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At age 52, Tulasi Shrestha, whose parents wouldn’t let her attend school because she was a girl, is finally learning to read. Shikha Gauchan, after receiving training on a computer, has vastly increased her business to foreign trekkers by promoting her guesthouse on Facebook. Children who once couldn’t pass the entrance exams to further their education have so excelled that the community built a secondary-level school to accommodate them.

All of this is thanks to READ (Rural Education and Development) Global, the philanthropic arm of the tour company Myths and Mountains, which is transforming the lives of villagers throughout Nepal. Although Myths and Mountains conducts tours to as many as 17 different countries. Visiting the READ libraries of Nepal adds a whole new dimension to traditional sightseeing itineraries.
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Early on I recognized that the term “library” was a misnomer; “community resource center” is a much more accurate description. Yes, there are books — numbering from 900 in the smaller centers to 8000 and growing, in Nepalese, English and Hindi, in the larger ones — but the list of services offered, which vary according to the specific needs of the village, include literacy classes, computer training, early childhood education and day care, women’s empowerment programs, micro-financing and credit services, health, nutrition and AIDS-awareness information and more.

But first, some background. Dr. Antonia (Toni) Neubauer, president of Myths and Mountains, first visited Nepal in 1983 and started her tour company five years later. During a trek to the Everest region that same year, knowing she wanted to give something back to the country she had come to love, she asked her guide, Domi Lama Sherpa, “What is it your village needs most?” His reply: a library.

She started collecting money herself, and then through Myths and Mountains the first library opened in Domi’s town in 1991. Domi moved to New York shortly thereafter and does not know that he has since become a national hero.

Early on, Toni learned of other well-meaning efforts in many countries which ultimately failed because they had been started and abandoned without becoming economically viable. A local headmaster told her, “Westerners build us clinics, build us schools and then leave and expect us to take care of them, but we are just poor farmers.” And she realized that although “we had the best of intentions, we were just creating liabilities for a village rather than funding an asset.” From the beginning she knew that if the library (read Community Resource Center) was not self-sustaining, it would not work; it had to be an economic asset as well as a social and educational one.
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Thus, the village of Tukche has a furniture factory; Jhuwani operates an ambulance service; Jomsom rents out storefronts which sell crafts, produce and other necessities, and the Laxmi Library in Syangia built a radio station that galvanized the whole community and is now supporting a staff of 33 people, enabling the library to pay off all its loans and become financially secure. The more successful the underlying financial enterprise, the more successful the community center.
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And the centers’ impact on the villages is life-altering. Many are in remote areas in which children did not attend school, women could not read, and men could not support their families. Now, professional teachers and librarians trained by READ are providing education for young children throughout Nepal. Women are gathering together in village after village to not only learn to read but become economically self-sufficient while finding strength through numbers to resist the domestic violence that is often so pervasive among families in poverty. According to READ, the return rate on investment of micro-financing projects for women is 99%. And men and women are working together to create financially successful projects to support and sustain the libraries.
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Everywhere we traveled, community leaders paid homage to Toni through some variation of the sentiments expressed by the president of the Jhuwani Library: “She removed a cloud of ignorance and illiteracy from our village, and replaced it with education, self-respect and prosperity.” And her response was always one of gratefulness to the villagers who, in creating their own dream, made her vision possible.

Because there is ongoing political turmoil in Nepal, all libraries and the different factions within the communities have to agree in writing to be Zones of Peace — non-political, non-religious, non-governmental. And within the past year, libraries across the country have formed a coalition — the Nepal Community Library Association — and are now trading ideas and success stories and are themselves lobbying the government for even more support in building in rural areas.

According to Toni, this is a crucial development: “The idea of Nepalese having a sense of their own power in furthering the libraries is still in its infancy but has tremendous potential for future development.” And her efforts have not gone unrecognized domestically. In 2006, READ Global received the Bill and Melissa Gates $1 million Access to Learning Award. And at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting held in September 2010, Bill Clinton announced READ’s commitment to empower 16,000 women and adolescent girls in rural Bhutan, India and Nepal during the next four years by building 20 women’s centers within new READ Library and Community Resource Centers.
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Traveling from library to library, hearing story after story of how the centers have brought hope and prosperity beyond imagination affected me in ways no monument, scenic byway or sightseeing tour ever could. The excitement, so emotionally heartfelt, among all the people there was infectious. I left each library filled with awe and respect for what all these people — young and old, men and women, READ staffers and community volunteers — have accomplished, and though admittedly misplaced, even a sense of personal pride on Toni’s behalf.

So yes, we visited temples, shrines and monasteries galore. We trekked the
Annapurna Circuit for hours. We rode elephants in the Chitwan Jungle. And learned of the Buddhist and Hindu cultures. In that sense it was a tour like any other. But seeing the country through the eyes of READ Global was an enlightening and inspirational experience that no ordinary tour can equal. For more information about Myths and Mountains, visit mythsandmountains.com; for READ Global, contact readglobal.org.

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Ever since I was 16, I was drawn to Buddhism and the magical promise of Nepal and Tibet. While this curiosity continued to percolate in the back of my mind and deep within my soul, I hadn’t thought much about going to the great lands of Buddhism as I zipped through my degree work at the University of Southern California (USC) and prepared to help our family-run property management and real estate business in Marin.

It was only after Will, my best friend in college, died after a brief yet courageous battle with cancer at the age of 21, that I decided on seeking a meaningful refuge from a simulated, sanitized version of the
world.

After a 10-month journey – involving everything from snakes and stitches to avalanches and wolves and the unparalleled experiences of roughing it in *ger* camps in the heart of the Gobi desert to an ashram paradise in the south of India and, ultimately, to Mount Everest – I returned, at 23, better capable of dealing with the same dilemmas and awkward predicaments that were present beforehand. However, while I had set out on this journey believing I would find genuine happiness, I gained something more profound – a fresh sense of the grace of gratitude.

Travel can be a mixed blessing. In seeking the perfect vacation at destinations that have been the persistent objects of our dreams, we are tempted to set the bar of expectations at world-record heights. There were as many unexpected adventures in my backpacking trip as there were satisfying moments of what I had anticipated.

The journey started inauspiciously enough. After a 22-hour flight itinerary from San Francisco to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, I had arrived at the airport where Ida, a friend from Germany, was waiting to pick me up. He had just received his license and was eager to show off his driving skills. He loaded my stuff into his “new” car: a white 1990 Mitsubishi Pajero.
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I was shocked to see the nearly deserted condition of Ulaanbaatar. It looked as if this city were run by villagers and unmotivated businessmen. Even with just a little rain, the roads were flooded. Hotels were perched not on the main thoroughfare but behind other buildings and through flooded parking lots. I wondered how small cars maneuvered around town.

We stopped at Ida’s restaurant, his reason for moving to Mongolia. Ida’s business seemed like the only new breath of effort put into this city. He took me there, and we ate pasta with his “special” pesto sauce and ordered in “Mr. Chicken,” or KFC, as we call it in America. Soon after, his cousins and business partner Steve, a short dark-skinned boy from Canada, brought out Chinggis vodka, which was named after the warrior and emperor, and started pouring shots into paper cups. I couldn’t back down after the teasing.

There I was sitting at the only table in a half-finished restaurant with sawdust-covered floors, with the exception Ida, with a bunch of strangers. Funny to think that only hours ago, I had been surrounded by my closest family members. There also are recollections of beer pong with the locals and waking up with no money and having to walk through snow in shorts and sandals.

Then, there were unforgettable moments such as when I visited Ida’s nomadic family in the countryside where life and meals echo the simplest pleasures of serenity, and later we traveled over mountains and desert, steppes and forests, to the northern sections near Siberia, staying for two weeks in Mongolian *ger* camps. I rode camels, horses and reindeer, and Hamid (an Iranian guide) introduced me to a lost isolated tribe of reindeer people known as the Tsa Tans. I saw horse races where the riders were children between the ages of four and eight, completely fearless of the speed at which they competed.
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After spending two months in Mongolia, I went to Bali for a month where I learned to scuba dive, kite surf, and wave surf – and managed only one accident where I needed stitches at a local hospital. In all forms, the Balinese people were tremendous hosts. One of the most memorable encounters was with a boy who rented out chairs on the beach, making just five dollars a day. I offered to take him out for sushi, and at the restaurant the chopsticks uncomfortably puzzled him as did the handkerchief napkin set at the table. The boy later introduced me to his family, and I discovered somewhat embarrassingly how they fish and prepared their food, which cleared up the earlier confusion.

Travel logistics always were easily confounded. Leaving Bali to go to Japan at the end-of-the-year holidays, a storm upset my air travel itinerary and the cancelled flight had me staying in Cairns, Australia, for the night. Problems, however, arose because my itinerary for Japan had been scheduled through Australia by an Internet travel agent, and Bali customs found this suspicious. I didn’t have a visa because I was a passenger in transit and the predicament almost made me miss my flight.
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However, once I arrived in Tokyo, things moved quickly as I sought the permission of the main Aikido headquarters to train at the small, secluded *dojo* in Iwama, two hours north of Tokyo. The *sensei* in Iwama seemed surprised at my intentions to learn Aikido with no previous experience, especially since I flew all the way out to Japan to do it!

Indeed, it was memorable to train in the presence of Isoyama Shihan, a man in his seventies who commanded an immense respect among his students, which, incidentally, had included actor Steven Segal. On the other hand, Shihan criticized me for improperly tying my belt on the Aikido uniform. Flummoxed at first by the meaning and intent of Aikido, I soon found that Aikido couldn’t be understood with a Western perspective. One has to let the art become a part of every movement. What I learned in class through the techniques is simply a method to impart the insight of Aikido. A way of life and an art, I learned just how much deeper it is than the self-defense moves with which everyone commonly associates Aikido.

Later, I traveled to Yokohama where I spent the Christmas holidays and attended Aikido classes with Akiko, an older female instructor. While I missed the special presence of Iwama, Akiko showed me around town, introducing her younger friends, some of whom seemed so proper and angelic in public but certainly were eager to show their preference for smoking and drinking behind closed doors. In Japan, everyone is anxious to be the ideal host.

Back in Tokyo, my best friend from the States met me for snowboarding in Nagano, where we also had a close call in backcountry skiing when we triggered an avalanche. We also saw a local ritual involving 25-year-old men being beaten with fire by 42-year-old locals. The festival was shocking not just for its unapologetic show but also for how it attracted large numbers of spectators who apparently traveled great distances to witness this ferocious and fiery display.

Traveling from Japan to India proved to be an experience that would test the mettle of even the most fearless globe trekker. What was supposed to be a 32-hour travel itinerary from Japan to India became a nearly unbearable 45-hour trek. However, after a long night’s rest, I finally arrived in paradise after my cab navigated the elephant-clogged streets of Trivandrum. I stayed at an ashram located in the south of India, in the center of the jungle with a beautiful lake nearby. The food was Ayurvedic – vegan with no salt or oil – and was served to us on the floor out of buckets.
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India is a challenging destination even for the most adventuresome backpacker. Definitely include cab drivers in the mix here. However, I did have the good fortune with one driver and tipped him four
dollars, the equivalent of a tenth of his monthly salary. A rarity among taxi operators in India, he kindly allowed me to use his phone throughout the drive and never cajoled me into paying him a higher fare.

My long periods of intense yoga were punctuated by episodes of temptation involving a curious mix of young women, including Tsering, a Tibetan who sensed my emotional vulnerabilities but became an important companion for the remainder of my journey, a young German woman who invited me for a swim in crocodile-infested waters, and a French woman moved to tears by my story who offered a massage as a path to showing me the real meaning of love.

Later, Tsering, who shared her insights into Buddhism and helped me with my meditation, joined me in Goa where the beaches and huts turned out to be a major disappointment, falling well short of the alluring hype plastered in magazines and online. One night, at a beach restaurant, I realized the other customers were sitting and staring, quiet and motionless. As I noticed a man rolling hash, I finally understood just what the hype about Goa meant.

The benignly numbed pleasantness of Goa contrasted sharply with my travels northward in India. In Varanasi, I witnessed the nightly ceremonies and the cremations of the dead, and I decided to take a dip in the holy Ganges River. Afterwards, I headed to an intense 10-day Vipassana meditation center where a word was not to be spoken during the entire period, and I had to dig deep within myself, revealing my inner demons. Before leaving India, I reconnected with Tsering in Delhi. She was kind enough to, make our travel arrangements to Dharamsala, a sort of “mini-Tibet” where we would make a three-day trek up into the Himalayan range and find a Buddhist meditation cave. There, I finally felt a true sense of gaining control over my destiny.

The feeling, however, was short-lived when I entered the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu. Entering the airport in Nepal, that exhilarating sense of anticipating my visit with Tenzin Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, the great monk at the Big White Monastery at Boddhanath, withered amid the sea of bureaucracy I was about to encounter. I realized the visa process would be as much a pain as it was in Bali. Standing in Kathmandu, I knew it would take well over an hour to process the more than hundred passengers standing in line, and we had to fill out forms, give passport photos, and I had to exchange money.

The officials accepted U.S. dollars, but unfortunately, I had no American cash on hand and the man at the money exchange counter was more than willing to screw me over with my traveler’s checks. He charged me once to exchange my money from dollars to Nepal *rupees* and then yet more fees to exchange them back to dollars so that the visa processing counter would accept my money. It happened so quickly, and I didn’t want to end up at the end of the line that I just took the money and ran. It was too late. I was already the last person in line.

Later, after what felt like a never-ending terrifying cab ride, I made it to supposedly one of the nicer hotels in Kathmandu and checked into my room. I was not surprised when it didn’t feel like a four-star hotel, much less a one-star destination where a Travelocity recommendation would definitely have been suspect for its authenticity.

The next day started hardly better when I tried to hire a car service. “We can give you a luxury private car for the three hours for two thousand or three thousand *rupees*,” the man who acted as the hotel concierge explained. I expected a Toyota sedan from the current decade or something similar but he pointed to a car outside that was unrecognizable, and I’m sure most car companies would deny ever having made it. The car looked to be from the 1960s or 1970s.

However, Nepal proved to be a life-changing experience, especially in my interactions with the *rinpoche* at Boddanath. However, there were others in Nepal who were equally instructive in their inimitable ways. Leaving the monastery, I headed back to Thamel (a tourist trap in all respects) to check up on Lotsman and Prabind, both store owners who had befriended me during my stay. Lotsman, in particular, had grown fond of calling me “his brother.” Their stores were filled with Nepalese art that were priced as extraordinary bargains by any measure.

I’ll never forget trying to convince a young Belgian woman, who complained that she would not consider paying 1,000 rupees – the equivalent of $14 – for one of the paintings. She stormed out of the store, never to return. A while before, I had been in the same position, bargaining at length for a price difference of $1. However, the store owner, through his compassion and generosity, helped me realize the stupidity of what I did – just how little $1 meant to me back home and how much I would bargain for it here to the point where I wouldn’t buy something for a matter of $1 in difference.

After completing the 10-month journey – including climbing 5,550 meters to Kala Patthar to get the best view of the formidable Everest – I decided to give away the stuff I had accumulated during my travels. It was time to practice the lessons I had received.

I had all of the external material resources I could ever want or imagine to have. The only thing missing was gratitude. During my travels, I realized that you can also have nothing at all and it would be a great
blessing alone to be able to feel gratitude. It was not merely happiness that I sought; it was the grace of gratitude.

It’s been more than six months since I’ve been back, and the culture shock of my return has been unexpectedly frightening. The dual experiences of complete detachment and the newfound understanding followed me home, and like demons in my closet, they have always lurked nearby.
Nothing seemed as real as it once did. But, now I also find myself in the mutually reinforcing roles of teacher and student. I’m excited about my next journey.

 
Photos by Les Roka

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Just as our plane circled and began its descend toward a landing at the Kathmandu airport, I began to see out of my window the rugged, snowcapped peaks of the Himalaya mountain range and felt a surge of excitement and wonder at actually finally being able to visit a place that had always held an almost mystical image for me. The line of Himalayan peaks vanished as our plane dove down through the clouds that I would later learn were made up of air pollution as well as water vapor.

The director and guide, Arvind, of our SmarTours tour did a wonderful job of coordinating everything from customs to visas to collection of our bags at the Kathmandu International Airport terminal, and we were on our bus and headed for our hotel in no time, passing through the dusty streets of Nepal’s capital city with its population of over two million people. My idea of Kathmandu being somewhat of a magical city in the foothills of the Himalayas began to be dampened by the rundown look of the buildings and houses we passed and the traffic congestion. There seemed to be the same problem of trash disposal that we had encountered throughout India, and there was a general lack of prosperity in the looks of the crowds of local residents gathered at the market areas.

As in India, when we arrived at the location of our hotel, our bus had to go through guarded gates in order to enter the hotel grounds. Once through the gates, we were greeted to the beautiful surroundings of Soaltee Crown Plaza Hotel. We spent the rest of the afternoon settling into the hotel and visiting the numerous shops that were on the grounds. That evening we wandered down past the large swimming pool area where we had supper at Al Fresca Italian Restaurant, one of the many restaurants on the hotel grounds, and had the best meal ever: lasagna and prawn ravioli, local beer, soup, water and delicious eggplant spread for bread.

After a restful evening we were up and ready to experience Kathmandu and its surrounding areas. We suppose that in order to feel independent and self-sufficient India sets time 30 minutes off from the rest of the world, and Nepal differs another fifteen minutes, so we never knew exactly what time it was. We were so surprised to find that this city, for which we brought all our winter warmest clothes, long underwear, and heavy coats, is about 75 F degrees, so we are in shirtsleeves here at 5,000 feet above sea level at the end of November! Is this global warming?? We are definitely here at the optimum time of year for tourists.
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We boarded our bus and headed across the city to our first stop, which would be the Tibetan Buddhist Stupa (shrine/temple) and the area where the Tibetan refugees had settled after China’s take over of Tibet. Along the way Arvind introduced us to Deepak who would be our local guide. Deepak gave us a lot of information about Kathmandu and Nepal in general. Nepal has a population of about 30 million. The entire small country is only 58,000 square miles: 950 miles long, 100-150 miles wide, and most of it is in the high Himalayas and their valleys. Hindus comprise 75%, Buddhists 20%, other religions 5%. The main business is agriculture on small, hand-tilled farms terraced along the mountainsides and in the many Himalayan valleys.
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On arriving at the Tibetan center, we walked through an elaborate gate and were confronted with the large, white dome topped with steeple with large eyes painted on each of the four sides. This Stupa is surrounded by shops, restaurants, and housing for Tibetan refugees. The United Nations has been very helpful with the Tibetan refugees who fled over the mountain when the Chinese took over Tibet. At Tibetan monasteries we do not remove shoes. We climbed to the roof of the weird domed worship building. The Stupa is centered in the large square with its eyes watching everything.
We visited a school for artists that were being taught how to paint Mandalas. The Mandalas were very detailed and done with magnificent color. After spending a couple of hours shopping in the many Tibetan shops, we boarded the bus again and traveled a short distance to a stop along the river at the Pashu Pathinath section of Nepal.
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The Pashu Pathinath has the holiest Shiva Temple in the world. After a short walk along the Batmati River we came to the cremation area that was located on the opposite side of the river where a raised concrete set of platforms were occupied with various groups preparing and starting funeral pyres. We were told that the Batmati River eventually reached the Ganges River. As we watched, poor women carried huge loads of wood on their back across the river to the funeral pyres. Other than family members of those being cremated only holy people and the firewood carriers are allowed to cross the bridge to the place of cremations. We stayed across the river from the cremation area, but the smell of the smoke, and the filth along the river and around the site created a sickening feeling to most of us.
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However, here on the side of the river where we had come to view the cremations we encountered the bizarre Sadhus, the most holy people, who sat at the base of a small shrine clothed in white rag wraps with painted faces and Rastifarian hair which is never washed or cut. They are stoned and with big grins hold out their hands for money. They are the only people who are allowed to use drugs legally in the form of marijuana or hemp.
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Varanasi (which was formerly Benares) and Pashu Pathinath are the most holy Hindu places in the world. The legend about Pashu Pathinath is that 2,000 years ago this was a pasture for cows. There was a certain pile of stones where one cow was always milked and gave her milk freely. One day a cowherd was angry because this cow would not give milk. He threw a stone and it bled. The royal priests and authorities came to see the bleeding stone and declared it a holy place and built the Shiva Temple here.

Part of our group chose to travel out of Kathmandu that afternoon to visit some mountain villages where a great deal of Nepal farming takes place. Our bus took us up the very narrow, s-curved mountain road on a trip which had us sometimes feeling that we were hanging out over a cliff at each curve. We arrived at Nagarcort climbing some 6,500 feet above Kathmandu’s 4,500 feet in altitude. The journey took us passed typical mountain houses and tiny villages with terraced farms covering the hillsides. We stopped at a quiet resort, where upper class Nepalese come from the city for the weekend. Here we took a break and had tea and gazed out at the distant peaks of the Himalayas covered with snow. We were high enough to be above the smog of the city, which is rife with coal smoke from many factories in the valley and thick fumes of cars.
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After tea we hiked down a little dirt road, which slowly descended past typical farmhouses. The tour company had made agreements with the people on this path for us to visit and take photographs. We went into one home, which had a beautiful garden and a view looking over the terraced hillsides. The home was stucco with dirt floors and neat, with only room for sleeping mats and the few possessions, clothes on hooks on the walls, and baskets of grains etc. around. Goats and other animals were in each yard. This was quite an opportunity to see real Himalayan life, which is constant work to maintain food and shelter. Although the families had been paid, the children still followed us and begged a little, showing how they could roll a small hoop with a stick. After winding our way out of the mountains, we returned to Kathmandu and our hotel, settling in for a nice restful evening.

The next morning many of us were up early to go to the airport to take a plane ride up to view Mt. Everest. The planes that were to take us held 16 passengers and each passenger had a window view. We were not sure we would get to go up as everything depended on the weather being right. The cost of taking the trip up to Everest and then back was $200 per person, but we knew we more than likely would not be back, and this was our one chance in our lifetime to actually see the tallest peak in the world. The flights for the last two days had been canceled, so as we stood waiting in the crowded domestic terminal, we kept our fingers crossed for good luck. After waiting nearly two hours, the sun came through the clouds and we fortunately were taxied out onto the runway and were off.
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When we cleared the Kathmandu smog and the light cloud cover, we began to see the line of Himalayan peaks stretching as far as we could see from the west to the east. The plane climbed to an altitude of about 20,000 feet and headed northeast, bringing the mountains ever closer. There was a state of awe for all aboard as we viewed the vastness of so many towering peaks. As we neared Mt. Everest, the stewardess took each of us individually to the cockpit so we could view the mighty mountain out of the front of the plane. Everest was capped with a halo shaped cloud, but we could see most of the mountain and the roughed terrain that leads up to it. The pilot circled so everyone got a good view of the mountain and could take all the pictures we wanted. We then flew back to the west, again able to view the panorama of the Himalayas all the way back to Kathmandu.

Right after arriving back at our hotel the rest of the tour met us in the lobby, and we prepared to head out again to take in more of the sights of the Kathmandu area. We were driven through the main center of Kathmandu with central bus lines, market, military parade ground, Queen’s pool, theater, Nepalase movies, and we drove through this big commercial center, which looks fairly new. The former pink palace now is the Narayanhti Palace Muesum where the drunk son of the king picked up a rifle and killed his father and mother, brother and sister and then himself. His uncle arrived and became king for short time before the Communist Maoist party won the last democratic election.
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After our drive through the central part of Kathmandu, we arrived at Bakau or Bakatapur City, fifteen kilometers east of Kathmandu toward the Tibetan border. This is one of most historic cities in Kathmandu Valley. The former palace and many Hindu temples of differing construction in brick and wood are around a huge courtyard or central square. The tall pagoda of intricately carved teak wood was built 300 or more years ago. The famous Mala Dynasty Palace of 55 Windows also has amazing carved window and door-frames and a tall Golden Gate entrance. This place was a separate kingdom/city state for a thousand years from the 9th to the 18th Centuries and was the golden period for art and architecture. It is now a World Heritage Site, and we seemed be visiting all the World Heritage sites of the areas being visited during International World Heritage week. The Little Buddha movie was filmed here. We enjoyed lunch of “safe” and not spicy tomato soup, fried rice and beer, at the Palace Restaurant Bhaktapurnot, which also had a clean restroom. We are grateful for small blessings! The rest of the afternoon we were free to tour the area and shop at the many shops in the area. After a very exciting and interesting day we returned to our hotel for another relaxing evening.
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The next day was our last day, and we started out at the famous and ancient Durban Palace, which has a statue of the Monkey God, Hanauman. Nearby, we walked through the small courtyard at the 17th Century House of the Living Goddess, a peculiar tradition in this culture. A group of girls aged four to six years are gathered, the most beautiful one, perfect without any flaws, is choosen from these. The one that is selected to be the Living Goddess holds this distention until she reaches puberty. She must be able to stay in a dark room without fear, and her horoscope must match that of the ruler of Nepal, which in past years was the king. The little girl selected is brought to this house, and it is believed that the soul of the goddess comes to reside within her. Her parents can visit during the day, but she stays with her guardians at night. When she reaches puberty she is replaced and leaves this lonely place of honor. After she retires as a teen she gets permanent monetary support from the government.

We returned to the hotel by late afternoon quite tired. It was time to repack and make a few purchases at the shops near the hotel. Our farewell dinner was a typical Nepalese meal at a former Buddhist monastery in a very old and charming building. We were served small portions of many different favorite local dishes while we watched a group of performers playing traditional crude musical instruments, including strings, drum, horn, and box accordion. The pairs of dancers dressed in colorful traditional Himalayan village costumes performed several dances, which have been part of local celebrations since time immemorial. Normally the meal would be for guests seated on the floor, but tourists are given a table.

We were to leave in the morning on an Air India plane for Delhia, India, and then on to the United States. But when we got to the airport and after waiting for several hours, we were informed that our flight had been canceled. Our tour director Arvind had to get our baggage back and our visas redone as well as get us rebooked on a flight the next day and then find us hotel rooms for the night. Arvind did an amazing job of arranging everything. Because the majority of our tour group were ticketed to go straight on back to the US on a connecting flight in Delhi, Arvind also had to get the SmarTours agency to spend most of the evening getting everyone rebooked on flights back to the US the next day. Amazingly everything worked out, and we were headed back to the US the next evening after a wonderfully interesting journey through India and Nepal.

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Mike Miller, Cathy Dawson and I spent nineteen days on a mission trip to Basa village in Nepal in mid November through early December. We trekked to the remote village in the Nepal Himalayas to help initiate a hydroelectric project for a community that has never had electricity. The villagers cook and heat their homes with wood-burning fire pits. The villagers suffer health problems from inhaling smoke each day, and the nearby mountain forest is threatened from wood cutting. Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting sponsored our successful fund raising project. So, we were able to purchase two hydroelectric generators for the village.

We rode in a bus with our crew of porters, kitchen staff and guides, along with the hydroelectric equipment, from Kathmandu to the end of the road in Jiri. While the 250 lbs. of equipment was carried on the backs of porters direct to Basa, we took a circuitous route through the mountains to enjoy trekking the middle Himalayas in the Solu region.

In Basa, Mike, a retired electrical engineer, and I met with the local project engineer, Chandra Nepal. With the village leaders, we inspected the waterfall-fed stream, which will serve as the hydro-power source for the electricity generator. Mike reviewed the plan with Chandra for construction of a small directional dam and power station and for stringing wire from the power station to the village. Mike was satisfied that the plans are sound and he was impressed with Chandra’s practical approach to the difficulties of creating electricity in such a remote area.

A major concern, however, was that only one generator was delivered to Basa. We had contracted for two. The problem was resolved at a meeting back in Kathmandu with representatives of Techno Village Co. (the supplier of the generator equipment). It was interesting to participate in a business meeting with company representatives and the board of the Basa Village Foundation NGO. The meeting started with tea and the utmost civility. However, voices began to rise, and eventually I had to demand that the Company and NGO reps explain in English to Mike and me the problems and commit to a solution. The explanation we received was that only one generator was in stock and the second was to be available for transport to Basa within three weeks. Because the Company reps are high caste Brahmins and the NGO members are from the lower caste Rai people, who are farmers, there were some communication problems and distrust. However, the problems were resolevd and the second generator was transported to Basa three weeks later.
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The water site is a beautiful waterfall/stream a rigorous 20 minute hike from the village. The only effects on the environment will be: 1) a little dam that will help the water flow narrow at a natural funnel to maximize flow into a pipe during dry season (winter); 2) a cistern and shelter for the generator; and 3) poles within the village to lift wires up to the homes. The plan is to pin the wire to a rock wall along the waterfall and then string wire underground up to the village to minimize the number of poles needed.

While the equipment is owned by the Basa Village Foundation NGO, the system will be run and operated by a village co-op. Two village-wide meetings were held while we were in Basa, and there was great enthusiasm for the project within the village. A “code of conduct” was agreed to by the villagers as to the provision of labor by the village to construct and maintain the system, as well as a sliding scale for villagers to contribute financially for an initial buy-in and then monthly maintenance of the system. It is anticipated that construction will be completed by early summer. So, I hope when I return to Basa in the fall I will see lights in the village.

The system will provide very modest electricity to the 62 homes in the village. Each home will only have enough power for the equivalent of about 4 low-wattage light bulbs. But the villagers don’t have TVs or high-power appliances. They just want to be able to see around their homes at night without burning wood or kerosene.

Cathy, Mike and I had a fun and challenging trek to Basa. The high and low point for me was climbing 14,000 ft. Pike (Peekay) Peak. I scurried up to the top solo, got lost coming down and had an adventure fighting my way through heavy underbrush, a rhododendrun and pine forest, and sliding down a frozen waterfall. I came down the wrong side of the mountain, because it was covered in a cloud allowing me about twenty feet visibility and I got disoriented. The trail I was following at the base of Pike was washed out by an avalanche. As night fall was fast approaching and I was beginning to look for shelter to survive the night, I found a boot print I recognized and was able to make it back to camp. Our sirdar, Ganesh Rai, and 4 of our crew were still up on the mountain. looking for me.

Next morning Ganesh, Mike and I hiked back to the top and had spectacular views of the Everest massif and other 8,000 meter peaks along the Nepal-Tibet border. Photography was a challenge with 40 mph winds. As we neared Basa, we were met by the village musicians, who piped and drummed us into the village. The villagers showered us with flowers, and matrons pushed cups of rakshi (home-brewed spirits) into our hands. During our three days in Basa we visited many homes as well as the school. The students performed traditional Rai dances for us.
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Cathy’s experience as a teacher and massage therapist were put to good use. While we trekked, she worked daily with two of our porter-students to improve their English. She gave the less shy members of our crew massages for sore muscles, and delighted the 70-year old wife of the Lama of Gaur with a first in a lifetime massage. In Basa she taught the kids rhyming and clap/slap games to aid their English acquisition.

We also distributed shoes to all of the guys in our crew and some of their children courtesy of First Friends. I delivered some materials for the school, including bookmarks made by kids in Hamilton County Juvenile Detention Center. And I gave the student dancers Beanie Babies.
Another favorite memory of the trek is sitting with our crew by a campfire under the huge starlit sky with white-capped mountains looming across huge and deep valleys. One night Ganesh and Buddiraj Rai, the assistant guide, told me the stories of their Rai forefathers and the unique customs and rites of the Khaling Rai.
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Lastly, I’ll forever admire Mike Miller’s “slow but sure” approach to trekking at age 71. He made camp timely everyday and had the energy to hike up Pike and shoot photos in tearing wind and cold. And he has the technical knowledge to have helped the local engineer and Basa Village Foundation NGO to refine the plan for the hydroelectric system.

Back in Kathmandu we enjoyed the quiet of the Nirvana Garden Hotel, but hung out at the Kathmandu Guest House for social life. Friend Uttam Phuyal, manager of the KGH, introduced us to several other philanthro-trekkers. Over milk tea and beers we shared ideas about service projects in Nepal and travel adventures. Our own adventure ended with a feast at Niru Rai’s house the HQ of Adventure GeoTreks, the expedition company which took such good care of us on the trek.
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It was an almost perfect trekking experience. Our 16 members were the first group of trekkers to fly to the 2-year old Kangel airstrip. The pilot took a pass on the first attempt, but circled and made an excellent but thrilling landing on the hump of graded dirt his second try. Near the end of our first day of hiking we were surprised to be invited to the Dipwali celebration in the market village of Neli. We were entertained by local musicians and dancers, and then members of our group were invited to join in the dancing, which we did with gusto if not finesse.
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The next day we were greeted outside of Basa village by a group of local musicians. We were led to the center of the village by the musicians thumping, blaring and tooting. There we were overwhelmed by the reception of the villagers. Every child, woman and man in the village had lined up to place garlands of flowers around our necks. Local luminaries gave speeches of welcome, while we were served copious amounts of rakshi (distilled spirits) and chang (beer). Chris Rubesch, Ursula Scriven and I delivered school supplies and letters from American school children to the children of Basa. Max Rubesch created the Basa air force by distributing paper airplanes and plastic flying saucers to the village kids. Mike Rubesch joined in the kids’ favorite sport — net-less volleyball. And Chris and Max free-styled with school kids using a tied bundle of flowers for a hackey sack.
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We spent 2 & 1/2 days in Basa being entertained by a dance program put on by the school children and teachers and visits to homes around the village. The pastor of the Christian church proudly invited us into the little dirt-floor church supported by the 9 Christian families of Basa. We also visited the two traditional Rai sanctuaries outside the village. Rakshi, chang, and food was pressed on us by gracious villagers throughout our stay. When it was time to leave, we were piped and drummed out of the village by the town band and the villagers again lined up to place flower garlands around our necks. We were amazed that so many flower garlands could be created by the villagers, but growing flowers and creating beautiful garlands is the local art form.
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Basa is almost untouched by the outside world. We were only the 4th group of “white people” to visit the village. The first tourist commercial transaction in the history of the village took place,
according to our local informants, when one of our members purchased a knife from a local family. Instead of causing concern, this excited members of our crew who live in Basa, and they began speculating what villagers could sell to tourists, if Basa could become a regular trekking
destination. We discovered that our cook, Purna Rai, is a “purket” or shaman in the Rai tradition. He invited us into his home, which was outside of Adheri, our next campsite after Basa. We were granted the rare privilege of witnessing Purna perform a healing ritual in his home, which involved
him entering a trance state, chanting, dancing, and performing rituals with various sacred objects around an open fire, while 3 other Rais pounded and beat on drums and shields.

The next day we parted with Joel the Elder and John the Yeti, who would be faced with a hike up the 11,000 foot Ratnaga Danda, as they circled back to hike to Paphlu and fly back to Katmandu.
The rest of the group hiked on up through the middle-Himalaya region of Solu to enter the high-Himalaya of Khumbu. Because the area around Basa valley is not visited by trekkers, our hikes through Solu were delightfully peaceful and allowed for noncommercial engagement with locals. As we entered the Khumbu and crossed onto the Everest Base Camp Trail and then entered Sagarmatha National Park at Jorsale, the trails became jammed with trekkers and yak trains.
The daytime temperatures in the lower altitudes of Solu got up to the high 80s to make for sweaty hiking. The higher altitudes of the Khumbu brought the temperatures down for more comfortable hiking, and the beautiful great valleys and huge flora-covered hills of the Solu gave way to the great white peaks and rushing glacier-fed rivers of the Khumbu.

But the number of trekkers and yaks on the Base Camp trail caused traffic jams at bridges and enough dust that a handkerchief over the nose & mouth was sometimes necessary. We didn’t have any rain, and the sky was clear everyday, so, once the tough hike up Namche Hill was behind us, we had spectacular views of the Everest Massif and all the great peaks of the Khumbu Himalayas, including my favorite mountain, the beautiful Ama Dablam. Our high point was about 13,000 feet at Shyangboche and the Everest View Hotel, where we had morning tea and gazed out at the amazing views of Everest, Thamserku, Ama Dablam, Lhotse, Nupste, Pumori, and other white-capped peaks.

Our northern terminus was the Sherpa capitol of Khumjung, where we visited an ancient Buddhist monastery, the Hillary School and Kunde Hospital. While we were in Khumjung, our three fastest hikers, Chris, Max (the 20 somethings) and Greg (our old fart fast guy) hiked on to Tengboche Monastery for a visit to the Monastery and to enjoy the magnificent view of the Everest Massif on the Monastery grounds, completing the 2-day hike in less than a day. Dr. Bill parted company from the group when we left Khumjung. He and Himprasad hiked off to complete the hike up to Everest Base Camp and to climb 19,000 foot Kala Patar for the classic view of the Himalayan range and views into Tibet. The remainder of the group hiked back to Lukla airport via Namche Bazaar and Monjo. We befriended a Tibetan shopkeeper in Namche, who offered quite good deals on Tibetan & Sherpa handmade goods, clothes and gems. Our group probably made her budget for the year with our many purchases.

At our last night in Lukla we had the traditional banquet with our porters, kitchen crew and guides. It was a rollicking affair with dancing and rakshi drinking. Purna outdid himself with a multi-course
feast and chocolate cake for dessert. Our 28-member crew was delighted with the cash tips we gave them and the many items of clothing and gear our group donated to the crew members and their families. It was also an emotional and inspiring event. Our sirdar, Ganesh Rai, who is one of the finest human beings I know, gave a speech in which he thanked our group for what we have done for the Basa School, and the whole village. By using Adventure GeoTreks, we employ many of the men from Basa. Because the villagers are subsistence farmers with small plots of land, Ganesh explained that most of the village farms cannot support a family for an entire year. So, outside employment is required in order to make enough money to buy food during the months when local food has been exhausted. Adventure GeoTreks is the only outside employer that purposefully hires from Basa, because the owner of the company, Niru Rai, is from Basa and has remained loyal to his home village.

The one great disappointment and upsetting event of the trek was that friend Bruce was infected by a parasite in Katmandu the night before the trek started. He became dehydrated and very weak the first two days of hiking. His condition continued to deteriorate in Basa. Given that
there are no medical facilities in Basa, Dr. Bill and Ganesh recommended that Bruce be evacuated by helicopter. The chopper evac was another first for Basa. But it was bitterly disappointing for Bruce and his wife, Donna, who were wonderful companions and had been so looking forward to the trek.
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Back in Katmandu, we reunited with Cousins David & Mel, who toured Nepal with the intrepid octogenarian, my friend Joan. They reported that they had a great time touring by plane, car, foot and elephant with their guide, Raj. But, like those of us who did the temple tours around the Katmandu Valley, they experienced info overload about the many incarnations and manifestations of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and Buddha.
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Our trekking group was a wonderful and eclectic melange of personalities, which created an interesting and harmonious community in the meal tent and at tea time. We were plagued with some stomach and charpi (toilet) issues. But the group was blessed with Jude’s great spirit and perseverance, Ursula’s gentle thoughtfulness, Leslie’s happy-go-lucky attitude, Karen’s wise and helpful advice, Susan’s grit and willingness to share about dropping her sunglasses down a charpi
hole, Mike’s inquisitiveness and note taking, Joel the Younger’s video-cam work and adventure experiences, Bill’s care and concern for Bruce and his travel experiences, Gregg’s toughness and love of a good beer and cigar, Max and Chris’s youthful energy and generosity to Nepalese children, John and Joel the Elder’s self-deprecating good humor, and Bruce and Donna’s warmth and lack of self-pity despite Bruce’s severe illness.
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The comforts of the west are definitely lacking in Nepal says Britta Schroeder, a volunteer from Colorado, U.S. But despite living on rice and sleeping in a straw bed for 4 months, she would not have traded her experiences as a Global Volunteer Network (GVN) volunteer for anything. Britta Schroeder had always had an obsession with the Himalayas after hearing of her father’s time in Nepal as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Britta had volunteered in Ecuador the year before, and this year, chose Nepal, in order to visit a mountain that had been constant in her dreams. It also gave her the opportunity to really connect with the Nepalese people, and help contribute to their struggling community.

Nepal is home to the breathtaking Himalayan mountain range which contains eight of the world s ten highest peaks including Mt Everest, not to mention spectacular scenery and wildlife. But its beauty is marred by the huge suffering of the Nepali people.

Nepalese children spend their lives living under a veil of politically instability. Maoist rebels have been waging a campaign against the constitutional monarchy in a conflict that has left more than 12,000 people dead since it started in 1996. Nepal is one of the world s poorest countries, and this is often made worse by the Maoist rebellion. 40% of the Nepalese population live under the poverty line, and both young and old suffer from poor healthcare, high pollution levels and inadequate education systems.

The publicity surrounding Nepal s current political unrest worried Britta at first, but she said that during her experience she never feared for her own safety. Most of the conflict was situated in the East and West, and she was stationed in the middle.

“I definitely think it is safe for volunteers ,” she says, reflecting on her experience.

“GVN took care of everybody, and always let everyone know what was going on at all times.”

Britta volunteered in Nepal through the Global Volunteer Network (GVN) for 4 months, teaching local schoolchildren about environmental issues and health and digging gardens for a new orphanage. She also helped build a greenhouse, a resource that will benefit many in the community.

“We built a greenhouse, and it didn t seem like that would be used very often, but once the garden started blossoming and the trees started to grow, we realized that everyone was going to use the garden and the trees for food and shade. That was the best part .”

Britta lived with a host family. The family, a mother, father, grandmother and two young boys, lived in lower Bistachaap, a rural Nepali village. One moment in particular that had a massive impact on Britta was the death of her host grandmother of lung cancer and tuberculosis. It was devastating to the family, and Britta was there as the family came to terms with their loss. “She was diagnosed with lung cancer the day before she died, and I m sure it had quite a bit to do with the fact that she lived in a mud house, and cooked over a fire twice a day, every day, without a chimney,” says Britta the sadness evident in her voice. “Looking at the ceilings there, you could see the soot on the beams, and the rafters, and on the walls, and just think that the sixty year old woman’s lungs probably looked like that .”

“It’s really hard to watch that sort of thing happen and know that you are going to be able to leave this house and leave the chimneyless room and go back to fresh air.”

Because the host families who take in volunteers get paid, it provides them with a crucial extra income, in order to help make ends meet and attempt to better their lives. The Nepali people enjoy having volunteers amongst their rural communities, as they have the opportunity to exchange stories and work on their English. It is also pretty strange seeing a western woman washing her clothes on a rock!

“I know we would provide quite a bit of entertainment, when we would go out and shower, wash our clothes, or do anything Nepali style,” laughs Britta.

Working in a unique environment with other volunteers can also provide some humorous situations. One particular instance for Britta was finding a potato while digging a garden.

`It was the very first day of digging, and one of the girls I was with had found a potato. She thought it was a potato, and she was an Agriculture major says Britta. `I had just gotten there, so I didn t speak Nepali very well, and I had these dreams that I was going to take this potato and show up to my family, and the mother would be so excited that I brought something up to the table, and then they would eat it, and I would be like `oh, does everyone like my potato and they would all say that it was tasty .

So, I got out the potato, and handed it to the mother, and she kind of dropped it and screamed, and the grandmother started rambling in Nepali, and the little boy picked it up, and threw my potato across into the field . Apparently it was not a potato, and was actually a poisonous tuber that if you eat it, your tongue instantly swelled up, and you suffocated and died! Britta was sure they thought that she was either a really stupid foreigner, or that she was trying to poison them.

Either way, `We had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun , she says.

The final grand moment for Britta on her journey was hiking in the Himalayas, which was something she had wanted to do since she was a little girl. Britta climbed to the top of Kala Pattar, just short of Everest Base Camp, and described the moment in her journal:

`I could look all around me and see nothing but snow capped peaks, and the top of the world. I looked across the Khumbu glacier at Mount Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, Pumo Ri and there wasn t a cloud in the sky. I had finally made it there, by myself! I had hiked for days up to over 18,000 feet and now I was looking directly at Everest…Literally no one in sight, all the way down the mountain. Nothing but the wind and rocks and me.

`But, in my desire to prove to myself that I could do this alone, in my strive to prove my independence to myself, I had forgotten something: Who was going to take my picture?

GVN has a variety of programs in Nepal, including teaching English, working in an orphanage, community health and environmental programs, school and community maintenance, and a home stay/cultural exchange program.
There is also a fundraising trek planned to Mt Everest Base Camp in September/October 2006, in order to help poverty stricken children in Nepal.

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Nepal. When I first signed up for a trip to this strongly exotic part of the world, I’m not even sure I knew where it was–somewhere near India, I thought.

I prepared for my trip. By now I was a “pro” at managing to put just the right things I’d need into my suitcase. I had one drawer in a bureau I called “my travel drawer.” In it were a plastic soap dish, extra luggage tags, toothbrush holder, a travel alarm clock, and rain hat. What I didn’t know, though, was much about Nepal and its history.
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I got a book out of the library. I learned that for over a hundred years, until the 1950s, Nepal had been inaccessible to most foreign travelers. The kings wanted to keep their wealth within their own confines. When the country was finally opened, much of it still remained as it was a thousand years ago–narrow roads, shrines, temples and marketplaces. To visit Katmandu, the capital and largest city, is to experience a blend of modern architecture, and a journey back in time. Katmandu is filled with shrines, temples, and palaces, alongside modern first-class hotels. New Road, a popular shopping district, with chic department stores offering international brand names, vies with quaint markets selling stone sculptures, bronze figures, wood carvings and terracotta art-traditional artifacts of the culture of the Nepalese.

That’s what I wanted to see–an exciting and exotic blend of the ancient and the modern.

There were twenty in my group all from England, except one couple from Texas and myself. After our two-day stay in Thailand, we drove to the airport in Bangkok for our flight to Nepal. Here we waited three hours before finally leaving late in the afternoon of December 23rd. Christmas in Nepal–I was sure it would be very different than in the States.

I found my seat on Indian Airlines and was immediately offered a free drink. We received these free drinks during the entire trip. It was a comfortable flight. Many Japanese were on board, so I asked the young Japanese man sitting across from me what he and the others were planning to do in Nepal.

“We climb mountain,” he said.” Not Everest. Too big.” Then he laughed

“I lived in Japan for two years, and I climbed Mt. Fuji. If I remember correctly, it was pretty hard climbing,” I replied.

“Good, mama-san. You same Japanese. They supposed to climb Fuji once in life. I did last year. Good practice for Nepal.” Already we were great pals.

“Put your watches ahead ten minutes,” Dennis, our tour guide told us when we regrouped.
“Ten minutes,” I exclaimed. “Why such a small time difference?”

“It’s because the Nepalese people believe the sun hits their yak pens high up in the Himalayas just ten minutes before it falls on India. They claim it is their one chance to be ahead of India.” I smiled, set my watch ahead, and reminded myself to do the same with my travel clock when I got my luggage. I’m not sure, but I would imagine this is the only place in the world where such a short time difference is annotated. What delightful reasoning, I thought.

A bus took us from the airport to the Soaltee Oberoi Hotel in Katmandu, a first-class hotel. That was a big selling point with me when I decided I wanted to see this remote part of the world. The Soaltee Oberoi was excellent–clean rooms, carpets throughout, and the wonderful Asian hospitality I had quickly become used to.

In my room I unpacked the things I thought I might need for a couple of days, then joined the group for dinner in the Rose Room. The room was aptly named, for the walls were covered with deep-rose wallpaper, with a single rose in a vase on a white linen tablecloth at each table.
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I was a good traveler and I usually fit in well whenever plans had to be changed, but often, when plans did change, I was disappointed. When I chose this tour, two things were a “must” for me: a flight in a small plane to view Mt. Everest, and a visit to see the Living Goddess. Unfortunately dense fog canceled our flight, so instead we drove up to the Nepal/Tibet border where we had our passports stamped, though we did not cross into Communist China.

The journey up to the border was fascinating. Winding through mountains, the bus we were on followed a clear, cold-looking meandering river. On each side of the river were Sherpa villages that housed the trained guides who accompany mountain climbers. At these high altitudes, wild yak roamed on rocky hillsides, and one or two primitive-looking wooden houses, not much more than shacks, perched precariously on the steep hillsides. Men squatting along the riverbed, and holding what looked like a mallet, were pounding rocks into gravel by hand.

At lunchtime the bus pulled over to a level section of the road. The plan was for us to have a picnic lunch, but snow was now falling, so we stayed in the warm bus and ate a lunch the hotel had packed for us–fried chicken, tomato, cheese, cold roast beef, boiled eggs, apples, fruit cake. The weather, however, didn’t stop a group of children who huddled together under a large overhanging rock and watched us. One fellow volunteered to step out of the bus and give the children what food we hadn’t consumed. They smiled and waved at us. There was no language barrier here.
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Upon our return to Katmandu, we were let off the bus at bustling Durbar Square. Fresh fruit, along with piles of cabbages, carrots, pumpkins, and potatoes, were exhibited on mats on the ground. Men darted in and out on bicycles, ringing their bells; and lingering over all was the ever-present odor of incense. While I walked around, I had to be careful to avoid those men squatting in the streets getting a haircut, or their beards trimmed, or shaved. Women were picking lice out of their children’s hair, and one old woman sat naked from the waist up was receiving a massage. I was getting used to seeing the sacred cows wandering all around with no one paying any attention to them, but there were also many goats, chickens and even a few pigs that roamed as if the streets were theirs alone.
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Dabhar SquareAs I could see the crowd on Durbar Square beginning to move toward the palace, I joined my group. I hoped this meant the Living Goddess would be seen today by her subjects and tourists. She was so pampered that if she didn’t feel like walking out on the balcony and waving to the people, no one could make her do it.

“Wonder what it’s like inside the palace?” I asked Dave. He and his brother Ian were university students in England, and both seemed knowledgeable.

“I read somewhere it’s a three-story mansion with a throne room, and gold-plated windows,” David replied.

“It’s kind of a sad life for a young girl, though. Did you know she’s picked out of many three-to-four-year old girls?” he continued. “It often takes the priests several months before the right one is chosen. She can’t show any human frailties, like fear, crying, or falling ill. If these weaknesses occur any time after she has been crowned, she is immediately replaced and the process starts all over again. She is revered by both Hindus and Buddhists, and worshipped by king and commoner. She is a goddess and divine.”

“Yes,” I replied, “I remember, too, reading that before she’s chosen she has to endure spending a night among the heads of slaughtered goats, and buffaloes. Poor little thing. I wouldn’t want to do that, but if she is picked, it is a great honor for her family and she is held in high regard.”

Just then Dennis walked up to us. “You are all lucky,” he said. “’The Living Goddess is scheduled to come out on her balcony today. I believe in about ten minutes. You know, we westerners may think this ritual is bizarre, but virgin worship dates back to the 6th Century B.C. and is a very real part of Nepalese life. The sick worship her in the hopes she will cure them of their illness, politicians make offerings at her feet, believing it will help their careers, and each September the king worships her in a ceremony where he touches her crimson-painted toenails with his forehead, and presents her with a gold coin.

“The sad part of this ritual used to be that it was difficult for an ex-goddess to accept the role of humble wife after being the focus of male veneration, and their every whim satisfied. Instead of getting married, they often resorted to becoming prostitutes. Nowadays, with Nepal’s present-day Constitution, which guarantees equal rights to women, many of the ex-goddesses finish their education and go on to universities. When the goddess starts menstruating and has to be replaced, now it is more difficult to choose a successor. Families are not as anxious for their daughter to become the Living Goddess as they now know there are many more opportunities for her future than before.”

“Oh, there she is” I shouted. “Look how ornately dressed she is with jewels and the tall headdress. Two pieces of gold are chosen each day for her to wear. No wonder she’s called `golden lady.’ Look she’s smiling at us.”
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As I stood there that December day and looked up at this young girl so resplendently dressed, smiling and waving, I couldn’t help but compare her to my own daughter at the same age. My child had the freedom to do what she wanted, within reasonable bounds-to enjoy the company of her peers and, later, to pick the man of her choice. I felt a great sadness for the young goddess who stood there and waved to me. But then I realized it was not for me to judge. Their civilization and their culture are a great deal older than our two-hundred-year-old American one.

And so I just smiled back at her, knowing I would always remember the day I was privileged to see the Living Goddess of Nepal.
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