A guest piece by Kristin Laing
I’m done. I am eight days into a two-week trip to Nepal and I don’t want one more fly to land on me because I’m not supposed to swat at it because it’s a sentient being and I’m a Buddhist and it could be my grandmother. Right now, I don’t feel like being a Buddhist. I’m really tired of flies landing on me.
I’m tired of everything I touch being coated in fecal matter dust. A fellow traveler is a nurse and she suggests that I should imagine Nepal that way because of the fertilizer poop particles that waft across the vast, undulating, mountainous countryside from Mongolia. I’ve never been a germ freak but now I’m in Nepal, in unfamiliar bacteria territory. Right now, I’m tired of thinking about everything being covered in poop.
Right now, I don’t feel like being a Buddhist. I’m really tired of flies landing on me.
Our mountain lodge escape outside Kathmandu is supposed to have spectacular views of the distant Himalayas. The smell of smoke that rises from the farms burning fields to clear them for harvest below seemed fitting, even charming at first. But now, the smoke is in my lungs and obscuring the view of those damned snow-capped peaks I was so excited to see. I’m done with smoke.
Curry. I am done with curry. Every meal in Nepal has included some dish that is yellow and spicy and not in my palate spectrum. It was quite tasty at first, but eight days and 16 meals of it later, I’m done with yellow food.
What is wrong with me?! I’m a world traveler, a Buddhist now! I’m open to every experience! I have always been grateful to learn about cultures. I have always understood that my access to endless food sources is more the exception than the norm worldwide, and it is a privilege to have three meals a day and a roof over my head, and have been appreciative of whatever is given me, even if it’s not my favorite flavor.
As a 17-year old People to People student ambassador traveling to Europe for the first time, I took my role to represent the best of what my country has to offer very seriously. That mindset has played a crucial role in my adventures ever since. I have always put my best foot forward, no matter what. So – what gives? This whiny, over-privileged temper tantrum is not me. This place is pushing some pretty significant buttons and I need it to stop. NOW.
More recently at home in D.C., I began to tell myself this story that I am an introvert. I’m a writer now. I need my space, nature, serious quiet and solitude in order to tap into my creativity. The “city,” is too chaotic, too crazy for me. The traffic, the people filling up the streets, the ‘in crowd’ energy. I love the restaurants, live music and museums of the city, but anything more than a couple of hours of the ‘in crowd’ and I feel drained and desperate to get to peace and quiet, space and fresh air to breathe. How was this story going to show up in the busy streets of Kathmandu?
I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into when I decided to go to Nepal. I would see ancient Buddhist sites, meet interesting people, eat a lot of Dal Bhat. To avoid Nepali belly, I had both practiced showering with my mouth shut (who knew I showered with it open!) and using bottled water to brush my teeth (it’s harder to remember than you think!). I had a story in my head about how the sights, sounds and smells of developing nation poverty would be an assault on my senses. I prepared myself for the likelihood that there were things that I couldn’t possibly prepare myself for, and to accept that I would likely have reactions to those things. I wanted to be shaken to the core, a new perspective on life.
There are two possible reactions when a person is completely removed from her comfort zone. She is either going to freak out and shut down, or she is going to dive in with her heart and mind wide open. I arrived so prepared to dive in it was three days before I remembered I’m an introvert that hates crowds, noise and chaos.
Walking through the narrow alleyways of Thamel that burst with things to buy, I dodged people moving with a purpose as if I had always lived there. Amidst a cacophony of honking motorcycles, I was forced up against a building as two vehicles too large to squeeze past each other defied the laws of physics. I should have hated it. Instead, I was completely out of my own head and the story I had been telling myself dried up and blew away with a gust of Kathmandu dust.
I knew I was going to experience a spiritual deepening in the birthplace of Buddhism. As a new Vajrayana student, I was going to nail the practice of compassion. I expected to be overcome by an outpouring of emotion upon seeing the big stupas, for their significance in the history of Buddhism. At Swayambunath, my guide, James, skillfully chose the specific route to the stupa for maximum thrill. We both got exactly the reaction we were hoping for as I turned the corner to gaze upon and be gazed back upon by the golden eyes painted on the spire of the stupa, that followed me as I circumambulated, dedicating the joy and abundant love to my lama and sangha. This overwhelm would not repeat itself at Boudhanath, much to my surprise.
I did not expect to have a hard time at the heart center of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal, the Great Stupa of Boudhanath, where prayers are being said every minute of every day and night. I was thrilled by the auspicious possibility of getting to help repair the stupa that had sustained damage in the devastating 2015 earthquakes. But when I arrived at the profoundly spiritual place, a cloud of dis-ease formed over me that didn’t clear until I puked my guts out. I let go of breakfast and expectations, and the next thing I knew, I was standing on the top tier of the stupa’s base, filling bags with bricks that were being sent up to the spire that was being rebuilt. At that moment, I was blissful, covered in stupa dust.
There was the group. Two things will happen when you bring a group of women together: it will deteriorate into cliques and cat fights or a bloom into a beautiful sisterhood. It was incredible. All creative, all writers, spanning every strata of economic background and life experience, sisters, mothers, aunties, deep connection. We ebbed and flowed, cared for each other when we were sick, consoled each other when there were tears, made each other laugh… And not once did my introvert story rear its ugly head and turn me into a grouch. OK, maybe once…
I was doing great! I felt good about my experience so far! So – what happened??
I got exactly what I asked for. I was shaken to the core. I got uncomfortable, faced with the privileges I’ve taken for granted, that I’ve only just begun to realize not everyone has. I was helpless, overwhelmed by the lepers and the amputees, the children with their outstretched hands. I saw suffering so naked and raw and in my face, that no street corner in “the city” could rival or be compared to it. All of my preparation did not prepare me to reject what I was experiencing, especially since I had asked for it. I needed a break from it – to go home, just for a day, to stop feeling so insignificant. I just needed the flies to stop landing on me.
Getting what you ask for sucks sometimes. Growing hurts sometimes and I grew. I got really uncomfortable in Nepal, faced with so very many people holding up mirrors for me, to show me the ugliest, darkest corners of me. But then, a little Nepali Hadjur Amma showed up in my head. She was so bent with time and the weight of surviving this country, wrinkled by the sun and wind and dust, dressed in a beautiful sari of bright crimson and gold and ancient plastic flip flops. She took her twig broom and swept away the poop dust that had collected on my brain. The introvert story I had been telling myself at home is a fairy tale. Water out of the tap will never taste sweeter and I will never use it wastefully again. Clean air, electricity, a culture that at least attempts women’s equality – my country is far from perfect, but it remains the best part of traveling, because it is my home and there really is no place like it.
Kristin Laing, a professional smart ass and Vajrayana Buddhist student in the Palyul tradition, she has earned the unofficial title of ‘the wild one’ at her temple, Kunzang Palyul Choling. Kristin writes for clients that range from rock stars to yoga instructors, local government to a pilot’s association. But, her passion is sharing personal experiences to help her readers feel connected to her and each other, to understand that they’re not alone in the crazy. For more stories of adventure, check out her blog at www.laingwerks.com.