Saturday, July 10, 2004

Who is Rajendra?

I guess I should explain that the reason Rajendra has quickly become my friend, taking me under his caring tutelage and guidance, is because he is a very dear friend of my dear friend Mary Evans. Evans had told me, before I left Texas, to “find Rajendra, my brother,”--because he'd probably be very eager to meet me and show me the Kathmandu Valley.

When Mary lived in Kathmandu, she'd become affiliated with the Vajra Hotel and its theater company--as performer and actor. Rajendra spoke highly of Mary, and seemed to enjoy taking me on as a summer project.

I am very lucky that he seems to have time for showing me around and hosting me at the Vajra restaurant for meals now and then. The Vajra seems to pride and promote itself as an eclectic, high-quality, international-flavored hotel for a clientele that includes alot of moneyed European artsy, intellectual types. I could tell that some of the Nepali Vajra staff had sniffed out that I was a "lower class" type of tourist. Whatever...

Anyway, Rajendra never put on airs with me, but he had a beloved sense of indignation about many things, which I grew accustomed to very quickly. We would converse and discourse about many subjects, and I was very impressed with the wealth of knowledge--from the mystical to the political--he had in mind.

He was pretty well-traveled, for a native of Nepal. He'd been to Europe and the U.S. on several occasions, touring his sacred dance show both solo and with his young students. He challenged and contested my ideas, as much as he quietly absorbed and sometimes agreed with my observations about life, human nature, and more. This was so good for my mind, as I often had no one else to push my intellectual mastications.

Rajendra wasn't trying to be anybody's guru, and I thought of him more like a professorial land and spirit tour guide. He has invited me to see his sacred dance students in a performance at the Vajra. I can't wait.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Lucky clear skies

I got mauled by muskeeters today & tonight. Ankles, shoulder, elbow, back, calf. Many bites, much itching & irritation. Almost too distracted to enjoy the sunset rooftop at the Vajra Hotel w/ Rajendra, Genevieve (artist from France), and many mountaintops. The stupa at Swayambuh, from the perch we had at Vajra, looked majestic. We could also actually see Mt. Everest peaking in the far distance. This was at a little before sunset. Rajendra--friend and resident spiritual philosopher/sacred dance mentor--kept trying to impress upon us that this was a very rare moment. He said that, to see such peaks from the Vajra Hotel in mid-Kathmandu, was a rare thing during this time of year. During a KTM monsoon. He exclaimed, repeatedly, "This is great luck!" "This is very lucky!" I loved seeing his wide smile and dark widening eyes in a moment of inspiration.

I realized that both yesterday & today I have been up higher (elevation) than I've ever been in my life. So, as we sat together and chatted, sipping beer & eating appetizers of buff chili (buff is a common abbreviation for water buffalo) and other spicy meats, I appreciated how close, how much physically closer to me, are the stars & planets & moon. This sky was kind to me tonight, after so much rain, after so many continuous hours of rainfall. We had a clear sky at the Vajra together.

Confounding My Self

I realize that I have felt anxious and frustrated when surrounded by too many white-skinned tourists here. Not sure why. I guess it's because I want to blend in with the brown, and get a whiff of my Self as global citizen and not so much as American Texan Tammy.

So I'm finding that it's best to travel alone. Moving from shop to cafe, thangka gallery to embroidered t-shirt stall, I notice white-skinned travelers seeking one another out: "Hi, where are you from?" "When did you get to Kathmandu?" "How long have you been here?" All in English. Moving towards familiarity, these tourists seem to want to hang out with each other and assert their common distinctions from the natives. These people rarely talk to me, if even look at me. It is somewhat relieving and refreshing to just be another short, brown nobody to them. I want and seek no status here. I'm sick of that game, which I've learned how to play back in the States.

Still, I realize that--at some point--I may want to break my silence and speak some American English with other people from my country. If I get lonely enough...

Speaking of which, today another person, the dude at the internet service place in Swayambuh, got his mind blown; he thought I was from Nepal. When I opened my mouth to speak and English instead of Nepali words came out, he looked soooo surprised! He smiled apologetically, saying that I "confused" him for a moment.
I'm gonna try to learn more Nepali.

Identity Chameleon

I veered towards one of the bakeries in Thamel, which have been enticing me with their store window displays of fresh, fluffy breads and sweets. Outside the HOT BREAD (Bakers & Confectioners) Bakery, I met Rama Skesi, a "commerce" (we call it "business") student hanging out by the front door. He was serious and seemed to be waiting for someone, but expressed curiosity about where I was from, what I was. I told him I was from Mexico. Not really a lie, eh? Mi gente son de Mexico, right?

After picking up a few baked treats for later, I decided to check out one of the hype hippie spots lining the more flagrantly-touristy section of Thamel. What the heck, I wanted to see if the action and food was worth the hype. It amused me that some enterprising Nepali businesspeople had decided that hippiesque-themed restaurants would attract Westerners intrigued by and made nostalgic for the Kathmandu that once was--back when the British Invasion of guru- and ganja-seeking pop idols was the thing of the day.

So----now I sit in the ALICE'S RESTAURANT cafe (i don't mind, go ahead and laugh), listening to the sound system blast the Doors' "Light My Fire." (I should inform you that I could hear the music from this cafe's speakers at least half a block away...) I feel like I'm at a 60's hippie theme party, only it's early and I forgot my costume, AND there's water buffalo meat on the menu. In other words, I feel like I'm on hallucinogens, cuz this is some weird trip. All the waiters speak British English and the fries and beer I order are served with the utmost formality. By the time I'm midway through my late afternoon snack, which may well end up being my dinner, I've heard at least one Pink Floyd and Janis Joplin song. God, do I feel like an outdated bohemian hippie tourist cliche.

I pay my bill and slink out of the place, hoping that no American sees me leaving.

I want to be ironic anonymously.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

6/13/99, 3:24am email - excerpt

"hello from ktm!

i just made a killer deal to stay at the Lhasa Guest House for 300rs/night! With the exchange rate for 1 USD now established at about 65 rs, that means I'll be staying at a somewhat classy (moderate to upscale) hotel in a TIBETAN neighborhood for $4/night approx. They knocked the nightly rate down by 50% (!) because it's now the off-season and nobody's booking rooms now. NO problem! I'm there. You should be here too. More tranquilo than mexico, if you can imagine it. i feel like i'm in a place close to heaven...

I'm excited for my move out of the too-noisy and not-too-clean Mont Blanc 2nd floor room I've inhabited for 2 nights. though people are very laidback, they sure are noisy. never a feeling of loneliness or isolation here. from around 8am until well after 9pm, the ramrod traffic styling of everything from rickshaw to motorbike and these little tiniest automobile vans you ever saw, all command the narrow Kathmandu roads. and nobody recoils, not even the pedestrians, when a motor vehicle swoops close by--within about 6 inches of your bones--as mary evans says you have to re-calibrate your "kinesphere", cuz there's nothing like personal space here. everything is up close and in your face, without the mean spirit and aggression of the u.s. style of closeness.

the colors, the smells, the sounds. all 3-d, finally. and i am very indulged. what a mindtrip, what a different place. i am happy. i am relaxed. so far, no sick.

i just celebrated (every moment a joy to celebrate, actually) with a 650 ml bottle (they only have these in KTM, no little beer bottles here) of STAR premium lager--'nepal's original beer', as reads the bottle label. And a plate of Tibetan veggie momos (steamed) and chipati bread are on the way! A vendor in Thamel just told me that I have a Tibetan face and the guy at another email access place near the awesome stupa at Swayambhu got really confused when i spoke english cuz he thought i was Nepali! I am so relaxed; am glad too that i fit in, blending in so it's easier to meet & observe the locals. Everyone's doing a thing, some thing. Every moment has an experience of newness for me. I am noticing and relishing every detail of my perception.

'Ma lanu huncha?' Can you take me to...?
'Ma lanu huncha?' Can you take me to...?

Next, I take rickshaw to Vajra Hotel to have dinner with Rajendra and Sabina (and her husband) at their invitation. They are long-time friends of Evans' (having done theater and art work here in KTM together for a number of years).

You wouldn't believe the messy mud paths here. It rained non-stop for about 15 hours last night and there's more to come, I'm sure. After all, the monsoon season has officially begun.

And guess what thrills me the most (almost): no one here seems to know where the hell Texas is! i love it! Texas couldn't matter less to these wonderful Nepal people.

Much love!"

Thangka painters in the afternoon

sani-bar / saturday

Now I sit in a small open air hovel, protected from rain. Quietly positioned behind three thangka painters--2 girls, 1 boy--whose busy hands deftly color in the meticulously-drawn Buddhist iconic images. I had been greeted by them with smile, no talk. The guy then waved me up onto the stoop to the room where they worked. He indicated a small bench where I could sit and watch. Turning back to his work, he mixes paints to make the color of human skin for the thangka he is trying to complete. I cannot tell if it is painted on silk or leather. A rare paper fiber? I don't know, but do not ask. I want to fill my eyes with this observation. The young man makes Buddha eyelids now, and every little detail-nuance is carefully placed. Dried color is made to blend in with wet new paint, very exacting. It is like the mastery of pointillism--what I am watching.

Later I learn that the young painter is: Tibetan, a father of two daughters, and a dedicated student of thangka painting--having studied in Lhasa for some time before moving to Kathmandu (probably as a refugee). There are thousands of Tibetan Buddhist refugees in Nepal, and this is evidenced by the proliferation of Buddhist book shops, thangka galleries and showrooms, and spiritual trinket (y'know, beads, singing bowls, and Dalai Lama picture cards). This young painter, after about 10 minutes of me watching them paint, invites me in to the interior rooms of the small building for some tea. I remark that one room is beautifully-painted, and I am told to say "sundar kotha" ("beautiful room"). It's my first time to try the infamous hot butter tea, which is a staple beverage of the Tibetans. I'd read in several guidebooks that it wasn't the best-tasting thing to drink. But--it is, apparently, good for people in many ways: to help keep the body warm, aid digestion, cleanse the body of excess lactic acid, and rejuvenate strength and stamina. Hoping to not offend the young painter and his young daughters in the room (watching midday tv), I kindly accept a cup of the tea and take my first sip cautiously. I've eaten things that others have tried to dissuade me from, finding that my tastebuds actually found the suspected food quite delicious. In this case, the rumors and reports were well-founded. Tibetan butter tea is nauseating. Would you ever go to the movies and buy a bucket of hot butter oil, minus the popcorn, and find it enjoyable? Ugh, I just couldn't mouth it, much less stomach it. After five small sips, intermittently spaced during my 20-minute conversation in the room w/ the Tibetans, I politely pushed the cup to the middle of the table and spoke a thanks, but no thanks farewell to the tea. End of hot butter tea in my lifetime. If I can help it.

I bid a quiet farewell to the painters and the young daughters and make my way down the puddled road in the late afternoon rain. Seeking a new flavor.

This small thangka-making center is named SURYA ART--TIBETAN THANGKA GALLERY and it is very close to Swoyambhu, also spelled as Swayambanath (and about three other ways).

Have a look at some beautiful full-color thangka images at

Wow! or Very Cool! => "erambro" (pronounced excitedly, like "RAM-ROW!"

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Sani-bar = Saturday

excerpt of email message from Shermakaye Bass (Austin, TX):

"Hey girl. I'm so glad to get your message. It's all so familiar, it brings a mist of nostalgia over me. I knew you would fit in perfectly. As I said, it's the land of small, kind, dreamer people. Keep me posted. And did you ever hook up with the Himalayan Light Foundation people, or Jeevan or Adam or Sapana at Lotus Energy?

Love and best wishes,
PS: Kiss the top step of the Swayambu for me, would ya?"

Shermakaye was another one of those friends who had been to Nepal and whose hand i gently felt on my shoulder, mystically guiding me to make the right decisions on this trip. I'll never forget how tears welled from her eyes as she imagined me in the places where she had earlier done her holy visit. It made me happy to be sent off, as an ambassador, delivering letters, messages, gifts on behalf of Nepal-lovers now anchored back in the U.S. Shermakaye said to kiss the top step. So off I went.

There was a brisk monsoon afternoon rain here near Swamb-Swayambanath, otherwise known as the "Monkey Temple." I climbed up the steps, meditatively counting them (Shermakaye said there’d be about 130), walked around the stupa, making prayers w/ the spinning prayer wheels (every turn a completed prayer), and hearing the monkeys squeal at each other and engage in impromptu skirmishes that sent the lackadaisical pigeons flying in a torpor of flapping wings. I was careful to keep my skirt and pack straps from swinging around, lest the monkeys become attracted to the movement and charge at me in hopes of finding me edible. You really have to watch yourself up there, cuz if you have to hastily back away from scurrying monkeys, you might topple back onto some sculptural icon or pot of burning incense. In other words, Swayambu is kind of an edgy place, where the locals go to do puja, or prayer, and relax with family. Edgy but tranquil at the same time. Nepal is big on paradox, which was confounding but instructive for me.

I hung out for about an hour, sitting equi-distant from some young laughing girls and an older praying man (and his assistant who patiently held an umbrella over his head and ritual bowls). He--the praying man--sat near the entrance to a small temple shrine that just about everybody was intent on entering if they weren't a tourist. I was fascinated by the shoe removing everyone did here. You're not supposed to enter a Hindu temple with shoes on, even if it's rainy and your socks get muddied in the meantime. I studied my reaction, trying to undo decades of being told to have clean feet and never to walk around in my stocking feet, especially on dirty floor surfaces. In Kathmandu, shoes are regularly spotted with mud-, cow dung-, and general street crap-splashes.

My own feet were locked in a thick pair of socks and hiking boots.

Another favorite moment was checking out the little families of monkeys positioned among the solid gold statues up here in the temple. Little do these animals seem to care about where they sit to scratch their bellies and crap their crap.

Oh, yeah, Shermakaye, I did kiss that top step, my lips creating a new layer of historical touch on the stone. A new scent for the monkeys to sniff...

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Awake at 3am

Okay, now I'm rested and wide awake. What do I do w/ myself? It's about 3 in the morning and not a living soul is walking around outside. It's quiet in the guesthouse and I have no television set. I sit up in bed, trying not fret. I grab my travel notes and my Nepal guidebook, re-reading them and noticing how mentally alert I am. This is crazy. Why am I wide awake in the middle of the night? This was jet lag big time.

I decided to stay up until the sun and the people of Kathmandu rose. I tuned in to the local radio shows on my battery-powered radio-alarm clock, skirting the dial to hear the variety of tones and musics on the Nepali airwaves. Surprisingly, some stations featured English-speaking djs. I sat, swaying to the Hindi dance music, in the middle of my bed.

June 11th - cafe table at New Orleans

Now the lag is starting to make me sag, and it’s only 4:30pm. My first Happy Hour Friday in Kathmandu, and I’m ready for bed. I guess i have to let nature (body and bio-rhythms off-kilter) take its course, so I can get back on course.

I reckon I’ll have the cup of tea and garlic toast (?) I just ordered at the “New Orleans” bar and then I’ll retire on the funky bed at Mont Blanc. Stomach pain is also starting to kick in; I do not know what that’s about. Could be nothing, could be something. I’m pretty amazed at the chill factor on the streets of Thamel; I guess this really *is* the off-season. I don’t like, though, that the shysters and dealmakers are spotting me as easy game in the thin crowds on the street and they’re pitching hard sells. “Madam, you want tour guide, porter, rickshaw, hash, marijuana, massage, tiger balm”? (omigod, how they pimp the tiger balm...) I must figure out how to brush ‘em off without putting them off. They’re just trying to make a living and a buck.

The littlest fly just landed on the opposite page briefly. I hope that’s all that’s flying around tonight...I’m leery of mosquitos on this still, humid evening as I sit in an outdoor garden, wondering about my next move & maybe my next breath. In my frenzy of leaving Fort Worth, I forgot to grab my anti-malarial medicine. Here, a mosquito bite could yield more than an irritating itch.

Well, it arrived @ my table: garlic toast. Minced raw garlic between triangles of slightly-buttered wheat toast.
Gonna munch it quick and then call it a night by 6pm.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

English spoken here

Wow, I thought I was hallucinating! I just heard a kid's voice, counting at loud volume very fast as if playing hide & seek. Yep, that was English. English is spoken everywhere in the touristy Thamel area; it is too easy for me, I think. All signs are translated into English, too, for the most part. How am I going to learn Nepali, when everyone's yakking in English?

But as I walk around, getting my bearings and trying to learn the layout of KTM, I realize how easy it is to get disoriented here. (And not just geographically, either.) The city streets all seem to curve and turn into other streets (kinda like GTO, Mexico), and complicating things further, every street seems to have its own "neighborhood" name (kinda like SF, CA). Thank god, I was smart enough to have brought a tiny compass--which is on a watchstrap on my wrist--to keep from getting severely lost.

God, there are men everywhere. Young men, good-looking men looking lucky. I've been here 5 hours or so and I've talked with about 7 men already. They're captivating & charming, quick with a smile. They walk so relaxed, arms swinging easily at their sides; it's sexy & attractive to me. For my taste.

And then, I notice how many men are holding hands as they sit in the shop stalls, or stand talking in the middle of the street. They casually and unself-consciously drape arms around shoulders, the way teenaged novios sweetly hang on one another's shoulders in the U.S. That's how I see these men and boys of Nepal physically in harmony with one another. After a brief moment of wonderment, I knew not to assume that all these men were gay lovers just because they gently carried each others' hands in conversation. An early lesson for this not-so-ugly American. Suspend the Western world judgments and attain a relaxed and pliant mindset.

Watching the soft and comfortable physical engagement of men in public space was one of the most healing therapies for me. Before Nepal, my cumulative experience had brought mostly discomfort, witnessing our men chest-thumping and preening in insecure rage, unfriendliness, and machismo in the american public sphere. So fuckin' uptight, even when they get along w/ each other. How funny to realize that such displays of physical armoring in other people hurts the observer maybe almost as much.

I look around, wanting to hold somebody's hand.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Eerie bird experience

I just drew an ink sketch of the black bird--probably a crow--that whirred over my head in Thamel on my first day in Kathmandu. It flew up from behind me, whooshed low over my head & then abruptly landed on a brick stoop a few feet in front of me. This actual siting of a bird in close proximity *outdoors* occurred about 45 minutes to an hour after hearing the fast flutter of birdwings next to my ear while I stood in my small 2nd floor hotel room at the Mont Blanc Guesthouse. I *heard* the flutter and also *felt* the swoosh as if a bird or bat had just blazed past the side of my head. It was so close (the sound, the feel) that I quickly dove to the floor in panic. Seconds later, I peered all around my room, thinking to spot the/a winged creature. I saw nothing & even checked under the bedside table and in the folds of the window curtains for the flying object. Nothing found. It took me a minute to compose myself; I am not a paranoid person, but I am convinced that "something" fluttered near me in my room momentarily.

Of course, this kind of experience is precisely what I welcomed on my expatriate path. In this magical kingdom.