Friday, August 31, 2012

A Barber's Tales

Barber Shop
POKHARA, NEPAL My barber clips away and regales me with tales of the Hindu gods: “Lord Brahma, the creator, and Lord Vishnu, the preserver, had a terrible fight over who was the greater god. Lord Brahma said, ‘I am. I’m the creator of all things.’ Lord Vishnu said, ‘No, I’m the greater, because I’m the preserver of all things.’ The argument raged until it occurred to them to ask Lord Shiva, the third god of the trinity. To resolve the argument, Lord Shiva created a pillar of fire and said to them, ‘Whoever can find the end to this pillar of fire is the greater.’ Lord Brahma went down the pillar and Lord Vishnu went up the pillar. After some time, Lord Vishnu returned, disappointed, ‘I could not find the end of the pillar of fire.’ Lord Brahma then returned and exclaimed, ‘I found the end!’ Lord Shiva knew better and retorted, ‘No you didn’t. You are lying. Because you are a liar, no one will worship you.’ This is why today you won’t find any temples to Lord Brahma.

Narada was a young musician who played for Lord Vishnu. He was very proud, but not very good-looking. He wanted a wife but was afraid no woman would accept him. He decided to ask Lord Vishnu, who was the most beautiful of all the gods, if he could borrow his face. Lord Vishnu said, ‘No, this is not possible.’ But Narada persisted, ‘Just for one day’, he begged. Lord Vishnu relented, ‘If you go to the river and wash your face, you will have my face, but I warn you, do not look at yourself.’ Narada did as he was told, washed his face in the river, and went to where the women were. When they saw him, they all laughed and made fun of him. Narada didn’t know what happened. But then he looked at his face in the river and saw it was a Monkey’s face. Embarrassed and angry, Narada went to Lord Vishnu and demanded, ‘Why have you done this?’ Lord Vishnu answered, ‘Your monkey face will become your strength.’ Narada then became known as Hanuman and today we worship him for his strength that comes from his celibacy.

Parvati, the wife of Lord Shiva, the destroyer, became lonely when her husband was away, so she decided to make a child from clay to keep her company. When she breathed on the clay, it came to life as a young boy, who she named Ganesha. One of Ganesha’s tasks was to guard their house while she would leave to bathe. On one such occasion, Lord Shiva appeared. Of course, he didn’t recognize his son, so they fought. Lord Shiva cut off his son’s head. When Parvati came back, she cried out in grief, ‘what have you done? You have killed your own son!’ Lord Shiva became sad and immediately set out to rectify the situation. He told his men and gods, ‘Go out and find the first head facing north.’ They found an elephant’s head, which Lord Shiva attached to his son’s body. Today Ganesha’s elephant head is revered as the ultimate reality of our soul. We worship Ganesha as the destroyer of evil and the embodiment of wisdom." 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

This Is Our Kitchen

Chitwan Kitchen
CHITWAN, NEPALThe walls of our house are made of mud and brick,” Hemanta explaines. “The roof is thatched. We don’t have a bathroom or a kitchen. Our kitchen is like the one I showed you in the village, a little hardened dirt floor off to one side where my wife and mother can start a wood fire and cook our meals. Like everyone in the village, my wife washes our clothes by hand. And like the others, we have a small rice paddy, which keeps us in rice four months of the year. We have sixteen ducks and I have a bicycle, which I use to get to work. Wages are very low and prices very high — stores are mostly for tourists — villagers barter and trade to get by. We want our two kids to have more, but it’s difficult. I want another male duck so we can breed more. A male duck cost 1,000 rupees ($12.50). My wife wants a water buffalo, but a buffalo cost 60,000 rupees ($681), and that’s too much for us. In the ideal world, I’d like to buy an elephant, but they’re really expensive, four million rupees ($45,454). If the tourists come back, (that’s a big if) a good elephant can pay for itself in two years. But there’s a lot of uncertainty with our government and that’s creating problems for the tourism industry. Our Prime Minister, who’s a Moist, dissolved the parliament. The parliament had two years to write a constitution, but failed, so now we have neither a parliament nor a constitution, only a Prime Minister, and no one knows what’s going to happen next. We hope that fighting doesn’t break out again. When that happened, it was disastrous for the Park. Poachers were able to come in and kill some of our animals. The Park animals and tourism are our livelihood.”

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

One-Horned Rhinos

One-horned Rhinos
CHITWAN, NEPALShhh!” Hemanta, my guide, signals, just a couple meters ahead of me but hardly visible through the tall elephant grass. We tip toe slowly until we reach an opening on a bank overlooking a small patch of water lilies. There, on the other side just thirty meters away, two rare one-horned rhino cows wallow in the lilies. Above them, in the grass, a large bull rhino peers out at us. “They can smell us and hear us, but can’t see us,” Hermanta whispers. Alert to our presence, the cows cock their heads and stare at us — their ears pointed up. Slowly, the two drag their large black bodies out of the water and lumber onto the grass bank. “They’re dangerous. The rhinos, tigers, and crocodiles kill around a dozen people a year. Sixty years ago it was very dangerous to live here. Besides the jungle animals, the natives had to contend with malaria. Only the Tharu people were immune to the malaria-infested mosquito. But don’t worry, it’s okay now.” Without talking, we move from the elephant grass into a grove of sal trees. Hemanta pauses and points. Two spotted deer jump out in front of us. Beyond, a heard of them come to life and in flurry disappear into the thicket. “The tigers love the spotted deer.” “And humans?” I ask. “The rangers will kill the tiger that kills a human. Once a tiger has eaten human flesh, he will return for more.” We reach the river where a canoe is waiting for us. As we drift down the river, high in the trees, monkeys swing from limb to limb while below, barely visible, submerged crocodiles lie in prey. 

Monday, August 27, 2012


KATHMANDU, NEPALHere on the Bagmati river we cleanse and cremate our dead,” my guide, Prachanda, tells me. I count ten pyres on the other side of the muddy river. On one of the pyres, smoke rises from a freshly lit pile of wood and rice grass. On another, a man stokes the crumbling remains of a fire. And on a third, a man sweeps the ashes into the river. Behind another pyre, stacked with fresh lumber, lies a body on a stretcher wrapped in a bright yellow shroud. “It takes three hours to cremate a body,” Prachanda says. “Is it okay to take pictures?” I ask. Prachanda nods his approval and I snap away. “Beyond the bridge is where they cleanse the bodies.” There, a woman and a boy scoop water out of the river and wash it over a cement slab that runs down the concrete steps into the water. Above, a yellow clad corpse lies on a stretcher surrounded by a small gathering of mostly men who look clueless as to what they are suppose to do. Passers-by show no interest as they go about their routines. After considerable hesitation, three of the men lift the body off the stretcher and lay it on the cement slab so the feet barely touch the water. One of the men cuts away the shroud from the face while another cuts the clothe from her feet. It’s a woman. I’m sure. A group of excited school children pass behind the scene without taking notice. Four or five men now care for the body. With their hands, they scoop water out of the muddy river and rub it over the woman’s face and feet. “This is an important part of the purification process — to drink from the Bagmati before being cremated. Each family develops its own ritual.” Three of the men take the body back to the stretcher. One of them puts a garland around her neck and another sprinkles red dust on her shroud. They then proceed to the cremation pyre.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Role Model

Varanasi Street Scene
VARANASI, INDIA Everyone takes advantage of the tourists: entrance fees are doubled for tourists, cabs, tuk tuks, and rickshaw drivers charge whatever they feel I'm a sucker to pay, a slow wifi connection at a hotel can cost me $17 per night, beggars and little children on government dole to lazy to go to school or find work pull on my emotional strings, obsequious washroom, shoe rack, and hotel attendants line up to take their share, take a picture and I plop down another $5. No toilet paper in the restrooms. “Delhi belly?” Use your finger. That’s the Indian way, they say. On the streets total chaos: vehicles of every description, people, beggars, bodies (sleeping?), filth, mud, trash, manure, monkeys, and cows — people urinating — honk, honk, we’re coming through. This is crazy. No, it’s dangerous. Which side of the road are we driving on anyway? Somehow it’s worth it. I would come back. The Taj Mahal and the majestic forts, palaces, mausoleums, temples, and mosques of the “golden triangle” leave me in awe. Exotic curries, tandoori, rices, naan, and puri delight my palate. The mass and diversity of humanity bewitch me — Muslim women in black “niqabs” mingle easily with the Hindu crowds: women in colorful saris and religious markings, Sikhs in turbans, and ascetics in their golden robes. The mysteries of a 3800 year old religion impervious to imposing its beliefs on others — maybe a role model for the rest of the world?