Last night I met the rest of our Habitat for Humanity group at a welcome dinner in the hotel. We are fifteen people in all and, though normally meeting people in packs is a bit overwhelming for me, everyone seems pretty cool. Most of us are from the States but Helen and Maureen, two older ladies, are from Ireland and Mark is joining us from the UK. Sonia, from California, is our fearless leader and is supported by several Habitat for Humanity staff members from Nepal: Manisha, Narayan, and Amrit.
Pilgrims and Monkey Business
Our build is located in central Nepal and our group will need to take a quick flight to get there. With a few hours to kill in Kathmandu before our departure, we spend the morning exploring Swayambhunath, a religious complex and sacred pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists. Situated atop a large hill, visitors have the option of driving up to the main temple or climbing the 365 steps to the top. Pressed for time, our group decides to drive up.
Swayambunath is often called The Monkey Temple because of the hundreds of monkeys that inhabit it. As we make our way through the shrines, our group pauses to photograph them quite a bit. I spin some prayer wheels and chat up several of my new travel companions. David, from New York, has a laid back and friendly attitude – I like him right away. Amy, from Minnesota, is about my age and is traveling with her mother Mary. Both are impossibly sweet.
I think about our group members, hailing from so many different pockets of the world, and their inspiration for coming on this trip. Sure, we’re here to build houses for Habitat – but why would someone choose to do that? I begin to wonder if we aren’t all on a pilgrimage of sorts (even though we took the easy way up to the temple).
Technically, a pilgrimage is a tremendous act of faith, an opportunity for the devout to purify themselves both emotionally and physically by crossing challenging terrain. All other cares fall away as the mind and body become singularly focused on completing this journey. The physical struggle mirrors the struggle within: the struggle to stay faithful, to focus on what is essential, and to let go of all else. There you have it: inner peace in just three easy steps!
Perhaps that’s why our group is here on this mission. Perhaps we are all here to free ourselves up from the “unessential” and to become attune to the things that more firmly ground us within ourselves. But! We’ve only just met and I think it best not to start with such a personal question… wouldn’t you agree, dear Reader?
We are on the tarmac waiting to board a small plane to Pokhara – the flight shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes or so. The side of the plane boasts, “Yeti Airlines: 10 Years of Service.” Encouraging. It’s pretty crammed inside and I’m impressed by the pretty Nepali flight attendant who is squeezing down the narrow aisle to offer us some hard candy. It is a relief to be leaving Kathmandu. It was an interesting experience and I really enjoyed the sights, but I’m looking forward to a more relaxed pace in the country.
Pokhara is certainly more in line with how I pictured Nepal: friendly faces, fresh air, lush green landscapes, and the Annapurna mountain range in the distance. It has an easy “lake town” vibe and is a popular jumping off point for trekkers and adventurers. I am pleasantly surprised by our cheerful hotel room and the western plumbing in our bathroom (thank you, baby Jesus). After strolling through the small downtown area, our group stops for a leisurely dinner – our dinners are always leisurely because things just seem to happen more slowly here. After some good getting-to-know-you chatter, we head back to the hotel in preparation for our first day at the work site.
**UPDATE: Part of the Swayambunath complex was damaged as a result of the earthquake in April 2015. Want to help rebuild Nepal?