The headline in today’s paper The Himalayan Times: Nation plunges into turmoil as confusion reigns.
We are back in Kathmandu at our hotel. We spent a very peaceful few days meditating at the Vipassana Centre – known as Dhamma Shringa – in Shiva Puri National Park near Kathmandu. The days leading up to our visit there were marked by the most violent bandha in years; the result of political turmoil that we’ve mentioned in our previous posts.
Ethnic minority groups calling for separate identity-based states within Nepal protested for three very tense days across the country.
This bandh was different from others that have been quite frequent recently; different in the level of violence and tension expressed by its organizers and supporters.
One of the most distressing aspects was the violence and hatred directed by its participants toward the media. All across the country, journalists were attacked and threatened with violence if they did not report the bandh in strictly positive terms.
Of course, frustration of political actors with media is not unique to Nepal. But as we have all learned in the West (Mayor Ford…. we’re talking to you), attacking journalists and threatening them with violence is not usually an effective media relations strategy. It failed to deliver the outcomes desired by the strikers. The news was all about attacks on the media, leaving the issues that underlay the bandh largely dismissed or ignored. Welcome to modern politics, Nepal!
The strict national strike shut down all transportation. Our Vipassana course was to start May 20, but the bandh made travel by vehicle impossible (and dangerous), with even ambulances and other emergency vehicles being attacked. So we just had to wait out the storm in Kathmandu. We’d make our way to the Centre after it was over, even though the course had actually been canceled.
Back in the city without any transportation, we had little to do but walk to nearby temples and other sites and hang out in our friendly, comfortable hotel room at the Sacred Valley Inn, nestled down a quiet(er) side street away from the very noisy and tacky main streets of Thamel.
All shops and restaurants were closed. But because there were no motorcycles or cars on the roads, walking around was not the usually unpleasant task it is normally. Even in the scorching heat.
On the first day at breakfast we chatted with a lovely Englishwoman staying at our hotel. Her name is Elly (we seem to have a lot of luck with Ellies…. See our post on Tibet). She was here in Nepal researching education for a Masters degree. After talking for a while about NGOs in Nepal, the education system, and local politics, the three of us decided to walk to Kastmandap Durbar Square, just south of Thamel.
We had walked some way into this neighbourhood a few days before, but Karen was suffering a little from belly trouble and the smelly chaos of motorcycles and cars was too much for a long walk. But today was free of traffic except for bicycle rickshaws and pedestrians, so it was a lot more pleasant.
On almost every corner there are small temples, both Buddhist and Hindu. We’d stop along the way and visit these. We finally ended up in the Durbar Square, a very old part of Kathmandu. There are several temples, including another Shiva temple that was filled with pigeons and rats, including a dead bat that continued to hang upside down from one corner of the temple and was now being used as a kind of toilet by the local pigeon neighbours (poor bat).
One of the most important places in this square is the palace of the local living goddess, the Kumari Devi, who lives (with her parents) in the Kumari Bahal. Taking photos of the Kumari is not allowed but here’s an official portrait
Once the living goddess has her first period, she must retire from her status on a generous pension. We went into the small palace courtyard beneath the window where she will show herself from time to time before 11 am. Photos weren’t allowed, but she never showed up anyway… Elly saw a man doing something on the ground of the courtyard and worriedly asked, “what the devil is that man doing?” Turns out he was chopping up a dead chicken on the floor of the filthy courtyard. Probably the Kumari’s lunch? Maybe goddesses can’t get sick…
After touring around the square for a bit, we walked up New Road to the main street of Kantipath and decided that a break from the heat would be nice, so we went to the Garden of Dreams, a rather posh garden with an entrance fee near the Ministry of Education and the Kaiser Library.
Elly had been to the Ministry and said the Kaiser Library was delightful so we took some time to explore it. The library is like stepping into the past. Built in the nineteenth century, the library is brimming with thousands of musty books and, oddly enough, random pictures of historical personages, including Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Presidents Roosevelt(?) and Nixon(?!), former Nepali princes, British colonialists hunting tigers, and unknown Orientalist scholars. There were also a great many stuffed animals, either on tables or hanging on the walls. These specimens were missing patches of fur, and sometimes eyes, and they were mostly pretty moldy-looking.
The library is free to everyone, and there were dozens of Nepalis, including many children, sitting in the various rooms reading books. It was a worthwhile place to hang out, for sure. The oddest thing in the library was a motorcycle parked in the main drawing room under the staircase. This wasn’t part of the exhibit. It was just someone’s bike parked there instead of outside with the other vehicles. Elly told us that the last time she visited, a man went over to it, started it up, and rode it out of the library’s main hall. Ok.
On the second day, we walked across the Bagmati river to the west of Thamel to visit the Swayambunath temple complex. The Bagmati river is one of the most polluted rivers on Earth. We didn’t take a photo. Sometimes it feels inappropriate to snap pictures of a country’s worst sides. But the river was a sad and disgusting site. It is basically used as a garbage landfill. And it’s so overused that it is mostly dried up. Even in China, the overused rivers were not this polluted. Looking out over the river from the bridge, we both thought we could have been somewhere in a drought-stricken, war-ravaged African country.
However, Swayambunath was very interesting.
It is a very old temple complex, nominally Buddhist, but as with most places in Nepal, Hinduism has pervaded the whole atmosphere. It is said locally that the Buddha visited here, as well as the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka — doubtful. But it is not unusual for religious places to make such claims… brings in more pilgrims that way.
The way up to the temple complex is via a long, long series of steep stairs. There are several small stupas along the way, as well as many little monkeys. The many monkeys are the reason why the common name for this complex is the Monkey Temple. The monkeys are not that bad, though. Nothing like the badly behaved Reese’s Macaques that we had to deal with in India. It was a very hot day. Much hotter than we’ve had since we left Canada. The walk there and the steep climb meant we were very sweaty and hot, incredible given that it was not even 10:00 am.
The other noticeable feature of this climb was the presence of many child beggars, and the usual touts who sell jewelry, Thankas, and the ubiquitous Buddhist trinkets were particularly aggressive. Not good. If we so much as paused even for a few seconds to stand near a tree for shade on our way up, they would descend on us like vultures. This was likely due to the fact that the bandh made for many fewer tourists than normal. On our way there, just over the Bagmati river, a tout glommed on to us who was very insistent that he would be our guide. We were equally insistent that he would not be our guide. Scott would listen to his pitch patiently, then say, “No. We don’t need your help.” Then he would start in on another angle for his pitch. Each time, Scott would say, “no.” Finally, the man gave up saying, “You are very nice, but I think I have bad luck meeting you.” That’s ok. Glad you think we’re nice.
We thought we were rid of him, but he mysteriously reappeared a couple more times there and on the way back. Each time he made a pitch for being our guide. We have experienced this a couple of times, “guides” approach you and offer a lot of local trivia and knowledge about Nepali customs or the current political situation. Thing is, most of the time they don’t know what they are talking about, and just make up whatever they think sounds interesting. We read too much, so this doesn’t work on us.
At the top of the steps up to Swayambunath, you’re confronted by a large white and gold stupa with the famous eyes on each side. It’s quite impressive. In a few days, we’ll visit Nepal’s most famous stupa, the Bouddhnath, which is similar in design to this one. From Swayambunath, you get a fantastic — if hazy — view of Kathmandu.
There are many small temples and many more little shops selling Buddhist and Hindu souvenirs. We thought about it, but decided against buying a giant velvet painting of the Buddha looking like the god Shiva….
After wandering around at the top, we made our way down and back to Thamel to our favourite restaurant, The Roundhouse. This restaurant is like a small piece of home. Modern and tastefully decorated, it serves beautiful Illy Americanos, delicious Italian pizzas baked in a wood-fired oven, and crisp salads.
They have jazz music playing and use a generator for when the electricity goes out. Best thing? They have fans. Many many fans. So it’s nice and cool in there. However, all shops were shut because of the strike, including restaurants. We didn’t know if we’d be denied our usual tasty break. Walking through Thamel, it was like a ghost town. A hot ghost town. Everything was shuttered and bandh enforcers were on each corner to ensure no one violated the strike. We got to the restaurant and saw the shutters pulled down tight. We died a little inside.
But then we heard the sound of jazz music playing faintly, almost imperceptibly in the stillness. Roundhouse….are you open? A security guard standing in the shade across the street looked at us and then pointed to the entrance to a hotel next door. We entered and discovered an entrance to the restaurant hidden away from the street. We went through the lobby, turned right and found ourselves in what felt like a prohibition era gin palace. The interior courtyard made the restaurant lighter than you’d think given the corrugated steel shutters pulled closed over the front door and windows. The staff greeted us with slightly mischievous grins, turned on the fans and gave us menus. We were happy.
Basically, this was how we spent the three-day NEFIN bandh. On May 22, we took a taxi from our hotel to Dhamma Shringa. Knowing there is always some work to do at Vipassana centres, and after having spoken to Madan, the teacher responsible for the Centre, we headed up despite the course cancellation. Madan told us we would be welcome any time. We arrived in the morning after a rather quick journey north from Kathmandu into the foothills that surround the city.
Dhamma Shringa is located at the entrance to the beautiful Shiva Puri National Park. The location in the hills means it’s quite a bit cooler there than in the city. It was a welcome respite for us from the heat. We were greeted at the gate by a volunteer, who told us to wait while he went to get Madanji. Madan welcomed us warmly with some tea and we spent an hour or so chatting to him.
We were joined by the most wonderful person we’ve met so far. Her name is Jolly, a very appropriate name! Our friends Lex and Li had told us about both Madan and Jolly, so we passed on their greetings.
Jolly lit up when Madan explained to her who we were and that we were friends of Lex and Li. She was very excited and asked about their son. After a nice chat we were shown to bedrooms and given a small tour of the Centre. Then we had some lunch and some more tea.
We asked what we could do in terms of work around the Centre. Politely, we were told nothing, really. After asking three separate times, we gave up. Madan assigned us each a space in the pagoda to meditate whenever we wanted. Then, for the next three days we were pretty much left to ourselves. It was lucky that things turned out this way. It gave us time to sit and also provided a much needed break from the chaos and noise and heat of the rest of Nepal. We had originally intended to stay until May 31, but given there was no work to do we felt a bit uncomfortable just staying without providing anything in the way of service. But also, we had begun to hear rumours from various visitors to the Centre that things were not going well politically. The talks surrounding negotiation of the new Constitution had run aground. People were increasingly angry and there was now talk of more strike action and even a curfew. Our time working for the NDI was set to begin May 31, so we began to get a little nervous about getting stuck up here.
There was a special meditation course for a group of monks and nuns being held at the centre for long courses next to the main centre. It ended May 26, and we decided to leave the same day as these bikkhus and bikkhunis. We couldn’t get a taxi up here, so we were offered a lift with the monks and nuns heading back to Kathmandu. We climbed into the micro bus crowded with about 5 nuns and 18 monks. Karen took one look at the crowded van meant to hold about 12 people and wondered how she was going to sit in the van for 30 minutes without touching one of the monks. Culturally, it is not appropriate to touch a monk or nun. This would be interesting. But they had very little in the way of luggage with them, and with a few shuffles of this and that we were able to squeeze in.
It was a crowded but pleasant journey as we chatted to one of the older monks who struck up a conversation with us. He joked that Nepal had no government. “Life goes on, but no one knows how it happens!” he said, laughing loudly. They had all enjoyed their Vipassana course very much, for many it was their first such time.
We had been told the bus was going to Jyoti Bhawan, the location of the Centre’s city office. This was perfect because we could walk to our hotel from there. for a few evenings we had attended a group meditation sitting there. Meditation is totally main stream in Nepal. And Vipassana is both a well-known and widely respected practice. Talks by the Principal Teacher for our tradition, S.N. Goenka, are even shown on local television here.
So Jyoti Bhawan was the perfect drop off for us. Only, it wasn’t where the monks and nuns were headed. At some point, the elderly monk we’d been chatting with, asked us where we were going. It turns out we were just zooming along, not paying much attention to where were (not that we could make out much given we were sitting behind the driver facing the back of the bus…). He told us we had already passed Jyoti Bhawan.
Oops. So they let us out on the street where we were. Several other nuns and one monk also got out. Luckily, in our previous wanderings, we had passed a local Shiva temple that sits in the middle of a large sacred pool — the Rani Pokhara. It was actually across the street from us. So we were not too far out of our way. It was still very early on this dark and rainy day, so it was a little cooler than normal and thus the walk back to our hotel was fairly pleasant.
We’re now back in a city plagued by political uncertainty and frustration. Yesterday was the official deadline for the Constituent Assembly to deliver a new Constitution. Despite talks into the wee hours, they failed to deliver anything. The disappointment is palpable here. And it’s made worse by the fact that today is Republic Day, a day when Nepalis are supposed to celebrate the founding of their new Republic. Instead, they are living with the bitterness of this colossal political failure.
It will be a very interesting time to volunteer with the National Democratic Institute. Our first meeting is Wednesday morning, then we hope to attend a political capacity-building conference being held at the beginning of June. Not too sure it’s appropriate to share details around our volunteer work, so we won’t. We want to thank our friend Sandra for helping us make the connection here. It’ll be great to do something useful.