Nepal, off the beaten track

Vis­it­ing Nepal is a colour­ful and con­fronting ex­pe­ri­ence, but it’s also a deeply re­plen­ish­ing one, as dis­cov­ers. We dance, we sing, we laugh, we cry. I walk away with a dis­tinct sense of the fragility of life, and the thought that when it comes to an end

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

In the low light, we sit on the floor, the plas­tic mat stick­ing to the backs of our thighs in the early evening heat. We hunch over our thin chop­ping boards, slic­ing clove after clove of gar­lic. My back twinges and I think, for the thou­sandth time in the past 24 hours, how easy I have it back home. Here, in this host fam­ily in Pa­nauti, ev­ery­thing is just that lit­tle bit harder.

Tucked away in a val­ley at the con­flu­ence of two sa­cred rivers, Pa­nauti is a serene and holy Nepalese town filled with tem­ples. Most trav­ellers visit just for the day, rush­ing through on their way to Pokhara for trekking. But I’m trav­el­ling with Crooked Com­pass who, spe­cial­is­ing in off-the-beaten-track ad­ven­tures, have specif­i­cally de­signed an itin­er­ary that doesn’t in­volve trekking so we can re­ally pen­e­trate the cul­tural side of the coun­try. And what bet­ter way to do that than to or­gan­ise for us to spend two nights with host fam­i­lies through Pa­nauti Com­mu­nity Homes­tay, an em­pow­er­ing women’s ini­tia­tive giv­ing trav­ellers the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence the life of a Nepalese vil­lage fam­ily first-hand.

The home I’m stay­ing in is hum­ble, with door­ways you have to squat to get through, lad­ders where stairs would usu­ally be, no glass in the win­dows, and the oc­ca­sional pi­geon or mouse pop­ping in to say hello.

It’s def­i­nitely not for ev­ery­one. But for the du­ra­tion of my stay it’s filled with smiles, laugh­ter and the mouth­wa­ter­ing scents of Ne­wari cui­sine. For those re­ally want­ing to wrig­gle un­der the skin of this town, stay­ing here is a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity.

My host ‘‘dad’’ Ram Shrestha, a de­vout Hindu, has shown me around the serene old quar­ter, where we ex­plored the or­nate river­side tem­ples, roamed the dusty ochre-hued laneways, and climbed to a look­out at the town’s out­skirts to watch the sun­set. I’ve chat­ted with the Shresthas’ 18-year-old daugh­ter, Linda, about her dreams of study­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, and watched their 9-year-old Lu­niwa sing and dance to Bol­ly­wood tunes. Now, I’m help­ing my ‘‘mum’’ Ra­jani pre­pare din­ner. Once we’ve fin­ished chop­ping it’s time to fry fresh dosas, saute veges in cumin, turmeric and chilli, and stir soupy lentil dal.

Crowded around the small plas­tic din­ing ta­ble I mimic the Shresthas as they use their hands to eat. Squelch­ing rice into a ball with my right hand, I mop the ball into the soupy veg­eta­bles and stuff the whole busi­ness into my mouth. There are gig­gles as food slips be­tween my fin­gers and slops back onto my plate. Nepal’s fa­mously po­tent ‘‘raksi’’ rice wine flows and we chat into the night.

At one point, the Shresthas bring out a stack of photos of Lu­niwa’s ‘‘sun wed­ding’’. There, spread across the ta­ble, are images of a 7-year-old Lu­niwa clad in the tra­di­tional Nepalese wed­ding garb of a bright red sari and heavy gold jew­ellery, with a ter­ri­fied ex­pres­sion on her face. And no won­der. In bro­ken English, Ram ex­plains this com­ing-of-age rit­ual for Nepalese Ne­wari (the in­dige­nous in­hab­i­tants of the Kath­mandu Val­ley) com­mu­ni­ties, in which girls be­tween 7 and 13 are mar­ried to the ‘‘sun god’’ in a 12-day cer­e­mony. For the first 11 days Lu­niwa was kept in a dark room, away from sun­light and any male con­tact to pu­rify her be­fore her ‘‘marriage’’.

It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing cer­e­mony, if not a lit­tle con­fronting by my Western stan­dards. But it’s noth­ing in com­par­i­son with what lies in store the next evening.

After bid­ding our Nepalese fam­i­lies and serene Pa­nauti farewell, we make our way back into the honk and blare of Kath­mandu. At the out­skirts of the city we reach the Unesco World Her­itage-listed Pashu­pati­nath tem­ple, Nepal’s most sa­cred site com­pris­ing 400-odd shrines on the banks of the sa­cred Bag­mati River. We stand on the dusty stone steps lead­ing to the river and watch sad­hus, or mys­tics, wrapped in tan­ger­ine robes with long beards wan­der by, while across the river four large fu­neral pyres burn.

‘‘We Hindus be­lieve the soul is in­de­struc­tible,’’ says our Crooked Com­pass guide, point­ing to the pyres. ‘‘Death is just the end of our phys­i­cal bod­ies, but the soul con­tin­ues its jour­ney and is rein­car­nated in an­other form. Burn­ing the body rids the soul of any at­tach­ment to the body it was in.’’

We con­tinue walk­ing by the river, ac­com­pa­nied by a couple of rogue cows un­til we reach the site of the nightly aarti cer­e­mony, Arya Ghat, the most widely used cre­ma­tion site in

ISTO

The way to one of the big­gest Hindu Tem­ple of the World, Pashu­pati­nath Kathamandu, Nepal.

NINA KARNIKOWSKI

A tra­di­tional cer­e­mony in Nepal.

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