Valentine’s day started romantic, peaceful, lazy and rather luxurious. We had an amazing breakfast at the Namo Buddha Resort, where we had spent the past 2 days and 2 nights being reintroduced to the concept of fresh air. After breakfast -with the view of the Himalayas on a sunny day-, we read, sketched, and talked about the beautiful Stupas we had seen during the previous days. The time to leave was approaching too soon.
A bit over an hour after this peaceful moment of comfort, fresh air, and magnificent view, we were in the chaotic traffic of the surroundings of Bhaktapur. I have a blurred and fast-forward memory of having crossed the exit door of the resort and entering the road. Among the things on my memory, there was the initial awkwardness of trying to balance myself on the back seat of a heavily shaking taxi -with no seat belts available!- while desperately trying to pull out sunglasses and a breathing mask from the backpack. In between foggy lenses (breathing masks are hard to get used to and don’t work well with glasses), stinky pollution and bumpy road, I remember a side traffic consisting of bicycles filled with impossible amounts of banana and mandarin for sale. The smog and traffic noise intensified by the minute as we drove away from Namo Buddha. Motorbikes and huge trucks zigzagged dangerously around our little taxi. A half-naked little kid jumped and danced, twisting her little hands in circles around her head while her mum applauded in the balcony of their simple house by the busy road. I remember an old man, also half naked and his back full of black ash having a shower with a bucket practically in the middle of the street. Every now and again, there were hundreds of motorbikes in a long queue, their owners waiting patiently for their turn to fill up with fuel.
The contrast between the resort’s oasis of luxury and the simple houses and crowds that gather along the road were hard to digest. It added up to my road-sick dizziness and to a headache I had gained from the abrupt curves and bumps on the road, the noise and traffic smoke. I physically weirded out and increasingly guilty for my privilege. The clear contrast of realities is not pretty. The food I had just eaten for breakfast and the comfortable bathroom where I showered that morning are not mere human necessities here. They are absolutely luxurious privileges that are possibly (probably!) not going to be experienced by almost anybody I saw on the way from Namo Buddha to Bhaktapur.
Before having time to let all the information from the road sink in, we arrived at a labyrinth of bricks and wood. Cracked houses got tighter and closer together as we entered deeper into the medieval town of Bhaktapur. The taxi finally stopped and our spinning heads and aching butts headed into the city, relieved to have survived the ride . Bhaktapur, which translates as ‘the city of devotees’, starts for us at Taumadhi Square. An impressive, massive, gorgeous five-store Hindu temple dedicated to the Goddess Lakshmi welcomes us to town. She is the goddess of prosperity and I can’t hide my excitement about the fact that the biggest pagoda I’ve ever seen is dedicated to a
Bhaktapur, which translates as ‘the city of devotees’, started for us at Taumadhi Square. An impressive, massive, gorgeous five-store Hindu temple dedicated to the Goddess Lakshmi welcomed us to town. She is the goddess of prosperity and I did not bother to hide my excitement about the fact that the biggest pagoda I’ve ever seen is dedicated to a goddess. Around us, there was lots of movement. Shops of souvenirs, pigeons and street dogs, cafés and people carried on their daily affairs, mingling occasionally with a small wave of tourists that sometimes stopped and posed for pictures on the temple’s steep stairs.
Arriving at Bhaktapur’s labyrinth-like streets.
Cracked walls and doors reminded us of last years’ earthquake.
A privileged view of Laxmi’s tall pagoda from our bedroom’s window at Taumadhi Square.
Arriving at the hotel, we were greeted by the owner’s dog, Popo. Popo is the cutest male cocker spaniel I have ever seen, wearing a pink Nepali dress and a bright pink leash. The hotel owner was excited to greet us and shows us 4 options of rooms for us to choose. The hotel tour started with excitement, but then we noticed that almost all rooms were empty. Tourism has decayed a lot in Nepal since last year’s earthquake. The impact was visibly harsh also on the many souvenir shops and equally empty restaurants surrounding Taumadhi Square. The excitement of the shoppers when they saw our faces that screamed ‘Tourists!’ was both endearing and scary.
One man half my size (and trust me, I am not tall for Western standards) was particularly insistent that I come in and take a closer look at the beautiful silver earrings he was selling. Feeling shaken by all the poverty I had seen on the way to Bhaktapur, I had confusing feelings about helping this man by spending money on something so trivial as earrings. After much insistence, I gave in and chose a pair, which Michele bought me as a Valentine’s present. The beautiful silver earrings cost 10 US dollars and I think the shop owner hadn’t sold anything ‘so expensive’ in a very long time. He looked so happy that it was moving. We are used to being just simple travellers on a student budget. All of a sudden, it felt like we were filthy rich. That was unfair, unusual and definitely uncomfortable. We lingered at the shop practicing our very small Nepali vocabulary (at which the seller was thrilled), which lead to a longer conversation during which we met his family and exchanged business cards for ‘the next time we come back’, he said smiling.
Beautiful colours of a Nepali paper shop.
A family admires the 5-store Laxmi pagoda at Taumadhi Square.
Religion was in every corner, squeezed in between shops and busy roads.
A chicken takes advantage out of the rice offerings from a religious temple.
A few streets away from the earring shop there was drumming and noise. A parade was happening in honour of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity. We walked around and got lost in Bhaktapur’s labyrinth city, only to find that the parade was coming towards us at last. We stood on the sidewalk and watched as the crowds who, seconds before, were working, talking, playing, smoking, selling, buying, cleaning and eating, now stopped to admire the short-lasting show. A crowd of men walked by, carrying big and beautiful red umbrellas and offerings. Following, another crowd of men playing the drums we had heard before. The parade was over before I could figure out how to take two pictures, admire their faces and offerings, and appreciate the drumming all at the same time. It felt like life happen all at once here, all in fast-forward motion, and I didn’t have acute enough senses to absorb all the information surrounding us. I was overwhelmed by the richness of the culture, the liveliness of the history, the religious symbols embedded in every decoration, the spirituality ever present even in seemingly mundane daily rituals.
Night arrived at Taumadhi Square just like the parade: familiar but strange, close but far, busy but soothing. The square emptied quickly and was left alone with a handful of tourists and a group of local men sitting in a circle and playing loud melodies. The music was nice and filled the environment with a happy feeling. Through the fast-changing shades of the sky, we could still see different layers of the mountains before it turned completely dark. We were surrounded by medieval Hindu temples. There were candles and tiny fire pits around Taumadhi Square: fire was appearing from several corners in honor of Shiva. The lights from motorbike’s lanterns and tourist’s cameras made the giant statues seem alive and moving. My last memories of Taumadhi Square that night consist on an acute awareness that I was falling asleep only a few steps away from the biggest pagoda I have ever seen, where ancient statues danced to moving light and spirituality was in every speck of dust in the air we breathed.
The next day was announced with the sound of bells that rang every so often. People were waking up before sunrise and rang the bell to honour Ganesha as they already started their daily duties. Although way earlier than I expected, it was comforting to wake up to the ritualistic callings of religion, ever so present here. The sunshine arrived some minutes later, confirming that the five-store pagoda was still there, it was not a dream. It’s surroundings busy as ever. We got ready, checked out from the Hotel where Popo lives and said our goodbyes. A short walk away and we got lost, back into the labyrinth, until we found our way to a taxi.
Staying for one day and one night in Bhaktapur was enriching and special, but also tiring and overwhelming. Perhaps because of the contrasting reality to the past few days in Namo Buddha, we experienced everything in Bhaktapur as intense, almost uncanny. The crowds, the noise, the heavy air, the desperate shoppers, the beggars, the beauty of the shades of red in saris, umbrellas, vermillion powder and pretty much everywhere. The imposing temples and pagodas, the music, the humanity, the friendly welcoming smiles. So much rawness and so much beauty. A major reality check. Or rather, many realities. The finer senses that we had slowly refined in Namo Buddha, while resting and indulging in comfortable luxury, were quickly overwhelmed by the close encounter with a different reality that I felt ashamed for almost forgetting about.
“Madam! banana, banana!” A beautiful woman with a wide smile revealing perfect white teeth and a cute little girl on her lap called me as I was about to enter the taxi to leave Bhaktapur. I turned around, searching for eye contact in order to say ‘namaste’ to the person who was screaming for my attention. I noticed then that she does not have her right eyeball. She returned the ‘namaste’, continued to smile, and looked as fascinated about me as I was about her. I might have managed not show my shock upon seeing her injured face because I found her incredibly beautiful nevertheless. She was sitting on the muddy floor, barefooted, her baby girl playing with her hands. She was dirty, scarred and gorgeous. I felt sorry for not buying bananas, sorry for her eye, sorry for the desperation that, although masked a little by her genuine smile, still came across her voice as she screamed for my attention. I felt ashamed for holding my camera, hanging from my neck and screaming ‘rich tourist! I felt uncomfortable with everything about me and her that separated us into the boxes of privileged and unprivileged. I felt tired of feeling so intensely. I was touched by her open smile and by how she did not show disappointment or anger at me for not buying her bananas but instead continued to smile and look at me with curiosity. In her, I saw dirt and suffering and hard work, and also kindness, beauty, and womanhood.
Our exchange lasted probably less than 10 seconds. But it now represents a great share of the memories collected during those 24 hours in Bhaktapur. That woman is the face of my experience of Bhaktapur, and to some extent, all of what I have seen of Nepal so far. She had the power to shake me to my core by just being herself. The power to remind me of extreme beauty and extreme humanity, crude reality, extreme poverty and dirt and sickness and unfairness; and extreme warmth that flows from the most unexpected places, joy, affection, and beauty that is hard to look away from. Those 10 seconds were probably worth a lifetime of memories and emotions. This place makes me so emotional and vulnerable.
What started as a lazy, cozy, luxurious valentine’s day, ended as a deep, enriching and rather out-of-the-comfort-box experience that I am extremely grateful for.