Kathmandu is a city of contradictions. While many many tourists walk the streets of the upscale Thamel area, which reminds me of Toronto’s Kensington Market with much better shopping but minus the diversity, you have to walk 10 minutes in the right direction and suddenly you are in the middle of a timeless courtyard that has been lived in for hundreds of years and is still used to this day. Or see the bizarre Toothache Shrine with many needles:
Or find an ancient temple on which cloth are displayed for sale:
Or walk by a porter hurling a heavy load on his back as if cars were never invented:
A big part of the allure of places like these is the enigmatic feeling of suddenly being transported to another time. The sounds, smells and general vibes of Kathmandu’s old city have a magically timeless quality to them.
Of course, there are Coca Cola ads everywhere, everyone has a cell phone and it’s hard to avoid cars and motorcycles but you can turn into a narrow path lined with leaning walls and exposed electricity wires, dodge a few motorcyclists and ragged children and suddenly you are face-to-face with a 1000 year old shrine, “unprotected” and still used on a daily basis for prayers. In Nepal (and many parts of Asia), history is alive and well and not a concept in a museum.
The magical thing about these places is not that there is a lot of culture and history here; it is the fact that these traditions are still alive and have been continuously alive for centuries. I really enjoy this experience but am also aware of a deep contradiction that it entails.
There are many things to admire about different traditions and many values that should be cherish and preserved. But there are also many aspects that should not and travelling here provides an excellent chance to see the reality and be humbled by the complexity of culture.
The traveller if he or she scratches the surface of the picturesque can easily find the grotesque: child labour, thwarted lower casts, suppressed women. It’s easy to generalize and and pass a verdict on old traditions as either misunderstood treasure troves of wisdom or blind systems of oppression. But the real challenge is to stay calm, observe and decide what to take in your backpack and what to leave behind hoping it would transform soon!
The first thing I noticed was the smell. Getting off the plane in Delhi to transfer for Kathmandu, I immediately knew I had arrived in Asia when I could sense the faintest smell of spice in the air. And from that point on it became stronger and stronger. The smell of curry and incense at every corner of Kathmandu. Things are general intense in Nepal and many parts of India: the smells, the colours, the noise, the lack of personal space: every sense is engaged in some way, pleasant or unpleasant! Asia is sensual in many ways. I can see how people can feel intensely homesick after leaving here!
Most of this afternoon was spent in silence in my apartment. The weather turned windy and cold and I decided to postpone my plans to go up a lookout with a giant Buddha statue to another time. I don’t have Internet and electricity was gone most of the afternoon, so I had a good chance to sit and listen to the breeze going through the trees and children playing outside.
I had missed my own company! If we could have more time to sit quietly and look at the leaves dance in the wind; not even to reflect but just rest our mind! The monk I met today told me that in order to meditate properly you have to go far, where there is nothing else and quiet your mind. I feel the more comfortable we are with ourselves and with silence we become more comfortable with others.
In Canada, I had wished to have some time to myself. I envisioned a retreat in a forest somewhere during the summer but I didn’t expect to find this silence here, halfway across the world. I know it won’t last, I am here on a mission. I want to engage and I want to learn. But, also, I want to be silent so that the universe may speak to me and through me.
When electricity came back, I listened to a traditional Persian song called “Dawn” on my computer. This is how the lyrics go: “do you know why the rooster lament at dawn? To remind you another day has passed and you are still lost!”
When I woke up, I lay down for a very long time in my bed and listened to the dogs barking outside. Then I went for the walk I had wanted to do the previous evening. The morning was fresh and beautiful with unbelievable mountain views covered in mist. Within five minutes of where I live is a path that goes up through a pine forest for 2.5 kilometres to reach a giant Buddha statue. Many people were jogging or walking up the path and my day started with about 20 friendly nods and good mornings. This is dangerously addictive; more addictive than Tim Horton’s coffee and depressing morning news reports!
After watching invigorating archery and giant dart matches in which men sang and danced after each series of successful trails, I proceeded to the Memorial Chorten and walked around its white dome until I got to a small enclosed meditation hall where a monk was carefully placing food offerings in front of an alter. I sat quietly in the back and looked at the beautiful hard wood floor, the statues of the Buddha and the traditional instruments set around the room.
One of the wonderful things about Bhutan is that most people can speak very good English. This sometimes feels unreal. This morning I was walking around the weekend market and decided to have a meal of fried red rice there. The old Bhutanese man who worked at the small cafe spoke excellent English. Sometimes it feels like I am living in a dubbed documentary about Asia! The Bhutanese I have met so far are invariably polite and courteous. Combined with the amazing mountain scenery and the wonderful way time stretches here (especially since I have not had Internet here for the past few days), there is a feeling of magic that I try not to get to excited about lest it is disrupted by a jealous twist of fate!
Once the monk had finished setting up the offerings. He came and sat besides me. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Canada”, I said and smiled, happy at this wonderful opportunity to talk with him. We talked a little bit about the length of my stay in Bhutan, what I was doing back home and his life in the monastery. To my surprise, he pulled out a smart phone and showed me Canada on Google Earth. He told me about cranes who fly to his village every year from Tibet and stay there for the winter. He showed me their pictures. They were majestic beautiful birds.
Next, he asked me of a good program for translation to which I responded by showing him Google Translate. He wanted to translate something a friend had written him on Facebook. Before I knew it we were Facebook friends and he invited me to his Monastery which is about 8 kilometres north of Thimphu. He kindly offered me some tasty milk tea and as we sat there sipping tea and eating rice puffs, an older monk entered with a child on his back. My friend told me that he was a senior meditating monk. This was hard to believe as he put down the child and proceeded to play with him in a carefree and fun manner, giving him the ancient looking instruments to play with and teasing him with a loud brass instrument. I loved his fresh, childlike presence. After tea, I said goodbye to my new found friend and walked back to my apartment.
My first 3D printed object is an ornate Yoda head! The design is not mine and is from a website (Thingiverse.com) that hosts a repository of designs for physical objects. Our school has recently acquired three 3D printers (3D Touch from BFB) and I am lucky to have access to them. It took about 30 hours to print. Because of the cavities there were a lot of support material and it’s almost impossible to take all of them out. There might be a way to melt the support material but I don’t want to risk anything with my first Yoda yet!
I would love to make a skin for Yoda’s head, perhaps one can be made out of resin. Combining 3D printing with traditional sculpting techniques would be very interesting and might make sculpting more accessible to amateurs like myself 🙂
The flight from Kathmandu to Paro is one of the most exhilarating I have every taken. It’s a very short flight (about an hour) but within minutes of leaving Kathmandu’s polluted skies, majestic mountains appear in the horizon and soon you are surrounded by the world’s highest mountains. I was lucky to have a window seat on the left side of the plane with excellent views of the elegant peaks. There was a flurry of movement in the cabin as soon as the names of the peaks including Mount Everest were announced on the PA system and many cameras (including mine) tried to capture the magic of the view. I immediately thought of Malory and his intrepid colleagues who ventured here in the 1920’s. I could feel the addictive allure of the mountain.
The descent into Paro is a great adventure in itself. The plane has to make many turns and twists in the middle of narrow valleys with views of remote Monasteries and houses surrounding it before landing on a short airstrip in front of a beautiful building that serves as the immigration and customs offices.
The driver from the TechPark I will be working out of for the next six weeks was waiting for me with a sign and friendly greetings. The drive from Paro to Thimpu takes about 45 minutes and passes beautiful rivers, traditional houses and makeshift stalls that sell … asparagus! There is one point where two rivers meet: one coming from Paro and one coming from Thimphu. At one point we passed many rosy cheeked children coming back from Saturday activity day at school. There were endearing signs on the road saying things like “inconveniences regretted!” and “It’s not a rally, enjoy the valley!”
Thimphu is by far the biggest city in Bhutan and yet feels like a large town. There are on going construction on the outskirts. As I heard later there are strict rules that buildings must follow traditional Bhutanese style, a style that is very beautiful and exudes a timeless quality, although having a explicit restriction might be an impediment to creativity.
My apartment is very spacious and clean and has a Swiss lodge feel to it. There are two bedrooms and many balconies with views of the city. I have a flatscreen TV with many English, Bhutanese and Indian channels including BBC and Al-Jazeera. I have to turn on a water heater to prepare for a shower which immediately reminds me of my aunt’s old house in Iran where I had many fond memories and was fascinated by the process of preparing for a bath by heating the water first.
After leaving my luggage at the apartment, I meet the CEO of the incubation centre that I will be working at. Dr. Tshering Cigay Dorji is a courteous and friendly gentleman who welcomes me to Bhutan and invites me to a lunch of Bhutanese and Indian dishes in downtown Thimphu. Dr. Dorji has studied in Australia and Japan and has a PhD in Computer Science. He gives me information about the history and mission of the incubation centre as well as general life in Bhutan.
After lunch I come back to my apartment and although it’s 2pm in the afternoon, can’t help but fall sleep to the hypnotic sound of children playing, dogs barking and night descending on the city. I wake up a few times but stay in bed until 5 next morning!
Before leaving for Asia, I spent a few days hanging out with friends and family. One of the fun activities was playing Pacman using vegetables as interface! We used two zucchinis and two cucumbers, each corresponding to a computer arrow key. This was made possible by the wonderful Makey Makey kit from MIT.
A few days earlier I had played the same game with a slightly different vegetable set (four zucchinis, two of which were eaten before the second gameplay session!) with my two amazing buddies, Luke and Grace (ages 6 and 9).
Other than them being a lot of fun to play with, using vegetables as interface allowed for a more collaborative gameplay. In both cases, players chose one or two vegetables and attempted to collaborate (with mixed results) with other player(s). Players soon would realize that communication, especially at the learning stage of gameplay was key and one of them would assume a leader role, saying (often shouting with excitement 🙂 ) directions to other players. After the game and a mock dance, the cucumber part of the interface was chopped and eaten!
A few days later in Kathmandu, I saw various groups of men huddled over boards, consumed in games. I later found out most were playing a traditional Nepalese game called “Move the Tiger”. I am unsure as to what is the history behind this game or what are its rules but am very excited to find out when I have a chance. I wonder if it’s possible to combine Makey Makey with Move the Tiger to create an edible board game!