Sunday, March 18, 2012

"A Loaf of Meat Between Two Tigers"

Thursday, March 15

This morning I awoke after only sleeping a few hours.  Our elevation is only about 4800 ft, so I doubt my wakefulness was due to altitude.  Linden held a team meeting in the morning, and he did his usual thorough and amazing job of filling us in on the trek/climb, running through gear, details, and concerns.  He also spent not a little bit of time keeping us on track.  That might be one of the cons of guiding a group of people you know...we perhaps ask more questions and interject more thoughts and concerns than an unknown clientele would.  Luckily, Linden knows how to rein us in rather diplomatically.

We then spent the rest of the morning during gear check...a process in which Linden comes to each room, where all our gear is laid out in piles, and proceeds to render advice about options as well as to occasionally nix a piece of gear.  We tend to laugh about all this, because some of us get so cold, that the idea of paring down layers gives us chills just at the thought.  That said, I did follow his advice on several items...just didn't follow all of his suggestions. On Kilimanjaro, I carried...whoops, the porters carried...two bags because I had extra photo equipment, batteries, and a small amount of medical supplies.  This time, I maxed out three bags- although one is medical. At any rate, I still don't like to be categorized as a "heavy packer"- it's somehow demoralizing on this adventure trip!

Packing selections completed, we gathered again for a Kathmandu city tour.  Our guide was Kiroj- a sociologist-in-training whose mother is Hindi and whose father is Buddhist.  He was an awesome guide as we leap-frogged the city, visiting a few religious sites.  The first site we visited was  Pashupatinath, a holy Hindu site along the banks of the Bagmati river at the edge of  the city limits.  This is a holy cremation site, and many journey long distances to cremate their deceased here.  There are perhaps 10-12 rectangular cremation ghats (pedestals) in front of the temple (Hindi access only) along the west bank of the river, which was refuse-filled and semi-stagnant.  North of the main footbridge crossing the river are the ghats reserved for the royalty, and people ritually bathe in the river in front of these ghats.  To the south of the footbridge are the ghats for the common people. There is a hospice adjacent to the temple, overlooking several of the pyres- a very real look at death for the patients within. This site was so filthy, yet so holy- such was the dichotomy of reaction I experienced.  Funeral pyres were laid on a few, and fires were burning on several, all with very little ceremony.  Much like a mortuary, families pay to have their deceased loved ones laid to rest in eternal flames- and the remains are then tossed into the Bagmati.   The concern for disease staggered me.  When the monsoons come during June- August, however, the river is "flushed" out...

Kiroj informed us about many basic tenets of the Hindi faith...the three primary gods- the Hindu "trinity"- of Brahma as the creator, Vishnu as the preserver, the builder of wealth/prosperity, and Shiva, the destroyer.  He talked of the meditation word "aum"...where "a" represents air/ether (Brahma), "u" represents water (Vishnu), and "m" represents fire (Shiva).  We walked amid many shrines and memorials- and I couldn't help but be fascinated by the lingam (icon) for Shiva which was within many chaityas (small stupas).  The base is shaped like a bordered, straightened comma, with the end of the point opening up to the air.  Centered on top is a phallic cylinder. The base represented the uterus and vagina...and the upper symbol, most obviously, the male counterpart- representing the creative powers of Shiva.  Fascinating.

After Pashupatinath, we crossed town to a Buddhist pilgrimage site- the Boudhanath temple. Huge and white, the monument/temple consists of a huge white dome on a terraced base, surmounted by a capped spire.    The earliest stupas were domed mounds which were built to contain relics of Buddha.  These evolved into more complex structures with rich Buddhist symbolism.  Each stupa is built upon a terraced plinth- sometimes a few levels high- which represents the earth.  The annually whitewashed dome represents a pot- to contain water.  On top of the dome is a square segment, usually painted with Buddha's all-seeing eyes on each side.  Buddha's nose is a figured "9" which is a stylized Nepali ek (1) signifying the singular character- that out of emptiness comes compassion. On the forehead is a mark signifying Buddha's sixth sense, and insight. Above this face is a tapering spire with 13 levels, representing the 13 stages of perfection on the way to nirvana.  The spire is topped by a cupola representing an umbrella, and then a pinnacle festooned with yellow, green, red, white and blue prayer flags.  All along the base is a covered alcove filled with prayer wheels...all embossed with "Om Mani Padme Hum"- which means "All Hail the Jewel of the Lotus"- and a phrase used as a mantra as the faithful circumambulate the stupa, clockwise (to capture spiritual energy), turning the wheels as they pass. I couldn't help but turn many of the wheels, praying for peace. (Unfortunately, I didn't know at the time that turning the wheels 3000 times will prevent and cure mountain sickness- ? few days of acclimatization? Guess I goofed.)The architecture also represents the five elements: the base- earth; the dome-water; the spire- fire; the umbrella- air; the pinnacle- ether.  Fascinating.

From Boudhanath, we traveled to our third UNESCO heritage site- the Swayambhunath temple, better known as the Monkey temple because of all the...monkeys... who cavort around.  On the tour bus, you can imagine the numerous questions I asked of Kiroj.  He was most patient with me, and told us a bit more about Kathmandu and Nepal. Nepal is now a constitutional republic, with a transitional government.  Before 2001, it was a royal monarchy, until, supposedly, the second-in-line son staged a massacre of the rest of the family, but spared his own.  He ruled for 4 months in 2001 before the people revolted, led by the Maoists.  Today, as the "loaf of meat between two tigers" (China and India), the Maoists are still the controlling party, and the temporary constitution has been in effect since 2005-2006. The current leaders' terms have been extended for a year, hopefully to aid in forming a finalized constitution. Because of the political change, many people have flooded into Kathmandu.  A city that held 1.5 million people 5 years ago now holds 4 million.  Talk about exponential growth.  And very limited infrastructure. Again, I thought of all the disease.  Upon my comment re disease, Kiroj's response was, "Give us time."

Swayambhunath lies atop a holy hill, thought to have been a spontaneous eruption from the prehistoric lake which covered most of the Kathmandu region.  As we climbed the ?356 steps- a breeze, relatively, for this group of active women, we noted the golden Buddhas, murals of Buddhas birth, and statues along the way.  I, too, noticed these sites- that is, when I wasn't pressure-breathing and rest-stepping.  The story is that from this prehistoric lake, a lotus bloomed and then flamed, and now the flame is a sacred element.  The Lotus is also a sacred image, the opened leaves of the blossom are painted in gold on the dome of the Boudhanath temple.  As we reached the top, we noticed that there were many people there who arrived via the more direct route- by car- to the top. Linden later mentioned that he'd never climbed the steps before with a group, but he thought that it just might be payback for all the questions I asked, and to give Kiroj a break.  It pretty much worked- again, pressure-breathing the Dana Marie way often leaves no breath for speech. As for all those people, we witnessed a celebratory parade, complete with musicians, guests, and the lead celebrants- an elderly man and woman, dancing their way round the UNESCO fountain.  We thought that the woman had a certain arrogance in her moves, and we wondered if they were celebrating a marriage or a birth.  Again, fascinating.

After our tour, we went back to the hotel for more repacking, dinner, and blessed sleep.  Tomorrow- the harrowing flight to Lukla, and the trail begins...

(Photos to follow...)

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