The year, 1999. It was a bucket list trip, but not the usual sort. For more than two years, my sister Sally and I had watched our middle sister Sue struggle with a brain tumor. Her last evening with us, she was listening to a book on tape which murmured tales of India as the medics took her from home to the hospital. After she died, Sally and I vowed to take the trip that Sue had longed to do, and to take her along with us.
For six weeks, we made our way across the Indian subcontinent, backpacker-style: on the slimmest of travel budgets, using local transportation and staying in cheap accommodations. Three of those weeks were spent amid the wonders of Nepal. One morning, we decided to find our way to Bhaktapur, knowing it was a walled medieval city with extraordinary architecture and priceless temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I hit my head as we got on the Number 7 bus for Bhaktapur. Sally had no problem. The Newari of the Kathmandu Valley are not a tall people, so clearances in doorways are scarcely more than five feet tall.
When we disembarked, we discovered foreigners had to buy a 300 rupee ticket to enter the city, much like a National Park. Fair enough. As we walked to the city center, its Durbar Square, we marveled at the wood carvings that graced doorways and windows.
While a cultural heritage icon for Nepal, Bhaktapur is also a living, breathing Hindu city. Cows wandered by chewing on stolen snacks. People hung their laundry from windows and across shrubbery.
It was a relief to walk the city streets without being accosted by touts as we’d been in Kathmandu. Instead, craftspeople displayed their wares and waited for you to come to them. We saw a flute-seller walk past holding a tall tree made of flutes.
Bhaktapur is known not just for wood carvings – none of which would fit in our backpacks – but also for pottery, which was set out to dry along the bricks of the streets. As Sally took photos, I negotiated for a tiny clay ram, an incense holder that would fit in my pocket. It sits above my desk to this day.
Hearing the news of the devastating earthquake in the Kathmandu Valley was a shock: the loss of humanity, the loss of priceless heritage for a warm and friendly country. Bhaktapur had already lost many of its ancient temples in the 1934 earthquake.
Nepal touched me deeply. I only need to look up and around me as I write for the reminders of how the journey shaped me as a traveler and a writer.
Many charities are helping with relief efforts in Nepal. 100% of your donation to Seva Foundation will be used to assist earthquake victims. While the foundation is normally focused on helping those going blind to see, their network of clinics and doctors in Nepal allows them to immediately help earthquake victims with medical needs. Make a donation here.