Danny Syme - 2 (2014)

[Mim Practising. Kathmandu]

Shoulda’ Coulda’ Buddha

“My advice to you is to get married. If you find a good wife, you’ll be happy; if not, you’ll become a philosopher” - Socrates

And so it was, on January 8th 2014 that I got married. At the working-up-to-prime age of thirty three, I was wed to my wonderful wife Mim. We are circus performers by trade and do love a bit a’ glitz and glamour; but opted for an intimate white-wedding with little fanfare. We were wed nestled in the volcanic hills of the Banks Peninsula, overlooking the blue-blazing waters of Akaroa harbour. It’s one of many spectacular spots that dot around the rugged hills and rolling valleys of the majestic peninsula. A geo-behemoth in scale and seen from space as the great knob of the South Island. Then we whizzed off in the Subaru wagon on our honeymoon, to some of our most beloved places in the South Island of New Zealand. First stop, Kaikoura Coast: with its monumental jutting Alps, enlivening sea-breeze, and many-many seals. Then onward to Golden Bay, a locale that rings true to its name; vibrant in its quietude and glows golden under the evening sun.

[Figure 1: Mim and I. Wedding Day. Akaroa]

Ahhh! Honeymooning - the bright wash of happiness - if it’s done right. Lots of laughter, dreams, and well: Sex. But of course, we had no ‘problems’ in this regard on our honeymoon. We did, however, have a few ‘issues’ on our trip to Kathmandu soon after. Because, we had decided to volunteer our services for three months to Nepal’s one and only circus troupe: Circus Kathmandu. Excited much? It’s the land of the Buddha! The exotic visions of mystical oneness at the pinnacle of the world, while serving the needs of the under-privileged, bubbled in our bellies. Eastern philosophy and I have a past, you see, and touching down in the birthplace of the Buddha was the closest I might get to a pilgrimage of service. So hand in hand as newly-weds, we leapt on a plane and flew off giggling - filled with ideas of otherness, togetherness, and well: Sex. But, like all good oriental adventures, I guess, there was paradox to come.

All up the flights from Christchurch to Kathmandu took 16 hours. By the end it felt like rigor mortis was setting in. We flew in under the cover of darkness. I could only see very sparse street lighting out the window, adding to the mystique of the journey. The Kathmandu Airport further stoked this air of mystery, as it was unlike any other we had experienced. We were greeted by various Hindu and Buddhist deities, their arms and legs twisted and faces wrought with terror, carved into the dark stained wood of the walls and ceiling. We get ushered through the most relaxed customs ever (I could’ve walked through with an elephant on my back). I noticed a hand written sign on a window stating that Nepal has the world’s second largest water reserves, second only to Brazil. “Great we should be sweet for water then” I blurt out.

Outside we are assailed by hundreds of Nepalese faces waiting for someone, from somewhere. Many vie for our attention “Taxi Sir!” overwhelmed we scour the crowd for our people. I noticed blonde hair and white faces amongst the throng. “That’s us, let’s go” I lead the way. We meet and shake hands with Charlotte and Sam: the circus tutors who we’re succeeding at Circus Kathmandu. They guide us through the dizzying scene and plop us in a tiny van. Sam staunchly negotiates a fee in his heavy American accent, the driver-boy tries to refuse and Sam threatens to leave, “Nope it’s too much, we’ll go elsewhere!” he bellows, much to our chagrin. The demure driver-boy eventually caves in and we make our way to our accommodation.

While we get a bit of a brief as we drive - I phase out a little and gaze out the window into the night. The dim orange street lamps barely light their surrounds. I can make out clusters of derelict buildings with rubble edges. Tumbling litter, and rubbish piles with gnarly dogs protecting them. Gaping holes mar the footpath and road streaming past my window. It’s like the warzones I’ve seen on the news. My eyes gently shut and I rest a second. Screech! The van veers suddenly and the horn shrieks and snaps me out of a daze, we just dodged a cow lying in the middle of the freeway. “Yip, we’re not in the pacific anymore” I whisper to Mim. She glares back with her mouth agape. We arrive at our homestay in Jawalakhel, in the Patan District, and are shown to our room. I feel very disorientated and vulnerable. We barely kiss goodnight and are asleep before our heads hit the pillow.

The next morning we awaken briskly and pull back the curtains, as if opening theatre curtains to kick off the show. It’s sunny and strong beams cut in through the dusty room. “Wow!” A range of short multi-coloured buildings bombard my vision. Below, I see a wee vege- patch thriving in the shade of the backyard. Mim grabs my arm and drags me to the rooftop, bounding and fizzing “come on, come on, this is sooooo exciting” she exclaims. On top, we are surrounded by dense apartment blocks each four stories high at least dominating the panorama. They’re painted in vivid colours: Greens, Purple, Orange, Pink, Cream, or just plain brick. Many rooftops look like leisure or work spaces. Hung washing blends in with Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind. The grandiose Kathmandu Valley, which is completely surrounded by bulbous mountain ranges blending into the haze on the horizon.

[Figure 2: From our rooftop. Jawalakhel, Kathmandu]

Mim and I head down to the Gym to meet the Circus Kathmandu troupe for the first time. The Gym is large and surprisingly modern, with a pool, weights machines, and all the mod cons. We enter and observe them from the corner as they juggle away unaware of our arrival. They are all young and in their early twenties. They laugh, play, and mock fight each other with great gusto, reminding me of Māori students I have worked with back home.

We sit them down and do introductions, their English is slightly better than our Nepali, and we can only say “Namaste”. But we make do and it’s all very pleasant. Though deep down I sense this is a façade. From my experience, tight knit groups make nice in the beginning, as inside the individuals size you up. That’s okay because as teachers we’re doing the same. We know we’re here to do a job and circus training can require intense discipline. Afterward, Mim leans in and whispers, “They seem nice, let’s see how nice they are after a couple weeks of punishment” I snigger with my fingers tips touching like an evil scientist “Yes” I reply.

[Figure 3: Juggle time. Flexi Fit Gym]

We use the words ‘torture’ and ‘punishment’ in the lightest sense here to convey the realities of circus life. The Reality for this troupe though, is that they are part of a programme set up to rescue them from human trafficking and other dire scenarios in Nepal and India. So we are careful to not impinge the words ‘torture’ and ‘punishment’ onto their tender psyches too much. Yes, the training will be hard and we don’t take bullshit, however, we are from a western society were the values of liberty, individual rights, and meritocracy guide our behaviour and tutelage.

We finish the day and head home exhausted. The streets are active and the sun simmers above the silhouetted mountains to the east. We arrive into our kitchen to find a young man smoking a cigarette at our kitchen table. I’m startled “Ah! Hello, who are you?”

“Oh! Hey guys I’m Shishir, I’m the production manager of CK”, He responds in clear English then clumsily stumbles outside, “Sorry I know you guys don’t smoke inside. Hey, if you ever met my Mum please don’t tell her I smoke okay?” His levity catches us off guard, “All good, your secret is safe with us” Mim reassures him.

Shishir is well educated and is of the Brahman caste - the priestly upper-class – and obviously has access to money, resources, and westerners. This is all because of his ‘good karma’ (woe on to those who are born into the lower castes, as they must have done negative things in the past to have earned such a position). I get the sense that Shishir didn’t really buy into the caste thing though as he rambles a bit about his position on arranged marriage:

“Yeah my Mum has tried to match me up with a couple of woman, but it’s really bad because our star-charts didn’t match up. Apparently, any woman who wants to marry me will die very early – it is such bullshit you know!” He spits. I try console him the only way I know how, with a secular bias,

“Gee man, that sounds full on. All that astrology stuff is generic anyway it could apply to anyone, really, why would the position of stars have such control over our tiny little lives?” I chide.

“I know right, but that’s just the way of the older people you know, it’s hard for me and my friends” his posture sags as he laments. He is one of many young Nepali who are on the brink of a massive societal leap, from the arcane to the modern.

Mim and I start giving each other the ‘let’s get out of here’ eyes, and retire for a restless night sleep. During the night, I have the most intense and vivid dreams I can remember.

We have the following day off work and take a day trip to one of the famed and ancient Durbar squares of Kathmandu City. Mim notices I’m wired from the lack of sleep and the mind altering dreams: “Ha! You look like one of those wide-eyed statues, what are they called again?” she remarks, “Wrathful Deities” I reply, while grimacing my face like the Māori pukana.

We’re running on adrenaline and have energy to burn. We grab a beat up taxi and plough into the seemingly lawless traffic. HONK! HONK! We are constantly surrounded by cars, bikes, and trucks, all provoking the odd fright – as we jostle in amidst the heedlessness. Hordes of people and animals swarm the streets and alleys, dwarfed by risky brick buildings that look as if they’ll topple over at any moment.

We arrive at Thamel, an area Shishir had recommended for its markets and book stores. We weave through an alley, it’s dense with pedestrians and flanked by shops to feed the tourist buzz. The intoxicating scent of incense and foods - blend in and out - with the smell of sewerage and exhaust fumes. A dishevelled young boy approaches me with sparkling eyes and unfurls his hand, “Hello Sir, hash! You want hash?” I did want hash, but not from him. I had the fear of being set upon by secret Nepali police and beaten with the sticks they carry. We continued on and I find ‘The Tibetan Book Shop’ and go inside, a refuge from the madness outside.

We peruse awhile and Mim gets bored, as she does, “I’m gonna go look at some other shops okay? I’ll be back in half an hour”. She goes for shoes and clothes, that’s fine by me, as I’m effectively in the ‘seekers’ heaven having never seen so many Asian philosophy books in one place, ever. A few gems glimmer amongst the piles of chaff. There are so many books on Buddhism that I’m beguiled and don’t buy one. Instead, I end up buying “Virus of the Mind” by Richard Brodie; subtitled “The Revolutionary New Science of the Meme and How It Can Help You”, thinking it might give me a modern insight into my perplexities.

I sit outside and wait for Mim, flicking through my new buy, and a sentence catches my eye, “the price of civilisation is compromise”. I look up and around at the immensity of people bumping along the path, the taxis’ blocking up the road, all amidst a smoggy shroud, and agree entirely. Mim arrives flustered, she too couldn’t decide on something to buy. That’s very weird. We then make our way to Hanuman square, one of the most ancient temple sites in Nepal.

We arrive and stand in the middle of the square. There is a women’s rights rally in progress. Girl power punches the air. The surrounding architecture is indeed archaic, coloured rusty orange and brown, reminding me of iron rich soils. There are countless pigeons about. We meet a group of vibrant young children who see my camera and want me to film them chasing the pigeons away. I indulge them. They charge in and their shrieks of joy mingle with the multi-flutter of wings. Time slows down a second and the sound fades out, I experience a feeling of elation I felt as a child. The world turns shiny and endorphins flood my blood stream. I meet eyes with a stoic wee toddler who stands completely still amongst it all. I am. Then time comes right again and the sound off the pigeon wings echo off the walls, sounding like hundreds of tiny little helicopters. I take the stoic boys picture and the kids come and surround me. I show them the footage of themselves. As they watch the screen delighted, I watch their faces, and feel gratified.

[Figure 4: Boy]

The weeks pour on and the troupe gets lazier. It's spring time in the dry season, and our training days are becoming muggy and stifling. Mim and I haven’t had sex in ages because we both have had intermittent stomach bugs. I haven’t showered in days and my head itches constantly. One of girls of the troupe starts complaining about having to do - anything. “Brother, I’m sore, I can’t do anything” she strokes her abdomen,

“I don’t care, stop being lazy, you must train!” I snap back at her. What she doesn’t realise is that over the last few days I had been preaching to the old porcelain God, “I feel like my ass is going to explode! And look, I’m still training” I admonish her. “No brother, I won’t” she stomps off in a huff and disappears round the corner to sulk. But I really didn’t care. The troupe had been slacking off way too much and we were laying down the law. They always went on about the ‘Nepali’ way, as if it meant some sort of alternative perspective beyond time, but what I saw was excuses. They were trying to pull the wool over our eyes, and testing our boundaries.

Later, we landed an important corporate gig for the troupe. It was an I.T conference: the Kathmandu leg of the DELL computers tour of India. The DELL people insisted on making specific costumes for the troupe, and they turned out terrible. Ill-fitted light blue and grey leotards. The modesty of the troupe showed as they tried them on for the client for the first time. The troupe nervously clutched and pawed at their private places in full blush. This was not their ideal costume. They were pretty bad.

We headed to the conference for a dress rehearsal. Upon arrival at the swanky Yak and Yeti Hotel in central Kathmandu, everything was supposed to be sorted and in order: the stage ready, the trussing up, and the lights hung, so that we could come straight in rig our gear and get rehearsing. That’s what would happen anywhere else. But in true Nepali fashion: the stage is in pieces, the trussing is on the floor in pieces, and the lights are wrapped up in their boxes. I approach one of the reposed workers with self-restraint and seek answers,

“Namaste. All of this was supposed to be ready for us, what’s taking so long?” I say, unsure if he understands. He doesn’t and shrugs his shoulders. Another guy comes over to explain, “Yes bro, we are going as fast as we can” he implores touching me on the shoulder, I shudder and look around. Two out of twenty men are actually working, the rest are just lazing about the space. “We will finish in hour” he says. I throw up my hands in despair, storm away, and go fester in a dark corner where people can’t see me stifle tears. Three hours later we finally get to rehearse. The stage is set. I check the rigging and stage for the general health and safety of our performers. I find out that the trussing our Aerialists are supposed to hang off, is missing support pins that hold it together. A walk on the stage reveals hundreds of sporadic drawing pins sticking up through the carpet cover. And back stage is so obscenely messy: with electrical cables, invisible support wires placed at about neck-height, plus, stacks of equipment in random piles that was brought to the event but is now useless.

But you make do, don’t ya?

For the troupe, moving backstage was like leaping and bobbing through the jungle. We start the first Aerial-hoop duo act, on stage. The sponsors/costumers eagerly watch on, all is going well, and then - the performers slip off each other and fall five feet to the ground. One after the other, Oomph! Thud!

We rush in and get them comfy. Fortunately, it’s not serious but they are a bit dazed. I ask one of the girls what she thinks happened, “Brother. It was the slippery costume. I went weeeee…” she mimes falling off using just her fingers, it looks funny, and we laugh heartily. We decide to pack up and call it a night. Reclined in the taxi right home I rest my eyes and ponder what happened. I hate seeing people fall. I get all stirred up at the severe lack of safety awareness and blurt out at the driver, “haven’t you guys got Health and Safety policies?” he leans over to me with a benevolent smile, “What sir?” he answers. I slump back exasperated and peer out the window, “Doesn’t matter! It must be the Nepali way.”

[Figure 5: Dell Gig. Yak and Yeti. Kathmandu]

It's half way through our trip and we get a much deserved ten day break. By now, six weeks in, we are having extreme cravings to be in Nature. Kathmandu has a few old trees around, some impressive eucalypts, lots of straggling bushes, and a surprising amount of marijuana. But only the mountains were singing to me as of yet. One day, I decided to go and check out the most sacred river in Nepal: the Bagmati. I asked Mim if she wanted to come with and she screwed up her nose at me, “Yuck, no thanks!” she said. We had taxied past it one time and wound up the windows real fast. I get there on foot and arrive at the Bagmati Bridge. I stand in the middle of it with my camera and note book. As I cast my gaze about my eyes fume up a bit and begin to water. The river runs slower than the traffic that snails behind me. The edges bubble and froth with a dark yellow hue, its arteries are choking with industrial matter and colour-faded plastics. Its dull surface appears to conceal the fate of mutant species. It is essentially dead. I remember something a Kaumatua once said to me back home: “You know, you can tell the health of a people, by the health of their rivers eh”, I reflect on this awhile.

[Figure 6: Bagmati River (1)]

On the other side of the bridge, I see here are rows of shanty huts down by the river. It’s impoverished and I feel embarrassed standing there taking notes and photos, so decide to put it all away, and head down for a visit. I feel like I’m working for the UN.

[Figure 7: Bagmati River (2)]

As I approach the huts, I look back up at the bridge, and at the surrounding buildings with new billboards atop trying to hawk the latest in richness of “Fairness Cream” and “Facebook”. I then notice that these huts are made of those billboards, long discarded or torn from their frames, a twisted irony, but a sign of great resourcefulness.

A young boy approaches me in apprehension. I greet him and ask his name, “Makesh” he replies, “I am nine years old”, I ask more questions but he doesn’t understand much. I gift him a pen and he writes his name in my notebook: Makesh Ram. He follows me as I take a tour along the shanty town. Some shacks have their own vegetable gardens, with corn, tomatoes, marijuana and other stuff. Children make an effort to test their English on me. Chicken families cluck about and scratch at the dirt. Mischievous Monkeys threaten to take me alive but Makesh fights them back with his pebble arsenal. A tiny baby cries and thrashes in a woman’s arms, as she grinds some rice in a bowl. A man clears his nose inside his shack.

[Figure 8: Bagmati River (3)]

The living conditions are poor but the inhabitants seem clean and well groomed. They seem contented, for today at least, and smile as I pass by. The ever present smell of river scum hangs in the air though and reminds me this isn’t ideal living. I leave feeling queasy and heavy of heart, but glad that the river people are making do.

At this point I feel quite deflated. I had imagined Nepal to be one of the last great refuges for the spirituality of humankind, where the people co-exist in peace with the environment, warding off the evil forces of industrial regimes. But no. In fact the evil forces have arrived, all manner of modern trappings have become available here well before any systems to make or support them. Oh the wonders of global commerce. I guess I can’t complain. I have, after all, travelled here from the other side planet with a meagre enough savings to survive the interim, which would equal a vast sum in the Nepali Rupee.

The time has come for us to make our much anticipated journey to Lumbini: the birthplace of the Buddha. The cradle lands of the man himself. We take a crammed tour bus there. The two hundred kilometre voyage takes eight hours. To adapt to our stuffed seating conditions, we have to attempt various yogic postures that haven’t been invented yet. Good fun.

In Lumbini, it is the Maya Devi (birthday of the Mother of the Buddha) festival and the place is swarming with folks. We are clearly the only ‘white folk’ in town, and many look on intrigued. The attention is secretly intoxicating. It’s obviously a big time of the year and people come from all over Nepal and India on pilgrimage; as the Buddha’s birthday is soon to follow also. We get settled in at a lodge and rest the night. During sleep I’m near devoured by dirty mosquitos and awaken covered in pink spots.

[Figure 9: Sleeping Buddha. The World Peace Pagoda. Lumbini]

We meet our tiny host early and he informs us of the various should do’s and could do’s of Lumbini, he makes a special mention to visit the ‘Spiritual Disney-Land’ of Buddha Garden, “there sir, you will find everything you need for enlightenment” he sniggers from under his too-large cap. He is referring to the multiple international Buddhist temples set up around the holiest of holy places. We make our way there. Some of these temples look like they cost millions of dollars to build. I love the Thai temple, but of special note is the Austrian temple that is so lavish in its grandiose Gold and Marble trimmings, that it would be more suitable as the palace of Julius Caesar.

[Figure 10: Gateway to the gorgeous Vietnamese Buddhist temple. Lumbini]

Aesthetically pleased, but morally disgruntled, we head towards the centre of this enlightened complex. As we approach, I gradually become light hearted and actually quite contented. The sun shines and it’s a comfy temperature, the many birds peep and flit about, and people hum as the make their way along. We take off our shoes and enter the centre, a UNESCO world heritage site. Te Whenua o te Buddha. My stomach flutters, but I think I don’t know why. I turn and look at Mim, she is grinning at me, and I realise that I’m trying to play this all down, like it’s no big deal but: I’m actually here, at the place that the Buddha was born - with my wife, in the highest country in the world, and it feels wonderful, natural.

[Figure 12: The birthplace of Lord Buddha. Lumbini (1)]

An arresting sense of gratitude wells up from inside and gushes out, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it, we’re here” I affirm. For once I’m wholly here, and all my concerns of health and safety, pollution, and poverty are gone. Before us stands the humble palace built over the birth spot itself. We hold each other’s hand and step inside into an all-embracing reverence.

© Danny Syme

[Figure 11: The birthplace of Lord Buddha. Lumbini (2)]

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