Happy To Be a Tourist in Pokhara

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Within the first few steps on the tarmac in Pokhara, I feel the downshift from the pollution, density, and relentless sensory onslaught of Kathmandu. After an intense morning at the cremation pyres at Pashupatinath, the twenty-five minute flight transported us to another Nepal.

Pokhara, the country’s second largest city, is the gateway for trekking the Annapurna Circuit and the hub for high-adrenaline sports like paragliding, base diving, kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing.

Lakeside is the touristy part of Pokhara that hovers along the north shore of Phewa Lake. It lives up to the views I studied online, with its verdant banks and dozens of brightly painted row boats anchored in the reflection of the Himalayas.

There are trendy western-type restaurants, bars, and stores that make it a magnet for travelers as a rest-stop on their way to and from adventurous itineraries.

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On the afternoon we arrive, Pokhara is buzzing with the celebration activities for the third day of Tihar, the Hindu five-day festival of lights to cast off darkness and misfortune and usher in auspicious blessings for health and prosperity.

There are strings of lights and garlands of marigolds everywhere. Along the sidewalks, at the entrances of homes and businesses, are spectacular Rangolis, colorful designs to invite the goddess Lakshmi to enter and bring good fortune for the coming year.

In the evening, troupes of children go from store to store, dancing and singing songs performed only during Tihar. Shop owners reward the dancers with small gifts of money, candy, and fruit. As darkness falls, people set tea candles on their stoops, windowsills, and sidewalks as Lakshmi favors the brightest lights.

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There is an outdoorsy expat community living in Pokhara who have opened yoga studios and businesses catering to tourists. The main drag of Lakeside retains an echo of the bohemian feel of the mid-’60s when the hikers from the West began pitching their tents near the lake.

As the light fades, Sarah and I walk along the water and then explore the shops looking for scarves and singing bowls. We merge into the spontaneous audiences that form circles around the children dancing on the sidewalks.

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Sarah is an old soul in a young energy body. She meanders like a child, taking in the world at her own pace. In contrast, my default stride is a purposeful near-sprint. She rolls her eyes when I admonish her to catch up. We are a good pair, balancing out our extremes.

I first met Sarah at Erika’s house, months before leaving for Nepal. My impression of her was neutral and subdued. There was no immediate spark of friendship like sometimes happens. So I was caught off guard when I read the text that she had booked the same flight as me. I recalled her sweetness and accepted the unplanned togetherness.

Over the next months, we built a friendship, as one might in an arranged marriage, as we trained for trekking on the stairs at Mount Bonnell. By the time we were riding the dunes in the Qatari Peninsula during our layover in Doha, we had formed a bond that felt as if we had known each other forever.

Like most tourists, our group does not venture out to experience the rest of the sprawling city of Pokhara. Life in Lakeside is a soft refuge from the challenging conditions on the trekking trails. This is our last night with a flushing toilet and a comfortable bed.

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On the morning of our departure, I slip out to watch the sunrise over Phewa Lake and the Himalayas. There are only a few locals organizing the boats before the crowds arrive. An American jogger runs by with an intensity that is out of place in Pokhara, as an older, arguing Japanese couple walks up next to me.

I give the bickering couple a side glance with my much-practiced parental big eyes along with a gentle smile. We then stand in silence, the three of us, while the snow-capped peaks that fill the horizon change from an ethereal blue to watermelon, then mango, with a finale of golden turmeric before the clouds roll over the view.

Pokhara is dreamy, but the traveler in me is ready to go.

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Footnote: A brief description of Tihar, if curious.

Tihar is the five day festival of lights that take place in the fall. It is a time to cast off darkness, death, and misfortune and usher in auspicious blessings for health and prosperity.

Tihar tells the story of Yama, the god of death, and his twin sister Yamuna, the goddess of the sacred river of the same name. After being separated for a long period, Yumana sends a crow, dog, and a cow to summon her brother before finding him herself. After they reunite, Yamuna honors Yama by circling him with mustard oil, flowers, and grass, and marks his forehead with five different tikas, colorful powders made with water and rice.

The first day of Tihar honors the crow. In the morning people go to their roofs or gardens to feed the crows sweets, bread or grains.

On the second day, families place tika on the forehead of their dog, hang a garland of marigolds around its neck, and offer their pet extra food. People who do not own a dog, adorn and feed one of the ubiquitous strays that roam Nepal.

The third day, devoted to cows, is considered to be the most important of the five-day festival. The animals are scared in the Hindu tradition and symbolize wealth.

On the fourth day, offerings are made to other bovine animals, like oxen and buffalo. Preparations begin on the fourth day for the Brother-Sister Ceremony that occurs on last day of Tihar. Families gather together to celebrate siblings and apply tika to the brothers in the family as Yumana honored Yama.

Eating the Chocolates at Buddha’s Feet

fullsizeoutput_c415It didn’t cross my mind, not even for one millisecond, that I shouldn’t eat the exquisitely wrapped chocolates at the base of Buddha’s lotus-positioned feet. The small rectangles, packaged in a rainbow of bright colors, looked exactly like the legos I had been playing with all morning.

Having never seen a home alter before, I didn’t know that the chocolates were off limits.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked in New York City as a nanny for the sweetest toddler named Paul. His blonde ringlets and predictable, almost constant, cherubesque demeanor were in stark contrast to his kind but wrung-dry looking parents.

Paul was an only child, although there were grown unseen step-siblings, of an older psychiatrist and his second wife, younger of course. She carried herself wearily, without the confidence that I felt around the other young-ish mothers that I met through the service. The other mothers beamed with the good fortune of what appeared to me, a directionless college student, as having it all.

I applied for the job because of the Park Avenue address. It jumped out at me when I was reading the listings in the cumbersome black binder at the Barnard College Alumnae Babysitting Service. I envisioned a penthouse with a wing for me and my toddler charge.

Instead, it was the smallest living space I had ever seen. Adding to the cramped and restrictive situation, was the fact that Paul’s father ran his practice out of the apartment in the living room off the dark and tapestried main entrance.

My domain included a closet-sized kitchen with one window looking out a second-floor air shaft, a narrow hall where I could reach out and touch both walls at the same time, a nursery that fit just a crib, and the master bedroom where a stone carved Buddha took up half the space. The remainder of the multi-use master bedroom included a small futon, all of Paul’s toys and stroller, stacks of books, and a clothesline for cloth diapers.

The items placed around and on the Buddha were a continuation of the explosion of flotsam in the room.

Paul’s mother was decades ahead of her time with discovering threatening food allergies and fearful eating. I spent hours squished in the tiny kitchen, my back pressed into the wall as I sat in front of Paul’s high chair spooning foods I had never heard of in his mouth.

I did not speak with Paul’s dad. He smiled and nodded at me when he walked into his office as I hurried down the narrow hall. Paul’s mother asked me to stay in the playroom, which we pretended was not her bedroom, while her husband saw patients in the morning.

Instead, I would pass the patient time at the playground in Central Park. I ran after Paul and listened to the au pairs complain about their host families and speak to one another in their home languages.

It rained the morning that I carelessly ate the sweets left at Buddha’s feet. Paul and I could not make it to the park. The hours stuck in the apartment were excruciating. Paul’s joyfulness usually softened my boredom and claustrophobia, but that morning, he was cranky. As I read to him, he fell asleep.

I stood up and considered the Buddha. For a month I had shared my workspace with the statue, and surprisingly, not given it much attention.

When Paul’s mother opened the door, I was unwrapping my third rectangle of chocolate. She looked more wrung-dry than usual as her eyes went from Buddha to my hands. I kept chewing and swallowed as fast as possible.

I gave my notice and stayed for a few more weeks while looking for a waitressing job. We parted amicably. I still have the picture of Paul that his mother gave me the day I left. He is climbing on a monster truck tire next to the pond at their country house, smiling of course.

Twenty Times Around the World

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For the first time in twenty-six years, I am not driving somebody somewhere. A rough total milage calculation from all the cars that we owned while raising our four children places me just over five-hundred thousand miles.

That’s twenty times around the circumference of the earth.

I own my acute odometer shame and cringe when I think of my carbon footprint. It’s not the parenting badge that I want to shine a light on and do so only to illustrate what a colossal deal it is for me to be out of the family Uber business.

When I found out I was pregnant with our first child, I followed the hubris of every couple and made the mental list of things that I would never do as a parent. I balked at the thought of ever driving a minivan. It was right up there with never saying a snarky word to my child and the promise that parenthood would not change our marriage.

We went through several ill-fated car purchases including our neighbor’s hail-pocked Tercel, a top-coat shedding Taurus station wagon with chronic heating and cooling issues, and a red Brocho that we discovered later had two bullet hole through the roof.

Several months before the twins were born, we made our last questionable car decision. We were lured into buying a second-hand Suburban because it was so tricked out. We could only hear the bells and whistles and the roar of the impending doubling of our family while letting the accident and mechanical history slip by like white noise.

The Suburban was ok, but just delayed our inevitable car drama correction: Minivan ownership.

As I drove the first of our minivans off the lot, I accepted my life as a transporter of children and understood how people joined cults.

Our two minivans, the second of which we still own, steadfastly saw me through the constant rhythm of activities, sports, play dates, school drop-offs and pick-ups, and general family maintenance. With one push of a button, the sliding door opened and closed as children, mine and others, piled in and out for fifteen years.

The van was part living room, garden shed, dressing area, study hall, storage unit, and kitchen. It became an extension of our family life, and much of our togetherness took place during hours driving up and down MoPac. None of those five-hundred thousand miles were glamorous.

I barely noticed when Leo left the minivan and began driving himself. I have no recollection of the process. What I do remember is standing in our front yard, bragging to the lady next door about what a good driver he was, when at that exact moment, Leo came screeching around the cul-de-sac, jumped the curb with two wheels, and drove through our neighbor’s garden. He parked the car in front of the house and walked by us as if nothing happened. To this day, Leo claims that I taught him how to drive.

Eli and his friends were all gamers and spent way too much time inside darkened rooms. We were eager to get him behind the wheel, out of the house and into the light. We signed him up for a formal driving course, but when he rebelled against completing his road hours with the instructor, Matthew took over, or at least I thought he did. According to Eli, I also taught him how to drive for which he continues to blame me for each of his accidents and tickets, plural.

It was clear that I was pegged as the driving teacher in our family lore. I figured I needed to be more serious about the title with the twins.

Georgia was the most eager to drive. I stretched out the learning process much longer than she wanted, making sure that we completed every item on the parent-taught checklist provided by the Department of Public Safety. Georgia credits me for her being a good driver but quickly adds that it was a hellish process of my constant wincing, commenting on the nearness of objects on the right side of the car, usually in a loud panicky voice, and the dramatic foot smashing of my imaginary passenger-side brake.

Then there was Lila. With three kids driving on their own, I downsized to a Forrester and passed the minivan to Matthew. I nicknamed our Forrester the therapy box, as we took our teacher and student positions in the car. We would begin each session with an agreed upon truce, but it rarely lasted around the block. Take Georgia’s description, double the suffering, and add more obscenities.

It has been three weeks since Lila and I sat patiently in the hard blue chairs at the licensing office. Her turn was called and I watched as one practiced smile for the camera set us both free. I was officially relieved of my duty, and just like that, almost half my life spent driving somebody somewhere was over.