Postcard from the Field #2

Richard Blum, our legendary Chairman, wrote a lovely memoir, An Accident of Geography. AHF was featured in the book, so his co-author, Thomas Hayes, interviewed and researched to learn about Nepal and AHF so he could write about those two threads that ran through Richard’s life. This spring, nine years later, Tom came with the AHF team. And we asked him to share his thoughts as someone who knew a lot about a country he had never set foot in. This is the second in a series about his adventures. - Erica Stone, President

On Swayambhu

Our destination was Swayambhu Temple, one of the city’s most sacred Buddhist and Hindu sites, dating at least to the fifth century—a fixture of AHF’s itinerary for the first day in Kathmandu.

Jet-lagged and short on sleep after eighteen hours of flights, I hustled in my Hoka runners to keep pace with Yangchen and Erica during our mile-long descent on foot outside the temple’s steep forested hillside. Suddenly, they disappeared into a small, dark space. Once inside, I was startled. What was this? A massive maroon and gold prayer wheel, six feet in diameter and at least that high.

Following my colleagues, I grabbed the low handrail that rimmed the prayer wheel and began striding. We picked up speed as the cylinder began to rotate. A bell clanged as we circled clockwise three times.  Darting out into bright sunlight, we hurried further along the stone wall to reprise our prayer wheel locomotion in two more darkened rooms.

I thought the broad plaza we stepped onto moments later would bring respite, but that was before I looked up, WAY UP. Steep stone steps, each ten feet wide, constructed more than a century before, disappeared into tall trees above us. Hah! No respite; more than four hundred steps to conquer to see Swayambu.

We made the climb past clusters of white and gold chortens and painted Buddhas with right palms opened in a blessing mudra. Resident rhesus monkeys looked on, lounging along rocks and walls, playing in tree branches and near us on the steps.

A distressing sight from minutes before—a terrified female dog standing defiant near newborn puppies asleep at the edge of a busy road—dissolved as I came upon a peaceful monkey cradling a sleeping infant in her long arms. Extremes of motherhood in the animal realm.

At Swayambu’s apex, we made kora once more, high above the city with unhurried groups of tourists, young families, and pilgrims beneath the stupa’s towering gold spire. Heat from smoldering embers inside one small Buddha shrine was so intense I had to quickly back away.

Lore has it that making the staircase climb “encourages us all to do deeds for the benefit of others.” A fitting mantra for framing the impact AHF makes, and for what I was about to witness over the next dozen days.

Now I knew why climbing the staircase is a Day One ritual on AHF team trips. A rigorous walking meditation for a safe journey.

- Tom Hayes