The sun was barely up as we leave the Yellow House, eyes red from the flight and sneakers tightened in anticipation; ready to explore the streets of Kathmandu. We turn left, running along the thick concrete wall holding back the leaves and flowers hungrily growing on the other side. A quick left and then a right leads us down a hill towards the Bagmati River - a contrast to the stone streets, the concrete houses, the lines of motorbikes. We find ourselves in an easy rhythm, steps falling mechanically on the pavement. Past jagged streets, the windows and doors sagging with age. Balconies and thresholds filled with the beginning of morning - dhaal baat dished on plates, spirit shrines flickering with sleepy candles, old men sitting with tea. Street sweepers look up as we pass, “Namaste”; old women bent with children look up, “Namaste”; children with toothy grins and white polos fall in step and then race past, “Namaste”. Hands to heart center, eyes connected, head slightly bowed, “Namaste”; acknowledging the spirit within. Connection on the street. Connections that happen when life is lived necessarily close - breakfast and laundry and worship all within inches of the door step. The phone map guides us, distant and factual in its direction [turn right at the next intersection]. Our reality is more supple, a wide right - avoiding the sacred cow that has chosen the middle of the street as a needed place to rest. [Turn left, then left again] Turn left past the man feeding the street dogs, observe the goat tied to the doorway, then left into an alley. Our map does not dictate whether this is a street or a series of backyards strung together, the dampness of life uncomfortably close. Continue forward as the women in the backyards seem to find no fault in us moving past their cooking fires, scuttling their chickens, intriguing their children. “Namaste”. [Continue straight] when straight appears to be an after-thought of a tunnel built in between two buildings, steps crooked and worn, the mossy walls clinging to us on either side, pushing onward and upward, pushing us to the release of the streets. We continue in this push and pull, contract and release; one step brushing past the routine of life, the next gliding past the routine of eternity: shrines and Stuppas. When privacy is a commodity, communion of the typical and the holy is shared.
Then gradually, beyond in the distance, a hill arises, golden with the rays of the morning light: Swayambhu Stuppa [Continue straight]. A gaggle of children and street dogs follow us, eager for a break from their routine. My lungs burn, my feet ache under the repetition; yet I am beckoned on - by the Monkey Temple and the colors floating through the streets. The street finally ends, buildings give way to trees and stones, masking the temple above the canopy. Maps are no longer needed. Follow the grey stone path, continue moving upward, past the monkeys; sacred or not; lounging in the shade. The monkeys sit, confident of their position, knowing that we are the temporary visitors, abiding by the rules of their temple. The steps steepen and become short, my toe angled against the worn stone, stepping lightly. Deliberately. 365 steps. 365 decisions to continue upward.But the top! The summit! Feet shuffling and prayer flags rising to blend with the wind. The white dome of the Stuppa lifts gracefully skyward. The golden tip and steady eyes glistening with the sun. Brick walls house shrines and prayer wheels, tin shanties and tarps house merchants and makers. Everything is masked with a hushed undertone, as though I am walking around with ear muffs on. Only the chimes and the heavy turning of the prayer wheels appear in full volume, marking my observation in a convoluted melody of serenity. The view beckons us to the edge. Gasp, words are useless. The fog settling in the valley is lifting, the sun’s rays growing stronger, the Himalayas steadfast in the distance. The mountains are confident in their place. Knowing, like the monkeys, that they are the rules. We are the temporary visitors. Monks shuffle past, continuing in their prayer walk. Prayer wheels are turned. Candles are lit. Monkeys scurry by, immune to the sacred. The top is a place of pause. A place away from the closeness of everyday routines. Intention. I will pause, I remind myself, accept the everyday routine and the push and pull of life. I will pause to remember the tea and open fires and the laundry hanging on the balcony. The colors that reflect on the Bagmati and the concrete walls. The dogs that do not care for an owner, but for a meal. And I will pause when I return home; for the coffee and the whistle of the breeze. For monuments and the shifting of clouds. For friend’s stories and benches in parks. For fat squirrels that prefer Sweet Green to acorns.
And thus I descend from Swayambhu. One step, one decision at a time, away from the top. Surrounded by the ephemeral bliss of a moment of pause. And then, serenity realized, peace affirmed: my assailant strikes. A water bottle is ripped from my unobserving hand, nimble fingers and a furry face look up at me. Black eyes, confident that he is now the rightful owner stares back.
The monkeys of Swayambhua are masters of finding the advantage in other’s pause.