Saturday, April 11, 2009

Namaste Nepal

Contrary to what may have become popular belief, I am still alive and well. I have been shamefully negligent of my blog the last couple of months, and I apologize.

The good news is that I have an official date for the end of my contract. Because I had a bit of vacation time left over, I was able to tack it on to the end of my stay. Thus, I will be working my very last shift on the 1st of July! Will likely be back in Vancouver the 2nd or 3rd. Be it heard that I have absolutely no intention whatsoever of partaking in any activities that could be described as “work-related” (unless it is the work my muscles are doing during my daily bike ride) until at least the end of August. I am looking forward to a fairly regular routine of cycling or hiking in the morning, lying on the beach in the afternoons, and drinking good red wine every night. Anyone who is willing and able to join in is more than welcome as long as you have no problem being subjected to a years worth of untold stories and typical Fiona-like over-analyses. As I have said many times before, there is nowhere in the world I would rather be than B.C in the summertime, and I am stoked to be able to live it without the constraints of a job, viewing it through a completely new lens following my travels, and having open/ample opportunity to re-experience everything I now realize I had been taking for granted before I left for Saudi.

As it so happens, I have just returned from an incredible month-long trip to Nepal. It has been my dream to see the Himalayas for the better part of the last 10 years, and I am happy to report that not even one of my lengthy list of accumulated expectations was in any way left dissatisfied. Nepal is stunning. It was a trip filled with adventures, misadventures, language blunders, and transcendental realizations, all of which I hope to share with you over the course of the next few weeks (provided I am a little more ambitious and motivated to write than I have been over the last 2 months!).

I touched down into Kathmandu on the 17th of March. It was smoggy, stinky, busy… and beautiful. The chaotic, colorful din was immediately healing after having spent the last 8 months in uber-conservative Riyadh.

The drive to the hostel was crazy. Nepali drivers make the Saudis look like prize Young Drivers of Canada students. Think “Twister”, but played with heavy machinery in fast-forward and without waiting your turn. The game-players include anything from the top-heavy colorfully decorated transport trucks belching enough CO2 to put B.C. emissions testers into cardiac arrest, to stuttering motorbikes threading their way through any small gap between obstacles, to gigantic horned buffalo wandering languidly through it all, blissfully unaware of the blaring horns as traffic swerves around them. I learned quickly that it was better to sit in the back and look out the side window as opposed to sitting sitting shotgun which was like being trapped in a surging “House of Horrors” roller coaster ride at Canada’s Wonderland (which I always rode with my eyes closed).

I spent the next 3 days sightseeing around Kathmandu with the 2 East Coast Canadian guys I met in the Doha airport who quickly became my close travel buddies. We spent the first night drinking really cheap, really good cold beer on the rooftop patio of the guys’ hotel which legend had it, was built by a Texas millionaire (though no one could tell us what his name was…).

In exploring the city, one of the aspects I was most struck by was the harmonious integration of the 2 powerful religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. The Hindus make up the largest portion of practiced religion in Nepal, followed by the Buddhists, an increasing number of Christians, and a relatively small number of Muslims. Large and internationally significant markers of the 2 largest religions mark every corner of daily life while traveling anywhere, urban or rural, in Nepal.

We visited “Swayambhunath” (affectionately known as the “Monkey Temple” as a result of all the little fuzzy characters draping themselves over it) which is a huge stupa (the word used for the large dome which is characteristic of Buddhist temples). The ancient temple itself is at the top of a huge set of stone stairs and overlooks the city from an elevation 200m higher than at its intricately decorated golden entry gate. Atop the dome were the painted “Eyes of Wisdom”, a sight often seen around Nepal. The eyes are bisected by a curly question mark-like nose, which is actually the Nepali character for the number “1”, and signifies the unity of all things, as well as the one path to enlightenment (through the Buddha’s teachings). The third eye represents the all-seeing eye of Buddha.

We also stopped by Pashupatinath, the most significant Hindu temple in Nepal. Here, we saw the riverside stone platforms where bodies are cremated and swept into the river in Hindu tradition. We also met some Sadhus – Hindu holy men who have devoted their lives to religious ascetism. The Sadhus are generally followers of the Gods Shiva or Vishnu, and pledge a life of frugality in dedication to their God. They have no material possessions, and eat only just enough to survive. They cover their bodies in holy ashes, and usually have more intricate tikkas painted in red and white on their foreheads (aside: the tikka is the Hindu symbol of blessing on the forehead – the “bindi”, the circular dot sticker is the more stylish version. The more common form in Nepal was the red or white powder applied in blessing each morning). The Sadhus we met were happy to offer a photo-op in exchange for a few rupees. As I handed over what I thought an adequate compensation to a holy man living a life of providence (a 20 rupee note), his ash-covered eyelashes flicked open incredulously, and in a thick Nepali accent, he intoned “small money!”. Flustered, I fumbled over an extra 20 rupees, which was self-righteously accepted with a slow nod of approval. I guess even Sadhus are experiencing the effects of global recession?

The 3rd day, I finally met Phul who was to be my (marvelous) guide for the trek in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. I will stop here and save the start of the trekking adventure stories for next week!

One more thing I want to mention is the interesting phenomenon that occurred during my ride home from the airport in Riyadh. First I have to say that being in Nepal made me more homesick than ever for reasons not limited to being outdoors, increased freedom, and freely interacting with fellow Canadians (and others) of mixed genders. Ok ok, yes and relatively unrestrained access to good red wine (which of course I took advantage of as much as possible).

HOWEVER, this super weird thing happened while I was chatting in Arabic with my cab driver on the way home…I realized that everything felt kind of…familiar…and comfortable…It was so good to be able to communicate with the general population again (albeit on a basic level with my Arabic skills, but at least I can make sentences!). I don’t think I would have experienced this effect had I taken this vacation time to go home to Canada. It took traveling to another completely unfamiliar country with a totally unfamiliar language to realize, contrary to what I had thought when I left, that I HAVE actually assimilated quite comfortably into Saudi life. I was actually kind of happy to be back and to see and catch up with all the fantastic people I have met here. I also felt pretty good about the prospect of going back to work and blasting through these last 2.5 months on a much more positive note than the one I had been singing prior to my departure. Of course, that is not to say that I am not bursting in anticipation of returning to my beautiful country, I am just saying that it is funny how the removal and later re-insertion of one’s self from a particular situation which may have previously been viewed as undesirable can elicit a complete re-framing and refreshing new outlook.

The 2 pics at the top are guys cleaning the stupa at Swayambhunath, and 2 of the Sadhus at Pashupatinath.

Miss you all and can’t wait to see you again soon


No comments: