Saturday mornings in Swayambhu

I have hardly written anything about Kathmandu.

Outside of a slightly-overwhelmed entry at the beginning of November, the capital of Nepal remains almost completely unmentioned, both on this site and in my notebook.

There’s a reason for the exclusion: I don’t like the city that much. I’m already not much of a city person back in Canada. Sometimes it seems as though Kathmandu has stared into the depths of my soul, made note of all the factors that lead to my big city frustrations, and has subsequently made the decision to embody them all. The pollution that causes me to create a modernist art piece every time I blow my nose, the overcrowding, the daily “I almost got hit by a motorbike” encounter…

Still, I think my lack of Kathmandu-related posts is a bit of a slight. The city has been my home for about three weeks of my trip, and is my home base between the days and weeks I’ve spent travelling to other parts of the country. If I know anything about home cities, it’s that they have flaws. But they also have wonderful, redeeming qualities that force pen to paper, in a way just as magnetic as those more exotic destinations.

So here’s to Kathmandu! Thanks for being my home these past months.

What has me captured is the mornings.

Every time I’m back in Kathmandu, I stay in a neighbourhood called Swayambhu, at a wonderful, cheap little hostel called The Sparkling Turtle. The area is named after the giant Buddhist temple, Swayambhunath, that sits high on the hill overlooking its streets and alleys.

Yesterday was my last Saturday morning in Kathmandu. Saturdays are relaxation and cleaning days in Nepal, the single day off every week. The city streets come alive with bazaars, and people run the streets with wet hair, from a day of showering and laundry. I decided to wake up early to experience one last day off in my adopted ‘hood.

Swayambhu Saturday morning

Swayambhu Saturday morning

Just as we all have our weekend routines at home, so too do the residents of Swayambhu. Walking to one of the two roads that wrap its dusty arms around the grounds of Swayambhunath, I’m swept up in foot traffic. It travels clockwise, the designated direction to travel around all Buddhist and Hindu temples. Most of the people carry a garland of mala beads, reciting mantras and spinning prayer wheel after prayer wheel. Click, click. Click, click. For them, this is Saturday routine: wake up early, walk around Swayambhu, make your offerings. I’ve been implanted to observe this tiny part of their life.

One of the many smaller temples along the route

One of the many smaller temples along the route

Morning circuit, prayer beads in hand.

Morning circuit, prayer beads in hand.

The air is thick with juniper smoke, garbage burning smoke. The dust being kicked up from feet and micro buses creates a perpetual haze, one that basks the streets in that lovely golden hour lighting.

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Monkeys appear as small silhouettes in the bare tree branches. One uses the hydro lines to tight-rope over the road, while others leap from tree to tree. Hairy limbs flail and grab. I hardly even flinch at the monkeys anymore, except when I go to take a photo of one, and he stares at my iPhone as if thinking “yeah, my creepy hand-feet could probably steal that.” I walk away quickly. Thuggish dogs bark and bear teeth, uncastrated anger, which I’m certain has been organized into canine street gangs.

Can you spot the monkeys?

Can you spot the monkeys?

Tightrope monkey! Click the photo to expand.

Tightrope monkey! Click the photo to expand.

There are more clothing vendors out on Saturday mornings. The bright colours of fleece leggings call out to the oranges, greens, purples of next door vegetable vendors. Behind me, a non-thug dog lies passed out in the sun.

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Where I buy my oranges and bananas every time I'm in the neighbourhood.

Where I buy my oranges and bananas every time I’m in the neighbourhood.

Towering over the mini bazaar is the Buddhapark. Despite living so close by, I hadn’t been there until this morning. This is where I sit now, on cool white marble, almost in the shade. A metre away from me, a monk sits chanting, his voice punctuated by a shrill bell in his left hand. He’s reading from a Lama book, and there’s a small plastic prayer wheel sitting next to it, spinning from the light of the sun. Inside a painted brown brick building (it looks like it’s made of chocolate!), hundreds of butter lamps flicker and dance.

Buddha Park visitors

Buddha Park visitors

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I’m watched attentively by three giant gold Buddhas, the statues after which the park is named. They stare unmoving at me, and at all the others who stand, eyes closed, worshiping their presence. A monkey climbs onto the donation box in front of the centre Buddha. I picture it coming to life, unfolding its legs with the cracking of stiff bones, and giving the monkey a good scare.

The three buddhas

The three buddhas

Old ladies offer yellow and purple marigolds into a gold urn at the base of the stairs. People take a lot of pictures, but don’t smile. This isn’t so much about capturing vanity as it is documenting a sense of place. Off in the distance, the smog has turned distant neighbourhoods the colour of the sky. Sequined saris glitter distractingly. The singing monk is eating an orange and counting his money.

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I move on into the morning. I pull back a curtain, a door-less, nameless room filled with locals. It’s not a restaurant in the way that we know them, but rather an assembly of a half dozen tables and benches where you sit and eat whatever is put down in front of you. Tender pieces of buff stabbed with toothpicks; other parts of buff that will remain a mystery; a spicy potato broth, its red surface dipped with roti. Everyone stares when I sit down, but nods in either approval or hilarity when I ask for tea in Nepali.

An after breakfast walk: paved roads meet dirt roads. Running facets meet water pumps. Poverty meets wealth and people talk on smart phones amidst the rubble. Children play in empty lots: garbage on top of garbage on top of dirt. The monks chant on, the day moves forward. A storefront has been transformed into an informal animal market, birds and bunnies. My face twists into a grimace as I wonder if their fate is in our arms or on our plates.

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Bird and bunny market

Bird and bunny market

I’m having my second Saturday morning tea, and I’ve let it sit too long. It’s milk tea, and a slimy film has formed over the surface. But I don’t mind. Saturdays aren’t about rushing, or about drinking tea quickly. Saturdays are about sitting and thinking and appreciating that this is the last Saturday like this that I’ll have.

(PS: Don’t mind the film-esque photos…I didn’t bring my SLR camera and have just discovered the wonders of VSCO cam filters on my iPhone…)

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3 comments
  1. Cheryl said:

    Thanks for the walkabout. I have a picture in my minds eye. Experiencing it yourself must fill your head with pictures not taken,

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