2018-2019 ESSAY ENTRY: OF MOUNTAINS AND MEN AND MISADVENTURES BY CYNDI MAE BANDONG

Of Mountains and Men and Misadventures, By Cyndi Mae Bandong

It was a red-eye flight from Shanghai.

The timid early morning rays bounced off the airport floor as I made my way through one gate after another. Queues upon queues of passengers, trying to shake off sleep, lined the glass wall to my right: there were rowdy children being told off by their mothers, fathers who looked exhausted to be even bothered, and then there were those who just wanted the whole ordeal to be over and done with.

I finally reached the gate where I was supposed to board my plane to Kathmandu. Bone-weary and anxious, I walked towards the wall and lightly leaned against it.

“A few hours into the flight, I tried to focus on the meal before me, drowning my thoughts in good Malaysian food, when a screeching sound distracted me from my reverie.”

To the untrained eye, I may have looked bored and disinterested, as if the big rucksack on my back were proof of a seasoned traveler who had seen much of the world, hard-pressed to be amused by anything anymore.

In truth, I was dead tired and scared. Maybe, even just scared for the most part.

Spending almost a fortnight in Nepal was an impulsive decision I made after feeling defeated that I had to cancel what I considered would have been the best and magical trip of my life: visiting Tibet. A region seated at the world’s highest point, making the heavens seemingly within arm’s reach. In short, a chance of a lifetime.

Yet, there I was, on my way to the southern side of the Himalayas.

I’d like to think my trepidation was actually just a form of deconstructed and suppressed excitement, a sense of wonder lost in translation. The fear, however, manifested in the thought of travelling alone in this proverbial less-travelled road, not to mention the work backlogs nagging at the back of my mind.

This was a bad decision, my brain kept insisting.

A few hours into the flight, I tried to focus on the meal before me, drowning my thoughts in good Malaysian food, when a screeching sound distracted me from my reverie.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking,” the PA system rattled to life with the voice that would later bring comfort and tears to my eyes with the following words: “Look to your right, if you please. We have been blessed to have had a window of clear skies in this notoriously overcast monsoon season, and Mt. Everest has indulged us with its presence, rising just above the clouds.”

It was hard to miss. Passengers seated on the right-hand side of the plane craned their necks, possibly cameras at the ready, longing to get a glimpse of the mighty mountain. I wanted to relish the feeling of seeing it with my own eyes that I had almost decided against snapping a few photos, but snap I did, albeit taking pictures of poor quality.

It wasn’t the sight as much as the overwhelming emotions I felt as the magic was unfolding before my very eyes that made me tear up. I stared in wonder for what I can only describe as time standing still, that even layers upon layers of clouds could not overshadow the giddiness I was feeling. That alone eased my nerves by a mile.

In a quarter of a century of being alive on this planet, I’ve had my share of mountain views and conquests. But now I get it. Jane Austen, in her book, Pride and Prejudice, had once written, “Oh, what are men compared to rocks and mountains!” Men are nothing, indeed.

“The devastation left by the earthquake of 2015 could not be more apparent in the rubble which dotted the capital, previous sacred places of worship reduced to dust.”

As the plane started to descend, and the Himalayas out of sight, I was welcomed with the greenery from the hills surrounding the Kathmandu valley below. From several hundred feet above, it was a place that looked as unassuming as it was rugged, far from the intimidating high-rise buildings and mega structures of its gigantic neighbor, China.

Truth be told, I had not planned a solid itinerary for this trip, so I made a list of places and sights to see as I went along. Or in millennial parse, I went YOLO (you only live once).

And YOLO, I did.

One thing that surprised me about the capital was not the cows in the middle of the highway, nor the dust that greeted me whenever I stepped out of the house which never seemed to settle. It was the fact that there were no street names and signs in Kathmandu. Dil Spakota, my host, mentioned that due to the earthquake and the constant need for people to renovate and build new roads, naming streets was atypical and impractical. Their solution? Landmarks, in the form of houses and shops.

I remember that day in 2017 when I tried to trace my way back to my guesthouse from Thamel, in the town center, on foot, and my phone died on me. Heavily reliant on Google maps at this point, I was on panic mode. I have been walking for a good 30 minutes when it dawned on me that I took a wrong turn and ended up somewhere that looked like a bodega of sorts, empty trucks parked by the side of the road, and not a soul in sight. I began walking back again, keeping a cool head between my shoulders under the scorching heat of the Nepalese sun.

This was, however, an opportunity to talk to locals and be in awe of their humility and humanity. And maybe take a shot at the good ol’ printed street map (my lord and savior).

Plus, my host wrote his phone number and address on the map he provided, in case this very thing ever happened. Which it eventually did (Coincidence? I think not.) Once I was back in familiar terrain, I hailed a cab, and as best as I could, tried telling the cab driver the name of the area where my guesthouse was located. And of course I was incomprehensible. In the end, he took out his phone, and dialled the number of my host to ask where exactly he was to drop me off. When the phone call ended, and it seemed like everything was sorted out, we were on our way. The driver was a pleasant fellow, and started asking where I was from and why I was in Kathmandu. When I told him that I was only visiting from the Philippines, we started discussing about the similarities between our countries, the heavy traffic being one. It was about a little past five in the afternoon and everyone was hurrying home. Bumper to bumper, we were moving by increments, so we talked some more, topics ranging from bad motorists to road rules to politics. It was easy getting comfortable in the company of Nepalese people. Always curious and up for conversation, one would immediately grasp a sense of belonging.

After thanking him profusely for taking me home safe, the driver sped off and I was finally home. Despite travelling on a shoestring, I had always made sure the accommodations I chose

were worth the price and were somewhere I would actually want to go home to after a long day of exploration. For this trip, I scoured all of the popular sites for the best one in Kathmandu that was also a bang for my buck, and I got lucky. Dil and his family lived on one of the highest places in the valley, high enough that when you went to the rooftop, you get one of the nicest views of Kathmandu. He says that on good days when the skies are clear, the snow-capped Himalayas could be seen from up there, granting a front seat view from the comfort of one’s home.

The Spakota family would invite me to eat dinner with them at seven o’ clock in the evening. His wife was a homemaker, and his kids, a boy and a girl, were both middle schoolers. At the dining table, we would share anecdotes from earlier in the day over a hearty Thakali meal, a staple Nepalese food of buckwheat chips for appetizers, rice and lentil soup for the main course as well as sautéed spinach. Afterwards, I would be given hot lemongrass tea to warm my insides as we go on to talk about the tea culture in both Nepal and India, the betrayal and murder in the Nepalese royal family, the unstable Nepalese government, and the legendary Gurkhas, without which the British army would not have stood a chance in the two world wars.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking,” the PA system rattled to life with the voice that would later bring comfort and tears to my eyes with the following words: “Look to your right, if you please. We have been blessed to have had a window of clear skies in this notoriously overcast monsoon season, and Mt. Everest has indulged us with its presence, rising just above the clouds.”

The devastation left by the earthquake of 2015 could not be more apparent in the rubble which dotted the capital, previous sacred places of worship reduced to dust. One could almost immediately empathize with the loss of culture and heritage in spite of being a guest in a foreign land. At the Kathmandu Durbar Square alone, almost nothing was left intact. Large cracks gnawed open at the foundations of temples. Street sweepers religiously kept the dust from walkways. Up in the hills of Jibjibe in the district of Rasuwa near the border to Tibet, the villagers have had schools, hospitals, and homes rebuilt after losing these and about a thousand souls to the catastrophe.

Yet people, especially the children, were wont to be cheerful, hopeful, and welcoming still, and pilgrims remained devout. Fruit vendors and shopkeepers kept store hours as local clients and foreigners alike flocked to buy goods. The Kumari, the personification of the harmony between Buddhists and Hindus, stayed hidden in her abode as onlookers gathered in her courtyard, hoping to catch a glimpse of the living goddess. Mischievous monkeys swing from the numerous thankas hanging on poles around the hill on which the Swayambhunath Stupa is perched, while Buddhists circle the stupa in a clockwise direction, chanting and spinning prayer wheels in their wake. Om Mani Padme Hum.

It was business as usual in Nepal, but it was human resilience at its best. FP

ALL IMAGES © Cyndi Mae Bandong published here with permission 2019

Author: JefPrice

Former this & that. Exploring & Photographing since I was 11. Founder of FieldPhotographer.org

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