When you travel for a week, your life becomes jam packed with thrilling experiences and new sensations to be wrung from each precious day. When you travel for a month, you can really sink into that novel, peaceful feeling of being disconnected from normal life.
When you travel for a year, the novelty of novelty fades away and life re-assumes all of those monotonies, exhaustions, and abstract human needs that we’re all familiar with. In short, it just becomes… regular life. To be sure, life is certainly more of a roller coaster alone in a foreign land, with high highs and sinking, lonely lows. But the thrill of novelty, like all feelings, is ephemeral. And afterward you’re left with the same needs you’ve always felt, albeit from a location that might be alien and unfamiliar.
And so here I am, out here in Pokhara. I’ve been on the road in South Asia for over three months as I’m writing this. After an exhausting spring of gallivanting through India, trekking in the high Himalayas, climbing epic mountains, and meeting crazy people every day, I’m tired. I’ve decided to stay put in this city while the summer rains hammer down on the country and make travel difficult.
Pokhara is a good place to be. First of all, it is absolutely beautiful. The city sits against a lake just beneath the Annapurna mountain range, and on a clear day those huge snowcapped Himalayan peaks tower over the city. Despite the snowcapped mountains in the distance, Pokhara’s biome is hot jungle. Dense tropical vegetation covers the ground and leafs the size of my body form a thick canopy overhead. Exotic birds nest nest against the water, monkeys prowl on the city’s power lines, and big cats stalk in the hillsides. Angry troupes of bright red fire-ants, huntsman spiders the size of my hand, and highly venomous snakes creep and crawl in every nook and cranny here. I guess I’m still counting all this stuff as positives? Well if not exactly desirable, at least it’s interesting.
Secondly, Pokhara is cheap. I rent a humble room up in the hills just outside of Lakeside Pokhara for Rs. 600 ($4.73) per night. Breakfast is spicy roasted chick peas and fried cornbread for Rs. 225 ($1.77), and lunch/dinner is the time honored Veg Dal Bhat for just Rs. 200 ($1.58). I rent a cheap bicycle for 1500 rupees per week ($11.83), but if I need more range I can easily get a scooter for a daily 800 rupees ($6.31), or Rs. 750 if I feel like haggling to the point of pain. Beer is exorbitantly expensive- 350 rupees at the least ($2.76) for a big bottle of the cheap Nepali Tuborg or Gorkha. All in all, I’ve spent an average of exactly $26 per day for the entirety of living expenses here.
So yeah- life has been pretty good in Pokhara. The challenging part has been keeping my life full of meaning. When you have a job and relationships at home, the meaning comes through that. Out here I have to make my own.
I want to give the readers an idea of what my life is like simply living out here in Nepal. So, in this post I’m just going to describe last Friday, as it was a pretty run of the mill day.
Around 7 am, I wake up on my humble cot up on the hill above Pokhara Lakeside. The sun starts streaming through my window around this time and heats everything up.
On Friday, I could hear the monkey troupe scampering about on my thin metal roof. Sometimes this band of 15-20 macaques visits in the early morning.
I throw some clothes on and hike down the hill into town, careful to latch my door against the mischievous macaques. Praise Hanuman!!
The morning is relatively cool and I’ll sit at a sidewalk café to drink coffee and do some writing while the town wakes up. I’ll write about anything- stream of consciousness journal entries, blog posts, technical writing as I scour the internet for interesting climate technology. A consistent practice of writing is such a huge life hack; it clears my mind and puts order to the swirl of thoughts in my brain. The catch is that it is totally exhausting.
So after an hour or two I’ll go to the Dihiko Patan park in Lakeside Pokhara to work out. I’m still doing PT on my separated shoulder, trying to get it strengthened for the climbing season this fall. Steadily I can see the acromioclavicular separation in my left shoulder closing, or at least getting covered by new muscles.
The park is a cool, shaded breezy area just up the hill from the lake. Old men and kids stare at me unabashedly as I do my stretches, pull-ups, dips, push-ups. Enormous, ancient Bodhi trees tower over us and cast a cool shade on the park.
The Bodhi Tree “Tree of Awakening”, is a sacred tree that forms the centerpiece of most town squares or parks in Nepal. It is said that Buddha was meditating beneath a Bodhi tree when he achieved enlightenment.
Meditation & Chakra Alignment
At 9:15 am, there is a guided meditation session in town. Each day, we focus on a different chakra, moving through each one by one to unlock and unleash the energy bound up in our body. A chakra is like a spinning disc of focused energy in your body, which can get out of whack and cause problems. Each chakra is tied to some unique fundamental aspect of your humanity.
On Friday, we focused on the “root” chakra, the lowest chakra down at the base of the spine. This chakra deals with grounding and security- “How to Be.” When it is out of whack, this manifests as insecurities about our basic needs and well-being.
Our guide rang the Tibetan singing bowl with the tone corresponding to the root chakra. Everyone let out an Ommmmmmmm to match the tone of the bowl.
We moved through the singing bowls and chanted several mantras. After a while, I sunk into a focused, relaxed state of patterned, rhythmic breathing.
As always, intrusive thoughts break through the mantric cycles to take hold in my mind. Its helpful to observe and recognize these intrusions, as this gives insight into the nature of your own mind, your ego, and your insecurities.
Most of my intrusive thoughts have to do with some idea of personal glory. A few Omms and all of a sudden my big fat Ego crystallizes in my mind’s eye. I observe myself fancying myself as some wise guru on a path to glorified enlightenment. Swirling in the moments of stillness between mantras I found arrogance and pride mixed up with a deep desire to achieve “success”- material, spiritual, and perceived success. I’m going to be the best fucking meditator in Pennsylvania. I could be Buddha himself if I put my mind to it! I found myself even writing this post while I tried to meditate! no doubt due to my concern of putting a good image out to my peers and family. Of feeling like I am going to “get” something out of this experience.
The session ends and I stretch out my numb legs and walk out to the street, feeling both mentally clear, and kind of like a fraud.
Tashiling Buddhist Camp
From meditation, I walk to a café to work on my Python script. Its nice to balance the spiritual mumbo jumbo of straightening out my dumb chakras with something purely responsive to logic. I’m using some open source code on Github to try and model the energy makeup for a hypothetical facility in Colorado. I’m new to Python and really just using this as a practice project, so its slow going and a little bit frustrating. I feel like I’m groping forward in the dark with each session of troubleshooting. At least while I’m focused on learning to code, I’m not questioning my existence.
By mid-day it is sweltering hot and MUGGY. One thing it took me a long time to realize about the global south is how much your own survival depends on actually just doing nothing in the hot part of the day.
One of the only things you can do in the sweltering midafternoon is go swimming. So I biked over to my favorite swimming hole in the Chhorepatan valley of Pokhara. I went by way of the Tashiling refugee camp to get some Tibetan thukpa for lunch.
Tashiling is an amazing neighborhood. Its populated by Tibetan refugees fled from China, and it has a totally different feel than most other places in Pokhara. Neat lines of brightly painted little homes surround a big grass field in the center of the neighborhood. Interspersed in the grass field is a monastery, school and administrative buildings. In the field, buffalo graze alongside children playing in their school uniforms. Old women sell handicrafts with precious stones brought overland from the Tibetan plateau.
Fusre Khola Swimming Hole
After lunch in Tashiling, I bicycled down the steep valley to the Fusre Khola river far below Pokhara. As I descend, the scenery changes from the urban scene of Pokhara. It is far poorer down in the deep valley; the hotels and restaurants of the city melt away for more rudimentary shelters of concrete and brick with tin roofs.
The paved road gives way to rock and dirt, winding through little settlements at the base of the valley. I politely bicycled through the narrow dirt neighborhood streets. Half-naked children play games in the dirt while their sweating parents try and stay cool in the shade of their front stoop.
The people all notice me as I pass; they wave and smile or give me a somewhat curious or otherwise hostile look. It goes that way whenever I leave the tourist haven of Pokhara. There is no anonymity for me in the rural parts of Nepal and thus I am always waving, smiling, greeting people and answering questions or taking pictures when I travel to the hills. Sometimes it gets a bit exhausting being so social and yet having little shared language in which to truly communicate. And so after any time spent in the country I must return to Lakeside Pokhara and recharge my stock of extroversion with some blessed anonymity.
I pass through a cluster of huts to a small cliff overlooking the lazy stream of Fusre Khola. There is a steel walking-bridge which crosses over into Chhorepatan. As I bike across the bridge, I look down and see many local children playing in the stream. Some of them yell up at me, inviting me down to the water garden.
I shoulder my bicycle and hike down the steep dirt path of gnarled roots and rocks to the rocky bank of the stream. In this place beneath the steel bridge, the stream has forked away from itself for 100 yards before crashing back into itself at a perpendicular angle. The combination of branches from the stream forms a turbulent, deep whirlpool beneath a featured stone cliff. There are several ledges and several tunnels that worm through the stone wall.
Today it is hot and the swimming hole is crowded with Nepali children. Twenty or thirty kids of all ages play in the stream. The older children climb up on the rocks and jump off of the cliff into the turbulent whirlpool. Most of the youngest children are naked and play in the shallows, squeaking with laughter.
I spy my friend Ujjwal climbing on the rocks. Ujjwal is the 12-year old kid who originally showed me this spot. One thing about living here is that my friends are truly of all ages, from Ujjwal to the 60-year-old Irish man whom with I oft eat meals.
When I first met Ujjwal, he told me that he and his friends were very hungry. He asked me to bring food the next time I came.
So this day I had a backpack filled with crackers, cookies, bread and fruit. I tell the boy I have food for him and his friends and he gives me a furtive look and says to do it later. I take this to mean that he might be a bit embarrassed to accept charity in front of everyone at the stream. No shame in that.
Ujjwal and I clamber up the slippery boulder problem above the whirlpool to the cliff overlooking the swimming hole. At the top of the cliff a group of older men are gathered.
An older man of maybe 30 years stumbles up to me and reaches out towards me. His eyes are red and teary and he has the smell of booze on him.
He leans into me with the swaying too-closeness of a drunk. As I have mentioned before, the Asians have a different concept of personal space that I often struggle to get used to. In Nepali he asks me what my name is, where I am from. I respond with my rudimentary Nepali:
“Mero naam Dan ho. Mo America ma baschu.”
The man smiles at my poor Nepali and says some words that I cannot understand. Suddenly a cloud passes across his strained face and he grips me firmly on the bicep. I wrench away from him and tell him angrily in English that he may not touch me.
The man begins to cry from those red teary eyes and asks me something along the lines of whether I think he will be OK. He is truly in a wretched state. My anger with him abates for a moment.
I pat him on the shoulder and just say, “You’re okay.” I say “you’re okay” over and over like 20 times.
After a long minute with this drunkard I detach myself and leap off the cliff into the whirlpool.
Now its time to head up the hill into Chhorepatan proper and go to school. I walk up with Ujjwal and his friends and give those guys a bunch of food from my pack. I still have some left over so I distribute it to the little kids that I see as I bike up through several neighborhoods to school.
I often felt embarrassed to offer food to random people, even though it was almost always simply appreciated. I think the skill of “giving” is kind of like a muscle that atrophies if you don’t use it. I don’t think I’ve been very materially generous in my life, and I have to learn how to flex this muscle without being too self-conscious.
It takes me 15 minutes to pedal up the steep rocky road from the stream up to the little schoolhouse on the hill. Asmita and her mother Ama will usually be hanging out on the stoop. I go and join them as the kids roll in.
When I first started at the school, the children were shy for all of about 5 minutes- but now that I have been attending their school for a few weeks they are rambunctious little lovable freaks.
Obviously the language is a barrier, but I think that kids are somehow more adept than adults at getting around that. With kids, its easier to make a physical connection through playing, drawing, roughhousing, and generally acting like a child.
They help me with my Nepali, quizzing me on phrases from the booklet I’ve been keeping, or otherwise teaching me phrases and screaming with laughter at my butchered pronunciations.
They draw pictures of me and talk about me and laugh about me to each other, all while hanging all over me and screaming for me to lift them up or thumb wrestle with them, or learn a fiftieth secret handshake.
I help them with their English and math. A few of the older boys loved learning the “Lattice” method of multiplication; a contingent of them would constantly petition me to write more and more multiplication problems for them to solve- six digits by six digits, no seven digits! A sort of hierarchy developed among the boys on who could solve the biggest multiplication problem.
They liked long division so much less than the lattice method and I’m honestly not sure why. The work seems so similar to me.
Either way, we powered through learning long division and eventually at least three or four kids knew the method.
After they solve a problem I’d crouch down beside them and make a big show of typing the problem into my calculator. Before I hit the “equals” sign I would ask everyone to do a big drumroll to add suspense.
If the kid gets it right I’d whoop and holler and lift them in the air and make them feel super excited. If they get it wrong I’d make a big “ERGGGGH” sound like the sound of a rejection button, or I’d shout “SHAME.”. Either way, the kids would laugh and laugh and laugh.
At 6:30 we load the little weirdos up with cookies and send them packing. Afterward, I sit with Asmita and her mother Ama to have a cup of tea in the rising twilight. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Asmita and her mom. Asmita is a 19-year-old college student who basically runs the school with funding from a European NGO called Priya Life. As is the case with most educated Nepali youths, she’s trying to get a visa to study in Europe or Australia but is consistently stifled by either the Nepali bureaucracy or the intense competitiveness for limited visas to the western world.
After tea I slowly ride my bike clear across Pokhara back home to Lakeside. I love riding my bicycle through the cool streets of the city these evenings. I feel tired and accomplished from working with the kids. The locals are back from work and big families are hanging in the streets grilling corn with their neighbors. Many of them wave and say hello namaste as I pass by. The mountain foothills darken against the orange sky and for as long as I am biking- for as long as I am going somewhere, I feel just blissful.