The Splash Of Immersion
We arrived jet-lagged and in darkness. Through our bouncy taxi windows we spied piles of rubble and toppled buildings erupting into the narrow alleys of Bhaktapur, Nepal. The ancient Newari city in the east corner of the Kathmandu Valley was still ravaged two years after the 2015 earthquake.
What have we gotten ourselves into?, I thought in arrival-shock as we climbed four steep ladders, ducked into three-foot tall doorways, crossed the roof, clambered down another ladder, and closed ancient wood-latticed windows against mosquitoes. What is this version of hot, muggy, and under-developed Nepal going to do for us? Why again did we choose this?
Caroline and I had spontaneously opted into an adventure to bridge “otherness” on an adult Dragons course called, Ashrams and Artisans of Nepal. It wasn’t our first time to the Kathmandu Valley. We had done a “walkabout” in Nepal just after college in 1986. But this was 2017, and in the half millennium-old Hindu sadhu roadhouse, we tumbled into fitful sleep as our brains caught up with our traveled bodies.
Dawn emerged from an unfamiliar cacophony of gongs, prayer wheels spinning, bells ringing, and metal ding-ing. Each sound seemed like a call to the heavens, a prayer to gods who were intimate with everyone here but us. Each ringer’s pattern and style announced a personalized act of devotion. Goats, birds, motorcycles, Chinese diesel 2-stroke tractors, and the chatter of people all mingled in sensory waves that washed over us.
A few days later, the initial shock dissipated. Our group motto became, “Embrace The Detours” as unexpected adventures yielded fodder for insight and connection. Soon it was time for the acid test of bridging archetypal “otherness” by way of homestays with Newari families. With nervousness that’s surely the same for 20-somethings as 50-year olds, we met our new host families.
Thunder clapped outside as we sat on the floor joking uneasily. I was finally introduced to my host “father,” Rajendra Shakya. He immediately declared himself to be my Dai (big brother). I bid a laughing, goodbye, namaste to Caroline for the next few days. Our host families thought it was hilarious that a married couple was going to be living with separate families. The universality of this humor broke the ice all around.
As we walked away through the rain drizzle and mud, I wondered how we would traverse the rickety bridge of awkward silences. But it didn’t take long for me to forget that concern. We passed the school where Ramilla, my host “mother” worked as the Principal. We visited Rajendra’s social impact business, Third Eye Group, and met the collectives’ knitters of hats, scarves, and sweaters. We arrived at Rajendra’s house where he lived with his two daughters, a son, and his mother. This building, I would learn, was his ancestral family home, where he and past generations were born. It was also where Rajendra lived a surprisingly parallel universe to mine.
Sometimes the universe aligns and we don’t know why. Divine intervention? Karma? Unbelievable accident?
Rajendra and I discovered many shared touch points: We are nearly the same age, both businessmen, both married 35 years ago, both have two daughters, both work on social impact enterprises. And our wives are both educators. Who knew?
Rajendra showed me six ancient Newari Buddhist temples on the 5-minute walk to the Dragons program house. He brought me to hidden tears by lighting a yak butter lamp at the altar in offering — and then lighting mine in turn. Bells tinkling, we passed on the light from one to another with mutual prayers for good luck between newfound brothers standing side by side before the centuries-old shrine.
We found synchronicity and forged a rapid and heartfelt connection. It all served as in-my-face proof that wildly diverse humans can thrive as newfound brothers if we let that spirit dwell.
Rajendra was born in the same house as his father. He played marbles on the ground, joined his family for daily offerings to an ancient Buddhist statue, and ran around with his friends to temples nearby.
Rajendra and his wife were married right in his own brick courtyard the exact same summer I married Caroline in California thirty-five years ago. When Caroline and I had cycled into the town of Patan as 20-year olds, unbeknownst to us, my extended host family was living but a block away in their 450-year family brick house. But their newlywed daily life was quite different from ours. They cooked food every day over an open fire with wood carried up four flights of ladders. They carried all bath, washing, cooking, and drinking water for the extended family from a public water grotto across the street that was shared by hundreds. The neighborhood toilet was down the street. Ramilla spent one day of every week exclusively washing clothes. Rajendra’s father wrote Buddhist scholarly texts upstairs, by an open window, entirely by hand.
Fast forward only a couple of decades and Rajendra and his family are still known to everyone on the street. They still live with their extended family. They still offer the same greetings as they make daily rounds to Buddhist temples just like their ancestors did centuries ago. But now there’s electricity, inside-plumbing, filtered water, and gas-cooking. Now there’s a refrigerator, rice cooker, washing machine, a car, stereos, and Internet. These innovations enabled Rajendra’s wife to have the time to become a principal, raise kids, and solar-dry amazing lemon slices to serve as tea for Dragons students. They enabled Rajendra to build a business and send all three children to college with smartphones. My mind drifted to my own children’s’ lives and how modern conveniences will again shift as we decarbonize everything in our world this next century and change ways of living in unforeseeable ways a generation from now.
Carrying Connection Home
These deeply human encounters lit my journey like unexpected yet welcome campfires on an icy night. As I wallowed in the warmth of genuine smiles, welcoming hosts, and light humor, the cold chasm of “otherness” melted. Thirty-one years after my first visit to Nepal, I still feel like an apprentice to this place and people. My homestay experience anchored a visceral truth: Mountains and cameras don’t do Nepal justice. On this journey with fellow “Where There Be Dragons” adult students, I embraced our detours and returned home determined to bring the warmth of Nepali human spirit back to help thaw the roiling divides and otherness frosting my own home land lately.
Mark Bauhaus and his wife Caroline joined the first adult “Where There Be Dragons” trip, “Artisans & Ashrams,” in the Fall of 2017 to Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. http://wheretherebedragons.com/