What to Bring With You

If you’re coming to Asia for an extended amount of time with kids in tow, here’s my survival list of what to bring, keeping in mind that you will be lugging all this and more on your back.

  • Embroidery Thread: Lots of it in many colours, because you will eventually break down and learn how to make friendship bracelets. (Also useful when your kids’ clothes fall apart and the nearest Old Navy is 13,000 km away).
  • Coloured Beeswax: Useful for leaving gobs of in the back seat of taxis, leaving the driver thoroughly puzzled as to what that purple blob is stuck to his vinyl seats.
  • Pencil Crayons: Even the kid who never draws at home will reach new stages of boredom from hours in hotel rooms and will discover nothing beats drawing stick figures.
  • Scissors: 101 uses, including cutting up paper into 1,000 pieces and throwing them all over hotel rooms until your mother makes you pick up every last scrap.
  • Five Large Packs of Beef Jerky: Your kids may need help transitioning to Asian food. Five packs of jerky should buy you about four days, by which time they will be so sick of beef jerky they just might eat dal baht.
  • Larabars: See above.
  • Jumbo Pack of Bandaids: You will go through several packs of bandaids before your kids learn to walk on broken sidewalks.
  • Kindles: Because you love to carry around 500 page Harry Potter books.
  • Homework: Something they can do on paper, because trust me at some point there will be no Internet.
  • Calcium-Magnesium Capsules: Daily. Because your naturopath said so.
  • Vitamin C Chewables: When they’re starving, doubles as a food source.* The fact that it boosts their immune systems is an afterthought.
  • Stackable Cups: When one of you has a 4-week cold from pollution, you will be glad you don’t all have to share the fun by drinking from the same water bottle.
  • Knife with Sheath: Forget your penknife. It massacres pineapples.
  • Toilet Paper: Because invariably you will be in that place where there is none. And you don’t want to see the look on your kid’s face when you tell them that.
  • Natural Zinc Sunblock: Since you’ll be traveling in countries that still have msg on their ingredient lists, it’s highly doubtful you will find this stuff anywhere.
  • Digestive Enzymes: Because you hope there is such a thing as preventative medicine.
  • Tablet or PC: For chess, backgammon, checkers and connect four. Also useful for forcing your children to watch Paul Simon videos.

* Perhaps the most challenging thing about travelling in Asia with kids is that no matter how many times you tell them to load up on breakfast, they will still tell you one hour later that they’re starving.

The World’s Dirtiest Kitchen

The next morning after our arrival at the monastery, I headed to the kitchen to make tea. The kitchen turned out to be the dirtiest kitchen I’d ever seen. It was even dirtier than the kitchen in the house I rented during second year university with four guys – where we left the lights on all night to keep the cockroaches away (it never occurred to us that cleaning might do the same thing).

There were used mugs and half eaten food on the counter in various states of abandonment, and a pan of fried rice on the stove long gone cold. The walls and stove had a sizable coating of grease. Crumbs were scattered on the counters, and someone seemed to have a habit of opening cookie packets, eating one or two and then leaving the rest to get stale on the countertop.

The dish rack was so grimy that when you put clean cutlery on it you’d end up with bits of food stuck to the knives and forks as though you had never washed them. The fridge was a total bombsite, featuring a horrible smell and the star players of a tub of yogurt moldering away with no lid and a bowl of indescribable green paste.

Despite the mess, I was grateful to have access to a stove since I hadn’t cooked anything myself for three months. A few minutes after I arrived, Jampa, the Tibetan guy who ran the guesthouse, showed up with a monk and some tsampa – the Tibetan breakfast of roasted flour mixed with butter or butter tea and sometimes cheese in a soft dough. “It’s what we Tibetans eat every morning,” Jampa said. The monk broke off a lump for me. It was tasty.

The monk, who spoke no English, showed me the lazy way to make masala tea – he threw a few spoonfuls of tea into a pot of water – the tea strangely was a bunch of black beads, then in went a few cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon to boil away together.

This wasn’t the main kitchen for the monastery, but only the kitchen for the guesthouse. I had to wonder did the other guests cook here and just not notice this stuff? And was there a way to delicately ask “Why is this kitchen so dirty?” But either way, I was going to ignore it and happily cook lunch here too.

Back to Kathmandu

At last we tore ourselves away from Chitwan and boarded a bus back to Kathmandu. We’d cancelled our bus tickets once and tacked on two more days in Chitwan, but our plane tickets were looming and it was time to leave. After numerous emails to various monasteries, we managed to find space at Bairoling, a fifteen minute walk from Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu. Most of the other monasteries with guest houses were full – what with the recent inauguration of the stupa and a month long course at Kopan Monastery, one of the main monasteries for Westerners.

The guest house at Bairoling was run by a Tibetan who’d been to Toronto five years before. He told me there he’d seen rooms full of toys for kids. I had to admit we’d suffered from the same disease before I started to squirrel toys away in our crawl space. He also told me that Tibetans don’t run any of the shops around Boudhanath as they think it’s harmful to their spirit to sell sacred objects.

The handful of other guests were mainly Westerners studying at the International Buddhist Academy down the road. And then there was Doris. I guessed that Doris was at least 80 years old, maybe more. She had the small bones of the very old, and she walked with a cane. She was British but had spent enough time in California that she had a trans-atlantic accent. She’d also spent enough time in Nepal on the Buddhist path that she wore traditional Tibetan dress – a robe with a long apron tied over it.

Doris had a strange fascination for me. I was a little in awe that she chose to live in Kathmandu with its lack of heating in winter, pollution and broken sidewalks. Yet it was hard to extract details of her life. She would only answer my questions with short replies.

I asked her what she used to do for work; she answered “Teacher. Young kids.” “Kindergarten?” I asked. She nodded. “Five and six year olds?” I asked. “And younger,” she’d trailed off, not wanting to talk more.

Then I asked her when she first came to Nepal. “Long time.” I’d looked at her expectantly. “I don’t know the year” was all that she’d replied.

She told me she was staying at Bairoling for about 6 months, maybe more. When I asked how that was possible with Nepal’s visa rules, she’d said she was here on an investment visa. That was about as much as she would tell me. She had no need to talk about herself so I had to leave it at that. No matter how I tried to rephrase my questions, I made very little progress. It seemed she only talked with any great fluency about the instant present. I wondered briefly if that was one of the side effects of years of devotion to Buddhism and meditation. I’d remembered reading somewhere that Eckhart Tolle rarely ever mentioned the past, and this was Doris before me. She came alive when present moments were discussed but I could not drag the past out of her despite my best efforts.

Rudolf Steiner Rides Again

Anyone who looks anxiously and fearfully towards the future hinders his development, hampers the free unfolding of his soul-forces.  Nothing, indeed, obstructs this development more than fear and anxiety in the face of the unknown future.  But the results of submitting to the future can be judged only by experience.  

What does this humbleness mean? Ideally, it would mean saying to oneself: Whatever the next hour or day may bring, I cannot change it by fear or anxiety, for it is not yet known.  I will therefore wait for it with complete inward restfulness, perfect tranquility of mind.  Anyone who can meet the future in this calm, relaxed way, without impairing his active strength and energy, will be able to develop the powers of soul freely and intensively.  It is as if hindrance after hindrance fall away, as the soul comes to be more and more pervaded by this feeling of humbleness towards approaching events.

– Rudolf Steiner, from Metamorphosis of the Soul, Vol 2

Nepal and its Crumbling Infrastructure

Nepal is truly a beautiful country, but if there’s one thing I kept coming back to it was the state of the infrastructure. The roads were in an appalling state in so many places – some were just dust baths (even in Kathmandu), others were composed entirely of chunks of broken tarmac, and others had pot holes that could swallow whole houses. In many places in Kathmandu the edge of the road was a mess of broken sidewalk, gaping holes, rebar, watery puddles, clumps of sand and garbage. And let’s not forget the roads where part of it was washed away down a cliff. I can generally put up with a fair amount of discomfort and whatnot, but being in a jeep with two wheels a couple inches from a 100 foot drop was more than I could bear. “I think I’ve reached my limit,” I told Paul as I clung to the door handle and made sure to keep the door unlocked in case we needed to roll out in a split second. Sabine thought I was being particularly annoying and silly but I could barely function on that particular dirt road.

But it wasn’t merely the roads. The Internet crawled and hiccuped along in most of our hotels. The electricity was still on load balancing in some towns. Garbage was strewn everywhere and many rivers were full of it. And sending a couple of letters back home took 7 weeks to arrive.

But where this touched me was the fact that Nepalis have to live with this poor infrastructure. They do so with grace and humour, but they have to put up with it and live with it every single day. Their government isn’t going to resolve these infrastructure issues any time soon. And when you see the amount of money pouring in every day from tourist visas and hiking visas, especially for remote areas, you wonder what is going on.

So when I found myself in a tuk tuk ride with a Nepali working for Plan International, a NGO, I seized the opportunity to ask him how he thought Nepal could improve the state of the country. He was happy to talk.

“First,” he said, “there must be a stable government. We cannot have elections every 1 or 2 years, whenever the government want. Every 4 years, every 5, this is better. We cannot achieve any real change of significance without a stable government.”

“Secondly,” he continued, “there must be protection for investors. Their money must be secure. They have put much work into their investment and they do not like to feel that they must walk away from it.”

“Thirdly, we must be able to mobilize our resources. This in my mind are the three most important things we need to do.”

“But how will the government in Nepal become more stable?” I asked him.

He paused for a couple of seconds, and then replied, “It must be from the people. It’s up to the people.”

And that was where we left it.

Nepalis in Disguise as Westerners

Sometimes I’d be walking down the street in Nepal and someone would pass by who I thought was Western. They’d be wearing Western clothes and their features looked Caucasian. Yet I’d look again and see they were actually Nepali. It was a little disconcerting – this effect of seeing so quickly the assumptions you make about someone evaporate.

This happened only to the men, because their clothes are not as well defined as female fashions so some could be from anywhere once they started wearing Western clothes.

Later Paul and I talked about what’s left over if you could remove someone’s culture from them. “Emotions and instinct,” I said. But culture is how you interact with the world and with other people – a set of rules you follow both knowingly and unknowingly. Perhaps it really can’t ever be removed, but only one set substituted for another. Though we can become aware of how emotions are sometimes the result of cultural conditioning, whether from society, religion, family or self-beliefs.  (And modernity itself is a type of culture.) I do believe though that through meditation we can temporarily step away from our culture and join the river that unites all humans.

Brothers and Sisters

In Chitwan, Nepal, we ran into the young guy from California, Manny, who we’d met before in the Korean Monastery in Lumbini. At the monastery he’d been scooped up by an older Korean man who was giving him advice about meditation and life in general.

That was one thing I noticed about travelling with a boy through Asia, particularly in Nepal. Men, both older and younger, would give special attention to Aaron – whether we were riding a bus, walking down the street, staying at guesthouses, buying food, hiking in the mountains. Time and time again they would talk to him, give him things and shower him with attention and kindness. There seemed to be a strong thread of brotherhood running through the culture that Aaron could so easily tap into. “Why does Aaron always get stuff?” Nerys would ask me. As a corollary to that, the girls were approached much less – a few times by teenage girls squealing at their cuteness and asking for selfies together, but almost never by males, reflecting the culture of females not talking to males they didn’t know. The exception was cheeky younger guys asking for selfies with the girls, which we quickly realized we’d need to kibosh.

One Indian man, Bijay, came every morning to the Korean monastery to sell bread, doughnuts and yellow coloured cake slices from an enormous basket on his bicycle. He soon began giving Aaron free slices of cake and by our last day it was becoming a tad excessive how many slices of cake he was handing out to him. I came over to say I would pay for them, but he quickly waved aside my offer. Ranjeet, the office assistant, helped translate what he was saying. “A gift,” he said adamantly. “No money. A gift for the boy.” Bijay was undoubtedly poor yet here he was refusing money from a rich Westerner.

When he heard we were leaving he lifted Aaron up high to sit on his bike and asked me to take a photo of the two of them together. How this man’s heart was captured by a little seven year old was touching to see. Their hearts are very open to children here.

Wildness Abounding in Chitwan

Depending on your perspective, one thing about a developing country that can greatly appeal or not is the lack of safety regulations. You can really make the most of this in Chitwan, a national park in southern Nepal with elephants, tigers and rhinos.

At the Elephant Breeding Centre while we were enjoying the cuteness of the baby elephants, a wild elephant entered the camp and tromped around like he owned the place. The visitors huddled together, bolting from one side to another if the elephant looked like he was getting too close. With fires burning in the background, apparently to keep the bug situation down, it had all the ingredients for Jurassic Park take 6. The free thrills were greatly appreciated by Paul and I, but the kids were not so sure. You can never get enough of this stuff so we went back to the breeding centre two days later and the wild elephant was back again. Sabine in particular was horrified at the whole place.

The wild rhino who liked to amble through the main street at 9 pm was also a highlight. “Don’t get too close. Don’t catch his eye!” the locals hissed as we stood watching from the guesthouse gate. A crowd followed him down the road in awe. It was quite a sight.

Lumbini by Bicycle

We got off the bus in Lumbini, a few kilometres from the Indian border and the birthplace of the Buddha. Here many people looked more Indian than the broader faces of Nepalis. Our 70 cent omelette made us feel that we were in India too, yet I felt relief that we were not in India. India might have been too much for the kids and I didn’t want to scare them off Asian travel forever. Though the garbage in Nepal and Indonesia might have done that already. “Why do you bring us to places full of garbage?” Nerys still keeps asking me.

We decided to stay at the Korean monastery in the monastic zone of Lumbini. It was peaceful and had plenty of space for Aaron to run around and minimal garbage. The rooms were dorms, but since there were five of us we took up the entire dorm room, thankfully. Nerys however was horrified at the state of the bathroom. I will not go into detail except to say that it was extremely basic, involving buckets, bad smells and not much else.

It was $15 US a night for all of us to stay, which included three meals a day. It was a complete deal as long as you didn’t mind eating the same meal breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was surprised the cook wasn’t going out of her mind with boredom from cooking exactly the same rice, dahl and green bean curry stew 365 days a year but it sure must have simplified grocery shopping.

This monastery had only two monks and one nun staying there, along with visitors from India, China and Korea, and a few Westerners. The nun was Korean but completely fluent in Nepali. It took me three days to realize she was the nun – she strode about the place like the business manager, complete with blouse and business pants.

Sabine turned 13 the day after we arrived, and we spent the day cycling around on ancient rented bikes visiting the Mayadevi Temple with a sacred stone where the Buddha was born. As we parked our bicycles to go in the Temple we passed one Indian guy shrieking vehemently at another. Perhaps the anticipation and all the quiet pilgrims had simply been too much for them. I call that “Library Syndrome” – places where you must be quiet but simply can’t be. Of course, fighting in front of the Buddha’s birthplace seems a little more dire than giggling behind the library stacks, but there you have it. I hustled the kids past them before fisticuffs broke out and in we went to line up to gaze at a dark stone on the floor encased in a glass box. The pilgrims in saris and the red powder and orange marigolds on the wall beside the stone gave the place a strong Hindu feeling, which made sense since Hindus consider Buddha an avatar of the god Vishnu.

After we inspected the Bodhi tree outside the Temple, we got back on our bicycles and explored a few other monasteries, several of which were eerily empty. The monastic zone where all the monasteries were built was so vast that it was quite easy to see only a handful of people at each place. Then monastery burn-out set in and we bicycled off home to our dorm room.

The bicycles were highly amusing and liberating after being dependent on buses and other people’s cars to get around. It turned out the bikes we rented from the Korean monastery were actually the workers’ bikes – you rented them for the day for $2 US each, but had to return them by 5 so the workers could get home. It was genius really.

Farewell to Pokhara

Soon enough it was time to leave the monastery in Pokhara and head to Lumbini near the Indian border. As we packed our bags in the early morning, many images passed through my mind: the monks dancing in the courtyard at 6 am, sunset on the Annapurna range behind the temple, a sea of maroon robes eating in the dining hall, the cook stirring his enormous pots, and the school administrator urging Aaron to step into the dining hall to say hello to the seven year old monks.

I also thought about the monkeys who had raided the American girl’s room here and thrown all her possessions out the window with gleeful abandon. In the dirt behind the building we’d helped her retrieve her clothes strewn on bushes and all sorts of things shredded and poked at, including numerous pills half demolished by the monkeys. Tylenol, anti-anxiety pills, birth control and Imodium were all devoured. There were going to be some very strange behaving monkeys around that afternoon.

Here I’d also seen something that I hadn’t seen before: a living, breathing brotherhood. I could see it but couldn’t participate in it. Aaron could see it too. A life that gave focus, direction, discipline, understanding, companionship and happiness to the path of being male, all in one place.

With those thoughts in my head, the taxi arrived at the monastery gates and we piled in to head to the bus station. I hoped to return here one day.