Peaks and Valleys, Part 3 of 3
When planning this trip to Nepal, Mom asked me if there was anything I wanted to make sure I got to see and do. I had a lot to draw on — my first visit, 10 days in 2011, was jam-packed with experiences custom-made for me, from a lakeside B&B that grew its own coffee beans to Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha. But I knew this trip was for the kids, not the dads, so I stuck with a simple suggestion:
“Maybe Raju can take me on the motorbike to his Ganesh shrine. If he’s going.”
Kathmandu must rank among the cities with the most temples per capita, and that’s not even counting the bajillion shrines: tiny stone blocks carved with images and idols, many dropped awkwardly into the middle of a road or intersection. Or rather, the roads grew up around them, for many of these dark, intricate cubes are older than memory. The gods they venerate – Shiva, Durga, Kali, Hanuman, Ganesh – were brought north from India by sages centuries before Jesus was born. Buddha and his Bodhisattvas blended in without a blink, but they are not so unutterably ancient, so deeply, physically infused in Nepal’s bloodstream, as the Hindu gods.
So “Raju’s shrine” just means his favourite shrine, the one he grew up nearest and will still go out of his way to visit. Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of auspicious beginnings and safe travels, means a lot to a man who makes part of his living leading tourist treks. Turns out his holy day is Tuesday, so the errand is already on the calendar when I arrive.
At 9am, it’s already blistering outside. We don buffs and helmets and I wrap my creaky legs around Raju’s little red scooter and we’re off. On a scooter, you feel the pits and potholes more acutely, but if you’re watching you can often anticipate them, and roll into the shocks, as it were. But, as Kathmandu’s roads are an endless, all-in game of chicken, it’s better for my nerves to keep my eyes shut. Not for the first time on this trip, I try reaching back inside myself to reclaim the wonder I felt on my first visit to this alien place. Then, everything was astonishing and new, from the furniture factories inside aluminum shanty shacks to the mutant-octopus tangles of power cables that congregate on every pole we pass. Now, it’s all sticky with déjà vu and chilled with an edge of danger.
Before visiting the shrine itself, we stop to pick up offerings. Raju parks the bike on a quiet street, assuring me that within the hour it will be packed with vendors who squat in front of the unopened shops, selling vegetables and watches. He leads me through a low-ceilinged arcade to an unmarked shop, where we buy a paper bag of sugared rice candies. Ganesh has a sweet tooth. “They make the little ones only Tuesday,” Explains Raju, “When they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Then it’s back on the dusty streets. We pass petrol stations with enormous lineups. We circumnavigate a roundabout with a grimy pagoda in the centre, where I see several homeless people are sleeping, despite the din. We putter up a street too narrow for cars, yet stop and twist our way around several cars that decided to squeeze through anyway. Some of the octopoid bundles of cables droop down to the level of our heads, and a few are broken, splayed across the sidewalks, maybe live.
One part of my brain is nearly always thinking about climate change. At home, its mantra is What can I do? On this tour of Kathmandu, I realize that the chant has changed: This is what we all have to look forward to. Between the present and the apocalypse, there’s this: the whole planet parched for gas and water, watching cities grow simultaneously overcrowded and run down. Earth as a developing nation, except with nowhere to develop.
We arrive. The shrine is tucked away in a tiny square like an afterthought, flanked on two sides by buildings and on a third by earthquake rubble. A mechanical rock crusher looms nearby, but work has not yet begun. Two feet from the shrine, a leather-faced man sits on a rug with jars of shoe polish. I feel a pang of guilt for wearing sandals.
In the shrine’s alcove, at chest height, the Ganesh statue wears a garland of real flowers, and red rice paste has been freshly smeared across his broad forehead. I follow Raju’s lead: set the sweets beneath the statue; ring the bell; circle the shrine clockwise, touching each corner as if it were a prayer wheel; then press our foreheads against the statue’s until the dye is transferred to us, leaving each of us with a red smear to proclaim our devotion. The marks will last all day.
Did I feel anything the first time I did this, six years ago? I must have, or I wouldn’t have asked to come again. Mostly now, I feel honoured that my adoptive brother is willing to invite me into his personal ritual – although it hardly feels intimate, what with the shoe-shine guy literally sitting at our feet. But if I felt sanctified last time, this time it’s gone. I realize that, despite all the visits to churches and cathedrals in France, despite currently being in a Unitarian’s paradise, I have not felt anything spiritual for a long time.
No question that my carry-all anxieties and fatalistic visions are connected to this emptiness. It’s very hard to feel spiritually fulfilled when all you see is danger and decay. But it’s up to me to shift my perspective, and take the steps needed to see the world for what it is, here and now: brimful with mystery and joy. Shrines are everywhere if you see the world that way, and anything can be an offering.
We only give half the bag of sweets to Ganesh; the rest come home with us, for my five-year-old and Raju’s three-year-old – my niece. As we scoot, it occurs that Raju is the only person on Earth who calls me “brother.” We were born on opposite sides of the planet, without any blood or culture shared between us. Now we share a mother and at least one god. I resolve to get outside my fretting mind, and try to be as fraternal as I can for the rest of my visit. There are a bajillion sites to seek the sacred, but brotherhood seems like an auspicious beginning.