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Photo by Catherine Von Holt, Nepal Semester.

Morning light

Winter has quietly settled into the Kathmandu valley and cold air has begun to sneak in with pealing prayer bells that find their way in through my open window in the morning. The ancient kingdom of Patan wakes up gracefully with freshly prepared tika, masala spices, and butter candles. Each day the sun rises a little later over the ancient bricks and filters down into the gullys and small streets. This air is heavy and saturated with incense and swept-up dust. The colors here are soft and muted, wood and earth polished so perfectly by a thousand years of cart wheels and sandals that they reflect back their histories and origins.

I have stopped using my alarm clock, and instead, wake up to the sound of the small bell being rung at the Shiva temple that sits a few feet from my bedroom window. A woman I’ll never meet arrives around five to do puja and rings the burnished bell a few times before entering the temple. She leaves behind a spread of flowers and rice and a small butter lamp that is often still burning when I first leave in the morning.

I like to walk the streets in the relative quiet of the morning and photograph the lives of people whose roots were first dug into this ground before Europeans ever set foot in the New World. The Newari speak in generations and not years and many live in houses passed down over so many generations that there are no photographs of the people who built them, only stories.

Now that the weather has turned the mornings are crisp and the houses are cold. Sunlight has become a commodity. The streets, narrow and twisted, create unpredictable swaths of light that cut between buildings and paint shadows on the crumbling brick walls. By 7 am the grandparents of Patan take to the open air and place their small stools in the little pockets of light and begin to shift slowly through their courtyards like sundials as they move with the warmth. My favorite photographs of this place are the ones of people sitting quietly against the warmed walls of this city and quietly watch life go by.

The more time that I spend here the easier it is to get lost. At first it was a challenge to make it from one side of Patan to the other and once I did I rigidly stuck to my path without a single deviation. Now that I have become more comfortable, I find myself drifting down smaller and smaller alleys and ducking into courtyards that almost always connect to another and then another and another until I find myself standing in the still air and quiet light that fills my chest and heart with magic and wonder.

We are leaving Patan tomorrow, which has created a sort of unwanted melancholy in me and has made my morning coffee taste more bitter than it should. This morning, I walked a few blocks away to a small gulley that winds deep into the heart of my neighborhood and stood at the foot of a narrow shaft of light that cuts a perfect diagonal down the street. I stood there for thirty minutes and waited for the right moment to photograph someone as their shadow, drawn and enlarged by the angle of the sun, cast a deep and resolute pattern on the ancient bricks in the exact same way that their life will.