Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oh, Wut Up Nepal?!?

Since I had booked my jeep ride to the Indian/Nepali border two days ahead of time, I had my choice of seating, and blindly went with seat number one, cause, you know, that's how I roll.  Well, turns out seat one was in the front row three seater wedged between the driver and another passenger, with my legs straddling the stick shift, such that every shift into fourth gear was a bit unnerving (though vaguely exciting!).  The situation became less humorous (though only slightly so) when it started raining and the dude who was riding on the roof had to squeeze in between the driver and I.  Now whenever operation of the vehicle demanded a change in gears, the driver had to reach over his buddy's lap and either over or under my right thigh, depending on the gear transition.  Four hours later, the driver and I had developed a wordless system of cooperation, each of us anticipating the movement of the other as I positioned my leg in just the right place at just the right time, so he could reach, grab and pull the stick into the appropriate placement, our bodies working together in perfect synergy.  We could have been great lovers together, me and my Gurkha India-to-Nepal chauffeur.

I also endured nineteen hours of Nepali bus rides in the last few days, but this blog has to include something other than transit stories, so I will sum up that block of time by listing just a few of the passengers who shared the seat adjacent to mine during the journey:  A mustachio'd sleeping beauty who used my left shoulder as a pillow for two hours, a shirt-cocking (i.e., naked from the waist down) five-year old boy, a goat, a woman puking into a plastic bag (wasn't the first time I've been puked on, and, Insha'Allah, won't be the last!) and Ishwari, a very kind Nepali who missed his own bus connection to ensure that I made mine.

Believe it or not, I don't just ride around the Indian subcontinent taking one vehicle to the next, I occasionally actually stay in a place for a day or two.  So let's talk about one, yea?  Janakpur.  Janakpur is a holy city for the Hindus, but is nonetheless the kind of place that most travelers don't hit unless they (a) have a lot of time on their hands and (b) want to break up the seventeen hour bus ride from the Indian border to Kathmandu or Pokhara.  Accordingly, there isn't much in the way of tourist infrastructure in Janakpur; my Lonely Planet-recommended hotel looked like it had been bombed out in a war, with doors leading to nothing but rubble, and the sink and shower in my ant-infested room spewing only rust-colored water.  So I spent some time in the one internet cafe I could find, catching up on the world's happenings and contemplating whether I would have been better off taking my chances with one of the notoriously dangerous Nepali night buses that run directly to Pokhara.

After the fourth power outtage in an hour, I finally gave up on the internet cafe in frustration and stepped out into the newly arrived night, only to have Janakpur greet me with an explosion of colors and sounds.  Turns out I was fortunate enough to be in the holy city during Dashain, the biggest Nepali festival of the year.  The entire center of Janakpur, which is more a less a winding complex of temples and shrines, had taken on a carnival-like atmosphere.  Huge colored tents were lit with bright lights leading from one holy spot to the next, while music and chanting blasted through different speakers around every corner.  The people were out in swarms, the women wearing their most colorful saris, lighting candles and saying prayers, the men in paint chanting the Ramaya, clashing symbols and ringing bells.  Cows and ash-covered sadhus (see here)  roamed the maze of lights in equal numbers, competing for space and devotion from the Nepali masses.  The rainbow of sights and sounds was so great and intense as to be almost overwhelming.

As I got lost wandering through the festivities, I surrendered a piece of myself to the atmosphere, unlocking what I believe to be a key to the Hindu heart and mind.  For as long as you are a standoffish passive observer, the people are happy to ignore you or, just as frequently, stare at you unabashedly.  But if you take the initiative to celebrate with them, if you answer their questions with games and laughter, if you dance to their music and sing with their chanting, it you pray with them and perform their rituals, then the Hindu people will open up to you with gracious smiles and laughter and excitement, offering an invitation into their experience like no one else in the world will do.  If you not only participate, but join in the encouragement, helping them to get others to join in the song, sitting with them while they eat and sell their religious headbands, if you become (in my not-so-humble opinion) the best religious headband salesmen Janakpur has ever seen... if you show them your willingness to live a moment with them, they are enthused (most often overly so) to live a moment with you.  If you take the first sip of their festive-drunkenness, they won't let you drink alone.

1 comment:

  1. outstanding description of Dashain. I can almost see it and wish I could experience it.

    keep it up daniels