What happens when you talk to random strangers…

 

I was picked up by a young Nepalese girl dressed in a beautiful red and blue sari on my first morning alone in Kathmandu.
I was standing on a busy roundabout, looking at my self-drawn copy of a Lonely Planet map, trying to make sense of the 6 roads around me, hunting for non-existent road signs and looking every part the hopelessly lost tourist, when she asked where I wanted to go. I showed her my crumpled piece of paper and I embarked on a day I will never forget.
Chameli was only 19 and had lived in Kathmandu all her life. She strode along the streets, effortlessly dodging vehicles, people and dogs and scolding anyone who got in her way. I stumbled along behind, desperately trying to keep up with her and listen to her constant chatter and insights into city life.
Kathmandu is really humid and hot, about 24 degrees but the humidity is at 90%+ so I was sweating profusely within 10 minutes (ewww!)

And busy! Oh my goodness, after living on a tiny island of 5000 where there are 4 trucks, 2 vans and about 100 motorbikes, Kathmandu seems absolutely mad. Buses, motorbikes, push bikes, people, dogs, cows, cats, monkeys and tuktuks compete for every last bit of space. Everyone pushes and no one seems to take the time to sit back, relax and watch the world go by.

 

Chameli had obviously guided people around before based on her knowledge of the city and where all the touristy sights were. She led me down narrow alleyways to see partially hidden stupas, explained why hundreds of coins were nailed to some old boards (to pray for healing for toothache), and knew all the shortcuts to get from A to B quickest.

Coins nailed to a board to pray for good teeth and fix bad teeth
The river…
When she pointed out a huge building sitting atop a high hill and asked if I wanted to see the monkey temple, I didn’t even have to think twice. That is, until I saw the 365 steep stairs we had to ascend! The climb started out easy enough, especially as  we stopped after about 15 stairs to watch a bunch of monkeys playing and eating.
Can’t get up the stairs on these!!!
Some monkeys were chasing each other, some were resting on statues of Buddha, others were begging for food from people, and older monkeys groomed their young babies. They were intriguing to watch, and I could have sat and watched them for hours.
But then our climb began in earnest. I imagined I was Sir Ed Hillary making his ascent up Mt Everest. Easy does it, one step at a time, keep going, imagine the view from the top and the elation of finally making it…OK, so maybe that was a bit of an overkill but it was my first day in Nepal and I was having such a great time.

Swayambutha – monkey temple
I was there!
Hundreds more shrines

I was greeted at the top by a towering golden spire sitting atop a set of eyes and a bulbous white dome. Prayer wheels darkened from the touch of thousands of people circled the dome. Alcoves hiding images of gods were covered with metal mesh gates. Blackened cups held the remnants of candles. Monkeys and pigeons played in tiny pools of water. And grey concrete statues and pillars, brightened by flowers and dyes covered the flat area around the stupa.

Prayer wheels
I turned around to look back down the stairs and was met by an amazing view of Kathmandu. The city stretched out in every direction. Steep, green mountains framed the pale buildings of the city. And clouds hung around the tops of the mountains, shrouding them from view.
We wandered around the stupa and down the other side of the hill. Here hundreds of Buddhist prayer flags adorned the trees, stretching hundreds of metres across small valleys and flapping gently in the light breeze. Many more monkeys played and rested on this side where the bush was more dense and the temperature slightly cooler.
Prayer flags make for beautiful views

We headed back towards the city centre and arrived in Durbar Square. There are actually 3 connecting squares that make up this tourist hub. Temples of all sizes filled the squares, bells rang out noisily and a constant stream of people moved around. Very few vehicles are allowed in the square so the atmosphere appeared more peaceful compared to the raucousness of the city outside.

We sat on the steps of one temple, watching the world go by and having a rest from the heat of the midday sun. Women in brightly coloured saris mingled with vendors selling fresh produce. Tour guides tried to convince camera-wielding tourists to hire them. And beggars moved slowly from person to person, trying to convince someone to give up some money.
In the afternoon, Chameli took me back to her home where I met her mum, aunty and little brother and sister. Their home was a room probably 4 metres by 3 metres. We had to walk up a narrow, cramped flight of stairs that I had to duck to get around. There were other rooms above and below where other families lived.
A small double bed was along one side where mum, Chameli and her little sister slept. Her dad and brother sleep on the floor. A small bench held a gas cooker, a few bits of cutlery and some food. Clothes and other items were hung on the wall or kept under the bed. And a shared toilet was downstairs for (I assume) everyone in the building to use.
Chameli made me a cup of milky tea (delicious and sweet) and we sat on the bed for a few hours while she taught me some Nepali. It was a real eye opener to me how poor the family was, and yet how welcoming and friendly they were. We laughed…or rather, they laughed at me trying to pronounce different words. But I came away knowing about 20 new Nepali words and having had a fantastic time.
While I would really struggle to live in these type of conditions permanently, my experience really reinforced to me how important people are – having good friends and being a good friend to others.
Stupas and temples are everywhere
One day here (and 2 months on Naifaru) also made me think about life in NZ. We have so much. Most people are not struggling to simply survive each day (I know some people are). We are so lucky to have been born into a life of plenty, to have the world at our fingertips and to have so many opportunities compared to many others in the world.

Make the most of every opportunity you have, get out and explore your surroundings and talk to random strangers…you never know how your day might turn out!

Anyone for chicken?
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