The Qatar airport is a vortex in the center of the world. A man in a long white robe, incredibly substantial beard and head wrap leads a woman in full black burka with a little girl in hand, with bright red barrettes in her hair. Saris of pink, red and teal flow, catching the harsh, florescent light. There is no time. I am drinking coffee, it must be morning. All that can be seen through the windows are planes wrapped in dust. As a western woman, I am a third gender of sorts. I am never referred to first, always, Dan. “Sir, where are you from?” “Sir, what brings you here?” I am better at deciphering broken English, so eventually they will turn to me, but only when they must. I am drinking wine, it must be evening. A man tells me, “I think you are mistaken. You must be Muslim. If your name is Ali, you are Muslim.” He asks to take a picture with me. “Now I can hold the moment our paths crossed in my heart forever,” he said showing me the picture of us smiling together.
Once in Nepal, we wake extremely early without effort, after the sun has come up but before the horns start honking on the Kathmandu streets below. We sit in the lush garden eating fresh decadent donuts slowly, tasting. “Sir, would you like more coffee?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Later, we weave single file between motorcycles and rickshaws through the dusty, uneven streets of Thamel, taking in the five layered business signs and strung prayer flags amidst masses of electrical cords. People wear masks to combat the pollution and carry umbrellas to ward off the sun. Bottles of Nepali Ice cut the sting of the momo sauce under rickety fans in the open-air back-alley dive. “Do you smoke, lady?” Bangles, buddhas, pashminas, meditation music, flowing pants, NorthFace gear. “Is it time to shop, lady?” The occasional white man with a bristling beard and prayer beads appears in the sea of striking dark faces. Women hold babies with thick eyeliner to ward off demons and sweep around mangy dogs. Kids in school uniform ties play makeshift games of cricket and badminton on the sidewalk. Men hold hands. I have to take time to remember that I have nothing that I have to do.
We take a taxi to the Swayambhunath complex, a sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site also considered holy by Hindus. We sweat in the afternoon sun as we climb stairs high above the city. Monkeys are frolicking around us. Prayer flags hang above us. Once we reach the top, we slowly circle the grounds clockwise with the others, taking in the main stupa, shrines and temples, and a library and museum. The last building is a Tibetan monastery. We remove our shoes and enter slowly, eventually being welcomed to sit and be with the Tibetan monks. Robed in red and orange, monks of all ages chant prayers in unity to the beat of a drum. Eventually we leave the monastery and wander back out to the sunny platform. We put our shoes back on, and a man approaches us.
He says, “You are Christian?”
“Yes, we are,” we reply.
“Do you read your Scripture?”
“Yes, we do.”
“Study it? Do you study your stories? Know the difference between your Testaments? More than just Sunday? Do you worship always?” he asks, animatedly.
“Yes, we study.”
“Good. Then we are brothers,” he finally smiles. “My story, your story. They seem different. But if you really study, they are the same.”
We opt for a twenty minute flight as opposed to eight hours by bus, leaving the dense streets of Kathmandu for the mountain lakes of Pokhara. We enter a small, dark room of chaos filled with shouting people in half uniform, broken fans and boxes held together with string. I am frisked half-heartedly on three different occasions. A man slides rectangles of paper across the divide, “I put you on the side where you can see our mountains. Enjoy.” We do.
We watch the sun rise over the mountain top of the Annapurnas in hotel robes that match floppy slippers. We could marvel at the sun change against the rock all day, like getting lost in the face of a child or lover. Instead, we change and begin to hike up, up. At every turn kids stop their games and run toward us, screaming “Namaste!” pointing us in the right direction. Goats and water buffalo graze while women carry baskets on their backs that are strapped to their foreheads. We reach the top of the climb and stare for hours. Order a black tea and stare some more. I strap myself to a Romanian man and run off the side of the mountain. A yellow parachute catches us and we float through the mountain valley. By mid-day the ground is hot, and the radiating heat creates thermals that carry us higher and higher. My heart is light. He breaks my mediation now and again to chat, we discuss my favorite Romanian gymnasts of my youth. Daniela Silivas and Ecatrina Szabo. When we finally come back down to the ground, the parachute deflating behind us, he laughs, “Stuck landing! You are a gymnast!”
We walk through blinding heat with bright green rice paddies on either side of us. In the distance are cement homes painted purple and mint green. Gradually a swamp emerges, emitting a stench that is overwhelming. In the mud are three young boys, digging through the mud and carefully moving treasures, like aluminum cans, from the swamp to the road’s edge. They do not look up when we pass.
In town, we get stuck in a flash flood. Within minutes, the streets are raging with brown, rushing water. “Come, come,” a man motions to us from a storefront. Once we are inside, he offers us two chairs among the pashminas and shoes and closes the garage door to save his merchandise from the rain. Promptly, the power goes out, and after his English is exhausted, we sit with him in pitch black, comfortable silence until the storm passes.
By the time we return to Kathmandu, the political strikes have picked up. There is no transportation allowed by the strike masters, not even bicycles. No businesses are open. Walking the eerily empty streets, we feel like we have arrived in an apocalyptic zombie movie. The day starts to get hot, and our stomachs start to churn. Twelve hours before our flight, we are not quite sure what our place is in all of this. We turn a corner and hear, “Sir, sir, are you hungry?” A man in all black is peaking out a door.
“Yes, we are,” Dan answers.
The man motions for us to follow, and he leads us through a series of turning hallways. Eventually, we arrive at a restaurant. Inside, the music is low. There are tables of white people checking their email on Mac laptops and drinking Cokes. They place us at a table between some Tibetan monks and some Japanese young adults and silently hand us menus.
A taxi bearing a “Tourist Only” sign drives us through the potholed streets to the airport. Rested, full and alive, I have the urge to cry on the drive as I realize I am leaving this beautiful place, these beautiful people. Namaste.