Stupa Spells

Time is seriously flying by – I cannot believe that this is the last week of January.

Last week at work was fairly busy for IDEA – Sheri was in meetings outside the city for two days, so Adil and I had to manage our own (and with the help of our great admin team!). I finalized my first draft of my gender audit report, and while waiting to have a meeting arranged with a Nepali lawyer, I did some comparative constitutional analysis relating to substantive gender equality in the Canadian and Nepali constitutions, and spent some time working on the IP (indigenous peoples) audit tool. There’s a lot of work ahead for me with that – the tool consists of an overview of international standards, constitutional examples, and non-constitutional best practices to assist in answering 60 or so questions relating to IP issues, so I have a lot of research and constitutional analysis ahead of me. There’s also a brief summary before every question describing why it’s important to ask each specific question during the audit of a constitution, so I have a bit of drafting ahead of me as well. The week ended with a meeting between IDEA, another INGO, a Danish diplomat, and the major party whips and several other Members of Parliament, to introduce one of IDEA’s latest projects. This project relates to the development of Citizen Initiative Centres (CIC) in fourteen different offices across Nepal. The centres will serve to inform people about their rights, and allow for concerns to be brought forward at the local level to help the government identify potential problems. It’s a really cool project (hopefully, I’ll be sent out to one of these offices at some point to give a presentation), and similar programs carried out in African countries have shown to be really useful in increasing political involvement of individuals in more rural areas. Plus, it was awesome getting to meet some very active and prominent members of Nepali politics.

Super meta Nepal building blocks photo.

I also can’t get over how cool the people I’m meeting here are. Seriously. I don’t know if it’s just the type of person attracted to countries like Nepal, but along with Nepalis being some of the nicest people ever, the Westerners I meet here have been so interesting and friendly – I think this is seriously one of the easiest countries in the world to make friends in. And often, the people are doing things they really care about, which makes it great just to be around them. There is a lot of positive energy in this country, and I find that amazing since it would be very easy to let negativity get the best of you here. It’s really special.

Views of KTM

Crossing the bridge into the west end of the city

So, with all the cool people I’m meeting, my social schedule has been off the hook. My buddy and I decided to do #treatyoself Tuesday (again, he had booked a hotel in the city so I got to steal his hot water), and we went to Kotetsu, which is this absolutely amazing sushi place. I realize that sounds like a strange thing to say in a landlocked country, but they fly the fish in from Japan (I wasn’t kidding about this being #treatyoself Tuesday) so it was like heaven. I think I can afford to go there once a month if I maintain my usual standard of paying 8 dollars or less per meal. On Wednesday, I met up with some Canadian girls, and we went over to a local’s house to play board games (apparently people like Catan in Nepal too, who knew?) and try some Nepali wine.

As an aside, I’m going to get real with you about this wine. Wine should not have a pineapple on its bottle. There should never be pineapple wine. The wine here is generally very sweet – even the reds don’t have much bite to them – and is somewhere “between 11 and 12%” so it should basically be called hangover juice, and not wine. You can get imported wine, but you’re paying double the price of wine in Canada, which I cannot afford to do, given how much wine I drink on a weekly basis (it feels wrong to have dinner without a glass of wine; it’s a healthy habit, don’t worry). So I’m either going to start cutting my wine with tonic water, or start drinking less of it. Neither option is particularly appealing. #kathmanduquandaries

On Thursday, I went to my first ever expat event, and was surprised, again, at the amount of really cool people I met (for some reason I pictured expat events consisting of 60 year old white men in sport coats smoking pipes speaking in posh British accents. I don’t know why). It was not like that at all – it was a good mix of people from all over, and more people close to my age (I still haven’t accepted that I’m sort of getting semi-older and hitting the age where I hang out with professionals… which is also what I am, but I guess I have some form of grown-up cognitive dissonance). And then it was Friday! After our meeting, Adil and I met up with our American buddy and then with the Canadian crew and some of their friends from all over, and we all couldn’t resist hitting the ol Club OMG again (it calls to me like a siren with Top 40 hits from the early aughts and onward).

This past weekend, the weather was stunning! Seriously, all week it was so cloudy, which has a huge effect on the temperature inside buildings, so our working time was spent even more bundled than usual. So I vowed to spend all the sunny hours outside on Saturday. My original plan was to do a day hike in one of the parks just outside the city, but I failed on getting all my supplies together before Saturday morning and realized I wouldn’t be starting until noon or so, which would mean I’d be heading down in the dark. So, instead, I walked over to the west side of the city to see Swayambhunath.


Swayambhunath is a Buddhist temple, and is a UNESCO world heritage site. There is significant earthquake damage around the buildings around the temple, but very limited damage to the temple itself.

According to local legend (and geological evidence), Kathmandu Valley was once a lake, and the hill upon which Swayambhunath sits rose spontaneously from the waters, hence its name (swayambhu means ‘self-arisen’). Allegedly, the emperor Ashoka visited the temple roughly 2000 years ago, but the earliest confirmed activity here dates back to the mid-400s. The temple was reconstructed in the 14th century, after Mughal invaders broke it open in search of gold.

I approached the temple from the eastern stairway, and I regret not counting how many steps I took, because it was a lot (I’m currently doing a workout program designed by a friend of mine who does figure competition at the international level, and those stairs on top of legs day, let me tell you!).

Starting up those stairs

Stairs leading down – trust me, it is far more intimidating in person!

The temple is occasionally called ‘the Monkey Temple’ because it’s a very popular hangout for the local rhesus macaques.

Stairs leading up! Not captured on film: the unsuspecting tourist with a bag of goods and the monkey to his right. He clearly does not know monkeys (I’ve had too many experiences with a certain monkey in KwaZulu-Natal breaking into my tent to steal my bananas) because he’s not protecting that bag at all and is busy staring at his phone. The monkey started rifling through his bag and pulling things out before he even realized what was going on.

Rhesus macaque contemplating life over KTM

The temple itself is a white dome with a spire. The dome represents the earth, while the thirteen tiers of the conical part of the spire represents each of the thirteen stages humans must pass through to reach nirvana. The sides of the spire’s squares line up so that each is facing one of the cardinal directions (for certain friends: this means north, east, south, and west, and not right, left, up and back). Each side has the eyes of Buddha and the Nepali number one (ek), which stands for unity. Above and in between the eyes is the third eye, which represents Buddha’s all-seeing insight.

View of the stupa from the north-west.

The base of the stupa is ringed by prayer wheels embossed with the mantra “om mani padme hum.” As part of a pilgramage to a stupa, you walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction, and spin the prayer wheels clockwise as wheel. The purpose of clockwise circumambulation (to walk around something in a circle) derives from the original Sanskrit word, to circumambulate sunwise. The orientation of the gates of a stupa are said to follow the sun’s daily course, from sunrise to zenith to sunset to nadir. Additionally, each of these phases of the sun, and each direction, is associated with one of Buddha’s major deeds. East, for his birth, south, for enlightenment, west, for setting the wheel of Dharma in motion, and north, for his final liberation. So circumambulating sunwise is to follow the path of Buddha through these deeds. Further, circumambulating counter-clockwise does not only fail to earn you any karma, it actually creates negative karma. So be careful around those stupas and prayer wheels!

Heading to the north side of the stupa, with view of prayer wheels.

Prayer wheels at Bodhnath Stupa (see below!)

So since the weather was so awesome, I just stayed on top of the hill for a while to soak up some sun! We don’t get a lot of daylight hours here, and most of them occur while I’m in my office, so I feed my vitamin D addiction as frequently as possible.

Prayer flags at Swayambhunath, looking out over Kathmandu

My super North American outfit! I will never blend, so I occasionally embrace it. However, I have started figuring out more reasonable cab rates, even with a ball cap on.

Views out over KTM from the alleys surrounding the stupa

I had a pretty lazy Sunday – I got another kurta made, but it is more summer-y, so I’m hoping within two weeks I can comfortably wear it without any layers (that is probably extreme wishful thinking). Adil and I had made plans several weeks ago to head to Bodhnath stupa, which is the largest stupa in Asia, for the full moon. Apparently, the stupa is lit up quite spectacularly on a full moon. I say ‘apparently’ because, even though we went on the first night of the full moon, we were informed by some fellow tourists (who made the same mistake as us!) that the full moon is celebrated the night before. So we did not get to see it lit up, and unfortunately, the spire of Bodhnath was damaged significantly during the earthquake, and is still under construction. There are some fairly lofty goals as to when it will be repaired – I’m fairly skeptical as to its being completed prior to my end of contract. Nevertheless, it was interesting to visit, and it is actually extremely impressive how the structure itself held through the quake, apart from the spire, particularly given that it was reconstructed in the 14th century (the original dates back to roughly 600, but was partly destroyed by Mughal invaders).

Bodhnath Stupa aka Tatooine

Much like in other religions, these temples were built to house holy relics, and people claim that Bodhnath contains relics relating to either Kashyapa, the past Buddha, or Siddartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, who was born in Nepal. There are a total of 147 prayer wheel niches around Bodhnath, with either four or five wheels in each niche.

Inside one of the gompas (temples) surrounding Bodhnath 

Outside the main entrance of the stupa – that’s as far in as we could get due to the construction!

Candles atop one of the gompas

Cleaning the candles on top of a gompa

Cleaning the candles on top of a gompa

Most excitingly on Sunday, THE BORDER REOPENED!!!!!! After a constitutional amendment passed on Saturday, the border opened Sunday morning at around 1.00. So goods can come in from India again! Trucks still aren’t allowed across, but carts and human carriers can bring in supplies from India. This means we’re going to be getting fuel within the next couple weeks and I may have something better than a warm-adjacent (read: almost freezing) shower!

Then this week so far as already been pretty busy! Yesterday, we successfully obtained non-tourist visas, which were expensive as hell and obviously had to be paid in cash. The withdrawal fees are seriously crushing here, and we can only take out 35 000 rupees at a time (and that’s only at one bank’s ATM – the others limit you to 25 000). And today was spent at another CIC information session – this one was about conflict management, so essentially ADR principles, but was put on by the Swiss embassy. We brought in the admin and CIC leaders from the different centres so they could learn different ways of dealing with conflicts at the local level, including how to act as mediators between groups that don’t necessarily agree on all things political (which is not all that infrequent, given the baby Constitution). It was an interesting but long day – in a society where brevity and efficiency are not valued all that highly, and where democracy is a very new concept, putting on a decent sized conference is an exercise in patience, especially when you are a very get-to-the-point kind of person. I mean this in a completely unpatronizing way: the participants’ desire to give examples, ask questions, or bring up situations they’ve experienced reminded me of younger classrooms in North America, where students are encouraged to provide opinions (you know that kid who ALWAYS had to tell a story even if it was outside the scope of discussion – well, Nepali people are way more adorable when they do it). It makes total sense that, in a society where democracy is new, people want to share like I did when I first learned that I could have my own opinions, stories, and views – it’s novel, in a sense, that they are able to have these opinions, learn these concepts, and apply them practically. I’m also clearly a weaver of words, so I totally get wanting to tell a story (but you can’t complain about it, because you’ve made the choice to read this blog). It was also an interesting exercise in trying to encourage more direct speech between people, while maintaining diplomacy – when you’re not used to direct speech, it can come across as hurtful. There is definitely a very fine balance of educating other societies on the benefits of the Western style of conducting business, politics, etc., while still ensuring they maintain their cultural integrity. And, remembering that the Western world does not nearly have it right about everything.

So, I’m hoping to get last weekend’s trek in this weekend, and then it is February already! Very hard to believe. But, that means warm weather is coming, and you know I’m all about that (sorry about you snowstorm, Ontario and the NE states!).

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