THE BORDER LIFE


 

THE SIDDHI-YAATRIKA

My pilgrimage to Kathmandu


सिद्धियात्रिक  -  One who makes a pilgrimage to learn magical arts or to gain good luck or beatitude. 

(Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary,1899)

 

By Riverdave Owen

February 2018

 

 

 

 

THE LEGENDARY MOUNTAINS

 

       My pilgrimage was finally unfolding as my plane passed eastward over the Strait of Hormuz and began to traverse the long dry rugged coastline of Iran and Pakistan.  After an hour peering down into a barren desert landscape, in the distant northern horizon a long line of white came into view between the brown arid land below and blue sky above.  My body instinctively pulled itself up strait in the seat with attention.  Could this finally be the legendary Himalaya range I have heard tell of since childhood?  

 

       As my flight continued eastward the long white streak showed signs of converging with my due east course.  "Yes," I exclaimed silently to myself with excitement, "I’ve now begun my 1500 mile parallel path across the Indian subcontinent just south of the great mountain range!" I relaxed back into my seat and let my feelings flow freely amidst a plane packed with two hundred Nepalese young men returning home from a work stint in the Arabian Gulf.

 

       The view out the airplane window continued for over two hours.  At first all I saw was the distant line of clouds, but soon I was able to discern individual peaks jutting out from their cloud roof.  Directly below appeared to be mostly parched land until at one point our plane suddenly took a sharp turn due north. We aimed directly into what had now become green mountains with their tops lost in the clouds.

 

       I could tell from my map that our plane would need to fly up one of several possible transverse mountain valleys to reach the city of Kathmandu, tucked away about fifty miles into the mountains. Suddenly we dove into a huge cloud bank and I knew this was the final decent.  I was instantly gripped with roller coaster fears watching tree covered mountain sides zip by my window as we careened up a narrow valley just below the cloud cover. I almost stopped breathing …

 

       Then poof! Out we popped into sunshine on the other side of the narrow valley that had led us north.  Below was a huge, bowl shaped depression with a sprawling city in the midst.  I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed my arms and legs that felt as if they had contracted during the decent through the tight valley.  In only a couple of minutes we were on the ground taxiing towards a small airport passenger terminal.  I was quite exhilarated from the geographic drama of the last several hours and felt lucky to have had a north facing window seat to witness my entrance into the realm of the legendary mountain range and the land of Dharma.

 

MY TROPICAL GARDEN HOME IN BOUDHANATH 

 

      As I walked out of the terminal to the taxi stand, there was a young man holding a sign that read “RIVERDAVE.”  That sure felt good!  But what felt even better was the surprise I encountered twenty minutes later at the end of my street know as Arab Bank Lane. I walked through the big metal gate of my new home and found I was in the midst of a subtropical garden!  I had somehow surmised that the mile high Kathmandu neighborhood of Boudhanath where I had a prearranged rental agreement, would be in a temperate climatic zone. Instead, completely circling the house were trees of pomegranate, palm, banana, hibiscus, mango, bottlebrush, sweet smelling Jasmin vines and arboreal Himalaya striped squirrels busily scurrying about!

 

       Eagerly I ascended the third floor roof of my building and sure enough, the urban tropical landscape in every direction was dotted with fishtail palms and lavender blooming jacaranda trees.  In addition, the owner of the flat had a roof garden planted with vegetable greens that I was free to harvest and enjoy.  Rose-ringed parakeets would soon become my favorite rooftop visitors.  Trips to the market would inevitably include the purchase of two of my favorite tropical fruits - papaya and jackfruit. My nine weeks of pilgrimage in the Kathmandu Valley would also turn out to be my longest ever tropical foray. 

 

       Besides having a walled-in tropical garden around the perimeter of my dwelling, outside the eight foot high walls I discovered interesting neighbors on three of the four sides.  On the south side was a half acre rice paddy that was flooded from six inches to twelve inches deep for cultivation.  I had never observed a rice field before so it was interesting to see the tender green shoots rise above the water level to create a wetland.  When in bed with my windows open at night, I would fall asleep to a ringing chorus of frogs in this paddy that sounded nothing like anything I was familiar with in North Carolina, possibly the most impressive frog chorus I had ever heard in my life. And when standing on the roof in the morning looking down on the then silent wetland, I could find the brilliant white-breasted kingfisher, with its electric blue wings and large red bill, dipping in the paddy for a froggy breakfast. This rang a deep note in my memory.  In the1980’s, this same species of kingfisher would fly up from the Jordan River Valley and pass chattering overhead as I stood on my old city rooftop in Jerusalem.

 

       Perhaps a greater noise adjustment at my flat was the constant chatter of Indian Crows.  This ubiquitous urban scavenger was always within earshot by the dozens. Crows greeted me each morning at 4AM as the first stirring life in Boudhanath. They were by far the most common non-human form of life in the neighborhood and therefore I gave  them a lot of my attention. The Indian crow has a raspier communal voice than the American Crow, but can let out a good "caw caw" shriek when the need arises, hence the bird's Sanskrit name kaaka - काक . They appear to specialize in feeding on human garbage, so their service should be appreciated in a city currently overwhelmed by the task of garbage collection. Garbage is also collected by men on bicycles. When one hears the jingle of their bells outside the gate, garbage can be handed directly to them. It is then biked to neighborhood dumping centers and the collectors are paid by weight.  


       Within a week of becoming a resident of Boudhanath, still another disturbance occurred.  I awoke in the middle of the night to a cat fight that soon triggered a rowdy chorus of barking dogs.  It honestly sounded like HUNDREDS of canines.  I had noticed during daylight that many stray dogs wandered the streets and especially liked to hang out around a butcher’s shop at the beginning of a short alley that lead to my flat. Viewing the neighborhood apartments from my rooftop also confirmed that many neighbors kept pet dogs on their small balcony porches.  But when the whole lot of them chimed in at 2AM the sound was truly outrageous! The barkathon continued for an hour or more and would occur at least one night a week.  Helpless, I faded in and out of an extremely restless fog, questioning the wisdom of my “pilgrimage.”

 

       It took me a number of weeks to even trust the ever present street dogs.  I had been been bitten twice by dogs in Peru so my radar was up. We were warned by the school administration in our acceptance letter not to neglect receiving a round of three prophylactic rabies shots before arrival. I ignored this order for a number of personal reasons, as I refused a dozen other vaccinations also on the list.  But it took some focus to learn how to step around street dogs standing or lying directly in my path.  I was also informed that the Buddhist community attempts to vaccinate stray animals as part of their charitable orientation towards all beings. On only one occasion did I catch an angry vibe coming from a dog in my path.  Not looking the dog in the eye, I quickly veered off to my right and walked away without being chased.

 

       Just beyond the rice paddy was a large Tibetan monastery that presented a new challenge from the very first night in my flat.  Around 4AM I was gently awakened by slow, low pitched drumming coming from the direction of the monastery. It was pleasant and soothing and I could gently follow it while fading in and out of sleep.  Next I was jolted out of my reverie by loud clashing cymbals and dissonant sounding horn blowing.  Although not warned of this ahead of time, I immediately got the message - GET UP FOR YOUR MEDITATION!  So with this motivation I did try to be up starting my yoga practice by 5AM each morning. And without daylight savings time, the sky was already dawning with light.

 

       For the first half of the summer I found the elephant-like trumpeting to be novel enough to be entertaining.  But by the second half of my summer it began to annoy me as I felt robbed of sleep.  I began to doubt if I could tolerate this on a long term basis.  I suppose that in a high mountain setting it may have an entirely different effect. But in the midst of an urban setting of two million people, these Tibetan refugees were pushing it for me.  One traveler described this daybreak symphony as “a long, deep, whirring, haunting wail that takes you out somewhere beyond the highest Himalaya peaks and at the same time back into your mother's womb.”  I’ll save my final judgement on this one until the day I have the opportunity to experience this phenomenon out on those distant peaks.

 

      My Pakistani housemate, Shiriin, was a fellow student at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute and worked as a construction engineer in earthquake damage restoration.  She was learning Tibetan while I as studying Sanskrit. A week before I departed for Kathmandu, I subleased a room in her flat for the summer.  When I mentioned that I had no cell phone she was aghast.  How was I possibly going to navigate a big international city like Kathmandu without a phone?  I really had no answer for her, except that I was bringing a small laptop computer that sported email and messaging. She then warned me about the need for a surge protector for my laptop, as rotating electrical blackouts occur. When the power comes back on it can surge briefly and burn out a computer motherboard. That had me worried. I frantically searched for a compatible device before I left home and found none. Once in Kathmandu I was told the local made ones were cheap and worthless. I guess I was lucky, as my laptop never got fried …

 

       The only serious behavior adaptation I would need to make in Shiriin’s Kathmandu flat would be to boil all water that came through the spigots for drinking and teeth brushing.  She had set up a row of liter bottles along the kitchen counter that needed to be replenished with boiled water as they were emptied by our daily use.  This was imperative.  The the list of parasites that the local water potentially carried, especially during the summer monsoon season, was extensive and sobering.  But it did not take me long to adjust to the new routine. My body did some purging the first ten days as I adapted to the area’s local Himalaya bacteria, but after that my gut was fine for the remainder of my stay.  I also brought with me from the States my own personal medicine bundle, consisting of a blend of a dozen powdered medicinal herbs I had chosen to meet the challenges of Kathmandu.  From this bundle I carefully measured out two tablespoons a day to stir into a morning pudding of yogurt, banana and pomegranate.  

 

       The damage from the massive 2015 Kathmandu earthquake was still evident in Boudanath, including at the monastery that housed my school.  Several minor tremors occurred during my stay in the summer of 2017.  My bedroom was on the bottom floor with metal bars covering the window leaving me no immediate way to escape if a major jolt suddenly occurred.  On July 16th I was startled out of sleep to the sound of glass shattering.  I sat up in bed thinking earthquake.  I called to Shiriin in the next room, remembering that she was supposed to have arrived that night from out of town, but there came no answer. “Drop, cover, hold” flashed into my mind from our earthquake training on orientation day. I awaited, poised to bound out of the room if the slightest rumble occurred, but none followed. Perhaps a rodent had entered the house and knocked a glass or plate from the kitchen counter to the tile floor.

 

       Finding nothing irregular in the kitchen, I crept into the living room peering into the darkness, then flipped on the light switch.  There was glass scattered all around.  On the floor against the wall was a framed Tibetan thanka that had decided to jump off the wall in the middle of the night.  I picked it up and gazed at the sacred painted scene but was not familiar with it.  I knew that Shiriin was supposed to be on her way back from the distant town of Pokhara and I wondered if this was a omen that she was in trouble.  I left everything on the floor as I found it and emailed Shiriin about the incident.  She wrote back that she was O.K. and would be home after daybreak.  So I decided to recite the Arabic proverb “inkasar asharr,” meaning “evil is broken,” a practice I had learned in the Middle East when experiencing broken glass.  I was thankful that an earthquake scenario had not played out.

 

ON THE STREETS OF BOUDHANATH

 

      Shopping with street vendors was fairly straight forward. Not knowing the Nepali language, I usually just picked up the vegetable or fruit I wanted to buy and the vendor responded by holding up the appropriate bill I need to fork over. The exchange rate was 103 rupees to the dollar last summer, so most of my purchases were rarely over that amount. A few shopkeepers spoke English as well, the younger were more likely to be among them. My purchases were simple - fruit to add to my medicinal herbal pudding for breakfast and vegetables to steam with rice and lentils for dinner. I took lunch at the school cafe with the other students that included mostly Nepali cooking. After a week of Sanskrit classes I was able to read the Devanagari script in which the Nepali language is also written. This proved to be a distinct advantage when shopping as I could then decipher some package labels and market signs.

 

       The very first day I entered the market I noticed swallows swooping down low and flying directly into one particular shop with open windows.  I was intrigued, so I walked in and found the birds nesting on the ceiling directly over where the smiling owner sat with his cash box.  I had never seen anything like this arrangement before between humans and birds, so I took it as an omen that I was to frequent this shop for my basic kitchen purchases.  

 

       The disadvantaged were begging everywhere.  I had many years of experience facing this phenomenon when I lived in the Middle East, but it was a challenge to once again gain my poise in the face of so many obvious and pressing needs.  On my twelve minute walk to school each day I faced a gauntlet of men, women and children, often the same ones day after day.  The women and children would sometimes even step right in front of my path or grab my arm. I realized that I could not start giving day after day so I decided on a plan.  

 

       I would simply pass by with a compassionate smile or namaste and wait until the last couple of days of school.  Then I would try to cover as many of folks as I could with a fifty rupee note. Near the end of my days in Boudhanath I wadded up a stack of bills and as discreetly as I could, then shared with all those I had exchanged only greetings with throughout the summer.  At first they were shocked to see my sudden change of attitude, but all seemed very grateful.  

 

       On one occasion I was tapped on the shoulder from behind. I turned to face a frail looking barefoot woman in a ragged dress.  Next to her on the ground was a sack containing perhaps fifty pounds of potatoes. She motioned to me to help her lift it into a sling that was draped across her back which would then be supported by a band across her forehead.  I hesitated as she gazed up into my eyes for a response.  I was afraid that the load might completely break her back or crush her. But she was insistent, so both of us gave a big heave and up it went.  She wobbled for a moment as I held my breath, but then stepped forward, turned her head towards me with a grin, nodded and was off. At that instant I realized I had dreamt the precious night about a parallel situation.  I pondered this incident long and hard for a number of days ...

        

THE LEGENDARY SUMMER MONSOON

 

       Before my pilgrimage, back when I was in the States deciding whether to make the move or not, I was apprehensive about being in Kathmandu during the monsoon wet season.  With what appeared to be soggy weather, not much sunshine, online photos of flooded streets with stranded people and increased disease risk, I almost stayed home. Shiriin even wrote me that she was told by neighbors that the alley to the new flat she had rented often flooded during monsoon.  I got mixed messages from several connections as I inquired further.

 

       At the same time I was also intensely CURIOUS about the natural weather phenomenon of monsoon that was, since childhood, almost as famous and exotic to my ears as the word Himalaya!  In the end I decided not to be held back by fear and uncertainty and headed into the summer monsoon season with fingers crossed for a good learning experience.  It actually turned out quite well. It was fun to watch wave after wave of cloud banks roll in most afternoons from the south, heavily laden with moisture from the Bay of Bengal, and then suddenly collide with the cooler Himalayan mountain air releasing a torrential downpour. 


       There seems to be no special word for the monsoon phenomenon in Sanskrit. The South Asian seasonal rains are the main precipitation show and are therefore simply known in Sanskrit as pravrish, literally “rains.” It may have been colonials from temperate regions who employed the Arabic word for season, “mawsim,” and corrupted it to "monsoon" as a technical climatic term for South Asian seasonal rains. 


       There were moments when a gush of rainwater streamed down the winding alleyways of Boudhanath in the afternoon.  For ten minutes this might even compound water a couple of feet deep in some intersections as drains quickly filled to capacity.  But these rain events rarely lasted more than an hour on most afternoons.  Shiriin took me umbrella shopping on the first day of my arrival and I carried it in my backpack on every outing away from the house. And if the day began to get too hot by noon, I generally welcomed the cooling effect of an afternoon rain.  


       I was surprised to discover the summer weather of Kathmandu to be relatively stable and comfortable.  While I normally experience sweltering summer heat and humidity in my hometown of Durham, North Carolina, in June and July the average temperature in Kathmandu ranged from an evening low of 70 degrees Fahrenheit to a daytime high of 80!  As the summer days wore on, I began to marvel that I was getting off so easily from my usual steamy southern America experience where I reside in a cabin without air conditioning.  I sure was glad I didn’t allow climatic concerns to deter my summer’s pilgrimage! 


SANSKRIT STUDY AT THE BUDDHIST MONASTERY       


       Sanskrit is language number seven for me. When I was a very young age, on occasion my father would take me to work with him where he taught at Duke University. He often dropped me off at the library and put me under the care of a librarian.  On my own I would search encyclopedias for articles about the various languages of the world and practice copying their alphabets into a notebook, the more exotic the better.  I would then try to phonetically piece together words, such as my name or names of friends and watch the strange scripts flow from my hand.  As an adult I have enjoyed studying a half dozen languages and always feel like I’m uncovering deep personal mysteries. 


       On the third day after my arrival, my classes began at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute, Kathmandu University’s Centre for Buddhist Studies on the grounds of the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Tibetan Monastery.  Looking back on my decision to cut my timing so close, I now realize it was probably not a wise one.  I had very little time for both body and mind to adjust to the knew environment while I faced a huge mental and academic challenge. Of course at 65, I was the oldest in the class and most of the other students had previous experience living in Nepal or in nearby Asian countries.  


       After one week of class and still feeling off balance with digestive issues, I decided to change my student status from credit to noncredit. I had already skipped an important first week's field trip in an effort to get on top of my course assignments. I began to sense that my summer experience would be too classroom-homework confined if I spent 90% of my time working within the framework of the Goldmans' Sanskrit grammar book.  I simply was not able to focus and memorize the immense number of columns of conjugations and declensions necessary to keep up with the class for credit.  

       Following my decision to ease up I felt an immense sense of relief. I could linger in my flat’s tropical garden in the morning with tea, crackers and bird watching.  I could focus on understanding the overall meaning of sage Valmiki’s Ramayana, our principle source text for study, instead of finessing over grammatical points needed to pass a final exam.  After all, Henry David Thoreau had stated emphatically that “In every man’s brain is the Sanskrit"!  By the end of the summer I was functional using the Devanagari script, I could pick my way through a simple Sanskrit text with the aid of Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary and I had learned several basic intonations for chanting mantras and sacred texts. I was quite pleased with what I was acquiring through my learning experience. 

 

       I was also intrigued by learning within the context of the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. I had a pair of good teachers, a native Nepali Hindu pandit and a Canadian academic, and a community of one hundred summer program students representing a variety of eastern and western backgrounds.  I had a twelve minute walk to class five days a week, passing through the Buddhist pilgrimage center of the Boudhanath Stupa. On my way to morning class I would often stop to smudge myself with juniper leaf smoke from a large incense burner at the entrance to the stupa grounds and then circumambulate the edifice with a host of Buddhist faithful.  As a visitor I generally felt accepted into their midst, an indication of what I genuinely felt was the influence of a liberal and inclusive Buddhist worldview. This experience was in contrast to a more exclusive vibration emanating from my encounters at Islamic pilgrimage sites in the Middle East.  And at the Boudhanath stupa, I was always aware of the two eyes painted near the top of the stupa looking down on me, reminding me of the wisdom and compassion of the enlightened being, two goals I felt were worthy of pursing.

 

       All the students shared lunch together in the monastery garden cafe next to a large camphor tree, a plant of particular significance to me as my grandparents are buried under a camphor tree in Florida.  A frequent visitor to the grass around my feet at this outdoor cafe was the common mynah bird. It’s sister species, the jungle mynah, I later found up on Shivapuri Mountain. The mynah always held a mythical aura to me, for as a child I loved the brooding mynah bird cartoon character with its oversized bill and feet, silently pacing the jungle floor as a wise intervener in desperate situations. I particularly remember my father the Duke professor enjoying this cartoon series with me. 

 

       Our classroom consisted of a line of three low floor tables with cushions behind them.  This was a positive drawing point for me when back home I first saw photos in the school catalogue of this traditional monastery classroom setting.  Floor sitting is generally better for my back than a chair.  But to actually spend four hours a day seated cross legged on the floor proved to be a bigger challenge for my legs than I expected.  I ended up in the back row of the classroom where I had a little more flexibility to stretch about.  But at home at night I needed to regularly massage my knees and ankles with sesame oil to keep my strained joints from freezing up.

 

       I have always been a serious walker so I looked for a path I could traverse routinely in and around Boudanath and further release the stiffness accumulating in my legs.  From my flat I laid out a one mile route through the maze of winding streets to the Sechen Buddhist Monastery one mile away.  My path ended in a room with three, six foot high prayer wheels, each inscribed with the mantra “Om mani padme hom.”  This Sanskrit phrase meaning “jewel in the lotus,” was the first Sanskrit mantra I learned when I began my Thai yoga therapy training in 2006. Inside this room there were folks walking in a clockwise direction, turning each wheel with their right hand as they passed by while reciting the mantra. I found this to be a particularly useful way of focused meditation and would follow the group for about fifteen minutes before retracing my one mile path home.

 

       While returning home one day from this two mile walk, on a narrow section of neighborhood sidewalk with high walls on both sides, I noticed that a passion flower vine had come into bloom and was dangling down the wall in front of me.  The species Passiflora incarnata is a native of my hometown of Durham.  I plant it along the west side of my cabin and trail it up the entire side of the house.  Then each September I harvest and process all the aerial parts of the plant for use as an ingredient in a pain relief formula.  To discover one of my favorite North Carolina plant natives, thriving in a garden in that distant Dharma land, made my two mile walking circuit an even more meaningful event.  I anticipated how many blossoms I might encounter on each day's walk and if the number of blossoms might correlate as a daily personal omen ...

 

KATHMANDU’S MEDICINAL HERB MARKET OF ASAN TOL 

 

         There were five destinations that drew me out to explore beyond the cozy confines of my Boudhanath community.  Naturally I was most eager to visit the old medicinal herb market of Asan Tol.  Located in downtown Kathmandu about five miles away, this became my first destination. A friend back home had provided me with a recommendation to meet a well know Ayurvedic practitioner who maintained a clinic there. The Sanskrit name for a traditional doctor is “vaidya.” 

       

        Making the taxi run of five miles or forty five minutes to downtown Kathmandu turned out to be about the only unpleasant task of my summer.  Navigating the jammed traffic, often bumper to bumper, locked in near standstill with horrendous exhaust fumes pouring in the open windows was not my idea of exploring.  Each trip I experienced what in my definition was a “close call” - coming within one second of colliding with another vehicle or one inch of hitting one of the many pedestrians constantly cutting across the street.  To add to this stress, often there were cows standing or lying blissfully in the middle of the road that had to respectfully be given the right of way.  

 

       To make matters worse, monsoon rains can create an absolute muddy mess of a major thoroughfare, especially roads that were broken up in the 2015 earthquake and had not yet been repaired. Or if it did not rain for several days and things were drying out, dust and exhaust pollution would gather, mix and linger over the busiest roads. At least half of all street vendors and pedestrians wore a face mask to breath through. Although not noticeable in the quieter Boudhanath neighborhood where I lived, once on the main city thoroughfares the assault of pollution on my senses was aggressive.

 

        After finally making it to the Asan Tol herb market, I wearily disembarked and began the task of navigating my way through a labyrinth of narrow streets, asking help from a number of shopkeepers in finding the vaidya’s clinic. After ducking through several low arches and up dark winding stairs, I was eventually led to his niche.  Street children must have informed him I was on my way, for once I appeared in his clinic courtyard, there he was standing on the steps as if waiting for me.  He raised folded hands, bowed his head, calling my name with a Namaskar.

 

       My reason for visiting this distinguished elderly Ayurvedic Newar Buddhist doctor was to ask his help in putting me in contact with those who might teach me how to find and harvest bamboo manna.  This is an exudate that is harvested from certain species of bamboo in South Asia that I was hoping to become acquainted with. My goal was to discover something similar that could be harvested from the huge groves of invasive bamboo near my house along the Eno River.  But alas, the vaidya informed me that it was the wrong season for harvesting manna and also that it could be found only at higher altitudes a couple of hundred miles away.  I later searched the vast number of medicinal herb seller stalls in the Asan Tol market, but found no one carried bamboo manna as it was out of season.

 

       Disappointed, I decided on plan B.  Since the old vaidya seemed to be very kindly disposed towards me, I mentioned a personal matter, that of trauma I suffered in my left knee several months earlier that was still causing me moderate pain. The vaidya checked my blood pressure, took a pulse reading in both wrists, examined my tongue and asked me few questions.  He was not impressed with my story of being injured by a flying piece of debris while chopping wood. Instead he said I was likely still suffering from Lyme Disease, a challenge I have been struggling with on and off for almost a decade that is capable of manifesting as severe arthritic joint pain.

 

       He also commented that my blood pressure was high. It made me wonder if he had any idea how stressful the taxi ride and smog were for me on the way to his clinic. I mentioned this to him, but he was again not satisfied with my answer.  But to this day I still believe my traffic excuse was valid!  So the vaidya provided me a week’s worth of small herbal medicine balls to try.  He told me that if indeed my Lyme was active, the medicine would engage me and I would know it. He charged me five hundred rupees for the visit (less than five dollars) and asked me to come again in a couple of weeks.  I returned to Boudhanath and immediately his herbal medicine balls engaged me. I felt like I was in the throws of acute Lyme symptoms all over my body. 

 

      I called the vaidya and told him I would need to stop his medicine, as my Sanskrit studies required my focus to be in top form and that I was not able to treat my lyme and succeed in my summer Sanskrit studies.  He was disappointed. I made a second visit to his office later that summer. I thanked him for his help and assured him that when I retuned to the USA I would follow his advice and treat my Lyme. I did as I promised, restarting my own herbal treatment plan.  I am now in my last month of a six month Lyme herbal protocol and am seeing good results.

 

       So instead of tackling my Lyme head-on that summer, I sought symptomatic relief with massage treatment from a monk at a traditional Tibetan clinic and acupuncture from a Nepali Muslim female naturopath, both located near my flat in Boudhanath.  All of these encounters with local traditional healers were great learning experiences for me, further reenforcing my view that modern Western medical practice is not necessarily the best approach for many of our health care needs.

 

       I am also thankful for having experienced a Shirodhara treatment while on my summer pilgrimage. This Ayurvedic therapy began with a sesame oil massage on my neck and shoulders while I gazed down through the massage table headrest into a big copper pot of floating rose petals.  Then while facing up, a slow but steady flow of sesame oil dripped upon my forehead.  One of its purposes is to assist the awakening of the sixth or ajna chakra. This can lead to the arousal of primal energy know as Kundalini, often represented as a coiled snake.  

 

       Only once many years ago had I received this treatment. After inquiring of a number of possibilities, I decided on the Oasis Spa at the Hyatt Regency close by in Boudhanath. It was a serious journey of deep relaxation that I should have done several times over the summer.  Later that night I dreamed that I was in a dark house and heard something moving outside.  I got up, opened the door and was startled to find a large snake moving across the grass.  That was only one of twenty remarkable dreams that I recorded during my summer in Kathmandu. 

 

THE BUDDHIST SHRINE OF SWAYAMBUNATH

 

       My second foray outside of Boudhanath was a school field trip to the hilltop sanctuary of Swayambunath.  The is the most sacred pilgrimage site for native Newar Buddhists and Tibetans in the Vajrayana or Tantric tradition.   The story behind the solitary hill on the west side of the Kathmandu Valley is that it arose from a single lotus blossom in a great lake that stretched over the twenty mile diameter of Kathmandu Valley.  A gorge was cut on one end of the valley by the Bodhisattva Manjushri, the lake was drained and Swayambunath became a remaining hilltop shrine. 

 

       An excellent covering of large trees is claimed to be a remnant natural forest spreading across the hilltop of Swayambu.  These trees were the main attraction for me, not the stupa and other temples that are currently in poor condition due to the 2015 earthquake.  The view from the top was also my first opportunity to observe the entire Kathmandu Valley from above since I had first flown into the airport. 

 

       Swayambunath also provided me an opportunity for observing Kathmandu’s rhesus temple monkeys. We were direly warned by our school administration not to allow these monkeys to approach us as they would reach out to snatch food from our hands or even, if not carefully guarded, would rummage through our backpacks. As potential carriers of rabies, even a passing scratch on the skin would require a one thousand dollar round of rabies injections.  But I never was threatened by a monkey.  I often enjoyed resting spots in my walks where I could observe the troops playfully scurrying about old temple ruins or racing through the trees. 

 

THE HINDU SHRINE OF PASHUPATINATH 


       The majority of Nepalis are Hindus who understand the Buddha to be an avatar of the god Vishnu.  For my third destination, a thirty minute walk from my house in a westerly direction took me to the Hindu temple complex known as Pashupatinath, which in Sanskrit means Lord of the Animals, one of the names of the god Shiva.  Located along the banks of the Bagmati River, a northern tributary of 

India’s great Ganges River, I often walked down to the river and crossed a footbridge that ended next to an enormous mother Bodhi tree. From there I could walk north for miles along the river bank path or head up the hill and enjoy the forest that surrounds the temple complex. On two occasions I proceeded south to the temple’s Surya Ghat to meditate in a garden with caves where the great Indian mystics Niropa and his teacher Tilopa are said to have reclused themselves one thousand years before.  Smoke from the burning temple cremation pyres just downstream wafted up to this garden all day long ...

 

       Adjacent to Pashupatinath on its west side was the large walled-in forested area known as the Bhandarkhal Jungle. I showed up one day at the 8AM opening time eager to experience this urban tropical forest, only to hear the guards inform me that it was closed for sidewalk repairs for another three months. Displaying my American passport brought me no favors, neither did my pleas that I was only in the country for the summer and that as a naturalist I so much wanted to study those particular plants, monkeys, squirrels and birds. I eventually took their negative answer at face value but I inwardly winced at my lack of luck. I had even come prepared with binoculars for an early morning birding experience. 

 

       Stymied, I decided to circumambulate the entire walled forest by way of its surrounding urban streets. While walking, it occurred to me that I was carrying in my wallet my student ID issued by Kathmandu University that I had never had the occasion to make use of. With this in mind, I decided to make a second attempt at the front gate. The guards were shaking their heads ominously as I approached and placed my photo ID in their hands.  A dozen or more guards gathered to examine my credential and it was sent off with a messenger to the main office for further scrutiny.  Several minutes later an officer returned and ordered the guards to open the gate for me. I was whisked through with a multitude of namaskars and big friendly grins by those who had previously so vehemently turned me away! 

 

       On the east side of Pashupatinath in the Shleshmantka Forest is my favorite religious shrine in Kathmandu, the Samadhi or burial place of Shivapuri Baba.  During the summer I read three books about this Hindu mystic that strangely reminded me of Henry David Thoreau. I grew curious to check him out. The Baba lived and taught a yogic practice which he called Swadharma, meaning “self Dharma,” emphasizing simplicity, right living with a strong undertone of universalism. Born in Kerala, India in 1826, the Baba lost his parents at nine years of age. He then undertook a wandering yogic lifestyle that eventually had him walking completely around the globe, including several years spent in the USA where he even met with President Theodore Roosevelt.  At 100 years of age he retired to Kathmandu where he lived at a forest retreat on Shivapuri Mountain for another 37 years. His burial site is now an ashram in the forest just above Pashupatinath.

 

       What attracted me most about this small ashram was its simplicity and beautiful forest setting.  The building where Shivapuri Baba is buried in a seated position is a simple wood lined structure with windows open to the forest.  Located one mile from my flat, on two occasions I walked up to his ashram and was warmly welcomed by the attending staff. They encouraged me to go ahead and meditate inside the simple forest shrine.  After ablutions under a spigot outside, I entered a quiet sanctuary with a few photos of the Baba on the wall, several Sanskrit inscriptions engraved in a central stone over his burial site along with various objects and tools that the Baba cooked with and maintained his life of simplicity.  There was no incense alter or other messy entrapments one often finds in public temples.  I intend to followup with research here in the USA to see if there is any possibility that the Baba might have visited Concord and Walden Pond during his sojourn in the USA.  Could such a visit have provided input that eventually became part of the Baba’s teaching on Swadharma?

 

SHIVAPURI HEIGHTS COTTAGE

 

       My school gave us a one week break halfway through the summer term.  After a tossup between a Tibetan healing center on the opposite side of the valley or an ecotourism lodge just five miles up on Shivapuri Mountain behind my flat, I chose the latter as my fourth excursion.  I taxied up to the bottom of a huge dirt driveway, the road being so steep the taxi refused to go any further.  I then walked the final uphill approach for a half hour in the rain toting my bags, including several heavy books. I was so exhausted I felt nauseated.  Finally I was spotted from above by the lodge staff as I turned the last bend and they rushed someone down to relieve me of my burdens. By that time I was cursing my books. 

 

       But what a view!  The destination, Shivapuri Heights Cottage, is located on the southern boundary of Shivapuri National Park, a one hundred square mile forested natural area and watershed for Kathmandu. The view from the open dining balcony was spectacular as all of Kathmandu Valley stretched out before me.  I took all my superbly prepared Nepali meals on the balcony with the owners and other guests,  but slept in a very comfortable tent away from the lodge. Needless to say, sunrises and sunsets were the main show. Birding was greatly enhanced over what I had been seeing down in Boudhanath.  In fact, up there it ranked with some of my best birding expeditions in Kenya and Peru. Barbets, sunbirds, magpies, treepies and bablers, bulbuls, mynahs, whistling thrushes and probably my favorite - the drongo bird.  

 

       It’s so exciting to become acquainted with a completely new group of birds!  The black drongo, one of over two dozen species of drongos in Asia and Africa, has a very distinctive silhouette while perched upright on short legs with long split tail feathers. In flight this unique form displays a particularly graceful movement. Drongos swoop out after flying insects and then return to their original perch in a manner similar to our American flycatchers. From dawn to dusk I was always aware of their twitter while perched in family groups. They seemed to be the most common species of bird I found on the mountain.  They also are considered the craftiest of all mimic birds.  By mimicking the call of predator birds, they can cause smaller feeding birds and animals to drop their food and run for cover, leaving the drongo to swoop down and steal it. 

 

       While at Shivapuri Heights Cottage I broke out into intense stinging, itching and swelling on my hands and arms that lasted for several days. At first I thought that the probable cause was a hairy caterpillar that I noticed frequently falls out of trees. But I finally discovered a more probable cause - an allergic reaction to the resin of the needlewood tree, a common native tree in the lower forests of Shivapuri Mountain. The forest type for the low elevation mountain slopes of Kathmandu where I explored is designated as Subtropical Evergreen Needlewood-Chinquapin. 


       These are the two dominant tree species like the North Carolina Piedmont has a forest type known as Temperate Deciduous Oak-Hickory. I made my discovery when researching the Nepali name for the tree known as Chilaune, which means “itch.” It eventually occurred to me how the tree known in English as needlewood got its name, even though it is broad-leafed and has no needles.  My rash initially felt like needles pricking my skin and I soon began to itch!  Although no one had warned me, I read it is common knowledge that the resin of the needlewood tree can be highly irritating to the skin. I had been hugging too many strangers!


       The needlewood is a tall straight tree in the Tea Family of plants and when blooming in the spring has beautiful, fragrant, camellia-like flowers! It’s forest partner, the Indian chinquapin in the Chestnut Family, is an equally majestic tree but with low sprawling limbs that will bewitch the beholder any day!  So this was the native natural forest type I was privileged to play in and explore this past summer on the slopes above Kathmandu. Most of the other trees I observed in Boudhanath were pan-tropical urban ornamentals from around the world.  One regret is that I did not explore higher up on the slopes of Shivapuri Mountain and enter into the native temperate forest zone.  But a wood chopping injury to my left knee several months before in Durham later kept me from being a summer high altitude climber.

 

       My longest hike in my six day retreat at Shivapuri was to walk over to a tributary of the Bagmati River that cascaded off big rocks in a nearby ravine. Carefully avoiding the forest leaches that are so abundant in these South Asian forests, I made my way to a secluded area along the creek, took off my clothes and dipped in this refreshingly clean Himalayan mountain tributary of the legendary Ganges River.  All summer long I was hoping for such an opportunity to unfold and it did, just in the nick of time.  A monsoon storm moved in quickly and I had to retrace my steps back to the lodge in a downpour.  It took three days for my shoes to dry out!  

 

       This uplifting water experience helped me to heal from earlier more distressing moments, when I passed over a heavily trashed and polluted Bagmati River that flowed under the bridges of downtown Kathmandu. It is heartening that now, at least once a month, volunteer river cleanup days are scheduled around town  and hundreds will show up to participate.  But in many traditional communities, the accelerating rate at which paper and plastic products are used has far outpaced the rate of knowing how to efficiently dispose of them. I personally feel there is nothing more dispiritng to one’s life than to experience a polluted river. 

 

THE HEART OF MY SUMMER PILGRIMAGE  

 

      One of the benefits of finding myself in the midst of a subtropical environment was that there were bodhi trees everywhere. My first encounter with this native fig species of South Asia was in January 2010.  I was taking a ten day Thai Medicine workshop in Richmond, Virginia for those of us already practicing Traditional Thai massage.  We took a field trip to a Thai Buddhist temple in the nearby town of Fredericksburg where we were introduced to some of the rituals and procedures of temple visitation.  Upon entering I quickly noticed a potted tree about eight feet tall decorated with a string of lights on the left side of the room.  Feeling somewhat unconnected in this new exotic context, I gravitated towards the tree and sat next to it as we were all invited to have a seat on the floor.  

 

       I suspected it to be a bodhi tree, the renown species of tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment.  Sure enough, the monk who was directing our session soon got around to explaining the significance of this bodhi in our midst. I felt a real kinship to the tree with its lovely signature long drip-tipped leaves. I picked up a fallen yellow leaf from the pot and pressed it in my journal.

 

       In a ceremony on the last day of the Thai Medicine class, we were invited by our teacher to commit ourselves to alignment with his lineage of Asian teachers. Being a universalist and not being a Buddhist myself, I asked our teacher if I could instead align myself with the bodhi tree.  He smiled and nodded to me an affirmative.  Then he lead us all lead through a ritual in the Pali language line by line. I felt very safe and excited about my part of the commitment, not knowing of course exactly what it would mean for me in the future. 

 

       Although I have occasionally read with great interest about the bodhi tree, it wasn’t until five years later that I actually encountered one outdoors.  In 2015 my daughter Melody invited me to lead her and her two sons on a tour of the Florida Everglades, something I had actually done professionally back in the 1990s.  In the little town of Bokeelia on Pine Island west of Ft. Myers, I found a healthy twenty foot tall Bodhi tree hanging over a roadside fruit stand.  I was elated, as I paraded about the tree and reconnected with my plant teacher.  

 

       But Boudhanath is full of them!  They are even shown as individuals on maps of the town.  Often they grow at important intersections, some perhaps seventy feet tall and as much as seven feet in diameter.  They are always surrounded with a three foot high cement base to protect the trunk and to provide a resting place for devotees to sit.  These trees are often wrapped with bright colored garlands, draped with artfully designed tapestries and strung with prayer flags. Frequently there is a small Buddhist or Hindu shrine located adjacent to the tree where candles and incense are burned and offerings are left.  

 

       The heart of my spiritual practice in Kathmandu that summer was to locate Bodhi trees on maps and then make a walking pilgrimage to them from my flat, never by car.  I often brought small river stones, jackfruit seeds or grains of rice as offerings to place under the tree with a prayer and would then sit on the cement support, talk to the tree and meditate. This was my summer spiritual practice instead of visiting many of the large ornate temples that most westerners immediately are drawn to.  I learned my practice from Henry David Thoreau who wrote “Instead of calling on some scholar, I paid a visit to particular trees, of kinds which are rare in the neighborhood, standing far away in the middle of some pasture, or in the depths of a wood or swamp, or on a hilltop. These were the shrines I visited both summer and winter."


       My favorite bodhi tree experience came on a return to Shivapuri Mountain, but this time on foot with a five mile walk from my flat up to the mountain and then five miles back down. On the day when the weatherman forecast the least possibility of an afternoon monsoon shower, I headed out early walking down to the Bagmati River beside Pashupatinath, then headed north along the east river bank for about five miles until I arrived at the foot of the mountains at the Gorkanna Forest.  From there I crossed over the river and headed up a long winding road through a pine forest towards the Kopal Tibetan Monastery perched up high overlooking Kathmandu.  At one point I took my only wrong turn of the day and actually walked over to the back side of the ridge. Thoroughly exhausted and confused, I parked myself under a bodhi tree whose base was encased in concrete and which had a small Shiva temple next to it.  I checked to see if there was an attendant inside the temple but there was none. I was lost and all alone in a very remote place …


       I decided to sit on the northeast side of the enormous bodhi tree as it faced a remote valley that looked very picturesque and wild. After a big swig of water from my bottle, I settled in for a long rest and reorientation.  At last there was no dull roar from the bustle of Kathmandu. The air smelled clean and fresh.  I could hear the tinkle of bells on farm animals in the rice fields stretched out far below in the valley. Flocks of doves swooped back and forth over the valley in front of me at eye level.  I realized the day’s gift of ecstasy had settled in around me and after a big sigh, I inhaled the perfect harmony of the moment.  Without planning of any kind, my energy body had directed me to find my peace under that hillside bodhi, not at the gold domed monastery still lying ahead on my predetermined route. After an hour of silence, I pulled several jackfruit seeds out of my pocket and left them in a notch in the tree’s bark and backed away bowing with folded hands

 

       Another famous South Asian tropical tree that I already was more familiar with was the banyan. I met my first sprawling banyan tree on the campus of the American University of Beirut in 1974.  We bonded immediately. Through the years I found them growing ornamentally in urban parks all over Latin American, the Caribbean and even South Florida.  On the above mentioned trip with my daughter and grandchildren, I had us all pilgrimage to downtown Ft. Myers to circumambulate the great banyan planted by Thomas Edison at his estate.  

 

        The banyans of Kathmandu are not as prominently displayed as the Bodhis, but they are there nonetheless, usually growing in the vicinity of a Bodhi tree.  After much inquiry, I eventually learned that the local tradition is that the banyan carries male energy and the bodhi female energy.  They are therefore often planted as a pair as a way of balancing sacred space. There are even Hindu priests that are invited to perform a marriage ceremony for these two species of trees.  Once I learned this amazing arboreal relationship, I began to find more banyans, always within the vicinity of a larger bodhi tree.  This became a significant emphasis for me in my tree meditations, as if there might exist similar relationships between trees back home along the Eno River.

 

THE NATIONAL BOTANICAL GARDEN AT GODAVARI 

 

        My fifth and final excursion form Boudhanath was to the National Botanical Garden at Godavari.  I hired a taxi for the entire day for $40 to take me to the southern rim of the Kathmandu Valley.  The town of Godavari, located at the base of the valley’s highest peak, Phulchowki at 9000 feet above sea level, reminded me of the quaint mountain cove town of Montreat, North Carolina situated at the base of Eastern America's highest peak Mt. Mitchell, or Attakulla as it is know by the Cherokee.  I especially liked the botanical garden’s medicinal herb collection and had an opportunity to view some of the Ayurvedic herbs I had for years been ordering and using from Banyan Botanicals in Oregon.  

 

       My most exciting moment at Godavari was to first hear, then spot with my binoculars, a pair of gorgeous, large, yellow-naped woodpeckers chasing each other around a tree in the exact behavior style often displayed by North Carolina’s pileated woodpeckers. But instead of red caps, the Godavari woodpeckers wore bright yellow!  I was spellbound by this wild exotic spectacle as I followed them from tree to tree. This ranks as my number one wildlife encounter for my summer in Kathmandu.  

 

       I was sorely tempted to ride elephants and chase tigers for a few days at Chitwan National Park in the wet tropical southern border zone of the country, but instead I managed to restrain my wanderlust side.  The chance of picking up a mosquito borne tropical disease was real in the monsoon season and I just did not feel like running that gauntlet. There was also the possibility of traveling to higher elevations into the lofty snowy peaks, or even taking a one hour air flight over Mt. Everest only 100 miles away. In the end, due to risk aversion, the need to focus on my Sanskrit challenge and limited time, I decided to not travel outside of Kathmandu Valley during my summer 2017 pilgrimage. 

 

SELECTING GIFTS TO BRING HOME

 

       As the end of my time in Kathmandu drew near, I decided on the purchase of rosary beads (maala in Sanskrit) as an appropriate gift to bring home to share with family and friends. Many locals carry them as they walk the streets, reciting mantras with every breath. They are sold by the hundreds in every pilgrim shop in Boudhanath.  Maala beads are made from stone, coral, bone, wood or seeds.                                                                                       

Currently, most maalas consist of a string of seeds from the rudraksha tree, whose Sanskrit name means “eye of Shiva.”  I was fortunate to find this tree in bloom growing up on Shivapuri Mountain.  But I was on the hunt for seed malas of the mahanimba or "greater neem" tree. I was already familiar with this tree back in North Carolina where it is know as the ornamental Chinaberry tree, a mahogany family native of South Asia whose seeds also have a history of use in malas.  

 

       Most shopkeepers were not familiar with the mahanimba seed, but the few who were claimed that it had a more storied and older history in maala use than the currently more popular rudraksha. But few knew where to find them.  I persisted in my quest and two days before my departure I found a shop only one block from my flat that made and sold the mahanimba maalas at a very reasonable price. I stocked up and was able to return home with a gift that was truly Nepali, but also made from a tree that my community back in the States was already somewhat familiar with. The Chinaberry is a very common naturalized tree in the American South and there is evidence that historically, African-Americans used the tree’s bark in their medicinal preparations. 

 

       Another thought came to me about what I could share with family and friends who might not be interested in using a maala.  Early on in my days at the monastery, between classes I would stand on a second floor outdoor hallway facing the open space in the center of the grounds. One day I noticed a dump truck enter through the large metal monastery gate and proceed to dump an enormous pile of stones onto the ground.  Day laborers soon appeared with woven straw baskets and began to gather up the stones, each helping the other lift the burden onto their backs. These stones were then walked to various destinations where they were set in cement in decorative sidewalk projects around the monastery.

 

       I curiously descended to inspect the pile of stones and found them to be beautiful round smooth river stones of an inch or two in diameter.  I picked one up and returned to class to hold in my hand as I worked.  I soon noticed that they had an excellent energy about them and I began to occasionally place them in my pocket to access their good vibes as the day wore on. One afternoon I asked an overseeing monk where the stones were coming from and he described a river bed in the hills on the far side of Kathmandu Valley.  

 

       I began to meditate on how these stones must have taken thousands of years to tumble down Himalaya slopes in streams that eventually joined the Bagmati River in central Kathmandu, which then flowed into the Koshi River in India, which fed the great Mother Ganges River and which finally reached the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Then and there I decided to pick up a few leftover scattered stones that had sunk into the dried mud around the monastery dump pile.  I cleaned them carefully in a nearby spigot, brought them back to my flat, lined them up on my windowsill and spoke to them daily. I managed to make it back to the USA with a couple of dozen of these Ganges stones which have since been dispersed among my close circle of friends.  I also made several fresh stem cuttings from banyan and bodhi trees to bring home for bonsai planting. But upon my return, a U.S. Customs official at the Philadelphia airport mercilessly relieved me of all plant material.   

 

       But my summer in Kathmandu was fundamentally different than my times of extended overseas living back in the 1970s and 80s. Then I communicated with family and friends in the States by postcards that took a month before I would receive a response.  On special occasions we would dare to spend $3 a minute to huddle around a phone at a central post office to talk with folks back home. So this 2017 summer in Kathmandu was my first opportunity to experience live face to face conversations with loved ones via video messaging each morning right in my living room.  I was in awe of the experience, be it for better or for worse I am not sure.  Has modern technology made it impossible for us to experience times of separation and isolation any more? Some would gladly boot aloneness out the door forever.  Others might hold to the benefit of genuine retreats and isolation as an important practice of realigning with oneself or being healthily vulnerable to a new natural or cultural setting.  

 

THE SUBLIME PEAKS APPEAR   


       Summer monsoon in Kathmandu means that rain clouds will obstruct most views of the snow covered peaks of the high Himalayas (hima-alaya or snow-place in Sanskrit). And thus it was until our seventh week of class. And for those of us who resided in Boudhanath, our lower local Shivapuri Mountain also obstructed most of the distant viewing opportunities to our north. Since it seemed doubtful I would have any occasion during my summer to travel to the high Himalayas, I was hoping I might experience at least one clear day to catch a view of them from Boudhanath.  


       On July 17 I took my usual ten minute break between classes on the rooftop of our five story monastery classroom building and suddenly there were the peaks! I quickly researched which peaks I was viewing and it seemed that over the west shoulder of Shivapuri Mountain the Ganesh Himal Range were in view and over the east shoulder of Shivapuri Mountain was the Gauri Shankar Range, both about fifty miles distant from Boudhanath. For three days I was able to gaze upon the highest mountains on our planet while seated on my book sack on the monastery rooftop. 


       I divulged my discovery to my classmates and all came up to see. My teacher took the photo here of the Ganesh Himal on the first morning, but then the view actually expanded on the following two mornings to include more peaks!  Although not directly visible from Boudanath, it is worth mentioning that the Nepali name for Mt. Everest, the world’s highest peak about one hundred miles way, is Sagarmatha, meaning “Ocean Mother.”  What a far more meaningful and respectful appellation than using the name of a former British Surveyor General of Colonial India!


       My mountain meditation on the monastery rooftop gently wafted me back to a passage by Henry David Thoreau in his first book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. “The wisest man preaches no doctrines; he has no scheme; he sees no rafter, not even a cobweb against the heavens. It is clear sky. If I ever see more clearly at one time than another, the medium through which I see is clearer.” After three days of openings, the monsoon returned to its normal summer intensity and the legendary peaks vanished from our sight.  My pilgrimage to Kathmandu had indeed been granted good luck, a sweet beatitude, a “siddhi” in Sanskrit.


“GOOD LUCK AND BEATITUDE” CARRY ME BACK HOME 


       Up until the last morning of my summer pilgrimage, I had not attended any traditional Tibetan temple services at my school.  The original main temple hall was badly damaged in the recent earthquake and all summer long the boisterous Tibetan gatherings were crowded into a small side room making the claustrophobia of those meetings unappealing to me.  But on my last morning in Kathmandu, after checking out and saying my goodbyes at the school office, I happened upon the start of a Tibetan service in the new large assembly hall that had just been completed on the first floor of our classroom building. I decided to enter and join the ceremony. I felt quite relaxed as the monks, seated at low tables in a square formation, chanted their scriptures accompanied by trumpets, drums, clashing cymbals and a huge gong.  Fruit and snacks were passed around in large baskets for all present to enjoy, finally topped off with repeated cups of my favorite drink of yak butter tea.  It was a joyful and auspicious send off for me. 


       In the evening I was sky borne.  With only the whirring sounds of the pressurized air vent in the dim cabin,  I retraced my flight of nine weeks earlier, this time heading west with the Himalayas breathing silently in vastness darkness outside my right window.  At one a.m. I emerged from my plane at Doha airport in Qatar.  It was sweltering in the middle of the night with the temperature hovering around ninety degrees.  It was a good reminder of what a typical night may soon feel like in North Carolina if global warming is not curbed.  


       Inside the air conditioned terminal I walked for an hour to stretch my legs and prepared myself for the coming fourteen hour, non-stop flight ordeal to Philadelphia with Qatar Airways.  I stopped to chat in Arabic with a few shopkeepers and then headed for my gate.  There was already a huge passenger security line forming with both Qatari and American security agents everywhere to oversee the boarding of the enormously bloated looking plane.  As soon as I stood in line, an agent caught my eye and bruskly motioned to me with his hand saying, “Bring your bags and follow me!”  


       I was startled and immediately regretted flaunting my language skills all over the airport!  The security agent then opened a side gate and demanded that I follow him.  With my heart pounding and visions flashing of a windowless cell in the airport basement, we passed by the Xray machines and all those stripping down and opening bags for inspection.  Soon I found myself being hustled quickly towards the boarding door.  The agent stopped and asked for my economy boarding pass.  I handed it to him and he handed me back a new one.   He then opened the door that led to the awaiting plane and said with a smile, “Enjoy your flight!”  I looked down in my hand and saw I was holding a boarding pass for business class … 


       I was the first passenger to board the huge empty airplane.  I was directed into a spacious forward cabin consisting of two dozen reclining seats, each one in a cubicle of its own.  A smiling attendant motioned me forward to my place.  She helped me with my carry-ons, explained to me how to turn the seat into a bed, how to operate the control panel to the huge private video screen in front of me and then presented me with folded pajamas and socks.  As she squatted to be at my eye level, she further explained that there was no meal menu.  I could have ANYTHING I wanted at ANYTIME, and then asked me what I might wish to start with.  Since I was still in an Arab cultural context, I gathered up courage to ask for my all time favorite Middle Eastern beverage - fermented sour yogurt.  Two minutes later I was presented with my request in a tall crystal glass.  I was finally in the home stretch of my pilgrimage of magical arts, VERY good luck and beatitude …       


SUMMER 2017 KATHMANDU BIRD LIST OF THIRTY SPECIES

Indian crow

jungle crow

common mynah
jungle mynah
red-vented bulbul
white-cheeked bulbul
spotted dove
collared dove
rock dove
common tailorbird
blue-throated barbet
great barbet
purple sunbird
crimson sunbird
brown-fronted woodpecker
greater yellownape woodpecker
white-breasted kingfisher
grey tit
black-lored tit
oriental magpie robin
rusty-cheeked scimitar babler
whistling thrush
red-billed magpie
grey treepie
black drongo
rose-ringed parakeet
Nepal house martin
barn swallow
cattle egret


MY SUMMER 2017 KATHMANDU TREE LIST OF FORTY-FOUR SPECIES

banyan fig - (native - male energy tree often near bodhi tree)

bodhi fig - (native - female energy tree often near banyan tree) 

deodar cedar - (native and N.C. outdoor ornamental) 

Himalayan white pine - (native)

Indian longleaf pine - (native)

Nepal alder (native)

fishtail palm (native)

Himalayan walnut (native but same species as English walnut)

Himalayan poplar (native)

white mulberry (native and N.C. invasive)

Indian rubber (native and N.C. indoor ornamental)

rudraksha (native - rosary bead tree)

chinaberry (native - another rosary bead tree - N.C. outdoor naturalized)

needlewood - (native, “chilaune” in Nepali)

Indian chinquapin (native)

tree rhododendron - (native - I saw grove at Godavari)

mimosa - Albizia (S. Asia but N.C. invasive)

curry tree (S. Asia)

crape myrtle - (S. Asia, N.C. outdoor ornamental)

pomelo (S. Asia)

Chinese hibiscus (S. Asia)

weeping fig (S.E. Asia and N.C. indoor ornamental)

camphor (S.E. Asia)

banana (S.E. Asia)

mango (S. Asia)

lemon (S. Asia)

white willow (W. Asia)

pomegranate (W. Asia)

Mediterranean hackberry (W. Asia)

bottlebrush - (Australia)

monkey puzzle - (Australia)

silky oak - (Australia)

eucalyptus - (Australia)

Norfolk island pine - (Australia coastal island, N.C. indoor ornamental)

southern magnolia - (N.C. outdoor native)

sabal palm - (N.C. outdoor native)

dwarf palmetto palm - (S.C. outdoor native)

poinsettia - (neotropical and invasive in Kathmandu Valley)

guava - (neotropical)

papaya - (neotropical)

franjipani - (neotropical)

silk cotton ceiba - (neotropical) 

jacaranda - (neotropical)

yellow blooming pau d’arco (neotropcial)