Dear family and friends,
Well, the sky has opened – the monsoon has begun – and the country is inching in that direction, too. They’re allowing a few international flights; so my hope is that by July 13, when I’m due to come home, I’ll be able to fly. I don’t fully understand why the government suspended things – the world had more to fear from us than we did from it – unless it was altruism. Maybe they were getting pressure from abroad; who knows.
But some rules lend themselves to closure. For example, Nepalis can’t invest their money abroad without going through the government, something I’m told you need a lawyer to do, and that many folks don’t you can do. My understanding is you can’t transfer money overseas, either, except for student and medical expenses. It’s a residue, perhaps, of Nepal before 1950. Sure, tourists come now, but that’s a one-way transaction. Many educated Nepalis, like the engineers it needs so desperately, are moving abroad. Only half the Nepalis I taught in the U.S. came back; the rest remained in the States. Would you return if once you’re here, you’re trapped financially? It’s like a monetary Berlin Wall . . .
Nepalis are allowed – even encouraged – to work overseas and send their money home. (Again, a one-way street.) Many men, and some women (who are only allowed to do certain jobs by the government, for their “protection”) send remittances, including from Qatar, the oil fiefdom I flew through to get here. My 2 AM flight from Doha to Kathmandu was packed with happy (and, I’m told, probably drunk) Nepali workers, returning home. I tried to sleep, but the plane was abuzz with talk. My first taste of Nepali culture . . .
Qatar is as rich as Nepal is poor, and Hamad International Airport may as well be on another planet. Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu is still wrecked from the 2015 earthquake, but Hamad is a giant steel refrigerator, inside of which is a high-end shopping mall. You can buy Gucci, Burberry, Coach, Boss, Polo, Tiffany’s, and (very surprising) Victoria’s Secret. All duty-free! The place reeks of perfume and the fantasy of sex. Glamour photos of white women with traces of Arabic features are everywhere. I wonder what Nepali workers who have never travelled, much less invested, think of it . . . I thought it was weird enough.
Islamists accuse Muslim nations of selling out. It’s easy to see why. In the airport, posters of sexed-up models faced gender-separated prayer rooms (most of which were closed); and I saw businessmen in traditional white dress, and a few women wearing bourkas, beneath ads for the 2022 World Cup, arguably a world religion. It’ll be held in Qatar. When we landed at Hamad – after having the best airline food ever (on Qatar Airways) – a flight attendant announced, “Welcome to Hamad International Airport, Your Gateway to the World!” (their motto) then added it was Ramadan and we shouldn’t eat, drink, or smoke in public till the sun went down. Some serious cultural tensions happening.
Meanwhile, at center of the airport was a giant yellow teddy bear with a massive desk lamp shining over its head. The sculpture was by a Swiss artist, and was supposed to be “whimsical,” but it looked like Winnie the Pooh being interrogated by the Nazis . . . Flanking it were two monstrous television screens, advertising “35% OFF DUTY-FREE.” Suddenly, I heard the call to prayer. A surreal moment: It came over the loudspeaker, and the Arab man in front of me didn’t bat an eyelash; he kept on using his phone. The prayer was a peaceful oasis in the middle of a money pit. (Of course, I couldn’t understand it.) I wondered if Osama Bin Laden just didn’t like duty-free shops . . .
I’d been awakened that morning by a polite tug at my toe by a flight attendant; I opened my shade to puffy, yellow clouds. It was the Arabian desert. Miles and miles of it. The clouds became dunes; and their contours looked like an Arabian script. I thought of the Qur’an, this culture’s holy writ. Cities, too, are distillations of what lies around them: Chicago rises, grid-like, from the grid of Midwestern farmland; New York City is diverse, like the immigrants who have passed through it; and Boston is impregnable. Hamad International arose from the desert, but emptied it of its soul, the one that had inspired three religions. It was clean – it advertised itself as one of the world’s cleanest airports – but spiritually, and materially, dead.
Cleanliness, as I’ve noted, isn’t a problem for Kathmandu. Neither is consumerism of the luxurious sort. I wonder if, more than the theological differences (many gods, one God) it’s this hygienic difference that puts Hinduism and Islam at odds. Then again, the temple I revisited this week – Swayambhunath Stupa, the Monkey Temple – is Buddhist, and it’s not very clean, either. The manmade trash is minimal (by Kathmandu standards), but there’s plenty of monkey poop.
This time, despite the threat of rain – which did happen: Murphy’s Law – I didn’t bring an umbrella. I wanted to test my theory: Sure enough, the dogs didn’t bark. I was met instead by a group of young men who sleep on the hill beneath the temple. They may be drug addicts, or just homeless. (One wonders where the orphan kids in Kathmandu go when they grow up. Maybe here.) I paused, unconsciously, for a moment, and one asked me – intending to beg – “Are you waiting for someone?” It was disingenuous; and I said, “No.” He asked, “Where are you from?” I said, “Here. Where are you from?” And he said, “I’m from Kathmandu.” I said, “Good!” and went on my way. He kept talking as I was leaving, to the laughter of his friends, amused at his bungled job.
Walking to Swayambhunath Stupa, I’d stopped to take a photo of a sleeping dog; he’d awakened and looked expectant. I had nothing to give him. I’d taken his image without anything in return: the sin of a tourist. Later I passed a young man, who begged me for food, but he was dressed in a nice leather coat, so I got confused. One fears to be a “sucker” . . . Maybe that’s why Islam requires charity; the obligation makes it easier. I haven’t given anything to any street folks in Kathmandu, and I don’t feel good about it.
Back at the Monkey Temple, the monkeys were being fed by a middle-aged woman. She fed them all, without judgment: Mothers who cradled their nursing babies (they’d use one hand for food while the other held their babies tight); wild-eyed adolescents, approaching with a combination of curiosity and fear; confident adults, who looked vibrant, despite living on handouts; and a wise old monkey who sat back on high step, very gray and contemplative. He got his meal in the end – a big piece of bread – without troubling himself.
There were a few dogs milling around, hoping for scraps; one went after a monkey, who screamed and jumped on the woman’s head. She didn’t mind. The dog conceded went back to watching, like me. I thought, “Whose side am I on?” The dogs were further away, genetically, but they were also domesticated (as even stray dogs are). The monkeys were wilder, but they were fellow primates; if not siblings, then cousins. I decided I was for the monkeys, but not against the dogs.
I kept climbing. It’s a long way to the top of Swayambhunath Stupa – many, many, many steps – until you reach what looks like an upside-down soup bowl, with a golden tower and a pair of quizzical eyes on it. I saw two monks moving clockwise around the base of the temple, one wearing a monk’s robe with prayer beads, the other wearing gray sweat shorts, jogging. This is where Manjushree, the ancient bottisatva, is said to have plucked the lotus flower. When he took it – I’m probably not getting this right – a light shone out, then was covered by the stupa.
Why did they cover it? A friendly Buddhist priest, who, along with two other priests and a couple of old, devout women, was playing music – wonderful music; down home and simple and raw, the only live music I’d heard in Kathmandu – said if they didn’t cover the light, it’d be stolen. We were living in a selfish age. It reminded me of the closure of Nepal . . . Yet, he also bemoaned that the Newar Buddhists – of whom he was one – had taught only other priests, not the masses. I reassured him that Buddhism was popular in the United States, and he laughed: “That’s Tibetan Buddhism!” He said the Newars had taught the Tibetans everything they knew; then the latter got all the credit.
I don’t know enough about Buddhism’s history to judge this claim; but I understand the need to be recognized for what we do. For many years, black Americans were undercredited – and underpaid – for rock and roll. I grew up thinking Bill Haley and the Comets, a white group, had simply invented it. But then I think of Jackson, Michigan, my birthplace, which claims, against two other cities, to be the cradle of the Republican Party; and of Nepal and India, who argue over being the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama – I’ve seen a truck painted “THE BUDDHA WAS BORN IN NEPAL” – and of the Muslims and Jews and Christians who fight over Jerusalem. I wonder if part of the Buddha’s profundity was that he asked us – if we can and survive – to let some of this go.
Xenophanes – who lived about the same time as the Buddha, on the west coast of Asia Minor (it’s Turkey now, but was Greek back then; another contested space) – suggested that if horses, lions, or oxen could draw their gods, they’d look like horses, lions, or oxen . . . I wonder what the monkeys think of the Buddha . . . Maybe he’s close enough, genetically, to satisfy them . . .
As I listened to the music, a stray dog nuzzled under my hand, hoping to find food, or at least some love; I had neither to give, being afraid of another infection. A young monkey went through the candleholders and somehow found a meal. The priest, after the jam, told me, “If anybody translated these songs into English, they’d be smash hits.” I encouraged him to do so, since his English was very good (a common misconception in Nepal: many people think they speak English badly – they’ll say, “I only went to a government school!” – but they speak it well, far better than I speak their language). The scene reminded me of my favorite bar in New Hampshire, where people drink, jam, and dream.
I walked home in the rain, past a monstrous army headquarters, then a stadium with swastikas on its gates. Swastikas are ubiquitous in Kathmandu; they’re good luck symbols for Hindus. The Nazis stole them and perverted them. What’s fascinating is the Star of David is also common here – a symbol of the mingling of male and female – and you’ll see them next to each other. Perhaps it shows how powerful, yet fragile, symbols are. One helped inspire a genocide; the other, a new nation in response to that genocide. Neither of them mean that in Nepal. For a Westerner, it’s jarring.
A downpour began and I stopped at a bus shelter. A golden retriever was sleeping inside of it. He gave me a look, decided I was all right, then went back to his nap. Another sleeping animal, another moment of peace . . . He looked a lot like my family’s old dog, “Ace.” The rain lightened and I moved on. I came upon a traffic light, only the third I’d seen in the Kathmandu Valley; and, of course, everybody was plowing through it. It made me angry, this pointless disregard of the law . . . So I stepped into the street and slipped and fell. (Dusty roads get muddy during the monsoon.)
I was reminded of the time in New Hampshire when I’d been skating on a pond that said, “NO HOCKEY.” Everyone was playing hockey; and again, it upset me. So when a puck went between my legs, instead of benevolently kicking it back – which I’d been trained to do over years of playing hockey – I thought, “To hell with these people!” and I tried to kick it away. And at that moment, between benevolence and spite, I fell and got a concussion.
(I guess that’s why the Buddha said, don’t get too attached to things . . .)
Finally, passing by a roadblock, I was stopped by a police officer. “Namaste!” he said. “Namaste,” I said, clasping my hands in a prayerful position before my body; this is the polite greeting in Nepal. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Home,” I said. “Where do you live?” he asked. “Lalitpur,” I replied. “But where are you from?” he pressed. I thought: I’m from here! I’ve suffered and worked and loved and survived and been locked down in this city for two months!
“America,” I said.
He nodded and let me go.
Letters from Kathmandu #10: Return to the Monkey Temple