Today’s long uphill hike was from Kagbeni to Muktinath and back. This was a major, sacred pilgrimage site for Hindus. It still is, I’m told, but it looks to me to be more akin to a circus. Everyone seems to be trying to make a buck, from the two minute, $10 motorcycle rides from the village up the hill to the shrine, to the trinkets, promises of Nirvana, and hard bargaining Sadhus (Holy men). The scene was made absolutely perfect by having a dozen or more super-prosperous (read: fat) men running around in their tiny skivvies dunking themselves in holy water. One Indian man was repeatedly dunking his wife in the cleansing pool. It went on much longer than was seemly. This dipping is normally a voluntary act of submission to the Gods in exchange for having ones past wrongs and evils washed away. Apparently, this gentleman thought his wife needed a bit of extra help in the cleansing process.
OK, I’m bad. I spent much of my life acting politically correct. I guess I’m over it. I know I’m supposed to be culturally sensitive and non-judgmental, but this venue was a bit over the top. At the front gate there was a row of authentically clad Sadhus begging for money, completely surrounded by garbage. People were shouting and hawkers hawking. Kids were screaming and dogs were barking.
Seeing the madness, I needed to find out what was special about this place. Why do people come from all over India to these pools and shrines? Most patiently, a priest explained, “Muktinath was built to include all people so they can worship together with no concern for their religion or status. Please look, there are both Hindu and Buddhist temples to visit and people mix freely.” We were speaking just outside the main Hindu shrine where, according to custom, John and I took our shoes off before entering.
We stepped through the gate and were asked to leave. Dumbfounded, I asked the priest why. We were told it wasn’t because of white skin, it was because of our country of origin. I said, “Oh Really?!” to myself , and decided to “explore” this inclusive/ non-inclusive policy. In other words I smelled blood. “Oh, so Nepalese and Indians can go in?” “Yes” “what about Pakistanis? Burmese? Afghanis?” “Yes, yes, yes.” “Iranians?” “Yes.” “OK, How about African’s?” “No.” “No black people? What about Indian Americans, the ones born in America but with Indian blood?” He weakly asked, “With American passport?” “Yes.” “Then no.” “How would you know? Where is the passport checker. I don’t see him.” The priest had the look of someone who desperately wanted to run away from this “inquiry”. I could have gone on, but I was hungry and tired and realized this was fruitless. The whole episode got under my skin. Being a white, male American, I had rarely experienced prejudice aimed at me (except when I am in a market buying something in the developing world, and am expected to pay a higher than anyone else.) I was hungry and tired and felt like harassing someone about being excluded from this wonderful shrine, dedicated to inclusion, which was run like a circus and looked like a garbage dump. Welcome back to Nepal. I’d almost forgotten. Civilization, point blank.
On the long hike back to camp, noticing we were grumpy for the first time on the entire trek, Hem finally turned to us and in his understated way, asked, “So I guess maybe I should drop this side trip from future treks?” “Dear Brother, where did you get that idea?” Then we were all laughing again and enjoyed the rest of the hike down to camp. Once at camp, we had the guys pack up our tents and took rooms in a guest house where our dining room was located. A private room out of the wind and dust, two cots with three inch mattresses, a sheet and an attached bath with hot water was luxury beyond imagination.