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Photo by Catherine Von Holt, Nepal Semester.

The First Forty-Eight

The breathtaking beauty of the Himalayas as seen from the plane were quickly and starkly contrasted by the cab ride from the airport, a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride-esque navigation through the most crowded, dusty, chaotic city I’ve ever seen.

Relief washed over me as I entered the gates of the Shechen Monastery, a garden oasis where we’ll stay for three nights as we get our bearings in Boudha. Getting settled in the simply appointed guesthouse, I finally removed my boots after nearly two days of sleepless travel. A metal fork fell out and clinked on the floor. It had the Qatar Airways logo stamped into the metal. Walking around with a large metal object in my shoe unknowingly for at least several hours was clear evidence I needed sleep.

Sweet monastery bells woke me gently around 5am. We gathered for breakfast and I had a mouthwatering Nepali omelette filled with sautéed garlic and onions and slightly spicy peppers of several varieties. Lunch was even more delicious. One of our instructors, Rishi, guided us through a gorgeous traditional Nepali Thakali meal of daal bhat (lentils and rice). I now confidently know how to eat with my hand. Just the right one.

Father Greg, a Jesuit priest and professor, captivated us with the incredible stories of how Hindu and Buddhist ways of life became deeply intertwined in Nepal while we drank bright red Chinese goji berry tea in his plush apartment. He then led us to a puja, a special ceremony that was being held on the country’s second-most auspicious day of the year. The horns, drums, ceremonial dress, butter tea, donut bread, and chanting had to be experienced to be believed. Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, one of the greatest Dzogchen masters of our time, wrapped the yellow silk scarf I’d presented him with around my neck, patted my head, and blessed me with the kindest eyes and most loving smile.

Night had fallen on the Boudha Stupa, and we walked a circuit around the monument like the thousands of pilgrims that had come that day to pray beneath the iconic Eyes of Compassion.

Day two began with important cultural lessons: do everything with your right hand only (if you don’t know what the left hand is for, I’ll leave it to someone else’s Yak to explain); prayer hands not hugs; don’t point the bottom of your feet at anyone; shoulders are inappropriate but midriffs are acceptable.

We were visited by Milan Rai (also known as “Butterfly Man”), an awe-inspiring artist friend of our other instructor, Claire. A self-identified “hopeless student” who failed all eight subjects in school, sought his purpose after a fight that left him hospitalized for 45 days. Using nature as his meditation, and particularly lit up by a white butterfly that had visited him, he set out to spread white paper butterflies and peace across the city and eventually, the world. He is full of wise life philosophy, including but not limited to: not wanting social media followers, but for you to follow your heart; understanding that in pursuit of a bigger bank balance, we lose life balance; and being “so busy with happiness.”

Our final Tibetan Chinese meal, a cuisine only found in this specific part of Kathmandu, was in an open-air restaurant filled almost entirely with robed monks. This seemed like a good sign. The tiny kittens roaming around only distracted slightly from out-of-this-world mitho (delicious) food. As I gazed down the long table, a giant photo of the Dalai Lama smiled down upon this group of 10 people that have become my family in just forty-eight life-affirming hours. I couldn’t help but smile back.