It had been an intense, long semester and for a long time people could see nothing but winter clouds. With any luck, they might see a slender beam of sunshine. After the last class of the semester, I dragged myself to my office with a cup of white coffee. Then I started gazing at the list of promotional plane tickets on my computer screen, dreaming of a sunnier winter break. As I was skimming through the options, an Asian paradise land caught my eye: Nepal!
I had always wanted to visit Nepal, nevertheless it had never felt like the right moment, until then. The idea progressed very quickly from my mind and into action. Within the next couple of hours, I bought my round-trip tickets, found a travel buddy who could get excited about travelling as fast as I could, and prepared an old backpack. I was ready to fly over the Asian lands and to disembark in Kathmandu, the valley capital of Nepal. A snowstorm waved me and J. goodbye in Istanbul, and in six hours we were rapidly and happily blinking our eyes, adapting to the bright sunshine welcoming us to Kathmandu.
We quickly hailed a taxi to our hostel, threw our backpacks on the floor, and sunbathed on the terrace. We sipped fresh orange juice, enjoying the Asiatic euphoria. When we finally stepped onto the streets of Kathmandu, the familiar feelings of being abroad hit us: everything looked strange, the odor in the air smelled unfamiliar, we understood little to nothing of the local dialogue, local currency was so new that we felt like players in a Monopoly-like board game trying to make sense of how it all worked...
However, when you give yourself time to reflect, you realize that in fact everything on the stage is in its right place, except for yourself. Yes, we were the strangest beings in that particular time and place. We were the things that interrupted the locals' daily flow with our novice and temporary presence. This makes the joy of travelling possible: going with the flow, adapting your body to the environmental conditions, slowly getting a sense of direction, testing instincts by going into or avoiding particular places, finding out differing ways to communicate with people.
Trying to comprehend the colorful streets of Kathmandu, it was impossible not to realize that religious and ethnic diversity sit at the core of the dynamic Nepalese capital population. The indigenous Newar people, the high-caste community of Brahmins, the Tibetan refugees, the international humanitarian workers rebuilding the earthquake-torn city, the hippies carrying on the spirit since the '70s on the famous Hippie Trail, the trekkers, the mountaineers, and other kinds of sporty tourists -- they all make contributions to this festival of diverse, but somehow fluent presence.
Passing by a little open-air temple, we were distracted by a cheerful group of people, singing and dancing together. Taking pleasure in our wondering eyes, they immediately encouraged us to sit by them, with inviting faces and hand gestures. That’s how we found ourselves in a Krishna rite, in a temple that looked like a small public garden with a flowery altar at the center. Among the highly artful and spectacular stupas and temples in Kathmandu, this place seemed like a regular, hovel-looking one. The crowd looked like a family: ordinary looking, plainly dressed men, women, girls, and boys of different generations. They played instruments, clapped hands, sang, and danced together. Unfamiliar with the course of the ritual, we sat by them, smiling politely, and clapping our hands to the rhythm of the instruments. A young woman danced through the performance, a little girl accompanied her, trying to keep up with the pace and the choreography. Following this initial show, the Guru took the stage and beautifully performed a prayer-like dance. Right after the ritual had finished (or what seemed to be the end), the little girl approached me and asked with surprisingly good English:
"Where are you from?"
"Turkey," I said.
She took a minute here. She looked like she was looking it up in her glossary, thinking hard to locate it in her knowledge store. She needed another hint:
"What is your caste?" she asked.
"Well, I'm not sure we have that in my country" I responded. The questions were getting harder.
"What is your religion?"
What was my religion? Well, I didn't really have one.
Trying to attune the conversation, I decided not to say that I'm an atheist, but I had nothing else in my mind regarding my religious identity. Suddenly I was a five-year old talking about religion, "I don't know," I answered.
She was an intelligent and chatty one, so I didn’t think she would give up that easily on me. She decided to take an alternative path, "So tell me, who is your God?"
OK. Now there was no way of answering without accepting that I have no God. I took the easy route, given that my parents were Muslim and I was living in a predominantly Muslim country, I said, "Allah. Allah is my God."
Her face brightened with victory, with a huge smile full of enthusiasm she announced, "I know! You're a Muslim!" Right after this victorious moment, she led us to the altar, offered us food (mostly bananas), and helped us communicate with the Guru, who was kind enough to bless us with orange flowers. We left the place feeling blessed, welcomed, and less estranged from the city and its people.
For the remainder of our trip I knew that I would remember the Krishna girl for showing me the simple way to embrace differences. Me and J., as two complete strangers, were invited to a sacred ritual, comforted by its performers, even offered a blessing without identifying ourselves in any way. The only one who asked about our identity was a little girl, not to check a list of prejudices against which to judge us, but only to test her knowledge of the varying forms of religions and cultures, to recognise and embrace all possible options with acceptance and wittiness. This welcoming attitude was not “showing tolerance.” And it was definitely not indulgence. These hierarchical nouns could not describe the Krishna girl's way of dealing with the existence of other people, other religions, other Gods. It was a mindfulness regarding the multiplicity of everything, and the selfless, ingenuous way of embracing it. It was making people feel "less of an alien." It was giving people the opportunity to consider and reconsider the aspects of being one out of many millions, of being a human.
Photos by Author & Ceylan Gündeğer
Asena is a natural traveller, a feminist, and an anthropologist from Turkey. Doing her Ph.D. in migration studies, she migrates regularly. Currently she’s teaching cultural anthropology and travelling the world to discover new cultures, languages, music and stories.