Updated: Dec 29, 2019
A Collection From the Past Months
Traveling to a new country is a lot of things - it’s exciting, exhausting, exhilarating. It’s the little routines that crystallize into a bigger picture, the unexpected moments that surprise you anew just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of this new place. Its big and it’s small, it’s the lived experience of learning and of being. It’s finding yourself in a place it is so easy to get lost in.
But being a traveller is also being a tourist, and seeing those spots that millions have seen before, walking paths that millions have walked before, and understanding the pull of beauty on the masses - after all, when it comes down to it, you are just another face in the crowd.
Coming to Nepal, you are bound to be confronted by signs declaring “Buddha was born in Nepal” on arrival. It’s something of a mantra here, a slogan to convince tourists and residents alike of the importance of such a historical place. It is also a reassurance: the misconception that Siddharta Gautama was born in India is widespread, and something of a sore point for Nepali pride.
Despite this emphasis, actually getting to Lumbini is no easy feat. Though busses frequently drop tourists off at the gates of the large park that commemorates Buddha’s life, the roads taken are bumpy and uncomfortable, and the trips long. And upon arrival you’ll find that there are - quite fittingly - no large settlements, just a cluster of hotels and ATMs. Lumbini is not a place of residence. It is, first and foremost, a place of pilgrimage and remembrance.
But upon entering the park, everything else fades.
It’s hot, even in Mid-November, and the roads are wide and without shadow. Sometimes, as we take the cramped and sweltering Jeep down these paths, all there is to see are high walls with monkeys chattering on them. We pass other tourists on bicycles and in busses, swerving in the reckless way of Nepali drivers. But then there’s a flash of gold in the sunlight, a glimpse of a tower, and a Stupa comes into view from behind gilded gateways.
We make our way through the grounds. The Mayadevi temple is the most historic, the place where Gautam Buddha is said to have taken his first seven steps, and the atmosphere is hushed and revering. Colorful prayer flags flutter in the imperceptible breeze, and a hushed silence spreads. This is the heart of Lumbini, the most true part, untouched by pomp or glamour.
The other temples we visit represent different nations across the world. They are decorated and dazzling, a show of culture and worship. They are high towers, glittering gold roofs, and again and again statues of Buddha himself, unmoving and peaceful no matter where he sits.
There is a simple routine to touring the Stupas: slip off your shoes at the designated spot, follow the path around in a counter-clockwise direction, try to imprint all the details of color and forms to memory. Yet try as I may to remember each individual place, I find the details blurring together. There is so much to take in that I find it impossible to remember what differentiates the temples from one another. There is no question that they are impressive, but the quiet peace of the actual historical sight is what remains clear in my memory.
When I planned my visit to Nepal, I was thinking of high mountains, biting cold and colorful culture. And I found that - well, except for the biting cold - but I also learned that there is more than I expected. Chitwan National Park is in the Nepali Plains, the Terai Region, and though the culture is colorful indeed, the heat is stifling, and there are no mountains to be seen. Instead, there is a widespread jungle, lodges with cozy bungalows and a river that winds its way through the landscape in a current of turquoise water.
And so I get to go on my first safari in the heart of Nepal. It’s everything I would have imagined - a Jeep with an open back, a guide dressed in forest green, and the promise of adventure as we set off.
And adventure we get - we see rhinos, monkeys, tiny deer that leap away with frightened eyes as we approach. There are crocodiles swimming lazily in the water, peacocks preening and showing off their plumage. There are bright flowers - our guide plucks a red one from a bush as we pass and hands it to me with an easy grin. There are little birds that sing and dot the underbrush with dots of bright color. There’s a huge butterfly that follows us for a long while, darting around our heads in a game of tag that is never resolved.
Sometimes we don’t see anything for a long while, but it doesn’t matter, because we’re laughing and excited by the sheer possibility of danger. There’s the threatening hope of tigers here, and though we don’t see any, knowing that they can probably see us, peering out from the tall grasses that line the dusty roads, is enough to make my spine tingle.
In the evening, we are shown down to the river by another guide, creeping through the wilderness armed only with a blunt wooden staff. The sun is setting over the horizon, a bright orange ball over the wide landscape. As the river rushes past us, we settle down in a restaurant to sip cold drinks and munch on complimentary popcorn. We are lazy and relaxed in the waning heat, pleased by the adventures we have experienced and the stories that we are gathering every day.
My favorite city so far - Pokhara, between the mountains and the lake, a bustling hotspot for tourists from Nepal and the rest of the world. The streets by the lake are crowded and filled with chatter - street-handlers, guides, tourists, inhabitants, all together in a delightful mix of languages and cultures. There are stands selling everything from fruits and vegetables to clothes, restaurants squeezed into little corners, cramped shops with all the heart desires. I don’t buy anything much, but I enjoy looking at the trinkets and toys, considering the possibilities.
Little, colorful boats float across the still water, bringing tourists across the water to temples across the lake. It all seems to exude a relaxed and cheerful atmosphere, making it easy to relax here as well.
The World Peace Pagoda sits atop a hill not far from the city, but if you arrive early enough, it’s easy to escape the masses of tourists. The white, clean stone, the colorful flowers on the paths, the view over the mountains - it’s all enough to take my breath away. This early in the morning, the fog is just rolling over the hills, creating ripples like a wave on the sea, and I can’t tear my gaze away. I have seldom seen something so simply and unassumingly beautiful, and the sight of it mixed with my early morning drifting thoughts fills me with a sense of floating peace.
Later, we eat chow mein in a restaurant on stilts, watching the clouds cover and uncover the mountains in the distance. From here, it is possible to see the “Fishtail” mountain, the holy Machapuchare, a lonely triangular peak among the other ragged mountainscapes. It is lonesome and lovely. In such moments, it’s hard to feel anything but content with the world around me, so I relax into the beauty of the moment.
This is traveling: being an explorer, an adventurer, but also being a sightseer. Being a tourist, taking too many photos, gushing over the beauty without second thought and feeling so delightfully adventurous even though what you have discovered is really nothing new at all. This is experiencing a new country: getting to know both the customs and the sights. And I guess, in a way, this is living: Gathering these memories to look back on later on, too happy about the unstoppable now to worry about anything else.