Nepali, Stupas and Cremation

Yo kitaab raamro chha tara dherai mahango chha. Impressed? My middle-aged brain is working very hard these days to learn some Nepali before I head out to a local village on Monday. Translation? This book is nice but very expensive. In theory I can say all kinds of things now but without my Everest notebook, the words don’t always come out of my mouth when I want them. Yesterday afternoon while the young ones in our group went into Thamel for a night of partying, I took a walk out of town. The further I walked the more rural the landscape. When I was about to turn around, I met a young man of 19 years who joined me. I ended up walking up to his village which was in a gorgeous spot under the mountains surrounded by beautiful fields of grass. Women in traditional dress had huge baskets on their backs as they gathered the grass for their cows. Indra Jeet introduced me to his parents and all of his “aunts” and the many children who giggled at me and ran around the corner when I pulled out my camera. I tried out my lessons telling them my name, where I was from and asking them how they were feeling. They looked shocked that I could speak any Nepali but answered my questions and smiled a lot. So did I as used up the limits of my more accessible vocabulary. Indra wants to be Facebook friends now. Such is the juxtaposition of the old and new here.

I’m back in Thamel to post this blog where there are plenty of foreigners but in our neighborhood where our hostel is located, we are in a part of Kathmandu that doesn’t see many white faces. Yesterday as I walked down a street, a man in front of me kept turning around to look at me. To him, I was strange, while at the same time, the goats tethered next to the goat meat stand were strange to me. (One volunteer saw one beheaded the other day.) Now that I have been here a week, it’s amazing how familiar this city has become. I know the shopkeeper up our little street, which ATM will give me money, how to take the local buses and other handy things. I’m not shocked when the power is out two evenings in a row. I keep my headlamp handy and my batteries charged. Candlelight dinners are actually nice as are the candles on the stairs to lead us to our dahl baat.

There are still plenty of new experiences to be had here. On Thursday we had a day off from our language class to go on a sightseeing tour. The first of the 3 temples was Swayanbhumath, also known as the monkey temple. Indeed, there were plenty of monkeys as well as lots of opportunities to buy souvenirs of all kinds. There was a little pool full of coins and people tossing them into the middle trying to get them into a pot for luck. The view over the city was hazy but far reaching. I watched some monks lighting butter lamps, people turning the prayer wheels and people praying at the temple.

After lunch, our next stop was Bouddhamath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. It’s a huge white round building strung with prayer flags and Buddhist eyes looking out in all four directions. The biggest surprise there was hearing my name called out as I circled the stupa. It was Louise and Jim from Marlboro, Vermont! We knew we were all in town, albeit on opposite sides of this city of 3 million people, but I never expected to run into them! Cue up “It’s a Small World After All”.

Our last temple was a Hindu one called Pashupatinath, open only to Hindu people. The nearby river, though, is open to all. It was there that I had a most unique experience for me – to observe a cremation. The river is a holy site where people are cremated and their ashes are returned to the river. The river itself is filled with trash of all kinds. Cows, monkeys and dogs rested or wandered nearby as two bodies were being consumed by flames. There is a series of cement platforms along the river where many cremations can take place at the same time. Near a bridge, a more upper class cremation was happening with men in suits watching nearby. Down the river a bit, a body was in a casket with family and friends gathered. We took seats on stone steps across the river with many other people to observe the ceremony.

With my binoculars, I could see the women weeping and wailing in their green sarongs and a young boy of about age 10, wearing a dirty green tee shirt and shorts, clearly distraught. Feeling awkward about being a voyeur, and yet one of a mostly Nepali crowd, I watched as the body was moved onto a pile of wood. After some ceremony of draping the face with marigolds, an orange cloth was tied around the head and a white shroud covered most of the body (although a foot remained visible). The boy circled the body three times with a burning torch before setting the head scarf on fire. A man added firewood around and over the body, covered it with straw and the serious burning began. The women and children, except for the boy, all left as the men remained nearby. In the meantime, there was a young man in the river pulling out burnt pieces of wood and throwing them up toward the pyre. As we left there were three cremations going on, smoke blowing up river. It was a fascinating and yet, intense, experience, especially after having put my own parents’ bodies into a crematorium after they died.

Today is my last visit to Thamel before I leave Kathmandu. Lindsey, the other “mature” volunteer and I are hanging out here before we have dinner in a restaurant for the first time in Nepal. Our younger classmates are back at the hostel nursing hangovers after their overnight here yesterday. The field trip we were supposed to do this afternoon has been postponed until tomorrow, after our last language class.

My time in Nepal has been rearranged so that I’ll do my home stay and orphanage work in Chitwan before I finish my time here with a trek. That will save me a lot of time on buses traveling from place to place. I’ll just be back in the city for a night before I fly out on April 17. It may be time to say goodbye to wireless internet again for awhile but I’ll post again when I get a chance.













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  1. pam perkins

     /  March 17, 2012

    What a trip you are having, Ellen. Your descriptions are so vivid. I feel like I’m right beside you.


  2. Sandra Timko

     /  March 17, 2012

    Ellen, You are such an explorer and people respond by sharing themselves with you. What a gift.

  3. I love traveling with you! What memories.

  4. Dawn Fogarty

     /  March 19, 2012

    All I can say is WOW Ellen, what a grand experience and reading your adventures I am just in awe of your ability to immerse and connect. Keep on soakin’ it up, ENJOY and be safe!

  5. Jane Rosser

     /  March 19, 2012

    Ellen, You are traveling to some of our favorite spots. We fondly remember Bodhanath and Pashnupathi. Did you see any of the outrageous sadhus (holy men) in Pashnupathi? Loved the photo of you, Jimmy and Louise. Keep the blog rolling…we love it. Jane and Ken


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