Kathmandu, Varanasi, Agra (Days 14 - 21)

2.28.2015

There's a t-shirt sold in Nepal. On the front it reads Same same and on the back but different. It's a useful way for describing things in Nepal, first and foremost its comparison to India: same same, but different.

We walk south from Kathmandu's Thamel district on a brisk but sunny morning, and the storefronts, the little counter shops, the scooters and the smog and the sidewalkless streets all feel similar. Here are the faded buildings, and here the rickshaws, and here the vegetables sold on a blanket. Here is India. And yet, something is different.

It's a bit quieter, definitely. The cars are fewer and the streets narrower, the people walk more slowly. The faces are different, definitely. More Tibetan than Indian, and though Hinduism is still the dominant religion, an air of Buddhism can be felt throughout Kathmandu. The architecture is the same, but different; the color of sky the same, but different; the very smells of the street the same ... but different.

We're surrounded by the Himalayas, but we can't seem them. Smog chokes the air and leaves but a faint silhouette of the foothills. Monkeys swing about the urban architecture. Kind Nepalis pass by with a bow and a namaste.

We duck into a courtyard and are amazed to find, well, something: a grand platform with a dome resting in its center, and on top of the dome a golden, eyed obelisk of sorts, the sage eyes of Buddha looking calmly over the area's many sculptures and little temples. We learn later that this is a stupa, one of many in Nepal: its dome represents the earth, and the thirteen-stepped pillar above it the different levels of ascension before attaining enlightment. Prayer flags wind from the stupa's apex to all corners of the courtyard, little kerchiefs of red and blue and green and yellow. Pigeons flock, kids play. This is not India.

***

We continue on to Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site overflowing with history. The square is home to perhaps a dozen gorgeous temples; they appear ancient and enormous and otherworldly. We climb the steps of the largest temple and sit on its raised stoop. The Nepalis and foreigners below are silent from this distance; all we can hear are the sounds of a group of boys with guitars covering the songs of Bryan Adams. For whatever reason, the Nepalis love Bryan Adams.

We get momos, steamed (or fried) Nepalese vegetable dumplings, and I become an instant addict. We walk more. We get lost, get our bearings, get a hotel room. It's only a few hundred Nepalese rupees, just a couple bucks, and we get what we pay for. The bathroom smells of urine and the bed is just plywood with a thin cushion on top, and later that night as we peer behind the headboard, we find piles of old water bottles and used napkins and cigarette butts. We switch hotels the next morning.

We leave town and taxi out to Boudhanath, a suburb of Kathmandu and home to the Boudhanath Stupa, the world's largest and Buddhism's most sacred. It's a massive version of the stupa we'd found in that courtyard, with thousands of prayer flags fluttering in the wind and old Buddhist monks in flowing maroon robes circumambulating the stupa's wide base. We follow the monks, making slow clockwise laps beneath Buddah's watching eyes.

Spiritual as the place is, the stupa is actually situated in the middle of a rounded courtyard, and every last facade in this courtyard is a shop pitching something: postcards, singing bowls, prayer flags, bracelets. It ruins the environment a little. We're touted at, we're called to. We're just trying to walk and be mindful, and we're approached by a drug dealer.

"Ay, what's up guys?" he says in the sleaziest voice imaginable. "You want some hashish?"

"Nah, we're good."

"Good stuff, good price. From Poland." I'm not sure whether Poland is supposed to be known for good hashish.

"Nope, still good." We walk away and keep circumambulating and he finds us a little later. "No thank you sir, still no drugs. We're going to go eat."

We duck into the stairwell of a rooftop restaurant and emerge five stories later with a magnificent view of the top of the stupa. We sit down. The drug dealer exits the stairwell, panting, and flops down next to us. Oh, yes, please, won't you join us for lunch? We get up and leave.

We find another place. The drug dealer doesn't follow (though he does find us again later). We eat lunch and take a stroll away from the stupa to a Tibetan monastery. We quietly observe a few hundred monks in a prayer session, then take a walk around the  grounds. I return the wave of a little kid monk in a window fervently waving down.

***

Kathmandu has history like other cities have potholes. There are statues in Nepal that museums would pay millions for; the locals, living amongst the objects for thousands of years, hang their laundry on them. Kids climb all over monuments that a crabby curator would slap with a big "do not touch" sticker, and drivers haphazardly lean their bikes up against some of the world's oldest Buddhist remnants.

The monkeys are even grabbier. We visit a great big stupa on a great big hill west of the city, climbing a skinny staircase hundreds of feet and entering into what is most definitely macaque territory. The monkeys hang lazily off golden statues of Lord Buddha, or pick nits off each other while lounging on a sacred altar. I put my water bottle down and take my camera out to photograph a particularly humorous macaque, and he steals my water bottle and almost gets away. I'd dealt with macaques in China and should have known better; those guys are sneaky little fuckers.

More stupas. more temples, more momos (always more momos). The seventeenth comes around, and it's Shivaratri, the Night of Lord Shiva. It's a Hindu high holiday, and we've kindly and conveniently been put in touch with a friend of a friend, Alexis, who has taken a year-long sabbatical to travel the world and study the religious festivals of different religions, and it just so happens that she, too, is in Kathmandu for Shivaratri.

We meet her and her friend Anil, a Buddhist devotee living at a monastery south of Kathmandu, at Boudhanath stupa, now familiar ground for us. The four of us introduce ourselves and together we walk through the busy streets to Pashupatinath, a sacred collection of Hindu temples at the banks of the Bagmati River, itself a sacred offshoot of the Ganges. Along the way, we're stopped by kids with strings who block off alleyways; all over Kathmandu during the holiday, children stop traffic and pedestrians with their impromptu toll booths: two rupees to pass! At the end of the day, the kids take all the money they've collected, make a big fire, and have a Shivaratri feast.

We're all non-Hindu, so we're not allowed into the temples, which is just as well because the queues for the temples are literally kilometers long. Hindus wait for their gods like Americans wait for their new iPhones, and I marvel at the sheer devotion of the thousands wrapping their way around the walls of Pashupatinath for hours to get just a few minutes of prayer.

Instead of visiting the temples, we head down to the river, where families openly burn the bodies of the recently deceased and hordes of Nepalis and Indians push up against security for a chance to cross the bridge and enter the temples on the other side. They're at capacity (there are tens of thousands here), and at times the crowds begin pushing up against each other in jest or frustration or both, one great big heaving mass of crowd crush slamming people around without regard. It's a little frightening, and we escape to higher ground.

We contemplate joining the scores of devotees crossing the Bagmati anyway, over the makeshift sandbag bridges or by just hiking up our pants and wading across, but Anil, fluent in Nepali, is able to talk the guards into letting us by because we're not actually looking to get into the temple. The guard shrugs his head affirmatively and we scramble underneath his rifled arm as others claw to widen the opening; we're on the other side, and it's just as wild and crazy and busy.

After another few hours of taking in the chaos of Shivaratri, we walk to a quieter part of town and get a simple meal at a humble restaurant. I excuse myself to the bathroom around the corner, a dark cavernous squatter with no lights. I close the door, lock it, and take a step down into the filth, but the step is slippery with urine or water or both or neither and my feet slip out from under me, flying up in the air and guaranteeing a hard impact between my head and the step. But to my rescue comes a spike sticking out of the wall, a six-inch inexplicable rod just jutting out at shoulder level. My elbow connects with it and it's frayed metal edges tear deep into my forearm, but it's enough to hook me from a (probably more harmful) fall. I wince, bite my lip, and pee. I return to the table and smile as Lisa, Alexis, and Anil wonder how I've managed to harpoon my elbow in the bathroom.

Lisa and I split a cab with Alexis and Anil and say our goodbyes at Durbar Square. We're exhausted from the long, hot day, and call it an early night (after, of course, a plate of steaming momos).

***

We want to stay in Nepal for longer, forever, but Lisa has a plane to catch from Delhi on the twenty-fourth, so by the eighteenth we begin to make our way back. Flights to India are expensive, and trains through the mountains are nonexistent, so we take a dreadfully slow bus. It takes maybe nine hours to get us maybe ninety miles, just a constant winding and accelerating and braking up and down the Himalayas. It's bumpy, too bumpy to even hold a book straight and read, so we pass most of it staring out the windows, which really isn't a bad way to spend a day.

We stop for breakfast and never stop again, so by noon I have to pee. By one, I really have to pee, and by two, I'm nearly dying. I've drank three liters of water, just assuming a stop would be in the works, and when nothing comes by mid-afternoon, I scurry to the empty back of the bus with an empty water bottle.

I tried this once, when camping out in the chemistry lab at the University of Colorado-Boulder, this peeing in a water bottle thing. It didn't go so well. Without getting too graphic, the opening of a water bottle is a pretty narrow opening indeed, so there's all this lining up outside the bottle that has to happen, and if that lining up is off once you start going, then you have quite a mess on your hands.

A bumpy bus didn't help matters, nor did the guilt of exposing myself to the backs of a dozen modest Nepalis. But I was in pain, and out of options, and so water bottle it was.

Or wasn't. For the first time in my life, I had some sort of stage fright: bladder bursting, yet unable to pee on the back of that vehicle. Defeated, in no less pain, I returned to my seat.

"How'd it go?" Lisa asked.

"I don't want to talk about it."

***

I'm finally able to pee when we arrive in Sunauli, a dusty little border town at the edge of Nepal. We walk on over to immigration and wait, then walk on over to the border and wait, then walk right into India and over to Indian immigration and wait. When our passports have been inspected by very serious men and stamped with silly patterns, we hop a bumpy bus to Gorakhpur three hours south, and from there, an overnight sleeper to Varanasi. It's been a long day of travel, and it's not even over.

Twenty-four hours after we've started, we finally stop. The traincar lurches to a halt in the city of Varanasi and we're lurched awake; we drag our sleepy selves off the train and find a tuk-tuk to take us into town. It's not yet dawn.

We're dropped at the bank of the Ganges, world's holiest river. It feels immediately spiritual. Perhaps that's just the fog casting a thick white curtain over everything, or maybe it's the old bearded men in lungis bathing in the river's cold waters. Old rowboats drift lifelessly with peeling paint, and feral dogs wander about the ghats searching for food.

The ghats are something like a Hindu boardwalk. Constructed of stone centuries ago, the ghats are steps right into the river, allowing one to bathe and emerge easily, daily. The ghats of Varanasi are perhaps the world's most impressive, and they extend miles north from where we stand. We follow them.

There are ghats for laundry and ghats for washing and ghats for celebrating and ghats for cremating. As we walk, we pass burning bodies wrapped in white cloth, and watch small men haul heavy sandalwood to the pyres. The fires burn away the fog and the sun helps from above and within a few hours we've made it a great distance and are now melting under the hot Indian sun. We escape to the shade of the alleyways.

The alleyways feel almost Venetian, far too narrow for a car and some even for a wide scooter. The tight space lets little sun in, so we walk south, or do our best to navigate south through the maze-like streets, in the relative coolness of the buildings' shadows. We pass a million shops and a small Muslim enclave and open windows with looms and loomers hard at work. Ultimately, we make it back to where we started and collapse into an expensive but clean hotel, with a big whirling fan and a comfortable bed and, so rare in India, a working hot shower. We wash up and spend the day hiding from the sun. We order room service and take naps and read, and when the sun finally sets, we venture out to the ghats once more to watch the puja, the nightly fire ceremony. All the boats come to see from the water, and there is indeed fire, and lots of mosquitoes too, and chanting and bells and the general chaos of India, and when we feel we've had enough chaos, we return once more to that comfortable little room.

***

Varanasi has nothing if not the cutest puppies in the world. They're everywhere with their oversized heads and tiny legs and poor little yips, and we have no shame about stopping and squatting and squealing at the cuter among them. We pass dozens on our way to the train station in the morning, dozens more on our way back with our train tickets, a little brown one with eyes bigger than its head on our way to a long lunch and a trio of black ones napping atop each other en route back to the station. It's a miracle that we leave Varanasi that afternoon without stowing a few of them in our packs.

It's a long ride to Agra, Lisa's penultimate stop on our two-week joint India adventure. The train is crowded, overcrowded, and Lisa's bunk is overrun by traveling Brazilian hippies. We cram together in mine and do our best to sleep through the bumps and the stops and the noises of the night: the snores, the screeching brakes, the Brazilians playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers on guitar at three in the morning. It's mildly successful.

We get to Agra at dawn, and it's a cool, beautiful morning, so we walk from the station into town and are surprised to find Agra to be so green. Parks everywhere. Fertilizer, too, by the smell of it, a terrible chemical odor that permeates the air and follows us all the way into town. We round the banks of the river and catch a glimpse of the Taj Mahal in the distance. (It's pretty!)

I have a hotel from Lonely Planet picked out, something cheap and recommended and fairly central, and just steps from its door we're stopped by a man with a great big smile who just begs us to see one of his rooms. We give in and take the room. Bad choice. Terrible, terrible choice.

Only ten minutes later, we drop our things in the room and turn to leave. I have to pee, so I head toward the bathroom. Just then the lights go out, and after looking up and down the hall, it appears the power's out for the whole building. No big deal, I think, reaching for my phone and turning the flashlight on. I walk into the dark bathroom, place the phone face-down on the tank of the toilet, and do my thing. I flush. My nose is a little clogged up from the smog of India, so I grab a tissue, blow my noise, and flush that too. On the second flush, the tank gives a little shake, and that phone of mine, the one that's been guiding us through the whole trip with its GPS and its guidebook and its general connectedness to the world, plunges forward into the toilet.

My instincts are quick. I catch it just before it submerges fully into the (thankfully clean) water, but not before a good bit of it gets a good bit wet. I shake it off frantically, exit the bathroom, turn it off and wrap it in a scarf and hope for the best.

The lights turn back on.

***

We go to the rooftop to eat. I'm a little nervous about my phone, but not too badly. I set it aside and we order a few things and eat like we haven't eaten in days. We take off, explore some majestic gardens I'd been reading about on the other side of the river, get a lovely view of the back of the Taj Mahal. We sit under a tree and watch the day drift by. My phone lays out in the sun, presumably drying.

Around mid-afternoon we get some street food outside of the gardens and begin walking back into town, hoping for a tuk-tuk but not really eager for one. It's quiet out here, little villages so far removed from the business just across the river, and it feels like being in the countryside; it feels nice. The sun casts a golden sheen on everything, and Lisa and I both remark on how much lovelier Agra is than we expected.

We spend a little time at the Agra Fort, just strolling around aimlessly through its stairways and rooms. It's sundown by now, so we make our way back to the hotel for me to check the phone. I power it on, and it springs to life. And then it does that again. And again. It just keeps resetting, lighting up and turning off and lighting up again, and nothing I do can seem to stop it, can even seem to power it back down. Shit.

Lisa can tell I'm stressed, so she suggests we take a walk. I agree that's probably a good idea, and we head out into the evening. Here's the thing, though: while walks are normally a great way to alleviate stress, walks in India are a great way to take that little grain of stress you have and roll it into a great big snowball of anxiety and annoyance, the endless honking and pushing doing nothing good for the nerves. It's a quiet walk, a tense one, and Lisa can tell I'm not enjoying it. "Do you want to head back?" she asks.

"Yeah, okay."

We try to head back. But the way we thought we'd come isn't the way we'd come, and in fact it's made us even more lost, and before we know it we're kilometers away from where we want to be with no clue how to get back. We surrender. Let's just have a cabbie take us home. We flag one down, offer him the name of the hotel. He doesn't know it, and we don't know what else to tell him. We end up driving around for forty minutes looking for the place whence we'd come. Eventually we find it, but all along the way I'm reminded of just how crucial a working phone is to a good adventure.

It seems counterintuitive, I know. Adventure is all about being untethered, disconnected, and I agree. I'm no great friend of the cell phone as we often use it today, and I think weighing a trip down with the constant crutch of a phone is no way to have a trip at all.

But used wisely, a phone is like a climbing rope. It's there to protect you, to catch you when you fall, but you don't actually want to rely on it. With a trusty phone in the pocket, you can wander at will, pulling yourself deeper into the hidden crevices of a city without a care for where you're going or how to get back, and then, if you find you're really lost, all it takes is a quick look at the map to see where you are and where you need to be. Without one, you have to play it safe. You have to free-climb at a responsible height (or you can just be reckless, I suppose).

So we're back, and I'm stressed, and we haven't really had dinner. Lisa suggests a place right outside, but I'm not feeling particularly hungry and know that I'm not being good company right now. "No, no," I say, "You go ahead and eat. I think I'm just going to get to bed. I'll see you back at the room."

We part ways, and I collapse into bed not feeling well at all. Sure, there's angst about the phone, but this feels like something more than that. Something just doesn't feel right. I can't figure out what it is.

And then, I get sick.

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