It’s been a while since my last post, and previous week feels like a whole world away. I’ve been staying in a backpacker hostel called Kiwi Backpackers near Lakeside in Pokhara. It’s great here – full of other travellers passing through, organising things to see and do, going out in the evenings. But it feels very, very strange to be surrounded by westerners again.
Looking back, I’ve come to realise just how privileged we were to have been to be let in and see life at the monastery . We were given an opportunity to watch a world which at first seems entirely alien and removed to westerners. We were allowed to eat with the monks; visit their rooms; have lessons from them; even watch them in prayers. I will never forget the sound of puja, or the smell of the incense. Even the word monastery screams seclusion and otherness – at least it did to me before I came. But as I stayed there, I came to see just how similar they were. You shouldn’t assume anything.
When I arrived there, I was expecting to reach the monks English. That happened, bar random the days when nothing happened. What I didn’t expect was how much I would get to know them. They love to play football, in real life and on the PS4s in the cafe at the bottom of the hill. They run around and play like teenage boys. Some of them (not naming names) seemed to have girlfriends they would call in the evening. They are normal kids. Yes, they shave their hair occasionally and wear robes. Yes, they recite mantras several times a day. But if you get to know them, it becomes obvious that their religion, though a central part of their lives, should never be seen as what defines them as people.
I think living there emphasised to me that, no matter how strange or mystical something might appear to you, for someone else it is mundane and part of every day life. Sitting in the prayer room, for me, was an incredible experience – sitting back, listening to the chanting (without understanding it), watching as lay buddhists came and paid their respects. But some of the boys, it was an opportunity to chat, to joke around, or even play games with one another. It was a part of their normal routine. Some of the things we do in the UK (here’s looking at you, Bonfire Night and Halloween), would probably seem as strange to them as aspects of their lives do to us.
It was an almost indescribable experience for the most part – one of the quietest, most relaxing periods of my life. I had had my fill by the end, especially as I was leaving and being garlanded in heaps and heaps of prayer scarves (one from each student…), but for the time I was there it seemed perfect.
Oh, I almost forgot: on the last night we had a special visitor in the bathroom. I went in to brush my teeth, and suddenly I noticed legs. Long, spidery legs. Each least two inches long. For some reason, I found myself out of the bathroom very quickly. Our new spider-friend remained in the newly bolted shut bathroom for the night, until one of the younger monks proved how useless Markus and I are by picking it up on a leaf and throwing it off the roof.
I’m think I’m going to write another piece about the Buddhist experience at the monastery, just because there’s way too much to cover here.