Standing at the Crossroads

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THE SMELL OF CARDAMOM and sage wafting through the paths of the Spice Bazaar; the grandiose calls to prayer reverberating off the rooftops; the wonder of walking amid ancient architecture; the kindness of a stranger’s smile: These are the experiences I savor most about Istanbul. The feel of Kathmandu was much different but just as stimulating. There, women dressed in brightly colored clothes weave garments in wooden carts by candlelight and cook vegetables over coal fires. The smell of incense, burnt as offerings to the Hindu gods, permeates the air of the brick-paved streets, alive with music resonating from the wood-carved houses and bouncing off the temples. Everywhere I went, people pressed their hands together and raised them to their head, saying “Namaste”—literally translated, “I salute the godly in you,” or more colloquially, “Hello.” Offerings of rice lay next to burning incense at every temple. When Hindus make an offering, they ring a bell, creating a constant tintinnabulation that pervades every inch of the city. Bright flowers and statues of Shiva, Krishna, Galuda and Ram line the temples and streets.

One morning while I was drinking a cup of chai tea on the roof of our hotel, I noticed a towering temple across the street. With its wooden roof and carvings of animals and deities surrounding it, the temple cut a remarkable image against the rainy morning skies. Gesturing to a waiter, I inquired about the temple. “It’s Nyataponla Temple,” he replied, “the tallest temple in all of Nepal.”

If Nyataponla Temple was impressive, the Buddhist stupa at Swayambhunath was awe-inspiring. Set atop a steep hill overlooking Kathmandu, the dome-shaped shrine is nicknamed the “monkey temple” because hundreds of monkeys inhabit the grounds surrounding it. As I climbed the daunting stone steps to reach the site, dozens of monkeys eerily peered at me with fixed attention, while brightly colored prayer flags, strung from trees, flapped in the wind. The labors of the hike were rewarded well, however. Upon reaching the soaring stupa, I found monks in maroon robes devotedly spinning prayer wheels as the steady chant of a mantra pulsated through the stupa like a heartbeat.

Aside from these cultural experiences, Nepal offers some of the most beautiful natural sights I have ever seen. One day the other students and I climbed one of the giant hills surrounding the verdant and lush Kathmandu Valley. Rice patties, shepherds and small villages marked our ascent. At the top, a spectacular view of the city, which up close was bustling, frenetic and crowded, seemed tranquil from such a height. Later we flew to Lumbini, Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha. This quiet region is covered in monasteries and monuments to the figurehead of the Buddhist tradition. Randomly dotting the fields, they often appeared out of nowhere. While walking along a largely abandoned dirt road with trees and cows on either side, giant, gold-covered stupas would seemingly materialize before my very eyes. At one point, I found myself walking along a dirt path in the early evening. Admiring how the sunset cast its light across the surface of a nearby stream and bathed its vibrant lotus flowers in a warm glow, I was struck by the staggering beauty of the place, almost entranced by the thought of how far away from home I was, a traveler vastly removed from the worries and business of everyday life. Of course, not all of my experiences in Nepal were this uplifting.

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