Thursday Thought: On Time in Kathmandu
It's that time of year again…in the next few weeks, tens of thousands of people – climbers, trekkers, and tourists – will flock to Nepal, some of them for the first time, to visit the unique country, to climb its amazing mountains, and (hopefully) to visit with, learn from, and offer some assistance to its amazing people.
I've always been drawn to Nepal…and I've never been quite able to describe it, to put into words the deep, almost visceral impact the place and its people have had on me since first landing at Tribhuvan International Airport in 1992.
Similarly, I've read some great accounts by others about their draw to Nepal, but none of them have yet explained it in words.
Perhaps it is a myriad of things: its absolute foreignness bathed in a welcoming attitude which feigns familiarity; the innate knowledge that you are far from home and embarking on an adventure of some sort; the simplicity of life even in the face of unending hardship and struggle.
Again, I'm not sure. I even struggle at times to explain to people who are going to Nepal for their first time what to expect. More often than not, I refer them to Pico Iyer's great description from Video Night in Kathmandu:
My first impression of the city was delirious. I felt as if I had tumbled into the jangled and kaleidoscoped subconscious of an opium freak. Sweet incense wafted out of stored crushed raggedly together along dusty, crooked streets, and out from their walls hung horror-eyed masks, spinning prayer wheels, druggy thanka scrolls and revolving lanterns. Mirrors caught the light on shoulder bags, long dresses streamed from carved wooden balconies, scarves fluttered in the breeze, demons stared out of rice-paper calendars. On every side, irregular, nine-storied temples jutted up, and then were obscured by a flutter of pigeons. Squeaky-voiced elves chattered around the shrines where they peddled Bhutanese stamps, [Newari] paintings, English chocolate. A ramshackle hut advertised the “Unique Typing Institute” and its only customer, standing patiently outside, was a cow. Everywhere, the dusty streets spun and whirled and revolved like a mandala. Freaks and flute sellers wandered in circles around a main square where long-haired men from East and West, hipsters and hawkers, hustlers and heretics, ricocheted counters off the sides of Carom boards. Snakelike icons wriggled from cardboard signs and elephant-headed gods sat in the middle of yellow-wreathed shrines and everywhere, staring down from walls and home and streamers, were eyes, eyes, narrow, painted pairs of eyes.
But, the innate "weirdness" of Nepal aside, there is something deep that strikes me every time I visit…something that is not directly tied to the sensory overload of the place that Pico describes above. Rather, it is something more subtle, something that tugs on our Western patterns, begging us to slow down and enjoy the day, chat with friends or make new ones, and have another cup of tea.
In Nepal, time just simply takes on another meaning. Everything is slower. Little is rushed. People, when they see an old friend on the street, stop to chat. Watches adorn nearly every wrist in the thriving metropolis of Kathmandu, but many don't actually work.
In short, like takes on an entirely different tempo in Nepal…And it is one I welcome, a wonderful respite from the harried lives we lead in the West.
While this slower version of life brings with it some challenges – an often fatalistic attitude being the main one (read Dor Bahador Bista's excellent Fatalism & Development: Nepal`s Struggle for Modernization) – it also has that wonderful effect of slowing the pace of life so that it can be taken in, drunk deeply, and thoroughly enjoyed.
It is this – this slowed life, this deep enjoyment of the beautiful day, the cup of tea, the "namaste" to a good friend or a new one – which has touched me most deeply and brings me back to Nepal time and time again.
In his excellent book Shopping for Buddhas, author Jeff Greenwald captures this distorted sense of time in a light, but accurate, way:
If I were pressed to give one reason, one specific observation of why life in Nepal seems so much more vivid than life anywhere else, I would answer with a single word: time. There is a quality to time spent in Nepal that can only be described as inhalant.
Back home in the Wild West, time whips by with the relentless and terrible purpose of a strangling vine filmed in fast motion…There is no such thing as now; only a continual succession of laters, whipping their tendrils around the calendar. The clutches of the vine…
In Nepal, the phenomenon is reversed. Time is a stick of incense that burns without being consumed. One day can seem like a week; a week, like months. Mornings stretch out and crack their spines with the yogic impassivity of house cats. Afternoons bulge with a succulent ripeness, like fat peaches. There is time enough to do everything – write a letter, eat breakfast, read the paper, visit a shrine or two, listen to the birds, bicycle downtown, change money, buy postcards, shop for Buddhas – and arrive home in time for lunch.
So, the next time you're out and about, feeling pressed for time and strapped for resources…s l o w d o w n. Take a moment to chat with a friend or make a new one. Have another cup of tea. Sit and admire the sunrise, the sunset, or the blue sky at midday. And, remember The Salutation of the Dawn:
Look to this day,
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your
the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well lived makes
every yesterday a dream of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore to this day,
such is the salutation of the dawn.