Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right. This time around I was in Kathmandu, Nepal in the early summer of 2013. I was over a month into my first trip abroad and had crossed the border from India about a week before. After spending several days in the gorgeous city of Pokhara, I took an eight hour bus across mountain roads to the Kathmandu Valley. While Pokhara offers some solace from the loud busy cities of India, Kathmandu echoes India’s relentless noise, traffic, and pollution far more than the calm of nearly everywhere else in Nepal.
I was used to this though – I had weathered the streets of New Delhi (a bit poorly), Haridwar, and Agra; and had been chased by touts in Shimla for three hours as I stubbornly declined to stay at any of their hotels until I realized that they worked for every single hotel. My mind was alright. On the other hand, I have never been a big fan of the heat. I’d rather it be freezing than hot, and on this particular day it was sweltering and very humid. I did not think much of it walking around the busy streets of Thamel where stacked buildings and chaotically bundled electrical wires largely prevent the heat from reaching ground level.
In any case I didn’t have any worries as I got into the back of a rickshaw and asked the driver to take me to Swayambhunath, perhaps the most sacred Buddhist site in the world. And once more I did not have any worries as I walked up the first of 365 steps that lead to the holy site. I was too busy looking at spider monkeys swinging across the trees above and local craftsmen selling their stone carved wares on either side of the steps to focus on the heat right away. Around 200 steps later though, I was beginning to sweat through my long sleeve shirt and pants, and I was very hot and out of water. It wasn’t much of a health risk by any means, but I was uncomfortable and decided to take a break besides a tree.
As I walked towards the tree and began leaning against it, an elderly Nepali lady with a cane in her hand looked at me as she was shuffling down the stairs. She had leathery wrinkles across her face, her back was hunched over, and her clothes were in tatters. It was clear that she was approaching the dusk of her present life, but her eyes seemed to be joyful and accepting of her condition. Anyway, after I noticed her looking at me as I walked towards the tree, I turned my face towards her. I was covered in sweat, had red blotches on my cheeks, and probably didn’t look nearly as happy as she did. And quickly, but so meaningfully, she looked into my eyes and laughed a very joyful and wise laugh before continuing down the stairs quickly again.
That was the kindest and most necessary slap in the face I’ve ever had. There I was, 19 years old in pretty good shape, bitching to myself about the weather when a frail woman on the edge of her life passes me by and laughs at me gently as if to say “Oh really?” This world is tough – there is suffering, pain, hunger, and tragedy constantly; and to complain about the weather or anything that petty is simply absurd. Shit, I should have been carrying that woman down the rest of the stairs in a throne for what she so quickly taught me. And I wish I could thank her now, five years later with her lesson always fresh on my mind. Instead though, I’ll pass it onto you – consider the problems you face, how much they matter, and whether you should be the one helping others rather than grinding on your first world or petty troubles.