Pashupatinath Temple

Pashupatinath Temple feels just as complex as Nepal itself.  It is present day and ancient history rolled into one.   It’s exact origins are unknown, but the oldest dated inscription is from 459 AD.  People have been coming to this place as a holy site since then, and continue to make pilgrimages there today.

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The picture above is from the entryway.   Most of the visitors were families dressed up for the occasion.  Whatever purpose brought people to the temple, everybody stopped and got a photo at the front.  For us, that was as far inside was we went- only Hindus are permitted past this point.

There was still plenty to see around the temple grounds.

The main deity of the temple is Lord Shiva, and he is often represented by the “shivalinga” – a stone phallus that represents the creative energy of Shiva.  There’s usually some sort of vaginal representation at the base- the representation is literally of the act of creation.

Pashupatinath, like many Shiva temples, is built around a “natural” shivalinga that is said to have been discovered there.  We didn’t see that one because it was inside.  They say that it’s part of Shiva that stayed on earth when he visited back in the day.  A shepherd found it when his cow kept spontaneously dropping her milk there.  The real one is said to be underground because it was too much for mortals to handle.

In another town, we visited a cave where you can put money in and have a cow statue drop some fake milk so you can make a wish, because of course you can.

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Here is a whole row of shivalingam from Pashupatinath complete with the ashes and colors from recent offerings.

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More shivalingam.  The ones that are missing were either stolen by the hippies back in the day or taken for use in grinding grain.

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Holy Men

There are plenty of holy men around the site.  Shiva devotees wear orange, the color of marigolds, and perform a variety of different rituals and acts of self-mortification depending on the path they have chosen to follow.

We had heard lots of stories of foreskin stretching, rolling, and other extreme acts of self-mortification, so we were prepared for just about anything.  Nepal is a very modest country, though, so I guess they have restrictions on which days the holy men are allowed to be naked.  We were not there on a naked day.  The guy in the middle was wearing a heavy chain link chastity belt thing, so he might be one of the foreskin-stretchers on naked days.

The holy men cover their skin with ashes, another symbol of how they reject human taboos.

As a tourist, there was also the uncomfortableness of knowing that they were performing for you because that was their livelihood.  You visit the holy men, they bless you, then you give them money, then they ask for more money.  We had a guide with us who steered us away from some holy men and took us directly to these guys.  He had a lot to say about how different holy men charge for different things and making sure we saw the right ones.

The guy I sat by really wanted me to touch his dreadlocks.  Or he assumed that, as a tourist, I really wanted to touch his dreadlocks.  When I didn’t touch them after he held them out for me, he put them around my shoulder.

But we were tourists, we were there for a show, they were giving us what we wanted.  We were giving them the money that they needed.  Still, the whole thing felt very inauthentic.  Maybe that’s to be expected with a “see the major sights of Kathmandu in two days” sort of itinerary.  It felt exploitative.  But I don’t know what I would change.

Ritual Cremation

OK, so let’s talk about death.  Pashupatinath is built on the bank of the holy Bagmati river. When a Hindu dies, the body needs to be purified and returned to the elements.  The closer this is done to the temple, the easier it is for the spirit to travel there for reincarnation once the body has been cremated.  It is also important that this is done as quickly as possible.

So, a lot of the people in and around the temple were there mourning a loved one, or recognizing the anniversary of a death.

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The reddish ramp is where bodies are washed in the river and prepared for cremation.  The red color is from saffron.

(Interlude- as a tourist, this was hard to get past.  People wash their dead relatives in this river, which flows from here into the city of Kathmandu.  Kathmandu, the biggest city in the country, with a population that is water-insecure.  The river is seen as purifying the bodies, but at the same time, the bodies are polluting the river.  On the other hand, the entrance fees go to river cleanup initiatives.)

After the body is washed and prepared, it is cremated.  The platform below is reserved for heads of state and other VIPs, because it’s the closest to the temple.

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Yes, those are cremations in progress.  The sites get gradually less expensive as they get farther from the temple.

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In the background you can barely see the chimney of the new electric crematorium that’s been built.  Its use doesn’t burn wood or pollute the river.  But it also doesn’t have the same significance for families.

The low houses in the background above are where the families stay if they don’t live in Kathmandu.  There are a variety of rituals that need to be performed in the week after the death.

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Dust masks are common around Kathmandu because of the air quality.  At the temple, almost everybody wears them because of the smoke from the cremations.

A year after the death, you’re supposed to return to the site to have a picnic.

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The monkeys try to get in on the picnic action.  The rest of the time, they climb around the area, through the cremation ashes, and are in and out of the river.

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Walking away from the site, the temple starts to fade away and the rest of Kathmandu reappears.  Here’s a shop that was selling fabric dyes.

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Overall, it was an incredible place to experience.  I know that we could only scratch the surface as far as its meaning and history, but it was an incredible experience nonetheless.

What does recovery and development even look like?

The entire town of Bhaktapur is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its well-preserved 17th century architecture and its temples and historical sites.

Historical buildings typically have bricks made from local soil and intricate woodwork, especially around windows and doors, although some have some a few non-traditional adornments to bring in customers.

Now, imagine that you live in Bhaktapur. Most of the economy depends on money coming from tourism because of the historical architecture. There is also papermaking and ceramics (from the local soil) in town, but that tends to depend on tourism too, or at least a market for paper and ceramic souvenirs.

Most people get their water by carrying it from this well.

Bhaktapur was very heavily damaged by the 2015 earthquake. Many homes were damaged or destroyed. The area is earthquake prone and can expect a catastrophic earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or higher every 80 years.

Here you can see the gap between a home that has been rebuilt and one that is still damaged.

Lots of corrugated metal rooves covering the remaining structures until they can fully rebuild (adding stories and a tile roof).

Bamboo scaffolding as work is being done.

Stonework that fell during the earthquake.

But as you think about rebuilding, remember that your entire economy depends on maintaining World Heritage status. So you really can’t update your building techniques to make them more seismically stable if it means sacrificing that status and upending your tourism-dependent economy.

The government of Nepal tried to subsidize the rebuilding of homes by offering homeowners money to help them rebuild in the historical style. This was great for folks who held the title to their homes. But in a lot of cases, the homes were still legally owned by an ancestor who had died long ago. Everybody knew who lived there anyway, and families often couldn’t pay the tax to transfer the title.

So you cobble together the money to change the title, made more complicated because the documents you need were also likely destroyed in the quake, and you rebuild as best you can. You know that another earthquake may flatten your home again in 80 years or so, but that’s just how it is. Rebuilding is still your best option.

I don’t know what the best solution would be, but at least my visit is helping me understand the complexity of the problem.

One thing I do know is that cash is very scarce here, and there is a lot of infrastructure needed. People are spending a lot of time and energy gathering and carrying water, and it’s not even safe drinking water.

If you’re so inclined, you can donate to recovery or development initiatives here or through another charity that you prefer. I know that even small amounts would help.

Now here are some more photos of cool stuff from Bhaktapur.

Monkey Temple

When I think of visiting major tourist sites, especially UN World Heritage Sites, I picture visiting a place that’s very old and no longer in use other than tourism (whether that’s locals visiting to learn about their own history, or foreign visitors). Its about the past.The temples in Kathmandu are old, but they’re still very much in current use. It was Saturday, so the temples were full of people who had come to pray or otherwise pay homage to the sites.

The first temple we visited was full of sacred monkeys who seemed to live very well on the fruit and crackers people brought them. Some of the stories say that they became domesticated when the hippies started feeding them in the 60s. But there is also an story that they are descended from the lice of a holy man who lived at the site in the olden times.

If you have any wishes, you throw a coin in here and try to get it in the pot. I missed.

The monkeys mostly ignored people unless they had food. They would take your snacks, or you could just hand them over. They also would try to take them from each other.

Where there are snacks, there are also dogs hoping to get in on the action.

Toddlerhood

Yesterday was our first day in Nepal. It was mostly a day to recover from the long flights and 13 hour time change, but we did walk around a bit and explore the area near our hotel.

One thing about being in a new place is that your competence regresses. You’re used to being an adult, but suddenly there are a lot of basics that you just don’t know how to do.

So yesterday was our day of toddlerhood.

For example, we needed to learn how to walk down the street. In Nepal, they drive on the left. We figured out that also means that people walk on the left too.

Our hotel is in the super touristy Thamel area of town, so the streets right around here are filled with tourists and people trying to sell you stuff.

We ventured out to a garden a few blocks away from the main tourist section. The streets are very narrow, so you are always passing somebody, and usually also being passed by cars and mopeds.

So, we were trying to apply the “pass on the left” rule. But as tourists, people would expect us to get it wrong, so there was this sort of double fake out as we all had to guess how to walk past each other. We were as bad to walk past on a sidewalk as toddlers. But we were paying attention and learning.

Eventually we realized that the pass on the left rule isn’t very solid, it’s just the default. But of course people don’t walk down the street thinking about how to walk past people. We do that automatically. Except when we travel, then we have to learn it again.

Our other adventures involved learning how to eat, use money, use the bathroom, and even knowing how to find the right floor on the elevator (the ground floor is floor 0 here). So it really was a day of developing basic childhood competence.

Grand re-opening!

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I started this blog to share my experiences chaperoning exchange students in Costa Rica, but didn’t think about how to keep it going.  I don’t travel all that often, but when I do, I’d like to be able to share what I find in one spot.

The photo above is the topiary near where I stayed when I went to Cusco, Peru about a year ago, and it’s the sort of thing that I like to share.  What are the ordinary things that you might just walk past in a particular part of the world?  Nobody’s going to put this dragonfly in a guidebook.  My kiddo and I can’t even agree on what animal it is (they think it’s a hornet).  But it’s still a neat little thing to notice and appreciate.

Sometimes you’ll get more touristy things, like this photo of the monument to Inca Pachacutec.  That was the next landmark that I would pass if I were walking from the apartment where I stayed, past the dragonfly, heading towards the historic downtown.

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I may go back and add some posts about places that I’ve been but didn’t upload here, since this had been only a Costa Rica blog.

But the big upcoming news is that I’m going to Nepal in about two weeks!  So check back in to see more about that trip, and hopefully many more!

Photo of the Day- Part 4

Gold lobsters from the Museo de Oro

Gold lobsters from the Museo de Oro

At Barva's Parque Central

At Barva’s Parque Central

The hill at Parque de la Paz.  One of my outdoor running routes is around (but not up!) this hill, although people do come here to do hill sprints!  The path itself is about a half a mile and does have a slope to it as well, as you can see.

The hill at Parque de la Paz. One of my outdoor running routes is around (but not up!) this hill, although people do come here to do hill sprints! The path itself is about a half a mile and does have a slope to it as well, as you can see.

The Basilica in Cartago comes into sight after over 20 km of walking!

The Basilica in Cartago comes into sight after over 20 km of walking!

I visited a more upscale neighborhood that included some more modern houses.  This neighborhood reminded me a bit of southern California.

I visited a more upscale neighborhood that included some more modern houses. This neighborhood reminded me a bit of southern California.

We toured some more of the downtown parks today and took some photos

We toured some more of the downtown parks today and took some photos

Translation- In this neighborhood we don't have any extra kids- drive carefully!

Translation- In this neighborhood we don’t have a single extra kid- drive carefully!

A wild sloth, or "kukula", as the locals called it, was just a few feet from the cabin where we stayed!

A wild sloth, or “kukula”, as the locals called it, was just a few feet from the cabin where we stayed!

A baby sloth at the sloth sanctuary

A baby sloth at the sloth sanctuary

Driving through the Parque Braulio Carrillo- no, I did not take the photo, I was driving!

Driving through the Parque Braulio Carrillo- no, I did not take the photo, I was driving!

I don't post a lot about it here, but a lot of my time is spent at "work" in some form or another to facilitate the program.  This is a meeting I attended today.  This photo features the universal "sit in the back and play with my smartphone" guy.

I don’t post a lot about it here, but a lot of my time is spent at “work” in some form or another to facilitate the program. This is a meeting I attended today. This photo features the universal “sit in the back and play with my smartphone” guy.

Volcan Poás, clearly still an active volcano

Volcan Poás, clearly still an active volcano

One of the hedges at Zarcero

One of the hedges at Zarcero

Sloth Sanctuary

One of the things that my daughter and I did when we were getting ready for our trip was to watch videos taken in Costa Rica.  We happened upon some videos from the Sloth Sanctuary in Cahuita (on the Caribbean coast), and were enchanted by the adorable, slow, gentle creatures that lived there.  So getting to see a sloth in person was one of our goals.

It was a fantastic experience.   There are so many places around the country competing for tourism dollars, but every indication I got from this place is that it is the real deal- they are in the business of rehabilitating sloths to return them to the wild, and providing a safe and caring home for those who can not safely live in the wild.  They are also partnered with a US University to add to the research base about sloths.  They are solitary animals who live in a relatively small part of the world, so not much is known about sloths at this point.

For our tour, we could either choose the 1-hour tour for $25, or the 4-hour “insider” tour for $150.  Although the insider tour was spendy, we were coming all this way to see the sloth sanctuary, and we wanted to get as much out of the opportunity as possible, so that’s what we opted for.  It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

We arrived at the sanctuary, and first up was “Breakfast with Buttercup.”  Buttercup is the first sloth that they received, and the reason for the sanctuary’s existence.  She needed a home, and the grandmother took her in.  They learned through trial and error how to take care of her, and over time people brought more sloths to them.  That’s how the whole program got started.  Buttercup was raised as a pet, since they didn’t know any better at the time, and she now lives in a hanging wicker chair in the dining room.  She is 22 years old, and is still doing great!

Buttercup was asleep in her chair when we came in.

Buttercup was asleep in her chair when we came in.

We had an hour to enjoy breakfast, get to know the others, and take pictures of Buttercup.  They served us cheese and tomato omelettes, fresh fruit, and toast.  Yum!  The whole mood at the place was so calm and relaxed.  Grandma was making and serving breakfast, her daughter was checking people in, and the grandson was the one who would be leading the tour.  Everybody there just had a very kind and relaxed air about them.  Even the dogs were mellow!  One was a puppy, though, and I accidentally got her riled up by petting her, so she got the zoomies and had to go calm down for a bit.  But even that was handled so gently.

Cypress in the dining room.

Cypress in the dining room.

An hour seemed like a long time, at first, but then Buttercup woke up, and it was time for her breakfast.

She woke up and looked around at us.

She woke up and looked around at us.  Since she is a three-fingered sloth, she has a tail that was hanging down through the chair.  The two-fingered sloths are bigger, and don’t have a tail.

She got started eating her fresh leaves.

She got started eating her fresh leaves.

We all gathered around to watch her.  She would take breaks from eating to check us out, too, then swivel her long neck around to eat some more leaves.

After breakfast, we joined one of the “regular” tours to meet some of their resident sloths and learn a little bit of basic information about them.  These sloths were some of the ones who had been there the longest, and weren’t candidates to go back into the wild.  One of them had only three legs, for example!  When he came to the sanctuary, he had a terrible infection and gangrene, and the leg had to be amputated.  Another just didn’t do well at feeding herself when she was released, and would always end up sick and hungry after a few weeks.  This is probably because she came to the sanctuary as a baby, and they haven’t had success in teaching sloths who were not raised in the wild by their mothers how to survive.

We learned the basics about sloths, their diet, and their anatomy, and got to ask questions.  Three-fingered sloths are smaller and darker in color than two-fingered sloths.  And they are not as closely related as you would think.

One of the resident two-fingered sloths.

One of the resident two-fingered sloths.

Although sloths are usually solitary, these two were a bonded pair, since they had grown up together.  I also noticed that lots of sleeping sloths like to keep at least one leg hooked around a branch as they rested, even if they were on a platform.

Although sloths are usually solitary, these two were a bonded pair, since they had grown up together. I also noticed that lots of sleeping sloths like to keep at least one leg hooked around a branch as they rested, even if they were on a platform.

From there, we went into the area where they keep the young sloths (but not the true babies!).  The star of the show was Jemima.  She was born at the sanctuary, but rejected by her mother.  Apparently, this is common when there is a deformity or other problem with the baby.  In Jemima’s case, she is growing very slowly, but appears healthy otherwise.  She is two years old, but is still the size of a baby, and needs a bit more care than the other sloths around her age.

Jemima coming out to get some food and for us to get a closer look.

Jemima coming out to get some food and for us to get a closer look.  The sloths really like having a stuffed animal or rolled up towel to hang on to.

They asked us not to touch the sloths, which I think is fair.  This is a rescue organization, not a petting zoo, and because of sloths’ slow digestion, any fragrances, chemicals, or diseases we brought with us could do them harm, especially considering how many visitors they get on a daily basis.  We did get a really up-close look at Jemima!  Here she is eating a hibiscus flower.

An iguana came running by the path.

An iguana came running by the path.

Some of the sloths in that area also had injuries or other disabilities.  One had become a paraplegic after a fall onto coral during a strong storm, for example.  In the background, we also got to see several sloths out for exercise on the jungle gym.

After that, the “regular” tour group went on a canoe ride, and we got to go up to the nursery.   Without a doubt, that was the best part of the tour.  That was the room with their tiny, tiny baby sloths who had just come in, or who needed special care.  They each had an incubator, but today was warm enough that they were out in plastic tubs on the floor instead.  Apparently, they don’t climb out because they don’t like being on a flat surface.

It was heartbreaking watching all of those poor babies, most or all of them orphans!  But they were absolutely adorable.

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Look at that baby fuzz!

 

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Pria was the only three-fingered sloth baby.

Pria was the only three-fingered sloth baby.

 

The babies who were awake were all clamoring for attention.  When I went to see Pria, the three-fingered sloth, she was trying to climb out on to me.  She also really wanted to know about my camera.

At that point, I had to stop the video and apologize to her for not picking her up!

This next sloth was so new that it hadn’t even been named yet.

Finally, we had to say goodbye to the babies and go to the main area where the adults were housed.  Some of them were just being kept until they recovered from an injury and could go back to the wild.  The ones who can’t be released will either stay there, or go to a zoo.  We got to wash our hands, and feed some hibiscus to a couple of the adults.  The sloths definitely will do their best to get your attention and get you to keep feeding them one they know you have treats!  Their claws are better for hanging than grabbing, so you had to put the flower petals pretty much right by their mouths for them to be able to eat them easily.  The one I fed did lick me a little bit when he was trying to get the flower.

Another pair of sloths hanging out together.

Another pair of sloths hanging out together.

Then, we got to see their medical room and xray equipment.  They also had several jars of sloth fetuses that had died in utero or were stillborn.  Again, the point is to increase knowledge of sloths in general so that they can be better cared for and rehabilitated.

Two-fingered sloth and placenta.

Two-fingered sloth and placenta.

This three-fingered sloth died when almost old enough to be born!  Compared to many mammals, sloths are pretty well-developed when they're born.

This three-fingered sloth died when almost old enough to be born! Compared to many mammals, sloths are pretty well-developed when they’re born.

From there, we got to go on a canoe tour of the property.  It was a good chance to get a feel for the lush, tropical rainforest that we were in!  There were little crabs all along the bank, and every tree was covered in other plants that were growing on it.  There were howler monkeys in the trees howling at us, but I didn’t get any good photos of them.

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Bananas and their unique flower.

Bananas and their unique flower.

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Quite a few of the rainforest plants are recognizable as houseplants in our area.

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The bird of paradise, of course.

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I have no idea what kind of flower this is.

This plant was in their garden by the river bank.

This plant was in their garden by the riverbank.

Overall, it was a fantastic and really memorable day.  I highly recommend this place to anybody who is interested in learning more about sloths.