Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hasera — Simple Pleasures

My friends are texting— are you having fun?

I don’t think “fun” at this point would describe my Nepal experience. If “adventurous” means uncertainty, noise, chaos, foreign, interesting, getting lost,  etc… then that would describe the center of Kathmandu (Thamel). 

But fortunately now I’m in the country. At Hasera Agricultural Research and Training Center (, Govinda Sharma, the founder and well-known Nepali teacher of permaculture, had answered my inquiry about organic farms on which to work and stay. Just one long taxi ride from Kathmandu.

Whew! This feels so much better since I am a “country girl.” But also one can breathe here, high above it all and away from the pollution and noise and tourists. 

Here is Govinda teaching, always teaching...

Well, sort of away from the noise. 

Below the hill on the highway, musical horns  play while passing around a blind curve next to a cliff.  (Apparently horns playing a tune are outlawed in Kathmandu so the bus owners enjoy their individual musical statement below me.) So I awaken without an alarm at 6 AM to the sound of horns, the mooing of Kali the cow and the chopping of vegetables in the kitchen. Actually those sounds are now simple pleasures. Life awakening.

My days here at Hasera are unstructured

Sometimes they have work for us, sometimes not. Here we are planting.

Picking tea leaves.

We don’t even know when mealtime is. We just wait for the”Yodelyodelyodelwho.” Apparently a Swiss girl once tried to teach them how to yodel.They didn’t master the technique but retained the sounds as a meal call. And if you don’t appear for the meal they come find you.

And the meals? 

“Dal Bhat Power, 24 hour” T shirt describes the basic meal. 

A little bowl of lentil soup and large plate of rice. (I begged for less rice.) On the side are are sauteed vegetables and if you lucky fried bitter gourd,   curried balsam apple, and other exotics from the garden. So good!!

Even the spices they use are grown here — pepper, chili, cumin, garlic, ginger… For breakfast often roti (like Indian chapati), banana and apple. 

Actually the fruit is a luxury because it is grown here only in season and often has to be purchased.

So, when the basic meal is supplemented with something special, that is a “simple pleasure.”

Like when Begin, the older son, went to the city for errands and came back with peanut butter. Add that to the roti and banana — wow! Or when I gave him 1000 rupees to buy chocolate for everyone. (I thought he’d come back with change for the $10 but chocolate here is expensive.) What an after dinner treat! 

And mo mo’s. A traditional Nepalese dish. See  us here taking the rounds made from just flour, water and salt and stuffing them with a curry mixture. One has to do it just so or they will fall apart while steamed. 

Or the samosas! A lot of work, made with more of a pie crust dough, again stuffed just so, and deep fried. A luxury high calorie snack!

 In addition there are dipping sauces that I have yet to make. The simplest is tomatoes and salt and chili, cooked 5 minutes. Or the same with tomatillos (called tree tomatoes) here, with their skins first boiled off. To each of these ground roasted sesame seeds are added.

The best so far? Well, a slightly adulterated Western version of mo mo’s. Shaved chocolate, mashed  banana and chopped apple. No cinnamon? No problem. Just add black pepper. Maybe deprivation makes something this simple more precious. If so, deprivation occasionally is a good thing.

Case in point is the most delicious sensual experience yet at Hasera. A shower! 

See Rebecca blowing on the fire after feeding it cardboard and wood. (Of course we can’t heat water when rice bran is being cooked for Kali the cow.)

 See Josh pouring water to be heated. 

See the shower stall — a short walk up slippery steps while carrying the bucket. Ahhh… Even hooks to hang a towel, clean clothes and the underwear one washes in the warm water. Simple pleasures!!!

Clean body, full tummy and sunset. 
Or in the early morning, if you are very lucky, a  view of the Langtang Range of the Himalayas. Ahhh…

Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Hair-Raising Journey to a Holy Place

I’d wanted to go on a beautiful ride to a peaceful oasis

By now I’d realized that I can only do so much of the chaos, mess and sound of certain cities. I crave peace! Maybe I’m a country girl?

So I asked Deepak to drive me to Namo Buddha, a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery two hours out of Kathmandu. Once we got out of the city’s outskirts, I could finally stop holding my breath against the dust and pollution. The traffic still drove me crazy but I stopped gasping once I realized that Deepak was going more slowly and aggravating everyone behind him because he knew I was scared. It was simply death defying, this intermingling of busses, cars and motorcycles, men from India pushing bicycles laden with fruit  and cows in the middle of a 6 lane highway!

Deepak soberly told me that you would get 10 years in jail if you deliberately kiilled a cow. Afterall it is the incarnation of Lakshmi! And she is the goddess of prosperity so you want to stay on her good side! He then said he read that the penalty for rape was 10 years (really, the same as a cow?) And murder 16 years. Wow—that would save on death row appeals…

He also told me I shouldn’t take a bus, that I was “too old.” 

What! But after the two hour trip I totally aggreed. The potholes, cleared mudslides, wandering animals, pollution and kamikaze motorcyles would have sent me flying back to Portugal. At least I got nice calm Deepak who answered all of my personal and social questions. 

He then threw in an aside that he deserved a greater tip than the one I was told to give him yesterday and also would I consider helping to send his daughter to school? OK… I never know where I stand with these money issues with the Nepali. He did talk the cell phone vender down $50 just by casually not giving the man the full amount he asked for. 

But he was my Prince Valiant behind the wheel!

The scenery got more peaceful.  Shiva on the hill.

Terraced gardening scenes. 

A man asking for a road tax and Deepak not giving it because he looked like an alcoholic. An old woman filthy lying by the road—alcohol he pronounced. Apparently this is a home-grown millet and rice booze which a few people are addicted to.

Then we had to get out and walk. 

The road turned to ruts and mud, although motorcycles braved it. 

Marijuana casually grew as a road-side weed.

And finally Namo Buddha. An oasis high above the fray. 

A place of escape, of refuge, of committed spiritual practice.

See the prayer wheels which I turned and prayed for family, friends, this poor world ... for all of us.

And the tiger on the lawn?

According to tradition this is the very site where an earlier reincarnation of the Buddha came across a starving mother tiger and her hungry cubs. Out of pure compassion (more than I could ever muster) he bled and cut himself so they could eat. 

They lived and he was reincarnated as the historical Buddha. Left me wondering how much sacrificial compassion lives in me?

I couldn’t take pictures of the very inner sanctum. Just trust me that Tibetan Buddhism is over-the-top ornate!

I did enjoy talking to the monks. 

Monks on motorcycles, monks on cell-phones, monks happy to answer my questions. (For some reason, nophotos.)

“What does Buddhism say about saving this poor world? How do we pray for this?”

Well, his Holiness the Dalai Llama says that the only prayer that really matters is for your own inner peace.”
Maybe because that’s all I really have any control of? Not over the traffic, dust, poverty, greed, ignorance, fear, illness or death?

The picture of the still living founder of the monastery is laughing. “Of course,” say the monks.

But all they really want to talk about is the American election! “Why did you vote for Trump?” Hmmm...

The journey home was the same, with mud, traffic and dust. 

But I was safe. I’d made a pilgrimage of sorts, remembered peace and was advised of a doable prayer.

When I told the hotel clerk Prakesh (who had up-graded my room after the airport snafu) of the “hard journey”, he replied, “Yes, life is hard. But it is worth it.”

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas in a Campground

For my friends who think I’m still in Nepal, because my blog is, let me update you—just for Christmas. 

I’m writing this in a very noisy game room at a caravan park by a beach at South West Rocks in North New South Wales, Australia. It’s the only place with wifi. Kids are playing the TV at full volume and pingpong games are slamming. But it’s Christmas! Time to be with family, friends and tradition.

So, what do you do when you’re traveling alone and those you love are back home?

Well, you celebrate the small things:

Like, these are happy kids on holiday. Its summer in Australia!
The caravan park, unlike my usually roughing it in the woods, has wifi, water, toilet and a shower.
The family next camper over just invited me to share in their Christmas dinner. And when their little son Jack saw I was a little tearful after a call back home, offered me some M&M’s.

I bought a dozen oysters from a truck last night and cooked them in ramen noodles for a solo Christmas Eve dinner. A relative yummy!

My family will skype me for their Christmas dinner.

And you celebrate the small things in advance leading up to Christmas:

This lovely lady, Bronwen, helped me celebrate Christmas a week early. She and her husband took pity on me at a restaurant and invited me home for a shower! Did I smell that bad? No, she was just passing on some kindness that someone had done for her a week earlier. (Generosity is generative.) Yay!! What a gift! And a hand-dyed washcloth by her daughter of an apple orchard in Bilpin.

My own Christmas basket, from produce and apple cider in the Bilpin area.

And a special snuggle with an orphan. (What big knees you have!)

And you appreciate the decorations, which in rural Australia are sparse but unique.

You rejoice in not dealing with Christmas cards, shopping, and the overstated commercial hoopla. Camp living is simple.

And you celebrate the big things, like … I survived!

The workman cleaning up the debris this morning called last night’s storm “cyclonic!”  This neighbor who had camped here each Christmas for 20 years said, “It was one in a million.”

There were dead cicadas littering the ground, kookaburras looking disheveled and disoriented ducks. Last night my tent shivered and shook. I was seriously worried about lightening striking the trees above, as one did nearby. (Right, I picked this site because of the shade.) I should have been more worried about the falling branches! Eucalyptus trees are notorious for shedding their branches in the wind!

But… it didn’t leak. Yay for not buying a cheaper Kmart tent! 

See the big branch that just missed me.

So, as the storm wound down in the afternoon, we celebrated in Aussie style. 

Turkey, ham and prawns. Beet-root salad. Ending in home-made boiled Christmas pudding with mince pies, custard and cream. 

And cracking “crackers!” Little explosions with these English treats, toys and silly hats. 

And jokes—“What does an angry kangaroo do? Get hopping mad!”

So, my friends, my Christmas in a campground was “one in a million.” 

I learned to appreciate dry shelter,  generosity, little hoopla, a sweet little boy and the kindness of strangers. Maybe a little like the first Christmas?

Wishing all of you the heart warmth and inner light that this Season offers!

Now, back to Nepal…

Monday, December 18, 2017

Kathmandu — Washing Death out of my Hair


Not a happy title I know, folks, but right now its very real.

I escaped the cacophony of the city by having  the hotel driver take me around its outskirts to three sacred sites. I read about them in the guide book as I went and thought I was prepared. Deepak filled me in on the traditions and history the best he could, being a hotel employee and not a certified guide.

There were the usual unusual sights. A cow in the street (sacred reincarnation of the goddess of prosperity, Lakshi). Apparently the owner comes at night and takes it home for food and water. In the meantime it is undisturbed. 

The only traffic light in Kathmandu, which Deepak laughingly pointed out didn’t work. And discussions of healthcare and social services in Nepal. “What do you do if you are seriously ill and can’t afford a Doctor or medicine,” I queried. “You die.” 

The first, Swayambhunth, you can see here, is both Buddhist and Hindu. 

Apparently these two religions live together with no complaint, in proportions of 80/20 %. After all, the Buddha was a Hindu prince, born in Nepal. 

 It’s also called the “monkey temple.” Monkeys climbing anywhere they chose with their own swimming pool. “Don’t touch,”  I was admonished. “They have rabies and HIV.”  Egads! I thought the plunging motorcycles through the darkness were bad!

Everything in this site was sacred. People chanting, placing marigold flowers, bowing, incense and butter lamps… constant prayer it seemed.

The second site, Bodhnath, was definitely the most lovely. 

This is the largest stupa in Asian and definitely is a place of peace in the midst of Kathmandu chaos. The impressive white stupa, several sided with Buddha eyes all around. Gaily flapping prayer flags.

 An enormous prayer wheel.

 Chants in the background. Quiet monks and nuns meditatively walking clock-wise.The usual stalls selling stuff but no one hawking wares.  Exquisite hand-painted thankas.

Definitely my favorite!

But it was the last site, Pashupatinath, that sticks in my mind, clothes and hair. 

Hindu with statues of Nandi the bull and shiva lingums of male and female aspects.

Stoned Saddhus (holy men). 

And on the path a few beggars minus hands or feet (chopped off in India, Deepak is saying here, and bused here to beg).

A murky holy river, and …the burning ghats. I wasn’t quite prepared for them and told Deepak it was quite OK if we watched from a distance. (I was planning to go to the burning ghats in Varanasi, India but now have been spared the necessity.) 

We watched as a yellow draped body was partly moistened by the river, feet in it and water poured into the mouth. 

Then it was pulled back and covered with flowers by the family and transported to a concrete ghat where wood was placed underneath. Numerous of these pyres burned, with acrid smoke billowing, infiltrating the air and me.

What was is like? Sacred. Reverent. A saying good-bye. 

(Supposedly the bodies are brought here within hours if the family can be assembled.) Lovely and final. Expensive and therefore precious. But with a smell that I was anxious to be rid of!

I couldn’t wait to wash my clothes, body and hair! Feeling purer, however, I couldn’t wash away the memory. I thought I’d done due diligence with death in my life. Medical school, cadavers, hospitals and patients. But I had never seen a body burn. 

So now I got to deal with the reality of mortality again. 

And not just the obvious, like I could fall off a mountain or get hit by a motorcycle in Nepal. More like, in the shower thinking,  “This hair will burn. This belly-roll I obsess about will burn. This poor knee replacement won’t burn! This body will be no more.”

So I’m not sure why I came to Nepal other than I like the Nepalese people and there are Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and permaculture projects here. I guess it was partly due to needing to see death again, and again, and again… until I finally learn to appreciate this body and this precious life as both holy and temporary. Thank you Nepal!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Delightful Cacophony! Kathmandu.

I’m at at roof top restaurant in Kathmandu Durbar Square
 after being shown around by Mr. D. 

This persuasive 25 year old guide found me buying a ticket, remorseful that I’d gotten there late at 4 PM, and  assured me that for $15 he could easily explain all I needed to know in one hour. Since I was exhausted from at least 4 hours of walking there, I took him up on it. Let’s stop wandering and get to those darn temples! 

I had initially wandered through the crowded, dusty and colorful streets of Thamel, 
the tourist section of Kathmadu. 

Somehow I’d managed to keep heading in the right direction, towards Durbar Square. Forget looking at the map! Absolutely irrelevant since there were no street signs. Or traffic lights, Or stop signs. Or toilet paper or soap … but there I digress into complaining. It was my first day in this lovely but developing country… Lots of things to buy cheap but fortunately I can’t buy anything with “too much luggage!” (Except experiences, I told Mr D.) Except… a compression sack, meant for sleeping bag but I use for packing clothes. $20 in states, $2.50 here. And an outlet adapter for Asia for $1. $1 for mixed fresh fruit juice.

The streets of Thamel were interesting, to say the least! Full of color and sound. 

Various bands with drums, trumpet and sax following the winding narrow streets, but when the sounds collided with another band—cacophony! Compressed humanity, motorcycles, dogs, dust, goods for sale… Jumble of power cables, offerings and gods...

Trying to get organized in the midst of chaos.
I even found the Nepalese Band ATM that the hotel clerk advised me to use. 

But yikes! I waited behind another couple while the security guard looked on and to our horror the machine sucked in the card and wouldn’t spit it back out! Nightmare! And being Sunday the bank was closed. The security guard couldn’t help at all and motioned for me to use another one in another building. No card eater there, just the standard card reader. Got my money but found that no machine will give more than $100 at one time. A bit cumbersome but at least I got my card back! One more thing to be on guard about.

I then found the entrance to Durbar Square and Mr. D. 

He remembered it all before the earthquake, murmuring “sad.” Here is a pic of before next to the after of just one temple. 

It must have all been beautiful. But in the midst of reconstruction there were still bricks and broken materials galore.

The most untouched was the Kumari Temple. 

I read about that interesting tradtion in the National Geographic! It all came back. They take a 3 year old girl and raise her in the temple, she shows her face daily to devotees, she is released back into “normal” life when she first bleeds. Did I get to see her? No. Because the Dasain festival is still going on so ordinary rules don’t apply. The Nepalese can line up to climb the stairs but not us foreigners. Why not? “Because you eat beef. A cow is a reincarnation of Goddess Laxmi. It would be bad for the Kumari to see you.” OK… 

I did just miss the blood and gore of Dasain festival. Two streets over scores of goats had there heads lopped off. Why then would they care so much if I eat beef? It is all so complicated. Such as why the Kumari girl came into being. Apparently the goddess Kumari came in human form to the King and they played dice together while she protected his kingdom.He made the very big mistake of lusting after her, after which she fled and bad things started happening to his kingdom He was deeply repentant and begged for her return. “No. But I will become myself into the body of a special girl. That way my protection can continue.” 

Interesting that this one building was not destroyed by the earthquake. She can’t let herself get hurt—no scratches or blood- so she is carried out on her infrequent sorries into town in a golden chariot. See it behind closed doors with a motorcycle ingloriously parked in front of it.

And how is this Kumari picked? She needs 32 aspects—perfect beauty including the right shade to her skin and fearlessness... Just how do they test the fearlessness of a 3 year old? Easy. Lock her up in the dark all night, surrounded with buffalo heads. (Not skulls, heads.) If she is a normal 3 year old, out of luck.) Above is the window she usually appears in and there I am, normal imperfect and appropriately fearful me.

And statue of the Garuda who is protecting Vishnu. 

And a fearsome statue with devotees.

And a fearsome mask that the Nepalese Airlines uses as a logo, behind iron bars, who works his magic once a year when holy beer is pumped out his mouth and the crowd lunges forward for a gulp, to be cleansed.

(I do apologize for the poor details, folks, but I couldn’t keep track and there were no signs. A visual cacophony.)

The royal palace had two distinct wings of two styles, and the Chinese and US government have each taken on a wing for reconstruction after the earthquake. Impressive was a guard—evidently there is a famous section of the Nepalese army, the Gurkhas, and I was impressive by my ignorance.

A great if overwhelming tour.
But finally I ended up above it all, at this roof-top restuarant, watching a sunset, 
kite floating above a pink cloud, vultures soaring. 

One hill has monkeys on it. It would be good to get that far away, maybe find some peace… I’m drinking mango milkshake because they don’t have yoghurt for mango lassi. And eating buffalo “mo mo” dumpling because they were out of vegetarian. But they have pleanty of cacophony – bands below with sounds colliding, a palanquin carring some representative of God.

After this rooftop peace, I had to get home somehow! 

“Easy,” said the waiter, “Head that way, go to the entrance of the Square and get a taxi.” But the view from the roof and from the front door were entirely different. It actually got terrifying! Darker and darker, crowds going both ways on the street, no street lights, motorcycles lunging out of the dark with headlights directly towards pedestrians and each other. Yikes! 

A shopkeeper told me to turn around, go to the temple (Right! Which one?) and find a taxi. I talked him down from $4 to $3 because Mr. D said that was a fair rate and he looked at the address on the card and off we went. Down a bigger street arriving at a square I had never seen in the middle of Thamel. He actually expected me to get out! Nope! He obviously didn’t know how to get there! So he asked a shop owner and looked at my map and off we went again, down narrower lanes, him asking me the way. I did recongnize the final turn and voila! No tip buddy.

So now I’ve tried to decompress from overwhelming sights, sounds and dust. 
Tomorrow a driver for $40 will take me for a full day to places I couldn’t walk to.

As long as there’s a seat-belt, I’m game! One day in Thamel is enough for me!