It was with a strange obsession that I had set out to find the Kopan Monastery on an early afternoon of my second day in the village of Bodhnath. Coincidentally my travels in Asia have taken me to many sacred sites of significance to Buddhist pilgrims. Being neither religious nor atheist, in the beginning I found myself mostly curious. From Chiang Mai to Dambulla in Sri Lanka, the Buddhist temples (Wats) and monasteries drew me in, sometimes with their beautiful interiors, peaceful grounds that seemed like they were made for introspection & spaces that promised a sense of calm that wasn’t to be found in the chaotic world outside their walls. So it was no surprise to me when I’d impulsively decided to stay longer in Bodhnath, home to the Boudha Stupa and many monasteries. I’d heard and read about Kopan Monastery close to the village and always ready for a good hike, I decided to find it on foot.
Although I had set off with a map carefully drawn by the manager at my guest house, I soon realized that I had wandered way off track and the only way I’d make it is by asking around. Eventually I reached a road where the village seemed to end, there weren’t too many people there but I could see a lot of heavy vehicles and trucks passing by. There wasn’t anyone around to ask for directions so I continued down the road. Soon I was walking through the village of Ramhiti dotted with mud houses outside which groups of little children pranced around.
This wasn’t one of those places where I expected to see tourists judging by the curious looks of the locals when they saw me walking along on my own asking for the way to ‘Kopan’. So I was quite surprised when a tourist van full of Japanese tourists appeared out of nowhere and stopped in front of me. Before I knew it, they had jumped out of the bus, armed with cameras which they pointed straight at the children who were washing themselves in an open public tank outside a cluster of huts. “Let’s get some poverty pictures!” I imagined them saying as they crowded around the bewildered & scared children.
Having witnessed enough of their ridiculous, intrusive & insensitive behaviour, I continued on my way. I thought about how a man back at Bodhnath village had told me that it was a short hike and was pretty sure I had lost my way a couple of times. I had been walking for almost two hours and hadn’t even seen the hilltop monastery from a distance. I felt raindrops on my face and heard a thunderous roar. Soon, the clouds opened up and it started to drizzle. I had reached another village which seemed to be quite sparsely populated. The shops were closed and the few people I saw seemed to be rushing home, perhaps in anticipation of the downpour that was to follow.
The road was lonely and I was beginning to get nervous. I hadn’t seen the monastery yet and didn’t know if it was a good idea to go on. The last rickshaw had passed by a long time ago and there didn’t seem to be any others around. Meanwhile the rain grew heavier and the thunder menacing. Grateful for my good sense to carry my windcheater, I tightened the strings of the hood around my face as the wind threatened to give it a tight smack. My pants were soaked in rainwater and I began to shiver, partly in apprehension. Unable to walk anymore, I took refuge under the roof of a building whose door had a rusty lock on the front. The sky had turned a miserable grey and I saw the flash of lightning.
“Just perfect!” I mumbled to myself as I stood there, just as a dog in the window across the building began barking ferociously having spotted me outside. I must have looked suspicious lurking around with no sign of wanting to leave. I asked myself why I hadn’t taken the last rickshaw I’d seen to the monastery or back to Bodhnath. And why I was always so stubborn to keep going. I hadn’t stopped and turned around even when it started raining because of some stupid voice in my head that said there was nothing to lose and that the worst thing that could happen was that I’d be terribly cold, wet and lost which hadn’t seemed so bad at the time. In that moment as the wind slapped my face, it seemed dismal. After a good twenty minutes of sulking, I reminded myself that standing there wasn’t going to get me out of the situation. I’d come so far and I knew I couldn’t turn back, so I embraced the raindrops (at least that’s what I told myself) and kept walking.
In the distance I could finally see a grand looking structure on top of the hill. The rain didn’t show any sign of stopping, and neither did I encouraged by the sight of the goal I was walking towards. At the end of the rocky path, I came to a fork with both paths winding uphill. Disappointed I waited for a few moments, desperately looking around for someone. But it seemed like I was the only crazy person walking around in the rain under a thundering grey sky. Having nothing but my intuition to rely on, I continued onto the one that ‘felt right’. A few hundred meters up the path, I saw a woman walking towards me. Relieved and just happy to see another person after a long time, I stopped her to ask if I was on the right path. She confirmed that I was and also suggested that I better hurry up as the rain was only going to get heavier.
Towards the end of my hike, the road wound up around the hill very steeply and the air was considerably cooler. As I reached the gates of the monastery, I felt a sense of happiness and relief. I walked into the empty prayer hall and spent a few minutes just taking in the grandeur of the place and the sense of calm I was feeling. I felt gratitude and contentment to be in that moment, to have made it there instead of turning back. I’m not a courageous person; in fact I’m quite the opposite. I’m afraid of heights, speed and having my head underwater for too long. I’m afraid of spiders and any kind of reptiles. But travel helps me to get over my fears, whether it’s the big ones or the spider sized ones. And for every moment like this where a seemingly stupid act turns out okay in the end, I’m very grateful.
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the beautiful grounds and gardens of the monastery and enjoyed a delicious lunch at the café. The view over the drenched valley was quite incredible, even with a gloomy sky.
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