As my fiftieth birthday approached, I kept trying to think of ways I could mark the occasion. I should celebrate my survival, my good spirits, my good health. But how? Have a party? My friends and relatives were scattered far and wide across the continent. Take myself out to dinner and a movie?
How ordinary. As I pondered this problem, my mind kept being drawn like a magnet back twenty years to the time I spent in Nepal. I could see the Himalayas stretching from east to west, rising in waves from the lush jungle covered hílls through forested mountains to end in the snow-capped peaks of the highest place on earth. This was celebration! A party for myself seemed to pale in comparison to the memories which began to well up inside me.
I was in Nepal during a period of my life when I had cut loose from my
home, my family, my culture and was wondering the earth, looking. I was on a spiritual quest, a search for Shangra-La, although I might not have copped to any of those labels. It was also the journey of a misfit who ever hoped to find an answer for all those mothers, professors, and counselors who had, with a shake of their head, said," I hope you find what you're looking for." This translated into current English meant, "Get lost. I wash my hands of you." or at least that's how it seemed to me at the time. It is only now, from this vantage point far in the future, that I realize I can say "Yes! Yes, I did find what I was looking for, I found riches beyond compare. I found meaning for the word celebration."
Nepal was opened to Westerners in the 1950's so that when arrived there in 1967, tourists were still few enough that peasants and travelers could stare at each other with equal wonder. It was a magic place and time. On the list of tourists names at the border, we saw several of our friends names as well as the name of Richard Alpert. It seemed so right. Of course, everone would be here.
Katmandu, the capital, was filled with the most intricate wood carved architecture. Gods, goddesses, spirits, and imps were entwined with 'vines and symbols, in an endless dance around the cornices and pillars of the buildings. In and around these oriental structures, swirled peasants, beggars, businessmen, and hippies, sometimes walking along side monkeys and cows. Monkeys and cows were considered holy and got away with stealing food from the vegetable sellers when they could. There was constant visual stimulation on a grand scale.
When you are alone out in the world for a long period of time, you give up trying to fit your own culture and your ideas onto the strangeness of
another civilization. You instead partake as much as possible of whatever the culture you're in has to offer. Nepal was rich. One day led to another and weeks turned into months.
We stayed for six months. We rented the dirt-floored second story of a house in a small compound hear the Monkey Temple in Swanbunat for seven dollars a month. Our friends were there waiting for us. The landlord was a short and stocky Buddhist named Tara Bir Sing. He dressed in Nepalese style with a Neru cap and white pants which buttoned tightly around the calves of his legs. He was, as they say, a trip. Although he knew something about the world, he still brought us to his mother to introduce us to her and to get her permission before he rented the house to us. He liked to play cards and drink alcohol which was "bad" in his culture, but he kept a shrine to a goddess in his garden and let hippies stay for free in a small house next to the one we were renting. This was his was of building up good karma. Since he spoke a little English, we could ask him our questions about Nepalese customs and traditions, but he was a man of few words and just as inscrutable as we could imagine an Oriental to be.
I clearly remember three conversations with him. One day, when we had seem workman laying bricks in the yard in the shape of clubs,
diamonds, spades and hearts, we ask him what is happening.
He says, "For my wedding celebration."
"But you're already married!" we protest.
"Yes," he answers.
"But can you marry again?"
"Yes," he answers.
"In the U.S. you can marry only one at a time," we explain.
"In Nepal if after seven years there is no issue, a man can take
a second wife.
"That makes sense," says my friend, too quickly as far as I'm concerned because I'm still considering the situation.
"Bery different," sums up Tara Bir Sing.
Another day as I am sitting in the balcony upstairs, Tara Bir Sing
walks in. He has been cutting down and pulling up all the lovely asters and crysanthymums in the yard which are in full bloom. He
now begins to pull up the still blossoming flowers in the balcony
I an horrified. "What are you doing?!?!"
He looks at me without expression. "Out of season," is all he says.
Once my friend and I meet Tara Bir Sing on our way out of the
compound and stand in the yard with him looking at the hills and mountains which are covered in cloudy mists and rain exactly as they
have been for the past months.
We ask, "Why are you smiling?"
He says, "The rainy season is finished yesterday."
A light drizzle is falling on our heads and shoulders.
It was into Tara Bir Sing's compound that Michael, a self-styled guru,
brought Richard Alpert before they began their journey into India. They spent the night in the compound before they left. I didn't go visit them because of my attitude that if Richard Alpert didn't come to see me, why should I go to see him? That kind of snobbishness has probably cost me more than a few good experiences. But what matters is that Richard found what he was looking for in Nepal as did hundreds of other travelers, from the Swedish youth afraid of being alone to the musician looking for exotic music, to myself, looking for meaning,
We participated in a few of the celebrations. Diwali, the festival of lights, was celebrated at the winter solstice. We, like everyone else with
enough money, bought firecrackers and sparklers and took them home. We played music and sang late into the night, the music punctuated by the lights and sounds of the firecrackers. There was a celebration for the end of the rainy season, and one for goddess, Kali, bringer of death and destruction. All of these holidays were accompanied with singing and music and flowers placed in the temple of whatever god's day it was. Nepal had about 165 days a year of celebration so that two or three times a week somebody was always celebrating something.
The celebration that I participated in most was the one for dogs. Dogs in most third world countries are not pets, they are scavangers who have a territory, but nobody claims them, much less feeds them. Our neighbor, however, called the dog when her baby shit to clean up the mess, and it was common to see them hanging around the streets that were used for toilets by the children who couldn't walk for to the fields like the grown-ups. We Westerners were aghast and grossed-out by it at first, but if you stayed there long enough you kind of got used to it, and it all seemed right and proper and you laughed at the newcomers disgust. Needless to say, these animals were the scroungiest, mangiest, ugliest dogs i had ever seen. Even Western people with their penchant for loving dogs were turned off by them. They are the kind of dogs that would be shot on the streets of America and everyone would breathe a sigh of relief. In Nepal all you had to do was bend down and pretend to pick up a rock to throw and they ran.
But when the dogs had their day in Nepal, these mangy, skinny, shit-eating dogs had flowers put around their necks and a red tika on their
forehead, and their skinny bellys were bulging with food. They were allowed to lie around the streets, their eyes glazed with the fullness of their bellies, without being chased off. We named the dog near our house Golum after the desire filled character in the "Lord of the Rings". She was just a puppy, and we put flowers around her neck and a tika on her forehead and fed her. She seemed a little embarrassed about everything except the food. I hadn't wanted to touch her because of her diet, but I broke down and petted her. In the evening she came back for more food and brought a boyfriend who we named Gentlewolf since he was obviously a wild dog just getting in on a good thing. The next day it was all over, and the dogs were back to sculking in the shadows with their tails between their legs. And the Nepalese went on to their next celebration.
The whole country was embued with a kind of wonder that I still carry with me because of the feeling that all life was holy and had a place in the scheme of things. I can still hear some ecstacy-crazed Nepali singing his heart out as he walked up the street in back of our house. The kids who had learned English from the Peace Corps would shout "Englaisy, Bye, Bye," across the grain fields as we walked the path to our home. A military firing squad was led by dancing drummers and a flutest onto the firing range which practiced night below the Monkey Temple so you feared you would die from bullets as you climbed the stairs to the temple. In the evenings about 4:00 the monkeys from the temple tried to sneak into the millet field next door. An old man whose job it was to guard the millet would raise the cry for help by yelling, "Cha, cha!" which means "shame", and then all the neighbors came to help. Golum barked and pretended to be concerned. The Russians who lived across the cobblestone walkway would stand on their balcony and yell and sodid we. The Buddhist nuns next door threw stones, and young boys came from every direction so that the whole neighborhood was a wild whirl of commotion. Once after the shouting and chasing and running had scared all the monkeys, and the neighborhood had returned to calm and quiet once more, I saw one lone monkey sitting on the Russians roof, eating a stalk of millet, facing the
It was an incredibly organic system that worked and will continue to work until the values of the west create the conflict that will kill it. So it came to me as I thought of celebration that Nepal's culture was a celebration of birth and death and of life, that mess that falls between the two. Its morass of street side toilets, dying beggars, the yells of the woman next door giving birth, all the contact with the profound moments of human existence, make Nepal and my experience there a celebration. And though this celebration has sent more than one Westerner scurrying home to his sterile, plastic, glass, and concrete world where birth and death happen in sealed off compartments
where you don't have to see them unless you're personally involved, it is an experience that I am grateful for because it taught me not to be so afraid of pain and suffering and death, and so has freed my feeling for wild, full-out ecstacy and joy.