Nepal, February 2006

It’s a slow, eerily quiet day in Nepal today. I’ve been here three weeks, and this has already included one day-long “bandha” (general strike) called by a coalition of the political parties, another several-day bandha called by the Maoist insurgents, and a daylong curfew imposed by royal decree. But today is the culmination of it all, the focus of the recent upsurge in unrest, tension, and (so one reads about in the strange English-language press) violence:…  the so-called “democratic” election called for by the king (who seized absolute power one year ago on February 1). The election has been boycotted by the political parties and the Maoist insurgents, each for their own ends; their only commonality is antipathy toward the king’s autocratic rule. And so the streets are quiet today, the people subdued, the atmosphere a bit tense.

This is true even here in Boudha, the vibrant Tibetan enclave where I have spent most of my time. Until today, Boudha had seemed less affected by the chaos and unease that is more palpable in nearby Kathmandu, and (from what one hears, more so) the rest of the country. On the main road today, in lieu of the usual mess and disarray of traffic (in India, I saw a roadsign that read, “Lane driving is safe driving,” but even that seems too sophisticated a concept here), occasional clumps of pedestrians meander and chat. The stores and stalls selling Tibetan tourist trinkets, fruit, momos (tasty cheap dumplings, steamed or fried), and beautiful silk Thangkas are all closed, their metal gates shuttered and bolted with thick padlocks. And off the main road, in the heart of Boudha, the massive Buddhist “stupa” ( a huge white-washed, multi-storied, platformed dome, at once a sacred religious structure and convivial town plaza) is almost empty. Absent are the throngs of Tibetans who live here in exile or who come for a pilgrimmage, and who energetically, devoutly circumambulate the stupa (always clockwise) throughout the day, into the evening. (It’s most active in the evening, and most beauitful, with hundred of butterlamps softly burning on makeshift tables that surround the structure: add, too, the sounds of bells and chimes ringing, prayer wheels spinning, monks chanting). I’m hoping that tonight, as the sun sets and the election ends, the stupa will return to its more characteristic energetic activity, and things can start to return to “normal.”

“Normal”: not a term that applies in the least to Nepali politics these days. This is the first of my trips to Asia where immersing myself in the political landscape has seemed important, perhaps necessary. And it’s a much more complex picture than what emerges in the western media. Let me try briefly to explain (as it’s been an integral part of this trip). There are three main forces vying for power: the autocratic king (who assumed power after the rest of his family was — oops! — massacred in June, 2000); the Maoist insurgents, who have become increasingly violent over the ten years of their existence (with periodic ceasefires) and less and less the “people’s movement” they initially proclaimed to be; and about seven major political parties, the ongoing legacy of a lukewarm attempt at democracy beginning in 1990. But here’s the quirky part: the “democratic” polticial parties are seen, almost unanimously, as the least desirable, the least trustworthy, the most corrupt, of these three forces. No one I’ve spoken with –no matter their caste, no matter their life-station — trusts them. The king, on the other hand — despite his tyranny, despite the human rights concerns — has some degree of support from many people (and there are interesting facts that don’t fit into a totalitarian rule, such as freedom of the press: the English newspapers are wildly anti-monarchy, filled with countless articles of lurid propaganda and dubious grammar).

So the king called the elections, and the political parties do not support them because the electorate, in fact, don’t want them as candidates, and the Maoists do not support them because, well, they’re insurgents. And so crazy, inexplicable things happen: two days ago, prior to the bandha, the government seized hundreds of vehicles, in a move to force people to drive during the Maoist-initiated strike (I don’t get it, but the newspapers are of no help in figuring it out). The autocratic king calls for general elections, the political parties want the elections boycotted; the Maoists hire poor villagers to come into the cities to stage rallies and act as stooge protestors, against their will; and the “people’s” general strikes are hated by most of the people, who fear that to violate the strike may result in physical danger, and who anxiously watch their already fragile livelihoods disintegrate. It’s an unhappy mess of a situation, and one that seems doomed to deteriorate further, perhaps with devastating consequences for the Nepali people.

So that’s the news on the political front. The other primary aspect of my trip — in counterbalance, delightful and fulfilling — has been my involvement with the Tibetan Buddhist communities here. Each morning (starting at 6:45 a.m. — go figure!), I work at a barebones school, teaching English to a class of Tibetan immigrants and monks. As luck would have it, their usual teacher, Martin, needed to be away at the same time of my trip here, because his father-in-law died (okay, lucky for me, not for his father-in-law. Think equal parts Eve Harrington and Anna Leonowens, and you’ve got it). I’m loving this, and once the students got used to my strange mix of lessons (I hop from quantum theory to “Tashi puts the book ON the table…Tashi puts the book NEXT TO the table” to telling them, absolutely deadpan, that I’m in Nepal because I’m a spy for the CIA, and then write the word “joke” on the blackboard, which they dutifully repeat aloud without yet knowing its meaning), I think they’re liking it, too. (The first day, to engage each in individual conversation and figure out their language proficiency, I tendered a few basic, getting-to-know-you questions: “What is your name?… Do you have brothers or sisters?… What’s it like to have fled your homeland from a brutal, sadistic communist regime who in 50 years will be the world’s next hegemonic superpower?” That kind of thing).

From there, I head to one of the many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the immediate environs of the stupa, where I am sitting in on a course in their “shedra” (university), studying a classic 2nd century text on metaphysics. (We don’t exist. So stop worrying. Stop reading. Go have fun. No, fun doesn’t exist either. But — and here’s the delightful rub of it all — non-existence doesn’t exist either! Nor does it not exist. So stop not worrying, stop not reading, go have some not fun. We’re all gonna meet the same fate as Martin’s father-in-law anyway. It’s just a matter of time, which doesn’t exist. Martin, who’s Martin?).

Boudha is also extraordinary in the ample, and generous, presence of many great “rinpoches”, or spiritual teachers here. Even in my brief time here, I have had the good fortune to meet several rinpoches who are wise, kind, learned, and, best of all, remarkably accessible; one can go to their reception chambers and have tea, ask questions, listen to (or receive) blessings. I have done this a few times, and it seems a magical time, evoking some sort of ancestral memory within: “rinpoche”, like “rabbi,” means teacher, and to sit in on these small, informal, but respectful and ritualized meetings, conducted in an ancient tongue, with people coming to receive family guidance or a blessing, evokes for me what I imagine shtetl culture to be like, with the great rabbi not only the religious leader, but de facto therapist, mediator, judge, counselor. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and (the joking of the prior paragraphs aside), an honor and thrill to be stepping a bit more deeply into this world. Similarly, I have attended several “pujas” (prayer services, offerings) in the monasteries, and these, too, are filled with a mix of pomp, ritual, unworldly music (including a shofar-like horn, and cymbals, drums and bells), and longs stretches of rote repetition or chanting — intoning, droning, atoning, invoking, in an old, old tongue — how familiar, deep down, this all feels! In how each relishes liturgical, theological, and philosophical intricacies, I am struck by the similarities of Tibetan Buddhism with Talmudic Judaism.

So — I’ve probably already far exceeded the appropriate length of a well-mannered email correspondence. Thank you for reading (if you’ve made it this far!). On Saturday, barring another general strike, I will leave here to travel to Pokhara in the western part of Nepal, and head out on a trek for a few days in the Annapurna range of the Himalayas (oh yes, have I mentioned the mountains yet? They’re extraordinary. From Kathmandu and Boudha hazed in because of pollution and lack of rain, but extraordinary). From there a week in India, but first a jaunt down to the south of Nepal, where a teenaged boy has been sitting in meditation under a tree for six or seven months now, reportedly not taking food or drink. Some say he is the next Buddha. Others, less sure, still say that to be in his presence is dazzling. I am eager to see this, and go with an open mind of whatever it might be.

Probably no more travel letters coming, but you never know!

Love,
Steve

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