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Nepal Semester Student's Catherine Von Holt's photograph of the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.

Things Discovered in the Streets of Nepal

In the streets of Bhaktapur, all time exists at once. I sat on the top step of a temple, watching this world bustle below. My tongue itched for the taste of “suntalas”, these oranges I am confused by. I have never peeled oranges before. The wooden ledge up there has been stained dark and worn smooth by hundreds of years and lives passed. Beyond some narrow streets, packed with people and scooters and traps for tourists, are more temples, although the earthquake has laid them low. I watched a man with a small hammer and chisel pound rhythmically into a pale block of stone. He seemed so small, sat cross-legged before the pieces of legacy.

In Boudha, the air was thick with smoke and incense. I walked past Buddhist monks on iPhones, women prostrate on the ground beside the stupa, a thousand stray dogs and a thousand stray souls looking for something. A red prayer flag let go in the wind, floating on the breeze like a loose poinsettia petal. We went to a monastery early enough in the morning that the whole world seemed made in shades of blue. They had a gong larger than me which, when struck, drowned out every other sound- but not unkindly. I liked that monastery. The others, I have felt uncomfortable.

In Thamel, I bought nothing.

In Patan, I’m trying to come up with a name for the little stray that sleeps on our doorstep. He’s the color of old chocolate, and tucks into the tightest spiral, nose under his tail. In the morning there are piles of flowers and burning candles in the streets. By evening, the scooters have reduced them to scarlet smears in the pavement. I listen out my window to the alternate sounds of construction, stylized music, and occasionally a rooster. The rooster reminds me of a man I saw my second day. He pedaled his bike up a steep, dusty incline, a woven basket full of chickens strapped on his back.

What is it that draws us, draws me, to this place- where dust hides the world’s greatest mountains and night falls early in narrow alleyways? My journal entries are rife with questions: what do those auburn marigolds, dried and strung over doorways, mean? Are there actually any traffic laws? Why do I keep hearing bells ringing? It’s a place I’ve equal parts dreamed of and never even known existed.

On a bus an old woman draped in black asked me where I was from. I told her and she smiled. “Did you come to see the temple or the snow?” I hesitated. “Snow.” She continued to smile and gave me a handful of peas. They were a verdant shade, cool, fresh-seeming, and not entirely round. It felt like something from those old fairy tales. An old woman and some possibly cursed beans. I wonder about Nepal, even as I try to live in it. I don’t want to stop wondering. Here, I don’t think I can. I’ll always wonder about the man with the hammer, the red prayer flags and red pavements smears, and the old woman with peas.

The air is thick, and the sky is rarely all that blue, but sometimes on the horizon you catch the mountains. Then the mountains catch you. And they don’t let go.