Another day comes screeching in the window in this most manic of cities, the regular bleat of car and scooter horns is fast becoming our sound-track to Kathmandu. With passes sorted for hiking Annapurna yesterday we stay the hand of giddy hiking excitement to delve for a more tourist mode, and in Kathmandu that means Durbar square. This most spiritual of cities is a flame for the worlds moths seeking enlightenment, peace or otherwise to flock and buzz in time with the crowded mass. Durbar square forms a particularly dense hub of shrines and stupa’s (buddhist shrines) for those seeking the light or heathens like us just wanting to gawk.
Into the throb once again with eyes a little less wide than yesterday we push on through the crowds as the crowds push on around us. The streets are a tapestry of dilapidation too tight to be multi purpose arteries for pedestrians, cars, scooters, rickshaws, donkey carts, beggars and fruit stalls alike. Something in this chaos has got to give but nothing does, an incompatible world resolves differences on the honk of horns and sharply spoken directions. Like an unexpected chance to breathe under water we spy a stupa in a courtyard and dash in. It’s a small pocket of space and of course we’re guided into an art school selling thanka’s, the impossibly detailed and perfect circular motifs that make up much of popular art here. If there’s one thing this travel has done for us it’s that we’re bully proof, the heavily spiritual ideology of a thanka feels quite distant for me so it’s all appreciation for the skill but no thanka thanks.
On this detour we do spy a semi circle of monks in deep meditation around a golden buddha. Red and yellow robes hang elegantly off the picture perfect forms of stillness in a scene of lavish cleanliness and luxury. Behind a locked door and glass panel they’re a department store window display inspiring desire and aspiration, spirituality and retail marketing sharing some common threads possibly. Looking on at the monks however it can’t be ignored, trite jokes aside there is a world just metres away that, although exciting, is intense, harsh and invasive. We’ve made it less than ten minutes on our walk and already I’m happy just to sit and watch these pictures of serenity for a few more seconds. A place for everything and everything in it’s place the saying goes, we have our escapes that are available to us at home and in this heaving world I instantly look a little les cynically on this action, sitting still in silence doesn’t seem so silly at all when Kathmandu is your world.
Arriving at Durbar square it turns out it’s a festival for mothers, no surprise, there’s a festival most days and we have a chance to see the Kumari Devi, an incarnation of a god similar to the more well known Dalai Lama. As amazing as this sounds it’s not uncommon, avatars and incarnations are pretty common in this shopping mall of salvation and rebirth. The Kumari Devi is however the most important one here, the young girl plucked from nowhere to be essentially locked up and revered until she has her first period and then she’s put out to pasture and another girl is chosen for the life of torment. Sadly the poor girls are deemed bad luck to marry so often lead lonely mortal lives, mystical bad luck or haughty ex goddesses reaching new heights of pain-in-the-ass: no comment required.
Atop a pyramid like Shrine we gain a commanding view and a space above the throb somewhat, our own little semi meditative silence. The buzz, the life and the vibrance fights with my cynical self as I try to see the Kumari Devi among other things as a beautiful symbol of solidarity and hope and not yet another form of spiritual child abuse. Paralleled with the scene of the monks that seemed nothing short of beautiful, perfect and completely without contradiction, my questioning mind reels with a patchwork of beauty and tragedy that is fantastic to be within but not without conflict. Offerings are made en masse with the whole world seemingly buying favour of some form; health to an ill relative, guidance in a time of trouble, a new iPhone. The vivacity and completeness of faith here does in many ways overcome my cynicism in a swell of colour and life far from the beaten down submission of mono theistic corporations.
Once again we’re on the move, and one can’t ignore a great Asian past time, spitting; not in all cultures of course but it’s a bit of an Asian thing lets be honest. A rickshaw driver pulls up to me seeing a tourist face as money and commences to indulge in the oral equivalent of child birth. Thwack, the frothy pile of sputum lands centimetres from my feet as he makes eye contact, ‘taxi’? With a giggle I politely decline and turn away thinking that I should never hire a Nepalese salesperson.
On a cloud of borderline comfortability with less questioning of a more faith based life we make our way back towards our guesthouse to collect some last items of gear for our trek. In a screech and hail of yelled words the tenuous joy and warmth of a world left to unthinking faith comes crashing down, two men are abusing a rickshaw driver and landing a few punches to his face for good measure. The rickshaw driver doesn’t respond, he takes what seems to be his due; the only conclusion we can draw is one of caste or class differences. In short time more people are in to calm the situation but it plays a harsh display for a spiritual life where a man has no right to defend himself from being punched and abused on a busy street. Castes and spirituality are different yes but blind belief lies at the core of both; I find them hard to entirely separate. With no small sense of shame we walk on without helping. The scene is calming, it’s not our culture we tell ourselves and this is true but the shame clings to our skin like oil. Which shrine do I go to to wash this one off I think but sadly no shrine helps this, we walk on saddened and conflicted again, joy remains in the bounds of Durbar square for those that can afford the rupees to enter.
Trailing a scent of consternation through our shopping exercise our world of outdoor gear lacks a little sheen of excitement. We’re amid a popular western version of chasing happiness still rolling with the memories of the eastern counterparts highs and lows. I can’t help but think that as preposterous as some faiths are, shopping for materials to feel happy is in quite a similar boat. Monks in a shop window, people buying favour or a down jacket; it seems that shopping in Nepal might just have a broader mandate than we perceive. The world is going shopping and everything’s on sale with the currency you’re spending dictating the store you’re in. Our currencies of time, money and effort have bought travel full of hope but the finite goal sits indistinct at the end of the year; I guess we just have to have a little faith.