The hair clippers felt heavy in my hand as a humid December breeze blew in from the newly harvested rice paddies of Ninh Binh province. Palm branches danced over my head, throwing shadows on the 30-something Swiss woman who sat in front of me. I looked down at the back of her head, then at the clippers in my hand. Sweat gathered at my temples and in my palms.
In the seven months I’d traveled through Asia, I hadn’t found many short-haired women—and none like Caroline, who buzzed her hair as short as her partner Mario’s. And a small homestay in Ninh Giang, a sleepy Vietnamese town about two hours south of Hanoi, was the last place I expected to find three women with short hair like me—Caroline and the two owners.
I was sick in Bali last week (tummy troubles), and though I picked up some antibiotics, my Airbnb host mom (who’s pretty much like a homestay mom to me by now) also took me to the temple to pray for “no sick.” She lent me clothes to wear so I could go with her–a lacy shirt, a sarong–special clothing that women wear to go to the temple.
The day before, at the end of a nice chat, her 20-something son had asked me, “So, do I call you ‘miss,’ or…?”
“Uh, either,” I said.
“But… I mean,” he fumbled, perhaps thinking I didn’t understand him. “Are you a girl or a boy?”
When I think about my time in Nepal, I think about movement. Cars and motorbikes hurtling past me, the winding roads on the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, birds swirling in flight around the eaves of temples and palaces.
As a traveler, Nepal was hard for me. I struggled with confronting poverty in Kathmandu, a region still recovering from the earthquake that killed thousands of people in 2015. I didn’t know what to do with my own economic, white, and American privilege in Bhaktapur. I got sick in Pokhara and was grappling with grief.
There were many bright spots, of course, including hospitable hotel owners who shared their stories and their vodka with me, fellow travelers who wandered the city streets with me talking about feminist theory, and raucous street performers that enlivened squares during the holidays.
I hold all of these impressions in my hands at the same time, but when I look back on photos of my month there, I can’t help but be awed. I knew even while I was taking those pictures that I wouldn’t appreciate the beautiful complexity of the place until long after I’d left. Continue reading “Eyeing the Divine: Photos from Nepal”→
“After the first death, there is no other.” –Dylan Thomas
It was Pokhara that broke me.
I was overwhelmed by Kathmandu and struggled to process my experiences in Bhaktapur. So, after I applied for a meditation course in Lumbini and they told me they were full, I hopped on a bus last November and headed to Pokhara, a small city on a big lake nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.
I found a little place tucked onto a hillside and near Phewa Lake. I finally had a kitchen. There was a hammock. The view was phenomenal. I was going to be there for two weeks, alone except for a couple evenings sharing drinks with my Airbnb host and a visit from a friend I met in Kathmandu.
It was just what I needed, I thought, after all the hustle and bustle of India and a frenetic week in Kathmandu. In the first few days, I congratulated myself on finding the best and most beautiful place to write. Because that’s what I was there to do.
It was about the fourth day that I faltered.
“What am I doing here?” I asked myself. “I’m writing blog posts, but why can’t I write fiction? I’m journaling each morning, but why do I still feel so heavy?”
My guide smiled at me over our steaming bowls of vegetable soup. He’d shown me around Kathmandu’s famous Durbar Square and shrugged as if the question encompassed all we’d spoken about. His struggles to make ends meet. His conversion to Christianity. His attempts to be an honest guide in the midst of touts and scammers.
I smiled back and looked at the buildings around us. We were sitting in a rooftop café by the Square, looking at the intricately carved wooden structures and the remains of ancient buildings destroyed by the earthquake that shook the Kathmandu Valley in April 2015.
An introvert at heart, I could feel myself shutting down. Some quiet time our last morning in Dharamsala and some rejuvenation at the Golden Temple in Amritsar boosted me enough to make it to Rishikesh in one spiritual/mental piece.
And once there, my first thought was “Rishikesh is heaven.”
Rishikesh is considered by many to be the “yoga capital of the world,” and as such, it is unsurprisingly filled with yogis from all over the world and, thus, a considerable number of tourists (for better or worse).
I was sitting in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the sun warm on my back, musicians playing and singing hymns before me, on the day I could’ve heard the Dalai Lama speak in Dharamsala.
Three days before, we’d arrived in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan-government-in-exile. While there, we found out that the Dalai Lama was actually in town (a rare occurrence with his packed, worldwide speaking schedule) and that we could sign up the next day to be present for his next public audience.
The only snag was that he would speaking two days later—when our tour was already going to be on the road for Amritsar, a city in northwest India, a half-day’s drive and train ride west of Dharamsala.