2011 Spring External Programs Nepal Sierra Gladfelter

Chaos and Peace

Everything comes out of chaos. The best ideas emerge from the minds of insane, the greatest stories are written at the messiest desks, and perhaps the experiences that change our lives occur in places like Nepal. In this country that has not had a government in eight years it is hard

to find order anywhere. The streets are testimony: narrow rivers of beings on bikes, foot, and motorcycle that feel as if they are about to crash into each other at any moment. And yet somehow a breath away, they stop and spare each other’s lives.

A doctor who has practiced in Nepal for years explained that despite the insane traffic in the city of Kathmandu, there are relatively few accidents. When people drive here, they focus only on one thing: what is directly in front of them.  A driver’s only responsibility is to not run head on into anyone. It is a strange way of surviving, but it seems to work. As a foreigner used to rules and street lights it takes some getting used to. The first few times I jump sideways at the toot of a motorbike, feel the body slide by my thigh like a shark, literally touching me. Soon I learn to trust that I will not get hit. If you walk against the wall and follow the tug of traffic, you realize most people are moving in the same direction.

This is a country of circles. There are no straight lines, and even the streets are the spokes of a wheel. They branch from Baudha Stupa, the center of Tibetan exile life in Kathmandu (although the 80% of locals who are Tibetan do not consider this Nepal. To them this is Tibet. This is their island of refuge.) Even without seeing where the Stupa is, you can hear it and feel it. Crowds singing, traffic pushing closer. All roads (or most, I discover after some wandering) lead to it. There is a sense of gravity that draws the community toward it. All day there are Tibetans circling clockwise as they finger rosaries and spin the singing prayer wheels. This is called Kora: a practice Tibetans take part in twice a day. Most locals circle three or five times, but the more devote are drawn deeper, into the gates, up against the white-washed dome strung with prayer flags where they prostrate on wooden slabs. There are polished groves where their hands and torsos slide forward a hundred thosand times. Woman sit with cloth splayed in their laps and pour grain, offering it endlessly to Buddha. Marigolds dance on the surface of a thousand cups of water. The tin bowls shine like scales around the base of the Stupa, but they must be collected before sunset so insects do not happen to drown in the darkness.

I cannot get over the prayer flags. I look up and get lost in them: a thousand scraps of color whispering to the wind and shedding their blessings in threads that dissolve in the people beneath them. Even though the Stupa is the hub of life here, it is also the place of most peace. The city quiets, the song of traffic dissipates. Despite the white cloud of smog that settles over Kathmandu, the sky is always blue when you look straight up.

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