I was once held hostage by monks in Nepal. (old column from the experience below the cut)
When I finally convinced them to let me go, they consulted some scrolls to see if the date was a good one to release a hostage. It wasn’t but the next day was.
That trip, my first around the world, began on a Friday the 13th. I traveled for 6 months in Hawaii, Australia, Thailand, Nepal, and Western Europe. Those first experiences traveling led to my writing a travel column. I wrote about 200 columns about that first trip and other trips that followed. The column was my grad school. It was where I found my voice and started to do what I do today.
Friday the 13th was the first day of the rest of my life and a great time to hit the road.
By Kelsey Timmerman
I feel the chanting- long, drawn-out, and monotone. A group of robed men sitting on the floor at five in the morning give life to the damp morning air. I hear the incense slowly burn, releasing musky overtones in long white rising whips of smoke- ever disappearing. For each of these men the rising sun will shine on a day more important than most; to prepare they come together in prayer. I am in the middle of my own preparation- sleeping in- when the chanting wakes me.
My room sits high on the hillside, overlooking the comings and goings of life in the valley below. From a down cocoon of warmth and comfort I unzip my sleeping bag and enter a place and culture that I barely understand. Here south of Kathmandu, in the foothills of the Himalayas, I am wide-eyed at first blink.
Breakfast is ladled out of a smoldering cauldron. In such a mountainous area terraces have been cut into the hillside to make agriculture possible. The kitchen occupies a terrace far below my room and consists of a few tables, the cauldron, and many young monks whose eyes are filled with sleep and mischief.
“Ta-shi de-leh, Tepto.” Dorjee, my appointed translator and buddy, lights up as he pats me on the back. Tepto is the nickname that Dorjee has given me. In Tibetan it means rough and tough, it was bestowed upon me after I aborted a weeklong hike after one day because of a painful infection in my foot. Apparently being a wiseacre does not affect one’s karmic score. “Please sit my friend.” He pats on a bench.
“Are you ready?” Dorjee hands me a bowl of steaming porridge.
Taking in a spoonful of creamy white goop my face contorts with the bitter hot waves of pain and repugnance. I motion to the video camera and give him a thumbs-up.
“It’s good my friend?”
At times, being a good guest requires nothing more than cleaning every bowl and plate set before you. “Yes, very good.” Tibetans eat four meals a day, perhaps unveiling the source of so many Buddha like bellies among the senior monks who are primarily vegetarians. Buddhists believe that this entire world is suffering, in my case especially true when applied to their gastronomic delicacies. I have suffered through the extremes of blandness, bitterness, and spiciness like an excellent guest, on the way to my own Buddha belly.
Another clean bowl behind me and we take our places on the porch of the monastery. Soon the monastery and its ramparts are swarming with local villagers, pilgrims from Kathmandu, and brightly robed lamas.
“His Holiness is very powerful. When Chinese forced us away from our homeland he was one of the last to leave. He left with many men and women. The Chinese follow them to the mountains with guns. They shoot and kill many people around His Holiness, but the bullets fall at his feet and their grenades do not explode until he has passed. The hike over the Himalaya is very difficult and others die of cold and hunger. His Holiness injures leg which hurts him even today. 300 left Tibet only 30 make it to India.” As the car of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, the present day reincarnation of a monk first born in 1679, came to a stop at the base of the monastery, the gathered crowd surges forward hoping to glimpse or touch him. A saffron-clad Secret Service emerges and clears a tunnel for the short squat holy man to limp through. Katas, white silk cloths used in greetings, are thrown at his head like panties at a rock star.
His Holiness is here for the revelation of Padma Sambhava, a Tibetan deity, and the opening of a new lamasery headed by one of his former students, Khenpo Sange, whom I befriended on a plane of enlightenment 30,000’ in the air from Thailand to Kathmandu.
Around me are Nepalese, eyes filled with religious fervor, hoping to be blessed by the man who they honor in their prayers each day. As His Holiness passes up the stairs to the monastery and into a small ceremonial hall, the Saffron Secret Service weeds the crowd down to 100 lamas and respected guests to participate in the prayer. With Khenpo Sange as my escort, I am among them.
All the praying kills my back. I am sitting on the floor next to Dorjee squirming to find a way to relieve the pain. Two and a half hours have gone by and there is no sign of stopping. The chants are catchy and I find myself tapping my foot and nodding to the beat. One of Khenpo Sange’s senior Lamas is rocking the microphone with a deep quick-paced rolling drone enviable by any modern day rapper. “East side represent- MC Bodhi in Da hoooouuuuse!”
The prayer comes to an end with bursting horns, crashing cymbals, and gonging drums, an essay to dissonance mixed with the right amount of incense that makes the atmosphere magical.
One by one we file up to His Holiness seated on an elevated throne. I kneel before him and present him with a kata. His face turns from a bulldog grimace to a warm smile as he places his hand upon my head and ruffles my blonde curls.
Why am I here and why are many of the Buddhist faithful outside? Is it my blonde hair and western dress that hint at a bank account full of donations? A view that is cynical and not probable. More likely my presence is a result of great compassion, an age-old story of a few monks helping a young traveler.
At the very least I was accepted into a world and an event steeped in tradition for my blonde hair and perceived wealth, walking away with colorful memories of intricate ceremonies. At the most, after my blessing, I am bulletproof.