(TODAY) "Excuse me. How much are your marigolds?"
(3 MONTHS ON. THOUGHTS.) Three months to the day since I started this journey. Thoughts? Yeah, plenty of them I guess. A miniature milestone reached. A pause for thought. More thoughts than I had expected to have to digest at this time.
"Yes, yes, I understand. How much are your marigolds please?" Well, I think I understand anyway. Sort of.
So how am I? Well, I'm doing just fine. Mostly. Thanks for asking. No disasters. No illnesses. A little jaded. A few mislaid possessions.
Still only one day of rain. No reasons to complain.
Today, following a good stroll to the far eastern side of town and a walk around the surrounds of the Boudhanath Stupa I am visiting Pashuputinath. This is the epicentre of Hindu spiritual life in the Kathmadnu Valley and wider Nepal. The holy Bagmati river runs through the heart of this cluster of Hindu temples, shrines and crematorial burning ghats. Following from the Ganges concourse through Varanasi, India, this is the second most revered holy site within the Hindu diaspora. To be cremated her is to be released from lifes physical cages. A final escape from the cycle of rebirth. An ascent to Nirvana. I had intended to be here today anyhow, but as it happens life has suddenly bestowed more meaning on my visit than I had anticipated.
Cheer up pal... we love ya juicy! :)
And how am I finding the experience of travelling? Well, I'm enjoying it immensely. It's fabulous. Stimulating. Beautiful. Mind expanding. Mind blowing. But you would be surprised if I said anything else right? Whilst I miss my family and friends a lot, I display few symptoms of homesickness yet. I think. Occasionally something may occur. Some small trigger. A tiny reminder of Home comforts. Often a much liked song overheard somewhere. A little tsunami of nostalgia will wash over me. A reminder. A tear to indicate just how far away from familiarity I have spun. Whilst travel, almost every step of it, fortifies and enriches the soul, I don't always notice how drawn out it can make you sometimes.
Just from time to time. Decicions decisions. A different place, bed, meals, transport connections, money considerations, friends, "hellos" and "goodbyes" every day. The stuff of life basically. Just set at a higher than normal rate of repetition. But contentment is the sum total of these feelings. These experiences. So far.
Marigold sellers line the approaches and surround the entrances to Pashuputinath in great number. These bright orange (ginger!) flowers; sometimes burnished yellow and often crimson-hearted play an important role in many Hindu religious observances. Including those of death. And rebirth too. The flower is also present in such rituals in other cultures of the world for similar reasons.
In Hindu symbology they are offered in honour of the great gods Vishnu and Lakshmi (I believe?). Marigold petals are always to be found scatterd about Hindu and Buddhist devotional shrines. Wreathes of the flowers are placed around the necks of the deceased. Something so colourful, suddenly so sombre. And I guess there's a truth of their aptness in connection with loss. Not necessarily to fade. But to burn bright in life. And then to have departed.
One of the challenges of travelling for me so far. Believe it or not. Is time and space. Finding personal time and space to oneself. To think. To quietly take it all in. I often find it incredible how tricky it can be with so much time on your hands to actually apportion pure moments of it to oneself.
Maybe this is because despite my reserved nature I am reaching out to strangers, to make new friends, in ways I don't even realise I'm doing it. To make company from nothing. Social travel alchemy. Maybe it's because travellers, like so many dissipated droplets of water, are always drawn towards one another via the invisible force of osmosis. Right now. Trying to write this here I need time and space. But this is not permitted me. Unbidden and unsought for, Yair, an ex-Israeli army turned paediatric radiographer is recounting his "humorously complicated" love life and conquests to me blow by tediously elaborate blow. This despite my pen and I both frowning, failing to laugh at the 'appropriate moments' and generally being unencouraging in his direction.
Outside the walls of Pashupuinath.
Stevie and his marigolds.
In Mexico marigolds are a reminder of the ancient Aztec culture. They are used in the November Day of the Dead festivities. Again here they celebrate the cycle; the circle of life. A time when called forth by their orange bloom, spirits may return to visit their families and homes. 'Cempasuchil' : The Flower of Four Hundred Lives. They represent lifes brevity. Often too, too brief. Their petals are scatterd on the ground. Their flower heads are burnt creating a fragrant, aromatic pathway along which spirits of lost loved ones and ancestors may be guided back to their earthly homes.
Yep. Time and Space.
Quite curious concepts once you've decided to 'give it all up' for a while. To travel. Hours, days, dates. All a lot more fluid. Mostly forgettable peramiters. Occasionally required. Catching buses, flights etc. But rarely needed. My father never wore a watch when we went on holidays. "You don't need to know the time when you're on holiday" he would say. Following from this I haven't worn a watch for nearly 12 years or more although a crappy Casio has had to be purchased to ensure I don't miss m'transports. So I'm out Here. In the World. A wider world than I have known before. But I feel quite disconnected from it too. I know little of what is going on Out There.
News. Global. Domestic. Even personal. Time and life continues for my friends and loved ones too but I only now catch its passage in the briefest, most infrequent of glimpses. As I mused in a blog before I departed ('The Last Days of Brum') time of course does not just STOP for them, although strangely the traveller thinks this might be the case. Everything interesting on hold until they; until I return. But the day to day mix of the joyful, the dreary, the exciting, the frustrating, the life-changing, the mundane, the happy and unfortunately occasionally the sad continue for you all of course. This last point has already been profoundly demonstrated to me, even in these first short three months.
The golden(ish) pagoda roof of the Pashuputi Mandir and the Arya ghat bank of the Bagmati.
I have today purchased a wreath of marigolds.
They form a bright chain interspersed with shiny foil and tissue paper decor. They hang looped over my backpack courtesy of my new trekking pole. Many of the locals are much amused by this sight. A flame-colour haired tourist with his flowers to match. Pashuputinath is heavily populated with monkeys. Well used to the human traffic here they are not shy. All of a sudden one such bold individual pounces onto my back from behind a stone shrine. In a flash it has torn my marigold chain assunder and escaped 20 yards away to consume its brightly coloured bounty. Foil tassle and all. I am left to sit disconsolately and tie the chain back into a complete circle. "Hey Monkey! These marigolds are not for you!".
The banks of the sacred Bagmati river at Pashuputinath.
My dear friends Tina and Ben (also subject of the aforementioned blog) sadly lost their second son, Sam, after, too keen to enter this world he was only able to cling onto life within it for a mere nine days. I feel deeply for their loss. Staying home to comfort his wife at such a difficult time Ben, a flim maker and editor, cancelled a working trip to the Everest region of Nepal (not far from where I sit and write at this moment) and so was not aboard the Yeti Airways flight when it crashed at Lukla airport claiming all souls but the pilots (I believe?) on around 2nd October just. Thus little Sam, in his own way, saved his father's life. This Tina tells me is a thought that is a way to some sort of balance or reconciliation through grief for them.
Bachhareshwari Mandir (the 'erotic' temple)
In loss. I hope his parents forgive this little epitaph. It is a special story after all. I can well imagine that in saving his father's life little Sam achieved more in nine days than it could honestly be said some of us may have achieved in nine decades on this Earth. Fair play to the lad.
The Pashuptui Mandir in the distance. Only Hindus may enter (as is the case with almost all temples at Pashuputinath)
As early evening sets in at Pashuputinath I sit down to watch. And to write a little. A body that has been ceremonially prepared throughout the afternoon is about to undergo its cremation. The soul of the deceased to be released back to the five elements of Hindu belief. A straightways passage to Nirvana. The body has been cleansed by holy water and milk channelled from the Pashuputi Mandir (temple) set behind the Arya ghat.
The body is now moved by relations to the prepared wooden pyre. A group of men (men only) are permitted to form a mourning group around the orange cloth wrapped body. Three step forward and walk clockwise around the body clutching a burning bushel of twigs. To the right, distanced and huddled, a group of female relatives and friends keen and wail on the river bank as the temple bells ring out. The burning twigs are placed beneath the deceased's chin. The body is covered with lond dry grasses. Their face is now obscured from the sight of their loved ones finally and forever. The men wash their hands in the waters of the Bagmati river. It is starting to get cold. Smoke begins to exhale from within the pyre. The sun is setting now.
Looking down the path of the so-called 'mirror' shrine... an optical illusion of endless Shiva-Linga statuary.
Boyin the Bagmati.
Life continues too in many ways. At almost precisely the time I learnt of my friends' sad news I was staying with my best friend Despina's family in Cyprus when she discovered and announced the happy news of her first pregnancy. New life on the way. It has been requested of me that I return to Cyprus next May/ June to welcome the little kiddy into the world. An invitation I am very happy to accept. So there it is. A happy event. My itinerary now completely changed. The direction of 'My World' turned a full 180 degrees. Just like that. At the behest of a minute gathering universe of cells and tissues many hundreds of miles away. The child has exerted quite a gravitational pull on my life already.
No India now. Not yet. China much sooner than expected. Then Mongolia, Russia, many Eastern European nations and Turkey during my return. All nations that never featured in my original plans. And so the World keeps turning.
To the right, the Ram Ghat burning platforms.
A rope cordon has been drawn around the area where I sit now. The space cleared but I continue to scribble. No one seems to mind and preparations for I know not what carry on regardless. On the opposite bank a temple priest tends to the care and progress of the pyre. The fanning of its flames. He regularly adds wood and smashes large blocks of ghee (butter) on the ghat before throwing it on to stimulate the heat within. It is dark now. People have begun to gather and sit all about me.
Facing the opposite bank too. They chatter animatedly. A pooja seems to be being set up in front of us. A celebration now? And honouring of gods and those passed perhaps. Shoes off now Steve. Out of respect. I seem ok here. Perhaps it's the marigolds? Perhaps they realise I may have lost someone too.
Boy and coffin in the Bagmati.
And some deep sadness closer to home. Only yesterday evening my sister let me know that our 22 year old cousin Andrew lost his battle with cancer and died in his sleep. No pain. I hope. Only 22. The pain is for his parents, my Uncle Jim and Aunty Chris, and others who will feel his loss keenly. The loss of one so young. My sister and I never got to meet Andy.
Why? Well that's a long story. If I ever meet ya I'll tell ya over a beer. Maybe. Geography. Distance. His having grown up in Melbourne, Australia has nothing to do with it. The imminent travel plans of both my sister and I eagerly anticipated meeting our cousin very soon, and for the very first time. The cousin we didn't even know we had until 2 and a half years ago. But the meeting was not to be. Some stories are told a little too quickly it seems. Particularly the sad ones. Sad to say.
Boy begins to play with overturned coffin in the Bagmati.
Binaya, a Nepali boy who has hovered in my shadows attempting to become my 'guide' for some time now freely offers explanations of some of the funerary rites and rituals being observed. The crowd around us is now in place.
An audience for the nightly pooja "light show" that is performed in honour of the dead. And the gods. We move to one side. Soon music and chanting commence. Three priests step to the fore and in time to the melodic chanting and tabla rhythms start ritual dances of prayer and devotion. People watch on excitedly. The priests stoop, pick up and majestically brandish various brass implements that exude variously smoke, flames and light as they step and whirl about. The light of the little fires complementing the movements of their bodies. On the opposite bank the pyre flames are now burning at their most aggressive. Orange burnt pirhouettes of light; streamers of yellow, tangerine and gold free themselves of the main funerary flames and spiral into the night sky.
Life and Death... I guess?
As ever in such situations it becomes difficult for the observer to separate the beauty from the tragedy. I guess the point is that ultimately they are inseparable once knit together by loss. Remember the beauty. It was there first and to the last. Always.
But we all hope in our ways that somehow, however intangibly, the stories carry on of course. The stories of our loved ones. Beautiful, cherished lives not to be forgotten. Preserved lovingly in memory. It's often wisely stated that 'you never truly die until the last living person who knew and loved and remembers you dies too', and hopefully it is in the nature of the memory of good and cherishes people to expand, and not to contract. A shot at eternity.
For although my sister and I never got to meet our cousin in the brief time we even knew of his existence (another story as I say) we were in touch. If not memories for us. Some connections were being forged. We knew things of him. About him. From he and his parents. And he sounded and looked like a real swell guy! Someone we really, really would have loved to have met and to got to know much better. A welcome addition. A tiny, geographically distant new branch of the family tree. A family tree so small I often these days refer to it as the Weselby Family Bonsai. In the nature of bonsais, as I may have remarked before, it is a pretty, if a little too often pruned and fragile piece of fillial flora in this world.
But we have turn to learn more about him. His image will expand. Live in new ways for us I hope.
Ok, play 'spot the paper aeroplane' :)
The people all about us now are clapping, singing and chanting along to the devotional songs being performed. A celebratory air is spreading,. Binaya and I start to clap in time also. People are amused in a good natured way at my presence and participation. On the far bank of the Bagmati the deceased continues to burn into the night. And sadness over there too is dissipating. Transforming into something more positive. No more crying now. Something life affirming. Clapping on both sides of the river. Music and laughter begin to entwine with the whisps of smoke and fire that continue to reach up into the air.
Marigolds for my cousin, Andrew.
Andy was a keen musician. A member of several bands. Creative. Enthusiastic about life. Determined. Courageous & undaunted. Soon to restart University following some extremely hard fought early 'victories' against the cancer. Hopes and dreams for the future no doubt and these only recently expressed by both his father and he in communications to my sister. And in all honesty that is about as much so far as I knew of the brave lad. Beyond that he is family. Firmly. And that I have not heard his music yet. But I hope to do so. Very much. When I make it to my relatives in Australia. 'Cos of course, the music never stops...
.. A young girl, barefoot, now jumps up right before me and commences a frenzied dance with the heels of her feet upon the flagstones. Binaya cannot be teased into joining her. The people sing. The music is carrying on. Growing in strength and enthusiasm as the fire on the far bank slowly begins to die down. The priests twirl, bend and reach with their flames. A lady and a man now dance ancient, energetic, entrancing dance patterns in the proximity of the deceased. They spin dizzyingly. Arms, feet and faces a-blur. Spinning. Spinning. Clapping. Dancing. On both banks of the Bagmati. Dance, dance, dance. A truly celebratory, melodical, colourful Bollywood moment. Death transmuting back into life.
As it should. As so many believe it does. Sparks are flying up from the pyre as it continues to burn down. Claps resound into the night. Singing reaounds into the night. Sadness and laughter dance hand in hand into the night. Music pours out into the night...
The cordoned, lighted area of the nightly pooja where I had recently been sitting.
... and my one hope is that his parents always remember this. And of course they shall. That the music never stops. That it pours out into the skies in so many, many forms of thought, deed and memory even when we are gone. Andy's music, bravery and memories. He'll play on. Sing on. "Rock on!" Forever. As long as he cares to and we care to remember. And his music will get louder for my sister and I as we learn more about him.
And so his image will grow. All our thoughts of him continuing to expand, to spin out; to accompany his rhythm in the universe...
... the fire is dying now but ashes from the pyre continue to cascade upwards in waves. A bright torrent. A firey, burning waterfall in reverse. They float up to join and glow amidst the stars...
... we think of him now. We think of his parents and loved ones now. We will meet them all someday. Even Andy maybe. Who knows. For now my sister and I, I guess, set thoughts for them adrift to carry across the oceans' waters. To reach them all the way out in Australia. The only gesture we can make at this moment. So far away.
For their son's memory.
Flames held aloft at the Pashuputinath pooja.
...whilst the singing and dancing, the pooja celebration continues I descend now. Down the stone steps to one side of the crowds. Binaya in my shadow still, to the waters edge. careful not to slip into the Bagmati. I take my backpack from off my shoulders and unloop the ring of marigolds. Marigolds for my cousin Andy. The waters mirror the stars and the far pyre's glow a little. I place the wreath into the waters. And it drifts away gently. Slowly spinning outward. The only gesture I can make at this moment. So far away. For my cousin's memory.
[For Andrew James Lancashire (Aug 1986 - Nov 2008) ... and Little Sam (2008)]