the stupa at Swayambunath

Punctuation

Dateline: New York City, Grad Student Apartment. Outside, 22 degrees F, -6 degrees C, with a wind chill factor that considerably reduces the effective temperature. In Kathmandu today, it was 50 degrees F. The deepest winter cold is over there.

Today, I stood in my daughter’s shower, in a warm bathroom, with the shower on “as hot as I can stand it” for at least 20 minutes. I had all the hot water I wanted. I soaped my hair twice. I just stood there, thinking about the way my life has been punctuated over the past two months, and the way those punctuations will change, and what that means.

In Bhaktapur and throughout Nepal, lives are punctuated by scarcity of electricity– the hours it’s on, the hours it’s off dictating all manner of things including whether I can get a Cappucino or have to make do with a Cafe Latte at Shiva Guest House. Electricity also dictates how I maintain my electronics– will it come on in the afternoon while I’m out and charge my computer, or do I need to bring the computer with me to Shiva for lunch, where they have battery-powered electrical sockets for charging iPads and iPhones and MacBook Pros.

My devices punctuate all my days– keeping the Nook, the battery pack, the other toys and tools charged requires daily care and attention.

I never did get the full rhythm of the scarce hot water at the training center where I had my room. The water was never hot in the morning or evening– but IF the sun had shone all day, I got a couple of good hot buckets out of the spigot, enough to wash me, my hair and my clothes without freezing my fingers (or the rest of me.)

Every excursion into the world is punctuated by mealtimes– frequently different from the mealtimes at home, often quite different foods. For the first month or so, I was content (and so was my friend Susan, after she arrived in mid-December) with the Nepali twice-a-day meal of rice, lentil soup, and some spicy vegetable. But once we started getting sick– she with typhoid, me with a version of E. coli, we moved out of the training center and started eating from the Shiva Guest House menu– yogurt with fruit, grilled cheese sandwiches, stir-fried vegetables with rice. We added tofu, experimented with various chicken and meat ball dishes.

Some travelers spend their extended visits in a place trying out different restaurants. Not us. And not me in general. Once I’ve found a place that has a varied and tasty menu, I’m loyal, especially if that place also has the Crossroads quality that Shiva has.

And that brings me to the final idea of punctuation– the way our traveling life is punctuated by the comings and goings of other travelers. When I’m staying and taking all my meals in the CBR/RCRD training center, I don’t meet very many other travelers. In the past, I’ve stopped in at Shiva in the mornings for a latte. I met one or two people on the stoop outside the restaurant, but not many.

On this trip, because Susan stayed on at Shiva after she had mostly recovered, I continued to take my meals up there with her. Mornings, the long-term guests — like Masa, the retired landscape architect who was staying for over a month– would come down for breakfast and we’d discuss the excursion plans of the day. Evenings, we’d all gather again for dinner, adding new and interesting people to our numbers.

Travelers stayed for months or for just a few days. Some we regretted when they left, some it was more of a relief– we didn’t have to be explicit about our shifting attitudes the way you do in real life. On the road, people just leave and that is the end of that, thank goodness. (I’m thinking of one particular guy we met who spent the afternoon caressing his Nepali knife blade and talking about everything he’d bought or wanted to buy.)

The Crossroads places– a town or a border crossing or a friendly atmosphere in a hostel or a cafe, where people on the road meet easily, where conversation flows, advice is given and taken– about the map, the road ahead or behind, the afflictions and their cures, the locals and their charms and foibles. Crossroads places are rarely entirely local, either in cuisine or clientele. They give travelers a kind of respite from and also a window out into the culture of the place.

Shiva was that kind of place for us on this trip. Ellen moved there because the internet was better there than anywhere else. Susan moved there because she needed to rest and eat well. I made it my place for meals and ate mashed potatoes and cheese and yogurt and fruit and French toast. We all made friends there– people we’ll see again, people we’ll always remember and tell stories about, people who punctuated our traveling lives.

 

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