14 September 2013

Street Dogs

I am back in Kathmandu. 

The ‘Du. 

I flew in this afternoon and I have slipped straight into the rhythm of the place. 

It is a slow and close and pleasant dance.

I cannot properly describe the joy I feel being back in Nepal. Sometimes I simply don’t know how to string together words that are adequate enough to appropriately describe an emotion or an experience.

A connection.

This is such a time.

So I won’t even bother to try.

The plane trip from Delhi is a quick one - a little over an hour. My preferred seat on all planes is on the aisle but for the Delhi to Kathmandu and return ride I always get one by a window. I have taken this flight many times before so the sight of the the biggest peaks of the Himalaya bursting more than a kilometer through the clouds no longer astonishes me.

It simply amazes me.

When the plane drops through the nebula and I see the lush green Kathmandu Valley - and then we bump and shudder as we land and then rattle our way along the battered tarmac of the Tribhuvan International airport - it now feels like I have come home.

Everything is familiar and I feel comfortable here.

It is like slipping into a cozy pair of old slippers.

I am staying where I normally stay in Kathmandu – at the Himalaya hotel. The view of the seven thousand meter peak Himalay Ganesh is straight out my window. It is the second highest precipice on the planet - and is a holy mountain that will never allowed to be climbed. I can see monks receiving their alms on the bustling streets below me and the scent of the frangipani on the terrace garden that I am overlooking is heavy in the air.

It is delightful.

I am the guest of an esteemed and holy man name Rinpoche – who is allegedly a reincarnation of a great and significant Buddha Master. The only common denominator between Rinpoche and myself is that we are both patrons of a school for Tibetan refugee children in the city.

I am neither holy nor am I a reincarnation of a Buddhist Master.

Well I don’t think I am – however anything is possible.

Everything is possible.

The school of which Rinpoche and I are both patrons is called the “Snowland Ranag School of Light”. All one hundred and thirty six children that attend the Snowland School come from very far away districts on the mountainous border between Nepal and Tibet.

The children who attend the Snowland School are the brightest of the bright from their villages. Their teachers and communities have selected them and are collectively helping to sponsor them.

They are the chosen.

Some Snowland graduates are now doctors and IT consultants and engineers and lawyers. There are many teachers too.

We are very proud of all of them.

I have never been to the districts where these children come from and much as I want to - I will never be able. The home villages of the Snowland children are located more than five and a half thousand meters above sea level in what I am told are stunning parts of the Himalaya.

That is five and half kilometers in the sky.

It is very high.

I have discovered that a height of four thousand meters is my fall-over distance in the Himalay. It is all that my body can endure. My discovery of this very nearly killed me. I was trying to get up to an ancient monastery and all of a sudden the air became very thin. My head started to throb and I could hardly breathe. I had to do a slow retreat to lower ground on the back of a yak with my dear friend Bhim assisting me.

Such is the great distance and height of their home dwellings it takes the children from the ‘Snowland Ranag School of Light’ more than three weeks to return to their villages from Kathmandu. They return by local buses and jeeps and then mostly by walking. There are few roads that high in the Himalaya. For the majority of the children the journey home is simply too arduous – and in most cases too expensive. So parent and child are separated – often for up to a decade.

That is the very sad bit.

Rinpoche - the-Reincarnation-of-the-Buddhist-master lives here at the Himalaya hotel for six months of the year. He lives in Taipei for the rest of the time. He has a number of businesses in Taiwan that he runs with his brothers. I asked him once what his businesses were and he was a bit evasive then I asked him whether his being in business was unholy. He told me that he didn’t choose to be a reincarnation of a Buddhist Master and he tries to live a normal life.

I think it may be a shadowy life.

I told Rinpoche that I thought that was fair enough though - and I then suggested that none of us had any choice in our reincarnations either. I told Rinpoche that we are who we are and perhaps who we were - and he grinned and told me that he thought this was very wise.

I felt a little chuffed that a holy man would say such a thing.

When he is in Kathmandu Rinpoche resides in a luxurious suite on the sixth floor at the Himalaya hotel. I have met with him there several times before and I have also witnessed the devotion of his followers. They often come to Rinpoche for his blessing and his healing – for he is said to have healing powers. I took my son Tom to meet him once and he blessed us both. I met him once with a slight headache and he blessed me then as well however the headache did not diminish.

I felt blessed to be blessed but it was two aspirin that I took later that evening that did the trick with the headache.

Rinpoche is neither Tibetan nor Nepalese. He is Taiwanese by birth and he is Buddhist but despite his alleged reverence I suspect that he is also a gangster. He is quite an interesting dude and I shall write more about him another time.

Whilst I was checking into the Himalaya Hotel this afternoon another guest arrived. I could tell that she was nuts at first glance. She was nuts and American.

I have found that in Kathmandu the two are often intrinsically linked.

The woman came into the lobby of the hotel trailed by two of the hotels porters. The porters were laboring with the weight of two enormous suitcases each. They were more like trunks. The woman was wearing an ankle length denim skirt, sturdy hiking boots, and a white blouse that was buttoned up to her neck. On her head was a floppy straw hat and on her face was a manic grin.

Her very grey and frizzy hair was poking out at all angles from the straw hat and around her neck was one of those inflatable things some people use on planes to act as a sort of a cushion. She was wearing a facemask as well - one of those kinds used to prevent the inhalation of dust. At a guess I would say that she was in her mid to late fifties but it is difficult for me to estimate such things.

I don’t have a clue.

As she blustered her way to the check-in counter my friend and concierge of the hotel Namid and I watched and awaited her arrival with a mixture of awe and expectation.

“American and nuts I reckon Namid” I said to the concierge as the woman stopped and looked around in the middle of the foyer.

“I think so Peter” Namid agreed.

“Namaste madam” said Namid to the woman as she charged up to the Reception desk.

“Gphmmmph Shhmf” she replied.

Or it was a sound similar to this. The noise was greatly muffled by the facemask that the lady was wearing.

I suggested with a nod and hand gestures that she remove her facemask and she did so.

“Gosh hi” she responded with a very happy smile. Her teeth were huge and white and perfect.

Americans have excellent dental hygiene.

“What is Namaste?” she directed to me.

“Namaste is hello in Nepali and in Hindi,” I explained.

“Oh gosh” she repeated.

I have been ‘goshed’ by Americans many times before and I do not really like it.

“It is so nice to be in Nay pal,” she said.

I am not sure whether she was addressing Namid or me as she was looking around the place with her eyes darting everywhere.

I have written Nepal as ‘Nay pal’ as this is the way that the American woman pronounced it. Americans have a tendency to mispronounce many words. Many constantly refer to Iraq as ‘Eye rack’. Much more guttural throat noises are required to pronounce it properly and there is no ‘eye’ in it. Hearing Americans say ‘Eye rack’ annoys me and I am sure that it would also annoy the Iraqi’s. They would not say so though for fear of being invaded and blown up again. American bombs have littered most of the petroleum rich countries that surround Iraq.

On many occasions.

It’s my first time in Nay pal,” the woman added.

This time I think she was talking to me.

“That’s great. It is very nice” was all I could really offer.

“May I have your name for your reservation please madam?” Namid enquired politely.

Namid is a very polite and nice man and he is the consummate hotel concierge professional. I have known him for quite some time and he has charm and grace and a very good sense of humour.

“Would you mind Mr. Peter if I check in the madam before you?” he asked of me.

“Not at all Namid” I replied.

I was in no great hurry.

The hotel porters were standing behind us at the check-in counter and they were staggering a little under the weight of the woman’s luggage. Her trunks. When I suggested that they put down the bags the American woman turned to me and said in a very loud voice:

“They won’t steal anything will they?”

“They will most certainly not” I replied in an equally loud voice.

“Gosh” she responded.

“I sure as hell hope not,” she added.

“They won’t” I reassured her.

I don’t think many Americans abroad understand that they are being rude when they say such things. I find the best way to deal with this is to match their loudness with polite refutations.

“May I have your name for your reservation please madam?” Namid repeated.

“My name is Prudence” she responded.

While Namid was tapping her name into the computer the American woman turned to me and she again flashed her enormous white teeth at me and shrieked:

“I am here to help the dogs of Kathmandu”

“Help the dogs of Kathmandu Prudence?” I asked.

I took a step back as her voice was very loud and she was one of those types of people that like to get into your face.

I don’t like that either.

“You betcha I am. I watched this show on the Discovery Channel and saw all these starving dogs here on the street in Kathmandu and I said well Prudence you can help those poor doggies so I got me a visa and booked me a flight and well here I am. In Nay Pal”

I dislike it too when people refer to themselves in the first person and I felt an immediate, compelling and rising urge to set this woman Prudence on fire.

The moment passed quickly and I took a deep breath to compose myself.

Prudence is the act of governing and disciplining oneself through reason. To be prudent is to exercise self-control. I had exercised great prudence by not incinerating Prudence just on first appearances. I long ago learned that first impressions are often wrong so I opted to be pleasant and polite.

‘Dear Prudence’ was a Beatles song. Paul McCartney wrote the music and John Lennon penned the lyrics. It was the second track on the brilliant White Album.

We miss you John.

Not so much you Paul – as you are still amongst the living - but I dislike your penchant for marrying and then divorcing one-legged women and your post-Beatles band Wings were an abomination.

The ‘Dear Prudence’ in the Beatles song is the Actress Mis Farrow’s sister. Prudence went to India with the Band when they went through their guru period and they became devotees of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Apparently Prudence Farrow got so into the meditation thing that when she returned from India she became a virtual recluse and she would not leave her house. John Lennon wrote the song ‘Dear Prudence’ as a way for her to ‘snap out of it’. The lyrics included the lines ‘open up your eyes’ and ‘see the sunny skies’.

She apparently saw the light and gradually became more sociable.

Nice one John.

“Are you aware Prudence that you are still wearing an inflatable pillow around your neck?” I asked.

“Yep. You betcha. I didn’t want any dirt to get down into my neck. It is filthy out there outside”

“But you are inside now”

“It’s a bit dirty in here too”

I again had no appropriate response so I bit my tongue. It is not dirty in here – the Himalaya Hotel glistens with cleanliness.

“Please tell me more how you are going to help the dogs of Kathmandu Prudence”

There are many stray dogs here in Kathmandu. I see them all the time. There are also many stray children who I think are in much greater need.

I don’t think this.

I know.

“I’m going to pet them and love them and give them all sorts of treats” she replied.

She then gestured towards her enormous suitcases.

“I have two jumbo bags of bonos in there”

“Bonos Prudence?”

“Dog cookies”

“Are you aware that some of the stray dogs here have rabies and may bite you?” I said.

“They wont bite me sunny boy I have a way with animals and dog cookies”

I have not been referred to as ‘sunny boy’ before by anyone and can only assume it is a term of endearment.

It sounds warm.

I told Prudence that I have seen packs of dogs in Kathmandu that are both rabid and aggressive and she smiled at me in a sort of a condescending way and she told me again she has a way with animals and she also has dog cookies.

She will be bitten for sure.

I do know a really nice lady who lives in Kathmandu and like Prudence she is a dog lover. She has dedicated herself to the care of the street dogs of Kathmandu. Her name is Kelly. She comes from New Zealand and I think she likes animals and particularly dogs because she has been quite broken by bad people in New Zealand.  She told me once that dogs can’t hurt you like people can and I told her that I thought she was right.

There are bad people out there. 

Monsters lurk.

Kathmandu is Kelly’s Shangri La.

I won’t tell Kelly’s story here for it is a sad one and it belongs to her. It is ugly and hurtful and it is all in the past. It is ancient history. Kelly has found her happiness in helping the street dogs of Kathmandu.
It is her karma.

Kelly informed me a couple of years back that there are more than 25,000 stray dogs that wander the streets of the Kathmandu valley. There may well be more now. That’s a lot and enough for The Discovery Channel to make a show about. She informed me that most of these dogs live in a miserable state and suffer from disease and malnourishment and they are often mistreated.

Kelly is part of an organisation that is called the Street Dog Care Camp. It is a volunteer organisation that was established a few years ago – I think by Kelly - which operates on weekends at the famous and most beautiful Boudha Stupa. Kelly is a trained veterinarian and with two other Nepali veterinarians and whatever team of volunteers they can get – they roam the streets of Kathmandu to collect as many stray dogs as they are able.

They then treat the street dogs for skin diseases and infections and injuries. Every dog they collect is also de-wormed and vaccinated against rabies. Many are also de-sexed - when funds are available for this treatment. Most of the dogs are then simply let back onto the streets. Few people want or can afford them as pets.

“If you like I can get my friend Bhim to take you to a place where I know there are many stray dogs and I know a New Zealand girl who helps out street dogs in the Kathmandu Valley I can introduce you to”.

“Gosh that would be great. Are there many stray dogs around here?”

She looked a bit alarmed when she asked this and she sort of squatted a bit and scanned the foyer and I had to reassure her that there were no dogs in the hotel.

“They are in a place called Pashupatinath and it is not too far from here”


My friend Bhim is a guide and I will ask him to take Prudence to the Pashupatinath Temple. There are many stray dogs down there for it is where the Hindis burn their dead. Every day dozens of bodies are cremated on the riverbank and their ashes are flung into the Baghmati River. The Baghmati flows into the Ganges River – which is uber holy water to the Hindi people.

There is a lot of colour in the death rituals at Pashupatinath with very loud and emotional prayers and celebrations called bhajans and havans. The bhajans are religious songs and the havans are the complicated purifying rituals that are involved in a fire ceremony.

For Hindu people there is as much celebration as there is sadness in their death rituals - for the Hindu faith believes in reincarnation and perpetuity of the soul.

They call it Punarjanma.

The Hindu death rituals are drawn from their Holy book that is called the Vedas. It is a vast collection of writings from scholars and teachers. The Vedas is very ancient and pre-dates the Christian bible by centuries. In Sanskrit the Vedas means Knowledge. The scriptures include parts named “what is learned’ and ‘what is remembered'.

I like that.

There are as many Sadhus as stray dogs at the Pashupatinath Temple. Sadhus are crazy looking priest men with uncut hair and rags for clothes but they are very holy. Some carry wooden staffs that give them a wizardly appearance. Many of these dudes have meditated for years alone in caves high in the Himalaya Mountains. Seeking enlightenment. In Kathmandu at the Pashupatinath Temple they sit and stand in the ghats watching the death ceremonies and overseeing the souls depart from the flesh of the dead - banished by the fire rituals - for the Lord Shiva.

It is quite a sight.

What appear to the majority of us as slightly crazy and very dirty men who have been consumed by madness, the Sadhus may in fact be exceptionally enlightened dudes that are wise beyond our comprehension.

I learned long ago not to judge a book by its cover.

Appearances can be deceptive. 

Anything is possible.

Everything is possible.

Both Buddhists and Hindi cremate their dead. The Hindi return the cremated ashes to the water and the Buddhist release their ashes to the mountains. In both faiths there is much ceremony and celebration involved.

I have witnessed both rituals and I think they are quite beautiful.

They really are.

Prudence will freak out at the burning of the human bodies though and there is a fair chance that the packs of dogs that linger in the area may well attack and bite her – even if she tries to feed them bonos. I will tell Bhim to protect her if he can.

The stray dogs hang around Pashupatinath because of the smell of burning flesh. It is masked quite a bit by the smoke from the wood fires and the incense that is soaked in the cloth in which the bodies are wrapped – but it is there nevertheless.

Roasting meat.

I have passed on to Prudence Kelly’s contact details at the Street Dog Care Camp and I will ask my friend Bhim to take her down to Pashupatinath if she wants to pat a few strays and feed them some dog cookies.

She seemed pleased.

“Is there a Mr. Prudence?” I enquired.

“There have been four honey but there ain’t going to be any number five” she replied.

“I prefer stray dogs to men any day of the week now” she added.

“You murdered them Prudence?”

“Only financially honey”

She snorted when she said this and it was obvious that she is mistrustful of men - like Kelly.

It is time for me to go to sleep now for fatigue is setting in. I plan on getting up before dawn and walking down to the 2000-year-old Patan durbar and drinking masala chai in the main temple square in the dawn’s first light. From there I can listen to the monks chant the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum while I watch the sun come up over the Himalaya.

That will be magic.

As I close up my MacBook the only sounds I can hear now is some distant laughter, the soothing creaking of some cicada – and the barking of dogs.

Kathmandu street dogs.

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