The first word that greeted me within the borders of Nepal were spoken with more candor and tranquility than the greatest of yogis had ever muttered. I turned to parallel my shoulders with hers and placed my palms at heart center.
“Namaste,” I echoed, bowing my head in synchronicity with the spoken word. She gazed into my eyes and I offered a smile to show appreciation toward her Sincerity. She wasn’t muttering the word out of spite as so many of us do. She was saying it with respect. Her small frame stood beneath the swaying ribbons hung in anticipation of upcoming festivities. The day was December 30th. Tomorrow would be New Year’s Eve and this town was ready to hit the streets in a celebration showcasing local talents.
While men were hard at work overhead, the two of us were joined by an equally tiny peace-giver. As it was a holiday from school, the girls had both dressed themselves in knit hats, heavy dresses, grey sweatpants and crocs. Their smiles were innocent and their bright brown eyes glimmered with adoration. The two of them spoke with me briefly, wondering what was inside the big bag on my back. They showed me their school house and their mothers came up in timid succession greeting me, a foreigner-turned-friend, with bowed “Namaste”s.
After walking to the end of the street and back we parted ways. The girls and their mothers waved feverishly as I walked toward Lumbini’s main district. All two blocks of it. On the first block, a young man stopped me to ask if I’d like to rent a bike. Did I ever! The only problem, I told him, was that I had a huge tortoise shell of a backpack on.
His family welcomed me into their open-air home where they sat on the floor of their dimly lit kitchen eating breakfast, fresh from the pot. Mother offered me a taste and set my bag on the only chair they appeared to own. Before parting, I covered the bag with my newly purchased wool blanket. Call it Security Blanket 2.0. Everything I’d brought with on the two-week journey was inside that bag, save wallet, passport and camera. Passing him a few rupees, I watched as he demonstrated how to use the attached bike lock. His final step to fulfill his duties as Bike Store Manager was to place my select belongings inside the cycle’s front basket and reassure me that my bag and blanket would be well protected within his family’s home. I promised him a 6 o’clock return time and waved goodbye to yet another group of fabulous Nepalis.
Ready to go on two wheels, I hit the streets and joined in the echoes of bike bells and “Namaste”s. Even while in transit, the townies and visitors were never too busy to greet each other kindly.
Down a long graveled road lies a Sri Lankan Monastery: my first destination. I locked up the bike just as he’d shown me and entered the flowered sanctuary. Silence filled the air. The Buddhist Monks had certain prayer times designated throughout the day, at which point the air would fill with hums of synchronized mantras. I arrived not long after one of these prayers and found the space to be desolate. Barefoot, I wandered through the gardens and stopped to examine the many golden buddha statues smiling toward the sun. As I prepared to leave, a voice stopped me. Turning to follow the voice, I saw a man bundled in down jacket and woolen hoodie leaning on the rail of his balcony. Modernly clothed, he was a monk taking a break from the indoors to enjoy the mid-winter air.
He asked where I was from and I replied, meekly.
Sensing apprehensiveness, he asked why I seemed afraid to speak with him. I was not afraid, I told him. I did not think he, a monk, could talk to me, a Plain Jane. Indeed, I was misinformed and had made that mental block on my own. Feeling more at ease, we enjoyed a conversation and he told me the story of how he’d become a monk. From the years he’d spent in a South American forest researching rare plant species to the times he spent in absolute solitude. He spoke of the woman from Wisconsin he’d once studied with, his family in Sri Lanka. His memories poured from every crevice of his being and had time allowed, many more stories would have arisen with mirrored credibility.
From the monastery, the road led past fields of green. Rainbows appeared within the eccentrically painted walls of the temples set in a row within the green spaces. Countries such as France and Cambodia had created their own temples in Lumbini and visitors scurried excitedly to enter within the temples’ gates before lengthened lunch breaks would close them off for hours at a time.
An accelerated sweet tooth had prompted me to purchase some scrumptious sweets the night before, and I still had a couple in my bag when two young boys approached. They were the only Nepalis within the boundaries of Lumbini that asked for extras, so with their pleas came a tug at my heartstrings. The two of them stood side by side in front of me as I pulled sweets from my bag, handing them to the smallest boy. I pointed to the two of them and to each of the sweets, implying that they should be shared.
With that, the smaller boy took off in a full sprint, leaving the taller empty-handed and downright upset. He looked at me as tears formed in his eyes. There was nothing I could do but let out a sympathetic giggle and point to his ‘friend’ running in the opposite direction. “Go!” I yelled. “Go get him!”
His eyes darted between my bag and the so-called-friend in rapid tremors. Realizing that he was quickly losing ground, the young boy took off and left me standing alone, watching as the gravel road gave way to tiny sneakered feet, causing a cloud of dust to be raised in his tracks.
Following the rapid departure of those two little scoundrels, I found myself at Lumbini’s most famous landmark: a clay pillar.
This clay pillar is not just another clay pillar. It was set in its place to mark the birthplace of Buddha in 623 B.C. On the lawn surrounding this pillar, Monks prayed and walked freely. Prayer flags hung from a central tree, and remnants of round obelisks could be found every few feet. A white building stood beside the matching pillar. Heavily guarded, it was said to show the true place of the beginnings of Buddha’s life. It’s also the first bit of evidence to suggest Buddha was more than just a legend, but instead an actual being, born and raised on this earth. Buddhists would travel from worlds away to visit this scared location, and each would find his own way to commemorate its blessedness. Coins and rupees were scattered alongside marigolds, artworks, and gold plated jewelry. Walking around this revered area, I met a man who had traveled from Mumbai to get in touch with his religion’s foundation. I waited as he took his time to pay respects to various artifacts. He found the building’s interior particularly powerful and spent several minutes in silence looking down onto the bejeweled memorial.
Time was running short, so I saddled back up and peddled toward town. There, the young boy was awaiting my return. As he saw me near, he ran inside and grabbed my backpack, returning it with the security blanket neatly folded and a cup of hot chai. Wishing each other well, we swapped goods. Pushing ten years old, he’d sure become a fine businessman. To encourage continued hospitality, I thanked him repeatedly and tried to offer a few rupees as an expression of these thanks. As is the heartfelt spirit of this fine city, he declined incessantly and ultimately pressed his palms together. I followed suit.
“Namaste” he quietly whispered.
“Namaste” I replied.