I was standing outside feeling uncharacteristically nervous about pulling aside the eatery curtain and entering the world of locals drinking tea and getting their daily dose of gossip. An elderly woman from the hills, seemingly dressed for the onslaught of a Himalayan winter (I was in jeans and a t-shirt) in her full fur outfit and hat, saw me standing outside procrastinating. Using that most human of qualities, intuition, she seemed to perceive my internal predicament; smiling at me, she swiftly pulled aside the curtain, waved me towards a seat at the communal table, and ordered me a hot tea. She then simply turned on her heel and left. After a warming cup of Chai while enjoying the sounds of the temple’s novice monks practicing debate outside, I pulled aside the curtain and stepped back onto the street. My intuitive old woman was standing in the same place as before. Smiling at me again, evidently noting the subtle improvement to my inner health, she turned and shuffled away up the street, back towards the bustling bazaar.
Technically, I hadn’t actually met this woman, but our brief encounter made a simple daily occurrence a more significant experience. In its simplicity it introduced me to the world in which I was resident for a short while, welcomed me into the culture, and is one of my fondest memories of my time in the peaceful Buddhist center.
Certain landscapes, buildings, and events in the world are enough for a lone traveler to generate a special travel memory, to create the atmosphere you imagined when planning and setting out to see what now stands before your eyes. But, however hard these beautiful visions try, they cannot chat with you in a mix of local dialect and sign language. They cannot invite you into their homes and feed you local food. They cannot share a beer and discuss what they, as the image, mean to you as the traveling observer. In short, as travelers we may visit new places to see things, but it is the people we meet in our adventures that provide depth and bring an experience to life.
In Ox Travels, a collection of well-known travel authors describe poignant meetings with fellow humans throughout their travel careers. The book was written with the help of Oxfam and Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam, describes her own meeting in the affecting afterword. It is a book full of beautiful description and great illustration of the point made above; the people we meet in our travels are what make time and place something a little more than just a place, at a certain time.
In her essay “The Fourth World” in Ox Travels, Jan Morris refers to this shared human intuition as a trait shared by those who believe in the simple human value of kindness. She describes the adjective as “hazy,” but her argument rings true: “For consider the potency of kindness. By definition it cannot be a force for evil, but it constitutes an incalculable force for good. If it can instantly bond total strangers to one another in empathy, whatever their religions or their loyalties, even a Welsh agnostic and a guru meeting near the top of the world – if it can do all this piecemeal, so to speak, just think what it could do if all its disparate energies could somehow be united!” Taken on its own this statement could be seen as overly idealistic, but Morris is acutely aware that human beings are usually neither good nor bad all the time, but that we all have within us the ability to use and share simple kindness.
When you walk into any cafe/restaurant/eatery in the world, some may say it is luck whether you are met by a surly old maid who has no interest in conversation or by a smiling gentleman eager to talk about the place he calls home. I would argue, however, that Morris’ argument above applies to oneself as much as to others. Even the grumpiest of barmen can be chivvied into a grin and a joke if you yourself display the fundamental characteristics of kindness. In essence, as much as it is the people we meet who make our experiences of travel, our own approach to those interactions have just as much influence on the experience.
The day following my encounter with the fur-clad woman in Boudha, I returned to the same local eatery. Pulling aside the curtain with a smile, I was greeted by the owner. Feeling more confident, I sat and asked a few questions and ended up sitting in the same spot for the next two hours. Pasang Llama, his wife, and their two daughters were from the hills (mountains) to the east of Everest. He had worked for years as a mountain guide (hence his excellent English) but, for his children’s schooling needs, they had moved to this peaceful enclave of busy Kathmandu five years ago. They were doing well selling Thukpa soup, Roti Bread, and Massala Chai, and Pasang seemed to get as much enjoyment from what became regular conversations as I did. He taught me a lot about the hill people of the Himalaya, discussed the politics of his beloved Nepal, and gave me hints and tips on cultural specifics of the Tibetan Buddhist community I was staying in.
Boudha is undoubtedly a special place, with stunning architecture. It is full of hill people in similar dress to that of a hundred years before, and its Buddhist monasteries resonate with the sounds of ancient chanting, crashing cymbals, and bellowing horns. All of this is wonderful to see, as proven by the coach-loads of tourists who arrive every morning at 11 a.m. for a one hour walk around the town and its surrounding temples. I too took joy from seeing the beauty of the community, but it was my two “meetings” with the people who lived here that brought the place to life, that stopped me from standing outside and observing and instead welcomed me into their world as a participant as well as a visitor.