Brendan (right) at Narayanhiti Palace, where ...
But the second misconception is, of course, that Nepal is really moving at all. If it is, I decided, it's a sputtering taxi engine or a spinning Buddhist prayer wheel. Lateral movement is against the culture. When the nation's doctors went on strike for a day, there was little more than a letter to the editor. When the leading Maoist party publicly admitted to killing an innocent businessman, an apology to the family and $20,000 did the trick. The greatest mystery of life in Nepal is that it goes on in the face of egregious human rights abuses, beneath Biblical deluges, despite desperate fuel shortages, squeezed between China and India, without clean water, on less than two dollars a day. All this, not to mention the weeks of ugly political deadlock, suggested to me that nothing was changing in this summer of change. People were making do. Nepal was adapting as usual, compromising, bargaining, holding its nose as it walked around the four-foot garbage piles instead of moving them.
... Gyanendra Shah, last king of Nepal, delivered his final press conference.
As I negotiated the paradox, unsure if I was half a day ahead of America, 100 years behind it, or outside of time altogether, my own time was running out. Two months did not quite fly by. But during one of Nepal's harrowing mountain bus rides, I was too busy looking out the window to notice I was getting close. Suddenly I wanted back the interim hours of the 3 p.m. bus that left at five and the 2:30 lunch that started at 3:45. I suppose that's why Nepalis laughed at me during my frantic tour of the Kathmandu valley, undertaken on a 75-cent bike over two days. The major cultural forces of Nepal don't place much emphasis on the here and now. Hinduism and Buddhism, which blend together effortlessly in Nepal, share a belief in cyclical life and reincarnation - so if I didn't see that temple I had wanted to see, Nepali wisdom would have it that I could try again next lifetime. Nepal's creation stories are not measured in the achievements of one life, but by the achievements of several incarnations of life (except, of course, the Buddha, and Hindus claim he was the ninth incarnation of Vishnu). Luckily for me, I found something resembling an answer in the nick of time, in a traditional haunt of answers - 14,000 feet high in the Himalayas.
Ram Baran Yadev (left), the first president of Nepal, at his inauguration.
The story goes that some epochs ago, upon swallowing demonic poison to save the world, Shiva rinsed out his mouth at the lake of Gosainkund in the Langtang Himalayas north of Kathmandu. Pilgrims make an annual journey there to spot him under the August full moon, but I made my personal trek about a week before. At Gosainkund, there were the usual elements of serenity - the purest air on earth, still water, white peaks in the distance. There were also millions of little rocks stacked on top of each other in the shallows of the lake. Maybe, I heard later, these rock piles were called shiva darshan. Maybe they didn't have a name. They caught my eye nonetheless, because they were remarkable little monuments, because they made pleasing photogenic reflections in the water, and because, probably, they stood for something. I don't know what. But my mind was on time - what it was in Nepal and how much of the stuff I had left -and so the rock piles began to look like timepieces.
They were not sundials, no, and not like my watch. Closer to sticks of incense, but in reverse. The rock piles were assembled by the pilgrims, who carefully laid one new rock on top of the last, which might have been laid down last pilgrimage, or goodness knows how long ago. But the rock piles survived the winters at Gosainkund, which freezes from January until March, to grow a few inches taller each coming August. They recorded, with at least as much accuracy as The Himalayan Times on a good day, a simple fact: a pilgrim placed this rock on top of that rock. My mind filled with other such timepieces: tree rings, yearbooks, worn brass doorknobs, the folder on your computer called Temporary Internet Files, paw prints. But the rock pile was Nepal. I did some thinking, and it came to make sense that in Nepal, time is neither measured nor affected by passing phases like the monsoon, or landmark events like the first president. All that matters is the simple contribution. A porter bearing food - that was the closest thing to a unit of time at Gosainkund. Or another example: of the words "a six-hour bus," I had always figured the "six-hour" part referred to time. In Nepal, it's the word "bus," because on the bus is the sack of potatoes, and the woman who knits the winter hats, and the freakishly skilled bus driver who can take everybody into town again. The simple contributions.
Devotional stone piles at the sacred lake of Gosainkund.
Time as contribution is a warming Swarthmorean notion, where social action is sometimes both the drive and the fruit of our long hours. It may even be natural law: my very lay understanding of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity tells me time has as much to do with miles as it has to do with minutes. And it occurred to me at Gosainkund that action measures time not only in Nepal, but even in places where the word "minute" has a (rather sacrosanct) spot in the dictionary. College, for example. A night in McCabe, six hours of heavy drinking, two months in Nepal, four years at Swarthmore, a lifetime and maybe a few more - all just little rocks piled up on top of each other.
Before I left Nepal, I bought Rajendra and his family a new clock. I wasn't out to make a statement. I just wanted to replace the condom clock, which to my disgust, turned out to be pretty sticky around the edges. But when I hung the new clock on the nail above the refrigerator, I was shedding an old idea and putting up a new one. I was making a small contribution, let's say, to my own understanding.