Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Yin and Yang of Nepal

I meander down the alleyway streets where markets pop out of cement walls of tall crumbling buildings. The smell of spices and dusty roads follow me for hours in every direction--each area of this sprawling city spilling into the next, each teetering on the edge of ancient and modern.

The towering stupas and temples scattered throughout Kathmandu a constant reminder of exactly how old this city is. One young boy rides by on his rickshaw passing another resting against a temple wall, eyes glued to his cell phone.

I follow the guys from Malta and their Sherpa around the city as they prepare for their trek and summit of Lobuche Peak that sits at a humbling 6100 meters (that's over 20,000 feet, by the way). They collect items like heavy coats and ice picks and crampons while temperatures outside the shops push 90 degrees F. There aren't many places in the world this is your reality.

Despite the 24 hour buzz, there is an underlying bliss to Kathmandu--a calming energy that permeates the chaos and noise. I slip into a yoga class or cafe, and the world outside disappears. I sit for hours among the soft conversations and distant honk of the horns, and I forget where I am. And when I step outside, I'm again swept up in the sparkling energy and life that pulses down every street and over every rooftop.

Here in Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal next to Kathmandu, the whole world is still. I walk from one end of the lakeside town to the other and follow the footpath along the lake back home. Canoes and fishermen line the shore, and Nepalese children run along the bank splashing water up around the shallow edge.

My new friends and I wake before dawn to watch the sunrise at Sarangkot. Like an apparition, the Annapurna Range materializes in the distance, and it lingers for just a moment before it vanishes into the light of the sun.

We hike back to town--down steep, stone stairs and paths that cut through tiny villages coming to life with morning chores--women tending to the chickens and goats and filling water jugs, children chasing each other from one shack down the road to another.

Can you image growing up here, this being the only life you know, these people being your only lifelong friends and family? Elena asks. We talk about what we must seem like to them--us traipsing through their world carrying next to nothing. They probably wonder: who are these people, where do they come from, and where in the world are they going? An outside foreign energy sweeping through their quite lives.

Whereas everyone in Kathmandu was preparing for a trek or returning from one in the not so easily accessible Everest Region, here in Pokhara no one seems to be coming or going from anywhere. The Pokhara Valley hugs against the Annapurna Range making it some of the most accessible and well traveled Himalayan trekking territory, yet people linger here--their treks a distant memory or distant plan. Unlike Kathmandu, there is an urgency lacking here. I hear stories of local cults and murders and folks who dose on acid and wander off on a 15 day trek--a dark, invisible undercurrent that pulses through these peaceful streets.

I've come to see these two cities as the yin and yang of Nepal, swirling energies around each other linked by a single stretch of two lane road that winds though the countryside--mountain walls on one side and a steep cliff overlooking a deep river valley on the other. We pass long suspension bridges linking small villages on one side of the river with kilometers of rice fields etched into the hillsides on the other side. What would it be like to live here in the in-between, to grow up here not knowing any other world?

The bus slows down, and I make eye contact with a young teenage girl and her face lights up and she waves wildly. I turn and strain to see if she's chasing the bus, but I can't see anything except for the shrinking landscape behind me and dust blowing around in our wake.

Can you see the darkness in the most blissful places? Can you see the bliss in the most unpleasant places? Tell me about a place where you penetrated the surface and saw what was underneath. 

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