Traveling to Nepal has been a joy. Meeting our friend Chet’s wonderful family — and living with them like part of the family (although we are never allowed to lift a finger!) — has been an extraordinarily happy adventure.
Chet’s brother Shree has taken us to some of the most important places in Kathmandu. Today we went to a sacred Hindu cremation site on the banks of the Bagmati River. The sky was thick with smoke and creosote and the microscopic floating particles of loved ones. The deceased are dipped three times in the Bagmati, then placed on concrete slabs with sticks and straw and burned in the open air.
Afterwards, the eldest son of the loved one — the son who lit the body on fire — should bathe in the sacred waters of the Bagmati to spiritually purify himself. While he may be spiritually cleansed, the water is quite polluted and I worry for the physical health of those who must perform this act of reverence.
A dog lies in an old pile of someone’s ashes, snoozing and using the balm of ashes to comfort his sore, mangy skin. As we walk, dogs are everywhere. It’s hot and they’re lying wherever they can. Several dogs look so bad that I focus on their bellies, holding my breath until they breathe. They all do.
We climb ancient steps to a bridge across the river, a functional bridge but also a symbol of how we end our life on one side and are transported to the other. The stone steps are worn concave with the grief of many generations. Holy cows and sacred monkeys wander freely.
While the recently deceased still burn my nostrils and throat, I buy four copies of a postcard featuring the Medicine Buddha. He is blue from head to toe, wearing a golden robe and surrounded by medicinal plants. I write a thank-you to each of the four doctors who had a recent role in making it possible for me to take this trip. I am grateful for my good health, grateful to be in Nepal, and grateful that my dog is neither diseased nor starving.
Later, in our room at the family’s house, we pack our suitcases and place them in a big clump by the door. Soon, a taxi is called and the family assembles in our room to wait with us and say goodbye. Thank heavens the girls are at school. It’s their first day back after the long holiday. They have been calling Chris “Chrisuncle” for days now and this looming goodbye has been weighing on all of us. Last night the girls each presented us with a handmade card. One of the cousins, Bisika, even sneaked a red artificial flower out of her grandma’s decorative basket and enclosed it in her note to us.
Waiting with the adults is hard enough. It seems everyone has brought a gift to our room. Chet’s mom gives me a beautiful red pashmina. His sister Mithila made a gorgeous necklace for me and a bracelet with Hindu gods on it for Chris. Chet’s brother-in-law Dil made rudraksha prayer beads for us, first collecting the round, bumpy rudraksha tree seeds from the ground, then boring holes in them and stringing them. Together, our two necklaces from Dil total 108 beads, the appropriate number for Hindu prayer. Chet’s sister Sabitri knitted us spectacularly detailed woolen winter hats. We will be the envy of the snowboard set at home.
Leaving these people is truly painful. We live so far apart. But that’s what travel is for: putting new people in your heart.
--- Barb Guy has been writing a column about her travels. She lives in Salt Lake City.