Swayambhunath

It’s 5:30 a.m. when my alarm rings out, waking me from my first night’s sleep in Nepal. Settling my head back against the pillow, eyes still closed, I can hear the faint caw of a murder of crows, still some while away. It’s a welcome sound, far more pleasant than the incessant barking of the neighbourhood dogs that kept me up earlier that night. It had been surprisingly cool when I first settled under the sheets and quilt, but I wake up feeling warm, comfortable and—for someone who’d been travelling for a day and a half and isn’t exactly a morning person, even on a good day—surprisingly rested.

The sun hasn’t risen yet and (unsurprisingly) the power’s out. It seems the hot shower I was promised will have to wait. I splash some cold water on my face, get dressed, lace up my boots, and feel around my pack in the dark for my headlamp. Taking a look at the map, the way seems fairly straightforward. Of course, it usually does.

I’m out the door by 6. The uniformed doorman opens the gate for me with a wide smile and a military-like salute, wishing me a good day. By now, there’s a faint glow in the sky, silhouetting the buildings leading down the street, crisscrossed overhead by the usual tangle of electrical wires. The crows are much louder now too, rousing the neighbourhood to wake.

The street pitches right and downwards, leading me past hole-in-the-wall shops readying for another day. Behind gossamer-like curtains, swayed gently by the early morning breeze, the dim glow of gas lamps spills out onto the street. Steps away, an elderly woman is bent over with a well-worn handbroom, laboriously chasing away dust and rubbish from one pile to another. A few steps later, an older man walks past me shouldering two heaping baskets of vegetables, hanging from a thick bamboo pole that seems ready to crack at any moment.

The sun is still inching below the horizon when I reach the main street leading to Swayambhunath. Before long, I come across the first of a couple of smaller temples along the way. More than willing to get sidetracked, I join the few early morning visitors making their way around, lighting butter lamps that illuminate their faces in the twilight.

A few minutes later, back on the way to Swayambhunath, I reach the Bijeshwori temple and climb the narrow stone steps leading to its walled entrance. Here, too, a crowd has assembled, lighting candles, reciting prayers and leaving behind their morning offerings. A man sitting on the ground at the temple’s entrance motions to me almost sheepishly, asking for money. Apologetically, I shake my head and start heading down a path at the left. “Monkey Temple other way, Sir”, the man calls out to me. No more than five seconds later, I reach into my pocket for some rupees, handing them to him with a sincere “dhanyabad“. (Fortunately, I would run into this man again on my way back and ask him for his photograph, which is among those I cherish the most from my stay in Nepal.)

Eventually, Swayambhunath comes into view, the hill upon which it sits rising prominently against the horizon. As if on cue, a Rhesus monkey casually ambles down the road towards me. By now, the call of the crows has given way to blaring car horns. Over the din, I can make out music and chants spilling over the temple’s walls, backed by the rhythm of loud drums.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, it’s clear that it’s a popular spot on a Saturday morning. Vendors and their stands line the streets of the busy intersection, selling offerings, garlands of bright orange marigolds, snacks and kitschy tchotchkes. Behind a few large Buddha statues at the foot of the hill, the steps leading up to the temple are dotted with groups of chaityas, the small Buddhist shrines that are so ubiquitous in Kathmandu. Among them, hordes of marauding Rhesus monkeys (for which the temple is famous) run amok, while others meticulously clean their young.

The stone stairway had been relatively empty when I first arrived, but before long, there’s a throng of people making its way up the hundreds of worn steps leading to the stupa. Groups of young men take the steps in twos and threes, running past seniors clutching the handrail as they ascend slowly, one step at a time. Those in groups chat excitedly, while others climb alone in pensive silence. Whole families are out enjoying what might well be just another Saturday morning. Grateful, I climb in silence, too.

The temple’s golden spire eventually peaks over the steep steps. Reaching the top of the stairway, the space surrounding the imposing stupa is teeming with activity, all under the watchful and wise eyes of the Buddha painted onto the base of the spire. Almost instinctively, I join the crowd making its way clockwise around the temple. Past more merchants selling butter lamps and incense, marigolds and offerings. Past the prayer wheels that encircle the stupa, repeatedly set into motion by those passing by, myself included. Past shrines and chaityas, candles and small fires, clouds of billowing smoke and thick, fragrant incense. The atmosphere is intoxicating, and I end up circling the stupa several times before I feel ready to see it through my camera’s viewfinder.

All told, I spent close to three hours circling Swayambhunath’s stupa: lighting my own butter lamps, spinning the prayer wheels, mesmerized by the candles flickering in the dark of the monastery, and eventually working up the courage to ask a few people for their photograph. Those few hours of my first morning in Nepal introduced me to some of its people: their piety, charity, kindness and generosity. In that sense, it was an auspicious introduction, wiping away any apprehensions I might still have had, and foretelling what awaited me in all of the towns and mountain villages I’d have the chance to pass through over the next four weeks.

Lost in Kathmandu

As I sit in the backseat of an old rusted out taxi cab, the streets of Kathmandu unfold before me as we speed along the bumpy road leading from the airport to the city centre. The worn blanket covering my seat is thick with the smell of the exhaust pouring into the car. With three flights and 35 hours of travel now behind me, I’ve finally arrived.

With its dusty, narrow streets, countless stupas and the vast temple complex of Durbar Square, Kathmandu would serve as my homebase for the first week of my month-long stay in Nepal. From here, I’d visit the temples of Swayambhunath, Pashupatinath and Boudhanath, as well as the nearby town of Bhaktapur. Kathmandu is also where I’d take part in Holi, the boisterous and exuberant ‘festival of colours’, before setting off on an unforgettable 16-day trek of the famed Annapurna Circuit.

The driver eventually pulls over behind a couple of other taxis, informing me that he can go no further into town; it seems I’ll have to walk the rest. My half-hearted protestations are met with assurances that my hotel is just a short walk away. Apparently, I can’t miss it.

No sooner have I slung my pack on my shoulders and thanked the driver than I find myself caught up in the crowd, hurriedly shuffling its way along the busy sidewalk. Up ahead, the street is bathed in light from the late afternoon sun, peeking just above the buildings and filtering through the thick cloud of dust that hangs in the air.

Moving almost unconsciously with the crowd, I am aware that I have not the faintest idea of where I am actually going. And in that moment, it doesn’t matter. Months of planning have led me here and I can’t help the smile that stretches across my face.

While preparing for this trip, it struck me that most travellers to Nepal lamented Kathmandu as little more than an aggravating but necessary stop on their way to the mountains. More often than not, it was derided as a filthy, crowded, noisy and dreadfully polluted city. And sure enough, you’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise on those last points.

I make my way among a sea of people, crowding streets already choked with traffic. Lowly pedestrians share the streets with mobs of bicycles, rickshaws, cars and (especially) motorbikes, each perilously weaving their way around each other. Fearless motorbike riders seem to revel in revving their throttles and hurtling directly towards you, before swerving only centimetres away. Those with a horn are all too eager to voice their disapproval of those too slow to give way.

The traffic kicks up a fog of dust from the unpaved streets. This shroud hangs in the air from the early morning hours until well past nightfall. It’s no surprise that facemasks are so ubiquitous.

Every now and again, when the traffic noise temporarily dies down, I notice the chorus of generators sputtering away, providing backup electricity during daily power outages.

At seemingly every corner, a jumbled mess of electrical wires branches off haphazardly in every possible direction. They hang alongside tattered prayer flags that criss-cross the street, fluttering in the breeze. Occasionally, I breathe in the sweet smell of incense wafting from the storefronts, regrettably mixing in with the equally thick exhaust fumes.

After taking a few random turns and finding myself away from the bustle of the main drag, I pause in what would prove to be a predictably vain effort at getting my bearings. I sneak a glance at my Lonely Planet, as if nothing about me and the heaving pack strapped to my back does anything to give me away as a stranger. Unsure as to where exactly I was dropped off and where I’ve ended up, my eyes dart across the map, pausing every few seconds as I lift my head to look around, hoping to find a recognizable landmark. Having no such luck, I get the sense that this won’t be the last time I find myself woefully lost in this maze of a city. Resigned to staying lost a little while longer, I set off in what I hope might be the right direction.

It seems as though every other square foot of building facades is covered with the same tired, two-tone advertising signs—blue and yellow, red and white, and every colour combination in between. Each jarringly compete for the attention of passersby, succeeding and failing in equal measure. With my dreadful memory and hopeless sense of the direction, the streets would all look the same to me for most of my stay in Kathmandu. That was true enough during daylight hours, to say nothing of how much more difficult it was to find my way in the dark.

Eventually, though, I do find my way to the hotel I had a circled in my guidebook only a few days earlier. After more than a day and a half of travel since leaving Ottawa, I order an Everest beer in the hotel garden, breathe a quick sigh of relief, and smile at the thought of where I am.

It’s funny to think that what I remember most fondly from Kathmandu is how often I felt totally lost in its streets. Then again, it was exactly what I had gone looking for: that familiar exhilaration of travelling alone—with all the joys and frustrations that go along with it—and the confidence that comes from knowing that no matter how long it may take, I’ll eventually find my way.

For all of Kathmandu’s faults, I loved it instantly.

Summer’s End at the Cottage

Though it’s not quite over yet, cottage season definitely is winding down, as the temperatures increasingly come close to zero.

It’s been a good one this past year. I’ve probably spent more time at the cottage in the past few months than I have in the past several years combined. And part of me definitely wouldn’t mind having summer prolonged for the sake of a few more swims and campfires, canoe rides and stargazing.

Still, as enjoyable as this past summer has been, there’s something hauntingly beautiful and comforting about fall, its warm colours and cool temperatures. And if that’s true in the city, it’s certainly that much more evident at the cottage.

Sitting by the lake with a cup of coffee in the morning. Watching fog rise from the water just as the sun peeks over the hills. Retreating indoors to read a few chapters, comforted by the warmth of the fire radiating from the wood stove. Venturing out in between fits of rain in the hope of getting a few decent shots. Enjoying a warm meal and drink before heading to bed, lulled to sleep by the absolute stillness of night. It’s a wonderful way to close out another season.

With the fall calendar filling up quickly, I’m hoping to sneak in at least one more weekend up there before snow hits the ground. In the meantime, here are a few shots from this past weekend.

P.S. Happy belated Thanksgiving to all. If you’re reading this, chances are that I’m very grateful to have you in my life, so… here’s to you!

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