How the most wonderful experiences stem from curiosity
Riding on the roof of the bus this morning on the 22 km journey from Siddharthanagar to Lumbini in southern Nepal was wonderful – not least because the breeze kept the monsoon heat at bay.
Below me inside the bus must have been like an oven – jam-packed full of people. The roof, I decided, was pure luxury. Each time we stopped though, the heat would swirl in again, extracting the air right out of my lungs and invading them with a rush of humidity and dust.
Lumbini, which means “the lovely”, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and pilgrimage destination as the birthplace of Buddha.
Pilgrims from far and wide come to chant and meditate at the site, which embraces over 25 temples and monasteries built by Buddhist countries around the world.
I’m sitting in the shade close to the sprawling, sacred Bodhi tree near the Maya Devi Temple, where Queen Maya Devi gave birth to the Buddha in 6th century BC. Orange- and maroon-robed monks sit in calm devotion, and close by is the Puskarini (holy pond) where the Maya Devi bathed before giving birth.
An elderly sadhu wrapped in saffron and orange cloth shuffles past the tree with a stick, frail yet confident in his tall thin frame.
Crows caw, and hundreds of colourful prayer flags flutter and flap around me.
An unexpected breeze tousles my dusty, sweaty hair as the temperature reaches 42° and the humidity soars. It really is too hot to even breathe let alone move.
A little girl in a pretty turquoise dress comes over and asks me where I’m from.
“England,” I say.
The little girl nods.
“What’s your name?” I ask in my non-existent Nepali.
“Babita,” she replies.
She stares at me, but it’s an innocent curious stare. She wants nothing except to say hello. Then she runs off to catch up with her father.
A Nepali family wanders past me. One of the sons stops to see what I’m writing, then they continue on, waving back at me and smiling. I have always felt safe here in Nepal on my own, if a little conspicuous at times with my odd-one-out white features and skin. Today is no different.
A chipmunk dances lightly around the base of the huge Bodhi tree. I take a photo, but it’s too quick for me – and so tiny. Unlike the chipmunk, I decide to just relax – although any chance of cooling off is remote. It’s so quiet here. Maybe it’s busier in the dry season. I like it quiet, though, and I’m enjoying the time for reflection.
Earlier I walked along the raised boardwalk that surrounds the actual stone marking Buddha’s birthplace. The stone is encased in a bulletproof glass tomb onto which visitors throw flowers. There’s also a sandstone carving depicting Maya Devi grasping a tree branch and giving birth.
Later I walk into the town to find somewhere to stay. The heat is intense and the sun beats its presence on my head. Locals sit lazily in the shade as I make my way slowly up the road. They must think I’m nuts – and I think I’d agree. Sweat is trickling off every patch of bare skin, and when I stop to review the map, it runs into my eyes with a sting, as if to mock me.
Life spills out onto the road: dogs chickens, cows, ramshackle stalls and men sitting talking. Horns beep, dust swirls and heat shimmers.
That evening I lie on the roof of my accommodation looking at an orange crescent moon against the night sky and spot random shooting stars. Then the lightning starts – and I’m dive-bombed by bats. I decide to retreat inside for a ‘shower’: it’s just a tap in the bathroom, but I don’t care – I’m loving the wondrous feeling of water on my skin.
Finally I brave the less-than-intact mosquito net and head to bed.
The best memory of that day for me was the little girl and the Nepali family – their curiosity and their smiles.
It reminded me of a trip I’d made to India in the 1990s.
I was travelling through the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. As I walked close to a small remote village, two small children ran up to greet me, and I remember how wide-eyed they were.
They tried on my glasses with great hilarity. Then they examined the strange white colour of my wrists and hands, and then they spent a long time exploring my camera. It was wonderful, and I felt really blessed to have the encounter.
They ran back home laughing excitedly – but then 10 minutes later they caught up with me again, this time bearing a gift of watermelon!
It was the most wonderful experience – and it all stemmed from curiosity: their curiosity about me, and my curiosity about the world that had taken me close to their village.
Sometimes in the routine of everyday life ‘back home’ it’s easy to forget that there’s a magical world all around us, near and far, and all we need to do to explore it is to take a step beyond our own back yard.