Monday, April 13, 2009

Lunch, Learning, and Little Tibet

Our third stop of the day was Boudhanath, the largest Buddhist stupa in the world.  It is a striking place, marked by its white-washed dome, gold ornamentation, and red, white and blue-painted eyes that gaze over the worshippers who flock to its grounds.  It is especially holy to Tibetan Buddhists, and a large community from Lhasa has made its home in exile here.  A whole Tibetan town of sorts has sprung up around the stupa, with homes, shops, and monasteries.  Indeed, the Dalai Lama himself fled to Nepal after the Chinese invaded Tibet.  Unfortunately, the Chinese applied a great deal of pressure on the Nepali government, which understandably acquiesced to the great power to their north and sent him on to Dharamsala, India.  Politically, Nepal is always engaged in a delicate dance, squeezed between the two great adversarial powers of China and India, trying to appease each without alienating the other.

We entered one of the monasteries, where I saw a prayer wheel the size of a small shanty.  It takes up an entire room, and you spin it as you walk around it, clockwise, of course.  Upstairs in the same monastery, there is a great deal of art—mandalas and scenes from the Buddha’s life, and a beautiful painting called the “Wheel of Life.”  It reminded me a great deal of the Hieronymous Bosch triptych, “Garden of Earthly Delights,” that I’d seen in the Prado in Madrid.  The top half of the wheel portrayed earthly pleasures; the lower half, the torments of hell.  As in the Bosch painting, hell was more vivid than paradise.

We toured some shops owned and operated by Tibetan refugees, and I bought a few items: two beautiful, traditional mandalas, and a hand-crafted Nepali “singing bowl.”  I felt good about these purchases, which I will enjoy and give as gifts, and which support hard-working artisans.

After touring the area, Mangalal and I stopped at a rooftop restaurant for a very late lunch.  The food was good—and the conversation great.  I got to know a little more about my soft-spoken, intelligent and kindly Nepali guide.  He is 35 years old, and like most Nepalis, his marriage was arranged by his family.  Interestingly, he told me, “Younger people are now starting to marry out of love.  But the marriages are less successful than those that are arranged.”    His marriage, at least, seems strong—he speaks very lovingly of his wife, who is seven months pregnant with their first child.  He was born in Kathmandu, knows every inch and alleyway of the city (together with all of its history) and drives with maniacal expertise.  He says he is very happy, and this comes off as heart-felt and sincere.  At the same time, he notes that there is a real shortage of work for him as a guide and driver; tourism has declined sharply since 2001, which brought both the events of 9/11 and, locally, the massacre of the royal family and subsequent Maoist coup deposing the succeeding king, who was responsible for the murders. Mangalal is hopeful that things will change soon, declaring, “George Bush ruined much for Nepal and the world, but Obama is making it better.”  This sentiment is broadly shared pretty much everywhere in the world.  I feel lucky to be able to travel proudly as an American again.  Anyway, from his mouth to God’s ear.

Still, Mangalal is hedging his bets.  He has applied for a visa to Canada and, if that fails, hopes to buy a cab here in Kathmandu.  And he tells me that many Nepalis are now working in the oil-rich Gulf States, where they can earn (relatively) large salaries.  And thus another Nepali contradiction: people are looking to get out and go to unhappy places in order to make money, even as they insist that money is not the source of happiness in their tradition, and they seem quite happy here in Nepal despite their poverty.  Mangalal also comments on the drabness of the west: “Look at all of our fabrics here—they are such beautiful colors.  You westerners dress in such dull shades.”  I’ve heard this before, in Boise, from some of the refugees who tend their plots in our synagogue’s community garden.  In a Technicolor world, we are a land of rich but austere grayness.

And with this I have what is perhaps my most striking thought of the day: people are just fine with contradiction here.  In America, and throughout the west, we tend to think in linear, logical terms, like the old Socratic syllogisms: “All men are mortal.  Socrates is a man.  Therefore Socrates is mortal.”  For us, life is a matter of either/or.  We want our paradoxes resolved, come hell or high water.

But that’s not the reality here.  People prefer to live with the mystery, to dwell in the center of the paradox.  Maybe it is, in a sense, the jewel in the lotus.  And so here I am in a country where people are happy in their poverty—and at the same time, seeking work in the miserable Gulf State deserts; where erotic images fill the temples—and guidebooks warn foreigners that immodest dress is an insult to the local culture; where an unabashedly Maoist government presides over a nation with 30,000 deities and 366 religious festivals; where peaceful people drive like maniacs and seven hour gas lines wind past billboards for LG, with their slogan, “Life is Good”; and where, in a city celebrated for its ancient temples, the prime minister’s residence is a cheap knockoff of the palace of Versailles.  Paradox?  Absolutely.  Problematic?  Not here, in a nation that, like Walt Whitman, is glad to contradict itself and contains multitudes.

After our late lunch and conversation, we had time for one more stop: Durbar Square in Patan, the royal palace in a close suburb of Kathmandu.  Patan is also known as Lalitpur, or “the beautiful city” and it lives up to its moniker.  We toured several more Buddhist and Hindu shrines, including the Golden Temple, then drove back to my hotel in Kathmandu.  I bid Mangalal goodnight, and returned to my room exhausted but also deeply content and, I hope, maybe even a little enlightened by the day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Israelites' journey through the wilderness from Egypt this saturday, will be with anne at bill and amanda's ps stan silman made us proud at the county court house.