I may not travel again any time soon, grounded as we all are by the coronavirus pandemic, but I still have travel stories in my head… A year ago, I joined a Habitat for Humanity build in Nepal, arriving in Kathmandu a day earlier than scheduled to explore on my own, after a five-day stop in India. The Habitat project would be an adventure in itself, but the culture shock of my first day in Kathmandu stays with me. Sensory overload: walking the zig-zagged narrow streets through the old town center, over brown dusty stone tiles, consulting my phone map at intervals, trying not to respond to the shopkeepers calling out for my attention while at the same time looking at the goods in their shop openings, shaking my head to hawkers of the motley goods they carried, stepping aside for carriage rides clip-clopping by, peering over the scarf-covered heads of women as they sat alongside their jewelry or fruit on blankets on the ground, dodging the occasional meandering tourists or running boys.
I stopped at a square with a shining white-domed stupa adorned with prayer flags. Pausing to look around, I was caught by a woman, formerly a teacher who had lost her daughter and husband, who pulled me into a small mosque or temple with her stories, and proceeded to tell me in great detail about the gods and images represented in statues and murals. Listening for a while, then waiting for her to take a breath, I pulled away, giving her a donation and thanking her for sharing her knowledge, to continue towards Durbar Square, a World Heritage site, my destination. Hours later, already tired after many diversions, I reached the sprawling site crowded with temples of various kinds, built at different times in Nepal’s ancient past—overwhelming! I declined a guide; it was just too much to digest.
That evening, the people of many Habitat teams, hailing from many countries, began arriving; each group would work on two houses. There were teams from Europe, university students from Japan (whom I enjoyed engaging in my hesitant remembered Japanese), and our team, mostly from the States but also Venezuelan, Swiss, Canadian. I befriended two women—friendly Stephanie from North Carolina, who would become my roommate, on her first Habitat trip (this was my second), and lovely Judith, whose face reflected her blended heritage from Japan and China and who organized builds in California—and we headed off together the next day to find the Swaymbhunath Stupa, also known as the Monkey Temple. Since I had already negotiated the labyrinthian streets of Kathmandu, even if just for a day, they looked to me to navigate.
Mapping the route to the temple on my phone, I found the first section of the route was familiar to me. My friends mentioned the need to find a money machine, since they had no local currency, but there was no such technology along this road. I always use an ATM at the airport so I am prepared for a taxi or meal as soon as I step out, but perhaps these women were not as well-traveled. As we poked into shops and dawdled along, a woman draped in a red shawl approached us.
“Please help me. I don’t ask for money. I just want you to buy milk for my five children,” she pleaded.
My companions shrugged and said they had no rupees; the woman zeroed in on me, following and repeating her request many times. Some steps ahead, she stopped in front of a small grocery. Pointing within, she told me we could buy milk here. I went inside with her. She immediately started pulling packages off the shelves and piling them on the counter. No, I said, I agreed to buy you milk. I separated out the three packages of powdered milk she had first selected and paid the shopkeeper.
When we emerged from the shop, she thanked me and invited me to visit her home; she wanted to make me tea. I would have loved to do that! But my friends found me then and gathered round with exclamations of relief—they hadn’t seen me go into the grocery and thought they had lost me (and were therefore lost themselves). They were anxious to continue to the temple, so I told the woman we had to move on, but asked for a photo.
The Habitat project was located in the Kavre valley, east of Kathmandu, where the flimsily constructed homes were decimated by earthquake the year before. We stayed in nearby Dhulikel, the high snow-covered shapes of the Himalayan peaks visible to the north on clearer days. Reading from an English version of a local newspaper at our hotel one morning, Judith called our attention to an article warning about a popular scam in Nepal called “Milk Mothers.” These women hit up tourists with their sad story and then resell the goods. I had no regrets but was glad we didn’t go to her home. Who knew what ruse might have awaited us there?
Towards the end of our week of brick and mortar construction, we had a day off. Happy Holi, a national holiday in India and Nepal, originally a Hindu festival, celebrates life. We journeyed back to Kathmandu for the day and I finally got the full tour of Durbar Square. For Holi, people throw powdered colors on each other, streaking faces, limbs, and clothes. My friends and I bought Happy Holi t-shirts to cover our clothes and get into the spirit. One of our Habitat group organizers was reluctant to have us participate, but the Durbar Square tour guide generously supplied us each with packets of color. What a celebration, and it was most enjoyable because we joined in with smiling and laughing Nepalese youth!