Holi good times

Kathmandu, Nepal

The nearly 12-hour time difference had all of us up at 6:30 a.m. this morning. Wanting to take advantage of the few days that we had in Kathmandu, we ventured into the quiet lobby and had a taxi take us to Swayambhunath, a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of town. Even at this early hour, the city was starting to awake: overflowing buses belching fumes; meat being butchered in the open air; uniformed children walking to school.

Outside my taxi window, Kathmandu appeared to be a melding of several of the cities that I’ve visited before. Its influence was in places like Fes, Morocco and Hanoi, Vietnam.

At the same time though, there was a terribly oppressing — and highly visible — poverty that I’d never before experienced. Burning heaps of garbage. Packs of feral dogs barking. Homeless women begging with malnourished infants on their laps.

In my travels, I’ve been to struggling Third World countries. But after only a few hours in Nepal, it was clear that this country was in a league of its own. Not wanting the experience to be overshadowed by this, we arrived at the temple’s steps as morning devotees began to gather.

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The temple sits atop a hill, accessible by a steep set of stairs that brought us past burning butter lamps as the strong smell of incense and chanting prayer led the way. Monkeys played in the trees while worshippers created an almost mystical atmosphere — as the sun lit the sky.

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We circled the stupa with its omnipresent third eye — representative of the insight of the Buddha. Prayer flags fluttered in the wind above. The base of the stupa was ringed by prayer wheels, spun counterclockwise and baring the sacred manta: om mani padme hum.

Hail to the jewel in the lotus.

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We agreed that it was a fantastic start to the day as we stuffed ourselves at the Hyatt’s fantastic $9 buffet breakfast, with its made-to-order omelets, bacon and banana bread. A few hours later, with the rest of the day still in front of us, we set out again to follow a walking tour of the Thamel neighborhood that had been suggested by Lonely Planet.

During breakfast, however, the streets of Kathmandu had changed. The first sign: our taxi was covered in colored powder and water. “Holi,” our driver explained. We soon learned that our visit had coincided with this popular annual holiday (the “Festival of Colors”) in which locals bombard cars, animals, one another — and especially tourists — with water and powder.

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Our driver dropped us off in a small square. It wasn’t more than 15 seconds before a group of roving teenagers came running over to us. “Happy Holi!” they yelled before completing drenching us and smearing powder on our faces.

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John and Mike did not look happy.

Yet, with encouragement, we pressed on. Now that we had been hit once, we wouldn’t be such targets, right? Not the case we learned as water balloons came raining down on us from rooftops.

By this point, I’d just started telling all the kids to hit John. “He wants it! Get him” I’d yelled. Then a balloon covered in dirt barreled into his light blue Carolina shirt.

“Gross,” he said, dead serious. “I’m going back.”

Drenched and covered in paint, we started to enjoy the experience more. Laughter — both ours and that of our attackers — rang through the streets. Then, a bunch of kids nailed me in the crotch with two water balloons. “Okay, I’m done,” I said.

Back within the safe confines of the Hyatt, we cleaned ourselves up and lounged poolside. Our waiter, Roberto, plied us with gigantic chicken club sandwiches and mojitos as we recovered from the onslaught.

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At 5 p.m., with Holi over and some order returned to the streets, we took a taxi to the Hotel Manang, where we met the group — from around the world — with whom we would be hiking to Everest Base Camp with.

In experienced hands, this would be the 80th time that our guide, Dawa, would be leading the trip to the base of the tallest mountain in the world. This, he said, would be an exhausting, demanding yet highly rewarding adventure. It would require communication, teamwork and trust — but he was confident that we would each make the 75-mile trek to nearly 19,000 feet.

We received our packs that would be hauled by the porters and returned to the our dingy rooms to gear up. When mine was so stuffed with gear that it could barely close, it was time for bed.

Our flight to Lukla, the origin of the trek to Base Camp at the foothills of the Himalayas, is scheduled for 6:15 a.m. tomorrow.

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