartoon character we’ve all come to love, but are instead malevolent and mischievous creatures with sharp teeth and a fierce look in their eyes. As darkness fell on the complex, the screams of the monkeys grew louder as they emerged from the jungle to take over the temple. In reality, there probably were no more than approximately 60-70 monkeys in the clan, but I will forever remember the view in the gray scales of film noir and exaggerate their population to number in the thousands. I started to get scared that I would do something to offend one of these creatures and it would bare its fangs, leaving my last memories on this earth of a terrifying Abu making to rip off my face. Unfortunately, the sudden presence of the monkey brigade blocked our exit from the less steep and easier back stairway, so we climbed back down the 365 steep steps we had ascended in the first place, giving thanks to any gods we could think of that we hadn’t been the victims of some sort of murder ritual in the primate clan. The counterintuitive lesson I learned? Coming back down is always more difficult than going up, especially when you have trails of fear at your feet.
Feeling content with the day of sightseeing and sprinklings of spiritual contemplation, we ended the evening back in Kathmandu, enjoying hours of conversation and laughter over momos and drinks. I reveled in the sweet realization that I was here, enjoying the backpacker life, experiencing new places and making new lifelong friends. And though I didn’t yet realize it, a spark in me had been ignited, a spark that had begged to be lit for years in journal laments of allusive adventure, a spark that would be fed by my curiosity and wonderment, a spark that would illuminate my truest self.