Over a Cup of Nepali Chai
I had the remote in my hand. The scenes were getting too rough to handle. So I paused and switched…Broke, with a broken marriage and unable to reconnect with my photography, I sold my wedding ring and headed off to Nepal for a 7-day break from my supposed real life.
For somebody who hasn’t travelled much and who has never been keen on street photography, Nepal was a random choice. The pleasant surprise was that Nepal turned out to be a country where having the green Pakistani passport was actually an advantage. As part of the SAARC community, the visa was free, the entry tickets to all places were the quarter of the price for other tourists and Urdu language came in handy as most Nepalese spoke Hindi.
As I experienced Nepal over the course of one week, I realized that most ‘farang’ tourists are attracted to it not only because it is poor and desolate but also because it is surrealistic in comparison to the modern world.
In the contemporary and so-called progressive world, we are losing ourselves to survival and consumerism. Nepal, on the other hand, offers a glimpse of life where religion, art and culture are crucial parts of their daily lives. Not to forget the beauty of nature that maintains its grandeur despite holding in its belly the filth and muck poverty creates.
Being someone who feels passionately about preserving and propagating the art and culture in my own country as a means to spreading the message of peace and tolerance, I couldn’t help but think of Pakistan as I roamed the streets in Nepal. Our architecture, folk music, crafts and natural beauty are nothing short of Nepal’s. Yet due to the paradoxical modernization and Islamization, our country’s tourism industry has suffered. I dream of the day when, once again, foreigners with fascinated smiles would travel freely in Pakistan and we would present our culture with pride and hope. Of course, easy availability of booze would help the cause as well!
Kathmandu was my first destination. If I hadn’t gotten over my phobia of car accidents and crowded places, I would’ve definitely suffered multiple panic attacks during my stay here. I was amazed at my own tolerance for the filth that lined the streets. I guess even the rubbish in a foreign country seems exotic.
I did what most tourists would do in Kathmandu. I visited the ‘Bodnath’, a holy Buddhist site with one of the largest stupas in the world. I found it extremely commercial and packaged. Full of tourists clicking away madly at anything they see, it is a well-developed site that I am sure provides employment and alms to many.
Durbar square was another of such places which was brimming with tourists in awe of the architecture and going mad over the pigeons inhabiting the buildings. Although some Hindu temples are banned for non-Hindus, but many aren’t. My most interesting experience in Durbar square was sitting in a Hindu temple, listening to a group of singers melodiously chanting their ‘bhajans’ to the sounds of harmonium, tablaa and cymbals.
A day trip to Bakhtapur was interesting. The ancient city had beautifully preserved architecture and some interesting local life outside the tourist area. If you end up taking photographs of the children in the tourist area, be prepared to spare some alms.
After roaming the Thamel area for some window-shopping and being hassled by cycle rickshaw drivers who also offered to sell me hasish (of course I didn’t buy it-simply couldn’t afford it!!), I headed off to the Pashupati Aryaghat, a Hindu crematorium just outside the Pashupati Temple. Determined to get some good photos of the face-painted sadhu’s, I couldn’t help but stop to watch the burning dead before visiting the temple.
The lifeless bodies were put through elaborate rituals, which included washing them with the polluted water of the Bagmati river. As a photographer, I was tempted to take photographs. As a human, I heard the cries of the mourners and wanted to step out and let them be. The stench of burning skin and dirty waters made me sick to the stomach. In the end, I took permission from a man who was there to cremate his 45-year-old brother and joined the mourners. It was a strange experience. The temple had many sadhus’s with multiple get ups. They wouldn’t let me take their photos unless I would pay them. With little extra money to spare, I had to hang around to take some shots and quickly run away before they hassled me for money. An 8-hour ride in the local bus took me to Pokhara, which was much cleaner and less crowded than Kathmandu. A stroll around the lake offered serenity and a hike to the World peace pagoda offered much stress to my untrained legs and lungs. It was a funny and self-deprecating moment when I sat down to breathe and instinctively lit a cigarette. The Pagoda had some giant golden statues of the Buddha in various poses, a beautiful view of the polluted city, huge surrounding mountains and a rabid dog that was probably too old to bite.
The Tibetan refugee camp in Pokhara was unexpectedly well to do. Whatever little I have seen or read about the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, I was expecting this camp to be a desolate and sad place. Fortunately it wasn’t. It had nurseries and a school, a temple, children playing in a basketball court and women offering hand made jewelry. It was relatively clean and calm.
On my way from Pokhara to Kathmandu, I stopped at a local ‘mela’ to witness some local action. I was probably the only tourist there and the local journalist kept following me clicking away from her cybershot. The night was spent at a shady hotel in Gorkha, overlooking the beautiful fields on the hills. An early morning stroll turned out to be a challenge as I was subjected to catcalls and tuneless cheap Indian love songs by ‘young’ boys who were somehow fascinated by my presence. I tried taking photos of some women in the fields, which was not welcomed.
As I gave up and sat down to smoke (yet again), a woman with her traditional basket approached me for a cigarette. She sat down besides me smoking away and I took the opportunity to take some photos in exchange. She asked me for booze. I politely declined. She asked me for dollars. I laughed and walked away.
I braced myself for a 1600 stairs climb to the Manakamana temple, hoping to find some good photos. Breathless (yet again), I thought I couldn’t go on (after 35 steps or so). Until I saw a lovely woman carrying a basket on her head full of supplies for the shops up the hill. I was fascinated with the thought that she does that every day for a living and is still left with the energy to smile and chat with women on the way. I started following her, taking some photos from behind her until I reached the temple. I got some good shots of the rituals, which made it worth the climb. Although I had the guts to capture burning bodies in Pashupati, I could not find the courage in myself to photograph the ritual in which they sacrifice baby goats.
Back in Kathmandu, on my last night in Nepal, I headed off to a lonely dinner at a popular restaurant in Thamel. The restaurant was full and there was no space for me. The staff requested a Spanish couple to share their table with me, which they graciously allowed. They were friends who had been travelling separately and ended up meeting in Nepal. As they say, there are no coincidences in life. The evening turned out to be one of my best nights in Nepal in which I connected with some beautiful strangers and shared my stories.
I don’t know whether I am ready to go back to the grind. But I do know that these 7 days have given me the opportunity to be with myself and reconnect with my camera. Nepal was the perfect destination that offered challenges that I could overcome and noise that made me listen to my heart.
At least today, as I write this essay, sitting in a lovely crowded café in Thamel, sipping Nepali Chai, I am at a place where I can address my life and say ‘bring it on’!