The New Day

“You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.” – Alan Watts

The sudden transcendental shift is completely unexpected. In the hours prior, I still feel guarded and anxious from our late night arrival in Kathmandu.

Hotel Harmika is tucked within a quiet tangle of residential buildings and guesthouses. Our room looks out to a tranquil, overgrown courtyard; a pleasing contradiction to our initial apocalyptic impressions of the city.

While watching the sunrise from our open window, I suggest to Sarah that we walk to the Boudhanath Stupa, the holiest Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.

The front desk staff confirms that the Stupa is a short distance away and directs us to the cobble-stoned path that begins next to the hotel.

Although it appears wide enough for both walkers and motorbikes, Sarah and I reflexively flatten our bodies against the gray rock that lines one side, to let the riders pass.

The refreshed, vibrant energy of the awakening city begins to replace my guardedness and caution from the evening before. Three young children stop their play and greet us, in unison, with a bashful Namaste.

I further soften to the new day.

We turn the corner and enter a kaleidoscope of activity, smells, and striking colors. The narrow street is banked with miniature, cramped storefronts selling food, trinkets, everyday essentials, textiles, butter candles, and clothes. Toddlers sit on stoops eating breakfast next to stray dogs sleeping in doorways, oblivious.

Adding contrast to the chaotic morning hustle are the long, deep, haunting elephantine sounds of the dungchen, the Tibetan long horn used by monks during morning prayers. The reverberations give an invisible structure and vibrational steadiness to the commotion.

Sarah and I join the tide of people moving toward the Stupa, flowing along with the motorbikes as naturally as water around rocks in a stream.

I gaze up to the sky to find my bearings and see the golden spire with the eyes of Buddha watching from above.

The street pours us out at the front of the colossal white Stupa, seemingly buttressed by fluttering lines of prayer flags. The enormous dome and its tiered base are sequestered from modernity by a plaza and a ringed wall of brightly colored three-story houses, monasteries, shops, and restaurants.

Incense float up from a massive, embossed cauldron. A group of men adds wood to the fire below at a stopping point in their animated conversation. The smoke brings shape to the ephemeral morning light.

I watch a hunched, misshapen woman dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes, immerse herself in the fragrant plume before leaving an offering of rice.

Everywhere, the air is tinged with monastic chants, and the dungchen continues to bellow from the second floor of the monastery behind us.

A young monk slides his body prone on the ground, glides to his knees, then back to standing. He repeats the prostration over and over again. He wears a bright blue smock and boards strapped on his palms to protect the front of his robe and hands. His exposed lime green crocks and brown dress socks bring an ordinariness to his sacred practice.

I am acutely aware of witnessing the living edge of a two-thousand-year-old spiritual tradition. The scene is something profoundly different from the commercialized, cherry-picked Buddhism declared on a Be Here Now bumper sticker.

There are at least a thousand people, mostly Nepalese and a few tourists, circling the base of the Stupa, clockwise, in morning prayer and meditation. The current of faces, young and old, is dotted with monks in crimson robes with flashes of their saffron shirts underneath.

Time unfolds into something both momentary and eternal. In an instant, everything is dream-like. There is not one molecule of the familiar.

Sound takes on movement: the patternless but constant clanging of bells; the whirling of prayer wheels; the chattering of melodious unknown languages; the fluttering of pigeons’ wings as they lift off and land; and the thrumming of thousands of footsteps reverently walking.

My sensory perceptions expand, and I feel the nouns I use to describe myself fall away, creating a welcoming space without a center of gravity or solid core to grasp.

I am free; liberated from my need to label and harness this magnificent newness to anything that has come before or predictive future thinking.

I have a pre-verbal memory from when I was six months old, of lying in my crib. The faded roller shades are drawn, covering the two windows across from me. They act as a filter, making everything glow butter yellow, while crystalline-white sunlight curls around the edges of the fabric, illuminating the slender strips of glass between the shade and windowsill.

My recollection is somatic. There is no separation between me and the light. I am the sun, and the sun is me.

Even now, when I can put words to the experience, I physically feel the brightness and can conjure up the radiating warmth in my chest from a lifetime ago.

I feel a similar integration as I sit on the first tier of the Stupa, above the crowd of practitioners and visitors. My sensations and emotions are undefended by my mind. There is no separateness or definition to the fleeting mutuality of the present moment.

I look over at Sarah. She is laughing and crying. Before our trip, we trained together for trekking, shared our hopes for our time in Nepal, and obsessed over packing lists, yet nothing prepared us for this pure joy.

It just happened, effortlessly.

Note: I traveled to Nepal in November of 2018. This is the fourth essay in a series that describes my experience.

It Isn’t Always Comfortable

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“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts. It even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you. It should change you.” – Anthony Bourdain

The pollution is so thick; I instinctively take shallow sips of air as I search the crowd of men pressed against the barricade, forming an amalgam of gray and black winter jackets. Each calls to the tourists coming out of the airport, offering rides into the city.

The mix of darkness and smog creates a dense curtain. Kathmandu appears as an opaque orb of light in the distance. I cannot collect enough sensory information to ground myself.

My stomach tightens. I have always been a plan B thinker, vigilantly so when I travel. I tell myself that this time, plan A will work.

Our friends arrived the day prior and texted that they arranged for a driver to pick us up. I scan the crowd while watching other bewildered tourists with bulky backpacks load into cars.

Finally, in the collage of faces, I see a man holding up a rumpled spiral notebook, the kind at the bottom of my feral daughter’s backpack, with my first name scribbled in blue ink across the ruled page.

I make eye contact with the notebook holder, grab Sarah’s arm, and we follow two men to a tiny car. After a few grateful glances and awkward attempts at conversation, Sarah and I squish into the backseat.

We do not exchange another word with the men for the thirty-minute ride, while they speak quietly to each other in Nepali.

Our headlights stop short in the dust and pollution, creating a hazy sepia filter to our introduction to Kathmandu.

I peer out the front window and see that we are one tiny bee in a honking swarm of cars, buses, and motorbikes with masked riders.

The dirt road, riddled with potholes, make the decorations hanging from the rearview mirror swing left and right. The driver expertly dodges oncoming trucks and motorcycles with practiced agility.

We pass walls of small storefronts and low buildings, many with scaffolding, evidence of the 2015 devasting earthquake.

Streams of people of all ages, most wearing breathing masks or holding scarfs over their mouths, flow on each side of the street.

There are sporadic risk-takers who defiantly attempt to cross the road, banging on the sides of cars and jumping from one momentary opening in the traffic to another.

I think of Doha, where we left five hours earlier, and its science-fiction-like cleanliness, as I adjust to Kathmandu’s dystopic pollution and poverty.

I bury my face into the top of my jacket to breathe, trying to filter out the toxic air. I look over at Sarah and give a reassuring smile that says we will settle into our new reality and calibrate to the chaos.

We are in a different universe. That is what we both wanted.

Note: I traveled to Nepal in November of 2018. This is the third essay in a series that describes my experience.

Take Off

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Even the demanding man towing his embarrassed wife and kids from one airline representative to another cannot change the system. I don’t know it yet, but my arbitrary placement in line is the first lesson in what will be the theme of my trip to Nepal.

Life is random and senseless.

The departure gate for our flight to Doha is at the end of long hallway making our group of passengers look more distinct than the usual muddling of people in airports. Most are transferring through Qatar to final destinations in India, China, and the Middle East.

The waiting area is crowded, with only a handful of Westerners and many multi-generational families. There is less child-centered parenting and more collective patience for crying babies and whining toddlers. The older children are noticeably self-sufficient and well-behaved.

It’s against this ordinariness that six manicured flight attendants, dressed in elegant magenta and gold uniforms evoking 1960’s aviation glamor, appear out of the blurry distance.

Each woman’s hair is pulled back into a tight dark bun, and their lipstick and eye makeup are so exquisitely applied that I immediately think of the stylized, mannequinesque women in Robert Palmer’s music video, “Addicted to Love.”

They are so beautiful that I cannot turn away and take note that I have never once in my life ever looked so perfect.

Two of the women move behind the gate desk and announce a mandatory recheck of all passengers. The process quickly reveals itself to be an unexpected lottery. For no apparent reason, the attendant on the left permits only one carry-on bag while the attendant on the right allows for two.

The decision is baseless but consistent.

A sense of community builds through the language of furtive glances, subtle head shaking, and the shrugging of shoulders. The lucky passengers look down as they return to their seats; some cannot hide their reflexive grin of good fortune.

My friend Sarah and I calculate our position in line like chess masters thinking ten moves ahead. In the end, I keep both of my bags and Sarah is forced to surrender her backpack.

While boarding, I pass the previously irate man, now calmly fiddling with his headphones, and deliberately look down the row to smile at his wife and kids. As we take off, the cabin glows with a hypnotic pinky-purple, similar to the color that emits from lights made for reptile tanks.

I sit next to a couple making their way to Thailand for their honeymoon. They are both twenty-seven years old. In the time between their birth and sitting down next to me, I have been married to the same man and raised a family of four.

Their sweetness stirs in me a longing to start over. We quickly fall into one of those buzzy, temporary, confessional bonds that can only happen on planes. After hours of talking and laughing, I close my eyes to rest and remember that life is random and senseless and we each create the meaning.

Note: I traveled to Nepal in November of 2018. This is the first essay in a series that describes my experience.