This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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Om mani padme hum

mani-1Beautiful, painted stone carvings. “Om mani padme hum”, over and over, for those who can read the script. Mani stones are scattered along popular travel routes in the mountains near the Tibetan border. Near mani stones one can often find a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, as it is the sadhana (devotional practice) of monks to carve and paint them.
mani-2Circling clockwise around the mani stones and prayer wheel rooms, I could imagine worse ways to spend my life than up here, in the clear, quiet air, on the roof of the world, meditating while creating things of beauty. Back home the trend is KonMari, downshifting, and general minimalism. Up here minimalism is a given, and the aim is for the next level: to spend one’s life creating a beautiful mind through creating a more beautiful world.mani-3

(Everest Base Camp Trail, Nepal; November 2016)

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Up the tourist highway

Lukla-3Tea houses, souvenir shops, cows, chicken, colorfully dressed people, even an Irish pub. If you are looking for undiscovered Nepal, do not consider the Everest Base Camp trail. Hundreds of people discover it each day before you do.

But the air is crisp and fresh at 2860 m altitude. Donkeys and dzos (hybrid between yak and cow) are lounging around, packed and ready to go, all the way up to Base Camp (poor creatures).Lukla-5Tourist is as tourist does. Hence, all tourists must report to the Tourist Police at checkpoints along the way. With a photo. Surprisingly, Nepal insists of being aware of who is where, in case of a mudslide or an earthquake.Lukla-4The thermometer climbed to 17 degrees centigrade during the day, and dropped down to -2 degrees at night. Later it would turn out we caught the last week of beautiful fall weather.
Lukla-6And upward we went, after the oxen and the sherpas and the rest of the trekkers. Towards the snowy mountains and the blue, thinning mountain air.Lukla-7(Lukla, Nepal; November 2016)

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Touchdown: the world’s most dangerous airport

Lukla-1“We cannot leave Nepal for the last time without seeing Everest”, I recall my colleagues stating. Our social business startup was doing great and it was time to let it fly unassisted. This visit was to be the last one for the project. And no, we could not leave Nepal without seeing Mount Everest.

One early morning I found myself on a little prop plane, skirting the mountaintops, on my way to the most dangerous airport in the world. Lukla requires clear skies, and small planes on full throttle going up and full brake going down. Just watch any YouTube video and you’ll see how the pilot slams on the brakes and maneuvers a hasty hairpin turn before hitting the rock wall at the end of the runway.

And if you dare, observe takeoff: leaving Lukla some days later, our pilot slammed full throttle before lifting brakes and sped on the readily downward-slanting runway like he had a death wish. Grown men screamed in their seats as we zoomed down the runway, where at the end the only options were either liftoff, or crash down over the precipice into the valley below.

We lifted, as you can guess. Thank goodness. To be continued.
Lukla-2(Lukla airport, Nepal; November 2016)

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Beautiful Nepali people

Nepalipeople-2So much red color. Flip-flops even on a cold winter’s day.
Nepalipeople-1Different looks and appearances – but Nepali on the inside.
Nepalipeople-3Children with black kohl around their eyes to ward off evil.Nepalipeople-4Women at work. Or resting from work, if only for a moment.Nepalipeople-5People going this way or that way.Nepalipeople-6People just sitting still, observing the world go by.Nepalipeople-7People waiting, without a worry in the world. Nepalipeople-8People doing their trade by the street side.

Grab a camera and spend a day on the streets of Kathmandu. Amidst the dirt and the chaos, everybody you will meet is beautiful.
Nepalipeople-9(Kathmandu, Nepal; November 2016)

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Crack and boom

earthquake-1In April 2015, a 7.8 Richter’s magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, not far from Kathmandu valley. So many lost their lives. Even more lost their homes. It was a Saturday afternoon so many people were out. Had it been a few hours earlier or later, so many more would have been killed. Due to the aftershocks it took weeks to understand the magnitude of the devastation. Months before help that was offered was actually distributed – but that is a different (political) story.

Our social business offices were spared, and so was the company crew. Because there was no business, the management decided to turn the tight-operating crew into a rescue team for the first week, before they were sent home to rebuild their dwellings. Our lovely orphans and their caretaker were spared, too, but their house had cracked and was unlivable. Our friends were spared, but their family homes were a shambles.

It is as if Nepali people now view their lives in two parts: before and after the earthquake.

Kirtipur was one of the towns mostly spared. Some say it is because it lies on a single slab of rock. But even Kirtipur was damaged. One of the houses standing in the evening sun has a big gash right alongside it. earthquake-3It is the cracks in the walls that makes a building dangerous; more dangerous than actual visible damage. Fortunately, buildings can be taken apart and repaired. But the earthquake has left cracks in the sturdy Nepalese people, too. Not just because they lost so many material things, but because everyone lost either friends or family, or a means to income, or a part of their cultural heritage, or a part of their own identity.

But the world is not a safe place. We are often just lulled into believing it is, while the truth is that everything changes. With a crack and a boom, sometimes. And nobody I know is better at navigating a challenging environment than the Nepalese.
earthquake-2(Kirtipur, Nepal; November 2016)

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B-side experience

kirtipurrestaurant-4“Give us a B-side of Kathmandu”, we had said to our guide, some hours and adventures earlier. “Something you wouldn’t show to first-time visitors, something hidden.” As we walked down the steps into a dark alleyway in Kirtipur, avoiding a suspicious-looking dog, I wondered what we were up for this time.

We entered what looked like a traditional Newari family house: woven fiber mats on the floor; people sitting on terraces of different heights, sipping something from bronze cups; a man washing rice. Women sitting in a ring, preparing food in front of a fire. kirtipurrestaurant-3Our tablecloth was what looked like a flowery bed linen, spread out on the carpet. We sat on the edges of it, sharing the floor as a table.

We had to try the rice beer, our guide said. I was only one of 2 who finished their cup and I did feel dizzy afterwards. kirtipurrestaurant-1We had to try the food he said. All of it. And the bread, too. I’m glad we did. It was delicious. Apart of the black beans that set my mouth and throat and everything below it on fire.

Our Nepali colleague saw my photo on Facebook and commented laconically that we’d probably not make it to work the following day. Meaning that we would not make it further than 5 m from the toilet seat. Little did she know of the random places in which I’ve exposed my gastrointestinal system to much more serious challenges. This Newari restaurant was clean, cozy, and an absolute gem. Now if only I knew how to find it again!
kirtipurrestaurant-2(Kirtipur, Nepal; November 2016)

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Sleepy Kirtipur

kirtipur-1In Kirtipur it is easier to breathe. Easier to move, too. The only things to watch out for are ducks, and women working on the steps of their houses. Living is peaceful here. One can use the entire street to clean one’s daily rice harvest.kirtipur-2One might prefer to wash one’s laundry in the front yard instead of the backyard. No passing cars around to soil it as the town is practically vehicle-free. And besides, the daily gossip fix is served, too.kirtipur-3Kirtipur is a traditional Newar town. The Newar people are said to be the original inhabitants and owners of what most tourists identify as Nepal: the area around Kathmandu valley and all things Nepalese. “Nepal” is even a variation of the word “newar”.

But, like everything truly Nepalese, the Newari culture is a mishmash of all things lovely. Such as temples and traditions: while one side of Kirtipur is Hindu and the other Buddhist, the town celebrates all festivals together. If only more cultures could live like this: side-by-side, sharing each others’ important moments.kirtipur-4(Kirtipur, Nepal; November 2016)