I can’t decide whether Patan is more fascinating by day or by night, or maybe in the transition. Here’s just a taste, which can’t at all do justice to the rich and constantly changing life all around. (Click to enlarge an image.)
There are countless little shops not far from my apartment in old Patan. One I frequent is Lalita’s. She basically just has a convenience store. But it’s one that’s about 5% the size of one in the US, with much more stuff. Stepping inside is like entering the TARDIS; it’s bigger on the inside.
Lalita’s shop has drinks of all kinds, including coffee, tea (black, green, herbal), soft drinks, club soda, beer, and wine. There are of course multiple kinds of cookies, candies, chips, and tobacco, like any decent convenience store.
But there are also eggs, ice cream, milk, yogurt (both sweet and natural), yak cheese, canned goods, prepared foods, soups, rice, bread, cereal, condiments, hanging herbs and garlic.
Lalita’s shop has razors and creams for shaving, toilet paper, aspirin and other basic pharmaceuticals. There’s much more, imported and domestic, including some items I can’t identify. Most items can be purchased by the piece or by the box. For example, you could choose to buy just five eggs.
On the steps outside there are both 1 liter and 20 liter water jugs. Thanka (Tibetan Buddhist paintings on cloth) hang on the wall. My goal before leaving here is to discover something she doesn’t have.
You can see in the last photo below a small door at the back. Lalita sometimes has to step back there, for example, to find a drier wine. My suspicion is that there’s a gigantic warehouse appended to the shop, and that she can step through that to get an Amazon delivery. Or, maybe Amazon gets all of its stuff from her store?
When I enter the store each time, I wonder how I can fit my body in what passes for an aisle. But soon, I find that I’m inside the store along with children, other shoppers, young and old, and often a delivery person. There’s lots of friendly chatter and Lalita manages to teach me a few words of Nepali each time I visit.
Coffee Tea & Me serves up an international menu, including excellent coffee, to what appears to be an entirely local crowd.
That’s due in part to the fact that it’s tucked away down a small alley. That alley slips in between some souvenir shops just 50 meters north of the Bhimsen temple at Patan Durbar Square. You need to know about it in advance, not just wander in.
The little restaurant has great food, served in an unpretentious style. There are only seven tables, with low seating for those seeking a traditional style, and higher ones for anyone with extra long legs.
Each time I’ve gone in, I’ve relied on Ruby Maharjan, the chef, to suggest what was good that day. One time I had a chicken noodle dish with fresh vegetables, which was delicious, just spicy enough. Another time I had a river-caught bachwa with a wonderful sauce and accompanied by a nice veggie salad. As you can see I couldn’t wait for a photo the way a good food blogger would.The room layout is enchanting, with walls painted in modern patterns inspired by traditional Nepali and Chinese designs. The painting of Buddha portrayed on the wall is the center of attraction.
There are many other excellent places to eat or have coffee in Patan. They offer not only good food, but fascinating old architecture, charming courtyards, and relaxed atmosphere. I single out Coffee Tea & Me because it gets everything right in a minimalist and very affordable way. It also happens to be close to where I’m staying, just north of Durbar Square.
The Bhimsen Temple landmark, by the way, is located at the northern end of Durbar Square. It’s dedicated to the god of trade and business.The current temple was completely rebuilt in 1682 after a fire, then was restored after earthquakes in 1934 and 1967. It’s under repair once again, from the 2015 quake. It has an unusual, rectangular, but non-square footprint.
In the photo you can see the old and new in the building itself, in its supports and scaffolding, in the clothing of passersby, and in the cotton candy and cola sales.
KTS is a place very close to my apartment in Patan and is now close to my heart as well. I’ve visited several times and want to learn more about it.
The project began with a childcare project, followed by adult literacy classes, and a nutrition and health clinic. Soon, a carpet weaving training program was established to expand employment possibilities. A production unit grew out of that, which provided funds to start a primary school in 1987.
Today, there’s a nursery, a free daycare center for employees’ children, and an orphanage. There are now training programs for knitting and carpentry as well.
On the production side, there is no child labor involved and all the work adheres to Fair Trade policies (KTS is a founding member of Fair Trade Group Nepal). Products are sold abroad by organizations such as Traidcraft, Serrv, Ten Thousand Villages, and Oxfam.
The project provides an allowance during training, and employment afterwards. Over 2000 businesses have been started by graduates, some in Kathmandu, and others back in villages.
There is a small shop displaying carpets, knit hats and mittens, furniture and small wooden items. There’s even a cookbook for Nepali food, now in its second edition.
The program keeps growing and changing, but throughout there’s a focus on fairness, opportunity, economic security, local empowerment, literacy and learning.
My apartment is on the second floor (US, third) near Kumbeshwar Temple complex in Patan. It’s in one of several 4-6 story buildings surrounding a small courtyard, called Dhumbahal Square.
Thus far, it’s similar to the courtyard behind the flat in London where we stayed with our good friend Jane on the way to Nepal. That courtyard had well-groomed bushes and trees, walkways, and convenient benches. It offered a peaceful respite from city life.
The one in Patan is a different story entirely. It’s 100 feet square, about the same size as the average US suburban lot–1/4 acre. But in that 1/4 acre there’s more to see than anyone can absorb.
There’s a Buddhist stupa in the middle. Around the perimeter one finds a communal water source, a small Hindu mandir, a tiny shop that miraculously produces any item you can name, a beauty parlor (and training center), a (motor)bike wash and repair center, a small convenience store, a weather station on top of one of the buildings, and other establishments I haven’t identified yet.
Water is brought by truck to fill large, black plastic tanks on the top of each building. That water becomes the tap water, getting its pressure from the height of the tanks. It’s filtered, but most people drink bottled water for safety. Mine comes in 20 liter clear plastic jugs, which fit into a dispenser tank.
The ground is covered about a third with bricks. Some of those form a sort of patio, others are arranged in a curving pattern as if they knew exactly where most people would like to walk. There’s also a slate paved area, some concrete, lots of bare ground, and amazingly, a little grass. I haven’t figured out why one surface is one place rather than another, but it all seems to work.
As remarkable as some of these objects may be, it is the activities around them that cause one to sit mesmerized on the balcony, just watching.
A woman tosses millet in the air to remove chaff; another takes an offering with candles and flowers to the temple; a man splashes water on the ground to reduce the dust; boys roll an abandoned motorcycle tire around the stupa, as two girls walk around the same monument turning the prayer wheels; a young man washes his motorcycle; an older man gets an open-air shave and haircut; a young couple take endless photos of their young child; women hang laundry and water flower pots; children play rock pitching games. It’s notable how often fathers are caring for children. One older boy (12) runs to pick up a younger one (6) who’s fallen. He comforts him and brushes the dust off his pants. The children also sing and dance.
Meanwhile, there’s construction. Although Patan may be the oldest city in the Kathmandu Valley, dating back more than two millennia, and the courtyard is in one of its oldest parts, there’s a feel of new building everywhere.
Some of this is needed re-construction after the damage of the 2015 earthquake. But workers are building new apartments, too, reflecting early gentrification of the area. One man digs a mysterious hole that ends up being 8 feet deep with surprisingly straight sides. Later, small boys use the dirt from the hole as a site for play and the uncovered rocks for their pitch & toss games. A small crew puts up a cell tower, without using any harnesses or visible safety equipment. The construction goes on amidst the young children playing, older ones coming and going from school, adults working and relaxing.
Observing all of this is like a watching a complex movie, except it’s one that is showing 360° around, with sights and sounds, but also with tastes and smells, touch, heat and cold.
There is no beginning to the courtyard’s day; one moment segues into the next 24/7. A dog may start barking at 2 in the morning and soon have dozens of others to talk with. I can’t give a full account of the day, as I’m mercifully learning to sleep through most of it. But sometime around 5 in the morning is an important inflection point.
That’s when I hear the first temple bells–one is deep and loud, two are middle volume, but one of those is high pitched. There are several smaller ones, too. If the dogs weren’t already going they soon make up for lost time. Motorcycles start up. Human voices come in, conversing rapidly or yelling. Before long children are running and squealing about. In little gaps, one can hear pigeons cooing, crows cawing, and songbirds singing. The roosters manage to make themselves heard above it all.
This continues throughout the day, although each hour has its distinctive character. There are sounds of children laughing, singing, and squealing at play from the nearby school. There’s even a time in the afternoon when all but one dog decides it’s too much trouble to bark anymore. That one gives a few desultory yaps, but I can tell that his heart isn’t in it. In the evening, there’s the dinnertime chatter all around, and later, Nepali pop music.
One day, the signature event was a wedding. Although it seemed to involve most of the courtyard and many visitors, it didn’t stop all the other activities. We saw a 50 foot long tent being erected and red plastic chairs being set up in rows. Soon, a 14-piece band appeared. There were of course many photos, of babies and children and women in beautiful saris. There were also a number of young men in what must be called dandy outfits and poses.
Chaos and peace
On first encounter, the chaos of the courtyard is disturbing–too many scary dogs snarling, too much noise, too many strange sights, sounds, and smells, too many chances to trip on rocks or broken pavement.
But the courtyard is actually a very safe place, away from the street traffic and noise, and where people know one another.
After a while it all, or most of it anyway, begins to make sense. There are patterns and relations that fit into a larger whole. I begin to recognize faces and they mine. One child loves to talk in broken Nepali/English; another seems too shy to say anything. The apparent chaos is actually welcoming, enriching, overcoming difference. There’s peace in the bustle that is less apparent in quiet solitude.
Peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.
The six kids above are the ones I see most often in the courtyard. On Sunday they were shooting a rubber band chain onto the stupa. It was a good game except that the chains would hang up out of their reach.
They could climb the lower part of the stupa (left in the photo), but the upper part is a smooth dome. Also, there are many electric wires that can catch the chains. You can see some of those in the photo.
The children invited me to shoot one of the chains. I was a failure compared to any of them. But I had a super power, about four feet extra reach. So I climbed up to recover the captured chains.
When I asked to take a photo, the girl in red had just gotten on her bike and was about to ride off. She called out “Wait! Wait!” to be included.
This photo says a lot to me. Notice the arms around each of the twin boys. That’s very common here, as well as the mutual efforts to include everyone in the play, even me. Notice also the generous, but slightly mischievous smiles on each of their faces.
You can see one of the rubber band chains in the left hand of the 12 year-old boy.
As I left, I tried my very best Nepali, “Pheri bhe-ṭaūlah (see you later).” The oldest girl said essentially, “Huh?” I was saved by the same 12 year-old boy, who explained that I was trying to say “Pheri bhe-ṭaūlah.” They all smiled and waved goodbye, wondering what I could have been saying.
The photo is a large format. If you click twice on it, you can get a closer view.