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Out of India [North – The Great Vehicle]

26 Aug

Dubai was nothing more than a desert port with a creek that ran through it 20 years ago. Now look at it. I gazed out of the window of the Burj Khalifa which is currently the tallest building the world. This building itself was not even around the last time I was in Dubai some 3 years earlier.

View from Observation Deck of Burj Khalifa – Dubai, U.A.E. (2010)

At that time, I was flying to Kathmandu via Muscat, Oman. I remember being surrounded by all types of South Asians hitching a red-eye flight on Emirates from Dubai to Muscat and from there they were transferring to flights on Oman Air to Jaipur, Lucknow, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Chittagong. Each of these chaps carried with them the same style of briefcase with masking tape on the outside that spelled out their destinations in large English block-letters. I could only assume that these briefcases were stuffed with dirhams and dollars amassed during their stints as a wait staff, kitchen help, construction workers, housekeepers, and taxi drivers in Dubai. I was going to Kathmandu and was to land sometime between 7:30am to 8am. That flight was horrible because of the unbelievable body odor emanating from the gentleman who was sitting next to me. The only thing that got me through was the in-flight movie that played on a large screen from the front of the coach cabin. This was a Bollywood movie that had been released earlier that year and it was called Eklayva: The Royal Guard. It was in Hindi and had English subtitles. It starred Amitabh Bachchan and completely roped me in — so much so that when it ended I was wiping tears off my face and I looked around the cabin and saw a few Nepali men doing the same thing. But, the overpowering smell of B.O. then hit me again and I had to suck it up for another hour or so until we landed.

Barnes & Noble “franchise” – Thamel – Kathmandu, Nepal (2007)

The Thamel area of Kathmandu is a kindred spirit of the Khao San road of Bangkok with its cramping of backpackers and hostels. But, unlike the linear and more orderly Khao San, Thamel is a crooked corridor of fabric, fish, pashmina, wool and curio stalls — each entrenched within shaky looking buildings with rooftop terraces that are perched on a hill which is then in turn surrounded by the Himalayan foothills. I made the mistake of getting a cheaper room (no A/C – again a mistake) that opened up right above a busy bend of Thamel, and so the endless cacophany of bike-rickshaws, motos, squat Suzuki taxis, and other strange vehicular contraptions — each bleeping or blipping their horns — kept me awake each night. Although the Buddha had been born in Lumbini which is in southern Nepal, the vast majority of Nepalis practice Hinduism. Buddhism still had a vibrant presence over parts of Nepal and that was primarily due to huge numbers of Tibetan exiles who had crossed over the Himalayas during the last 5 decades after the Chinese annexed Tibet.  The Nepali and Tibetan Buddhists practice Mahayana (the “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism which is one of the 2 main schools of Buddhism that developed in the centuries after the Buddha’s death — the other school being Theravada (the “Doctrine of The Elders”).  The Mahayana school traveled North and then northeast out of India, while the Theravada school traveled South and then southeast out of India.  I had come to Kathmandu to see 2 very important Buddhist Stupas and to also receive my Chinese visa and Tibetan travelers permit in order to travel overland to Tibet.  On my first night in Kathmandu, I found myself on a rooftop bar drinking a couple of Gorka beers and eating the staple Nepali meal of dhal bhat: a platter of rice and lentils surrounded by small round tin dishes of vegetables, curried meat, and cucumber dip. I started with a few steamed yak meat momos as well (I would eat a lot of yak during this trip).  That night, I saw perhaps the best cover band in the subcontinent – there were 3 guitar players, 1 bass player, 1 drummer, and 1 conga player. This band played everything from “Kung Fu Fighting” to “Don’t Let Me Down” and the  audience and patrons loved every second of it. They even clamored for an encore after the band finished their set and they came back and sang 3 more songs.  The combination of the music, Thamel feel-good vibes, and pure air of the Himalayan foothills had me glowing that night.  Kathmandu still had a sliver of its 60s “freak street” cred to it. It was hard for me to believe that only 6 years earlier, the Nepali Crown Prince, Dipendra, had snapped during a royal family party and killed 9 members of his family including his parents (the King and Queen of Nepal) before shooting himself and dying in a coma 3 days later.  No doubt there was still tension in the air that summer because of the Nepali Maoist insurgency that was spreading through the country, but on that night at least things seemed to be centered and carefree. I wanted to slip away into the deep funk of sleep, but the characters of the Thamel night had other ideas. Not to mention that the cool air of the Himalayan foothills that I was expecting (hence the decision to get a room with no A/C) was a no-show, and instead, Kathmandu was blanketed with warm and heavy humidity. So, I thought about Mt. Meru and Everest looking over me out in the yonder. I knew they were close — just a bit further North. That cool air was within reach.

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